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The Star Wars Expanded Universe and the Promise of Multitudes

Star Wars is making steps toward a more diverse galaxy, but only just.
Star Wars is making steps toward a more diverse galaxy, but only just.
Image: Disney XD, Lucasfilm, Aurore Folny (Fantasy Flight Games)

As someone from a mixed-race background, I was used to never seeing myself in my favorite movies, including the Star Wars films. Because I rarely saw myself directly in the media I consumed, I learned to work with what was available. I imagined that there was a planet somewhere in this galaxy that was inhabited by people who did look like me—a daydream that launched a hundred fan fiction starships.

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Unfortunately, fan fiction was where most of my media representation would stay until the recent buzz around the sequel trilogy and its uptick in a wider visual array of racial representation on screen. It wasn’t until Rose Tico (portrayed by Kelly Marie Tran) appeared in The Last Jedi that an actress of Asian descent portrayed a major Star Wars character. Many more fans have been waiting for decades longer to see some semblance of themselves on the screen—and many are still waiting.

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While it has taken decades for the films to populate the Star Wars galaxy with a believably varied cast of space-faring beings, the novels of the Expanded Universe have always been pushing the franchise in that direction.

There is some fragmentation within the Star Wars fandom stemming from its long history of multimedia output. Any fan will tell you that the good stuff happens outside the movies and, depending on the fan’s age, that the really good stuff happened in the EU—which encompasses all non-movie media. The EU was unceremoniously deemed non-canon in 2014 with Disney’s acquisition of the franchise and is now known as Legends of the Force.

Like most fans, I started with the original trilogy as a child and was transfixed from the opening crawl. For a full year, I refused to watch other movies, continually renting the pre-remastered trilogy on VHS from Blockbuster until I was able to buy a set for myself at a used book store. But with each rewatch I realized that I felt increasingly limited by the films; I wasn’t tired of the galaxy itself, I was getting tired of the tiny slice we were able to explore. I wanted more of the galaxy that George Lucas’ films gestured toward. For those of us who discovered the original trilogies before the advent of the prequels, let alone the sequels, the EU offered an extension of the galaxy that so captured us in the first place.

Special edition book cover.
Special edition book cover.
Image: StarWars.com
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While the EU technically covered all media from comic books to video games, my own foray focused heavily on the novels. After discovering the movies as a child, I stumbled upon a three-in-one novelization of the trilogy and devoured it innumerable times, filling the time I couldn’t watch the movies by conjuring up the stories through reading, reveling in details that didn’t appear on film. Some of these changes fleshed out the interiority of characters. There are more examples of Darth Vader’s or Luke Skywalker’s internal thought processes that, based purely on the difference in medium, can’t come across on film but gave readers a more explicit sense of their inner conflicts.

But there were also tantalizing liberties taken that gestured towards a larger story beyond the bounds of the film. In the novelization of The Empire Strikes Back, there is a brief moment where Luke notices handwritten scrolls in Yoda’s home, which never appears in the film. This moment stuck with me from childhood; as inconsequential as it seemed, it also agonizingly hinted at a broader story: what was on these scrolls? What would they divulge about Yoda, his species, or about the Jedi at large? A similarly tossed-aside moment comes in the novelization of The Return of the Jedi where Jabba the Hutt taunts Luke by claiming to have killed other Jedi in the past. Who were these other Jedi? How did they encounter Jabba? My tiny brain raced at the thought of these untold stories.

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These minor additions peppered through the novelizations, along with the shifts in plot points or inclusion of lines that deviated so clearly from the movies, planted the seed in my mind that the Star Wars universe wasn’t bound to what appeared on the screen. If the franchise wasn’t necessarily beholden to the films, then why shouldn’t there be more than just white humanoids occupying this galaxy?

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Once I discovered the books, I found myself less interested in the movies. From the movie novelizations, I worked my way through EU classics like The Hand of Thrawn trilogy by Timothy Zahn and The Jedi Academy trilogy by Kevin J. Anderson, before taking the leap into the endless series and one-off novels. The original trilogy were still my favorite films to watch, but they paled in comparison to the vastness of the EU and the tantalizing promise of more worlds and more characters to explore in each subsequent book.

By the very nature of text, it was much easier to see myself in the characters on the page. It didn’t matter if the character in a book was mixed-race like I was because they were all simply not from Earth. As someone who felt alien for most of her life, it felt like stepping into a world I understood, even if there was no one directly coded as biracial, Japanese, or Asian, there was more than enough space in the galaxy for people like me to exist.

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On the most basic level, a galactic setting points to a multitude of sentient beings—including those who are humanoid—rather than to a narrowing of possibilities. Lucas himself has always been deeply invested in populating the planets he envisions for the big screen. In multiple behind the scenes features for the prequel trilogy, Lucas is able to explain, in minute in-universe detail, why an organism behaves the way it does based on its home planet. Over-reliance on poorly-aged CGI aside, the galaxy as depicted in the prequels is teeming with life and more closely reflects the wide variety of people that would naturally occupy a vast universe. It makes sense that the sequel trilogy would attempt to further enrich the visual cast of characters to reflect the universe they move through.

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The franchise is slowly fulfilling the galaxy’s inherent promise of multitudes by taking in an array of creative voices. Victoria Mahoney became the first woman, and the first black woman, to direct a Star Wars film, and Rebecca Roanhorse, a woman of Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo and African American descent, penned the 2019 novel Star Wars: Resistance Reborn—just to name a few recent behind the scenes strides.

The Star Wars: High Republic initiative is another exciting extension of the spirit of the EU, set 200 years before The Phantom Menace and giving creators ample freedom to develop wholly new characters, events, and planets to fill out Star Wars lore. The current slate of writers involved in the project includes Justina Ireland, Daniel José Older, and Claudia Gray, beloved and talented writers who now break up the slew of white male authors that dominated the EU bookshelves when I was a child. These are books I would have eagerly devoured if they had been released while I was younger (and will still do so now!).

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The failure to accept how these voices fit in the fabric of the Star Wars universe is simply a failure of imagination, a refusal to grow beyond the constrained walls of a world once limited by the technological and budgetary boundaries of the late ‘70s. The inclusion of multiple diverse voices within a large fantastical galaxy on film and in other forms of media is not a cynical money grab emblematic of our times but is as canon as the Force itself.

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Writer & Editor / often seen with dogs

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DISCUSSION

Rainbucket
Rainbucket

Back in the days enjoying the old EU in its visual formats (comics and games) I didn’t think about how everyone “defaulted” to looking like me. But now re-reading the old Rogue Squadron comics it sticks out like a sore thumb that all of the pilots are either aliens or Caucasian humans. They even add a married couple who are matching blondes. I don’t think the artists and editors intended it, they were just as blindered about assuming people are white unless specified otherwise.

When I played Jedi Academy it felt right to make Jaden Korr an dark-skinned woman, since for me that implied an interesting backstory and experiences relative to at least the sexist Empire. It was disappointing to learn the “official” Jaden Korr was just another white guy like Kyle and Luke, without even an interesting haircut.