‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ and the Little Casting Choice That Makes a Huge Impact
When Lucasfilm initially announced the lineup for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, it wasn’t long before the studio began populating the cast with exciting choices: Daisy Ridley and John Boyega in lead roles, Gwendoline Christie, Oscar Isaac and Lupita Nyong’o in supporting roles, the return of Carrie Fisher — all of which proved the limitless, inclusive potential of a galaxy far, far away. What we didn’t (and couldn’t) know was just how diverse the flagship film in the new era of Star Wars would actually turn out to be, and it’s all thanks to one very simple, very effective casting choice.
You may recall an article published by THR last year, penned by Geena Davis, the actress and founder of the Geena Davis Institute on Gender and Media. In that piece, Davis suggested the two simple and easy ways that Hollywood could increase diversity in media. Step one: “Go through the projects you’re already working on and change a bunch of the characters’ first names to women’s names.” If a male character isn’t defined by his maleness, then this shouldn’t matter.
That one’s easy enough. The Force Awakens introduces Daisy Ridley as Rey and John Boyega as Finn, the franchise’s two new heroes who happen to be a woman and a person of color. Rey could have easily been a boy; Finn could have easily been a white man. Their gender and race are incidental but not paramount to their characters and stories. Same goes for Christie’s Captain Phasma, a character originally conceived as a man, or Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata, a character created with the aid of mo-cap, and who could have been played by anyone — but she wasn’t.
Davis’ second step to creating more diversity is just as important as the first: “When describing a crowd scene, write in the script, ‘A crowd gathers, which is half female.’” This may seem obvious, but in a world where women make up half of the population, only 17 percent of the characters in crowd scenes in movies (both live-action and animated) are women.
And here’s where The Force Awakens does something exceptional. Not only does the primary cast offer diversity in race and gender, but perhaps more impressive is the way J.J. Abrams has created a wonderfully diverse cast of background characters. Almost every scene with a crowd or several background players milling about features several women and people of color. It’s not something you might notice on a conscious level — unless you’re looking for it, like I was — but that doesn’t make it any less valuable.
A scene involving General Leia Organa and the members of her rebellion includes several alien races, droids, women and characters of color. As Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron speaks with Finn outside the base, fighter pilots and various rebels mill about around them, and almost half of these characters are women and people of color. Many do not have speaking roles, but they’re all present and accounted for, reflecting the diversity of our tangible, modern world.
Even the First Order counts women and people of color among its ranks, from Christie’s somewhat-prominent Phasma to the lesser worker bees. Stormtroopers are no longer mere clones, and you can hear at least one with the voice of a woman, while other women can be seen working at computers and marching about. The Force Awakens recognizes that women and people of color can be anything: good, bad and every shade of grey in between.
For far, far too long white men and their stories have been the majority default. Think about it: how many women were in the original trilogy? How about the prequels? Can you remember ever seeing a woman working for the Imperial army or the Republic, much less several of them? The original trilogy and its prequels relegated women and people of color to token roles; they were the exception, not the rule. In a galaxy far, far away, where thousands of alien races collide and collaborate, this franchise made the baffling decision to reject its own limitless possibilities, choosing instead to remain shockingly earthbound in its service to the stereotypical default.
Hollywood creates ideals and makes us aspire to be as beautiful as that one actress, or as noble as that leading man, or as witty and stylish as that funny best friend. With that kind of power comes immense responsibility — if you have the authority to influence the thinking of millions of people, why not use it to embrace our real-world diversity and promote equality? Even Star Wars itself meditates on this concept: those with great power can choose to walk in the light, battle injustice and inspire positive change; or they can embrace the conformist, fascist dark side and use that power to suppress individuality and maintain the status quo.
I don’t know if Abrams read Geena Davis’ research, or her thoughtful article in THR, or if Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy did, or if some intern came across it one day and heroically sent it to the right inbox. Maybe none of them read it — it doesn’t matter. What matters is that The Force Awakens isn’t just a good movie (spoiler: it is!), it’s a progressive one that not only takes our hand and subtly leads us in the right direction, but sets an example for Hollywood, for blockbuster filmmaking, and for the future of this franchise. And it does all of this by making one very simple but incredibly powerful choice.