This morning we all delighted in the casting announcement for Star Wars VII. And then the reality set in: There is only one new female character being added to what is arguably the world's most beloved mythic series. It's as if 51 percent of the population cried out in pain, and was suddenly silenced.
Let me tell you about my seven-year-old niece, Hannah. She's one of those girly girls who wears pink sparkly boots and does ballet. She also has a pink toy sword, a pink shield, and does karate. And when she talks about princesses, which happens a lot, one of her models is the "fighting princess" Leia. Hannah is part of a generation of kids growing up in the Star Wars/Disney universe, and already the Star Wars part of that equation has changed the way she plays princess games and the way she imagines herself in superheroic form. Leia gives Hannah options that Ariel doesn't. And vice-versa.
So when I looked at that Star Wars cast list, Hannah was on my mind. Surely in the second decade of the twenty-first century, she'd be given more awesome female characters to choose from in this contemporary incarnation of Star Wars. Leia would still be there, as the fighting princess — but maybe there would be a female fighter pilot whose swagger could rival Han Solo's, or a female Sith strutting through some scenery-chewing lines. Nope. There's one female name other than Carrie Fisher's on that cast list: the relative unknown Daisy Ridley, whom fans are speculating might play the daughter of Han Solo and Princess Leia. Of course, more cast members will be announced, but this is probably our core cast — the main characters.
Having Ridley is great, but one new female lead in a cast of men? That's how we launch ourselves into the future of this series, which inspires little girls with pink swords, as well as old girls like myself who graduated to sharper weapons long ago? Are we seriously still pretending that the universe is comprised almost entirely of men (and mostly white men at that)? Mythic tales are supposed to open up possibilities, not shut them down.
And don't give me any crap about how this is still basically a boy's story, and boys don't want to watch girls on screen. First of all, Star Wars is as close to a universal story as you can find in pop culture. People of all genders and racial backgrounds enjoy it, especially when they're kids. Second of all, when I was growing up, I inserted myself into the Star Wars story by pretending to be R2D2 and Han Solo. Are you telling me that boys can't do this too? If you ARE telling me that, then you have obviously never taken a little boy to see Frozen — which my nephew Kei liked better than The Lego Movie. His taste may be debatable, but his ability to identify with fictional female characters isn't.
We already know that this movie won't cleave to the Star Wars Extended Universe, where there are a ton of amazing female characters ranging from evil to superheroic. So I'm not pissed off that JJ Abrams isn't giving me a live-action version of Mara Jade or Ahsoka or Asajj Ventress. Instead, I'm stunned that Kasdan and Abrams' imaginations appear to have failed where the many authors of the EU didn't. Why not invent new female characters? It's not as if having a gender-balanced EU drove fans away. Far from it. Indeed, many of the Star Wars creators today, like Clone Wars creator Dave Filoni, drew their inspiration from EU comics and books.
Photo via Her Universe
Star Wars isn't just another silly B-movie whose all-male cast I can laugh off. It's an evolving cultural mythos for the twenty-first century, whose stories evoke a future for humanity even if they take place "a long time ago." It's a story that all of us — young and old — look to for inspiration, for heroes, for nostalgia, and for shared jokes when it goes wrong. It's no exaggeration to say that Star Wars is an important part of the collective imagination game that we call culture.
So when Star Wars cannot offer us anything remotely like a diverse cast of characters, at a time in history when we know better, it's not just a bad casting decision in a Hollywood office. It's a move that will absolutely shape how children think about themselves, and the possibilities that are open to them. It's a decision that sends a signal to adults about where they stand relative to each other.
Myths are powerful things, because we learn who we are by telling stories. When are we going to let little girls and kids of diverse races have fantasies as powerful as those given to white boys? When?
UPDATE: Responding to these criticisms, JJ Abrams has said that he has a "substantial role" yet to fill in the cast, and that it will be a female part. We can't wait to find out more.