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Hollywood Diversity Awakens!

"Star Wars" proves that filmmakers are beginning to hold their daughters in mind

 Gage Skidmore
Source: Flickr: Gage Skidmore

Thank you, J.J. Abrams, for granting my holiday wish for a fantastic movie that (1) has a female protagonist, (2) passes the Bechdel test (i.e., at least two women characters talk to each other about something other than a man), and (3) has a diverse cast of superb actors in complex roles.

Over the past few holiday seasons I’ve expressed my disappointment and frustration with Hollywood casting in essays like “Into the White White Woods,” (2014), and “Calling All Hobbits of Color,” (2012). And after years of wishing, watching the cast of Star Wars: The Force Awakens was a Christmas miracle for me.

But this wish granted was not just for me—and that’s the point. As I’ve written again and again, casting with diversity in mind is a gift for everyone.

Audiences of all ages, races, and gender expressions who go to the current Star Wars will find a fluid spectrum of characters with whom to identify, all of whom have agency and moments of ambivalence, a need to be rescued at times and do the rescuing at others, all of whom do bad things and good things, wear armor or tight leathery space fashions, fight and cry and love and use the force—no matter what their bodies look like, or what types of genitals, sizes of breasts, hairstyles or skin colors they have.

Gone are the days when a young Star Wars fan was limited to the binary choice of good guy versus bad guy action figure. Now storm troopers can be on the dark side and the light, and also be women of high rank. And in other news, white guys like Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are no longer the only heroic subjects with whom kids can identify! In addition to the film’s main character, Rey, played by white actress Daisy Ridley, the cast is led by British-Nigerian actor John Boyega and Guatemalan-born actor Oscar Isaac. All three characters take turns flying space crafts, wielding light sabers, hugging each other (in earnest, without bro-anxiety), being sexy (but not necessarily in gender conforming ways), giving orders, taking orders and kicking butt.

Having a woman at the center of the whole thing is arguably the most revelatory choice of all, exploding our ingrained ideas about who is allowed to be a subject in a mainstream film, and who is subjugated to the role of object. As Meryl Streep has said:

“The absolute hardest thing in the whole world is to persuade a straight male viewing audience to identify with a woman protagonist. To feel themselves embodied by her . . . There has always been a resistance to assume a persona if that persona is a she.”

By making the new Star Wars protagonist a woman and a tough yet emotionally accessible hero with whom all audiences (including men and boys) can identify, the filmmakers have blasted through the resistance Streep describes. They have also opened up the opportunity to cast a variety of minorities as characters who are active subjects, as opposed to objectified “others.”

 Gage Skidmore
Source: Flickr: Gage Skidmore

And it’s about time! Yes, Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia in the original trilogy paved the way for characters like Rey. But even though Leia had agency – which was inspiring for many girls and nonconforming boys (like this one) – her fiercest moments always felt like false starts (Taking a stand against Darth Vader, but then needing to be rescued from him; or rescuing Han Solo from Jabba the Hut, only to be enslaved in a metal bikini; or hopping on a speed bike to catch an enemy in the woods – awesome! – but then getting pushed off and leaving Luke to finish the chase.) Now Leia is in command as a general, a role in the world of Star Wars that had only ever been occupied by distinguished looking men—or amphibious male aliens.

Again, I’m not the only one excited by these character developments. The box office, the critical praise, and the unprecedented reports of audience satisfaction, prove that everyone is winning with this new Star Wars.

So how do we make sure Hollywood keeps up the good work?

Some might lazily think there’s nothing to be done, other than to cast “existing” roles with “appropriate” actors. But if creators want to turn the tide they have to make creative, active, subversive choices. And that’s exactly what director J.J. Abrams did with The Force Awakens. In addition to believing that it’s important for everyone to “see themselves represented in film,” Abrams has also said, “I wanted a movie mothers could take their daughters to.” More specifically, and inspiringly, he explained how having a daughter himself motivated him to make sure the world of the film felt equal between women and men.

So, Hollywood filmmakers—who are often straight white men, like Abrams—may need to hold their daughters in mind if we want to see more movies like The Force Awakens. Men will need to be consciously invested in women, and in other minorities, as subjects with whom they can identify as opposed to marginal objects. And if filmmakers want a guidepost to such a transformation, they can look to renowned psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin’s analysis of a scene in the Oscar-winning film American Beauty. In the pivotal scene, Kevin Spacey’s character Lester (a privileged white guy) is about to have sex with his daughter’s nubile teen friend (Mena Suvari), about whom he has fantasized compulsively for the whole movie. Benjamin writes:

“[T]his irresistible stimulation shifts dramatically in the moment when [the girl] reveals that she is actually a virgin and a neglected child whose parents pay no attention to her. Suddenly, as if waking from the dream, Lester recognizes that this girl is a subject with her own center of feeling...The bright lights of overstimulation are shut off and feelings of abandonment and grief bring about an identificatory connection to the girl as person.”

Filmmakers of all backgrounds and perspectives would benefit from engaging in a similar process of reflection – concerning women as well as other minorities – in order to create and cast a wider range of characters who are relatable subjects.

The point is not to simply be politically correct, as folks sometimes say in defensive reaction to articles like this one. The point is to give everyone the opportunity to identify with various facets of human experience.

 Gage Skidomore
Source: Flickr: Gage Skidomore

Giving Carrie Fisher the opportunity to play a general allows us to see more of the gravitas the actress possesses in her real life than we would ever see from her playing an objectified princess. In a recent interview with Good Morning America, for instance, you can see Fisher deploying a commanding wit that we typically associate with men – like Harrison Ford (at least playing Han Solo) – but is by no means limited to male experience.

And expanding our ideas about movie characters does not only advantage women and other minorities. The straight white men in Star Wars get to embody a greater range of emotional life than Hollywood usually affords leading men. As the new leader of the dark side, Adam Driver gets to have doubts and heartbreak while also simultaneously being powerful and sadistic. Similarly, Harrison Ford gives depth to Han Solo with moments of paternal tenderness that showcase some of the best acting I've ever seen from him.

Star Wars also features Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o as a wise Yoda-like creature—a rare opportunity to see a young beautiful actress do wildly inventive character work in a mainstream movie. This also parallels another groundbreaking achievement for Nyong’o who will soon star in the play Eclipsed, the first Broadway production ever to have a writer, director, and cast entirely comprised of women—and women of color at that. With Eclipsed, Broadway audiences will experience the riveting stories of resilient African women based on true events during the Second Liberian Civil War. The play is a window into lives that are very real and rich but which have rarely been subjects of mainstream entertainment until now. It is no surprise that the director is Liesl Tommy, whom I have praised for putting into practice her keen understanding of how telling stories with diversity in mind always expands the audience’s experience.

Maybe next Christmas there will be even more movies and plays directed by the Liesl Tommys and Ava Duvernays and Jill Soloways and Diane Pauluses of the world. And maybe more directors who are straight white men will take a page from these women, and from J.J. Abrams, as they create more characters and stories with women and other minorities in mind—as subjects as opposed to marginalized objects.

In reaction to Donald Trump’s regressive hate speech, activist/filmmaker Michael Moore recently said, “We are all Muslim.” So too are we all women, and girls, and boys, and gay and trans, and black and Latino and Asian, and Jewish and Christian, and princesses and generals—insofar as we are all humans with imaginations in a vastly diverse and interconnected world.

The more we see ourselves represented on screen in all of our multifaceted-ness, the more we are reminded that we are all human and more alike than we are different.

Copyright Mark O'Connell, LCSW-R

Benjamin, J. (2004). Deconstructing Femininity: Understanding “Passivity” and the Daughter Position. Annu. Psychoanal., 32:45-57

O’Connell, M. (2012). Don't Act, Don't Tell: Discrimination Based on Gender Nonconformity in the Entertainment Industry and the Clinical Setting. Journal of Gay & Lesbian Mental Health 16:241-255.

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