Guest post by Danika McClure
Lupita Nyong’o has had an insurmountable amount of success over the past two years, achieving things most veteran actors with ten times her acting experience would be jealous of. Her first feature film role, Patsey in 12 Years a Slave, was met with critical success, earning the actress an Academy Award for Best Supporting Actress. This achievement made her the first Kenyan, Mexican woman to receive to win an Academy Award. Since then, she has graced the covers of Glamour magazine, where she was named “Woman of the Year.” With all of her recent success stories, it should come as no surprise that her name has been attached to one of the biggest franchises in film history: Star Wars.
The prolific young actress is joining what is definitively the most diverse Star Wars cast to date, with co-stars including Carrie Fisher, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley, Gwendoline Christie, John Boyega, just to name a few.
This is something for long time fans to look forward to, considering Star Wars’ complex history of representation. Ignoring the prequels, women have by and large been left out of the saga. As Alexandra Petri wrote, “Luke could count [the female characters in the franchise] on the fingers of his remaining hand.“
Issues with gender representation aside, there have also been several insensitive and racist casting choices throughout the series. Jar Jar Binks drew fire from some critics for being uncomfortably similar to an anti-black caricature. Watto, a mega-capitalist and greedy merchant who owns Anakin Skywalker and his mother, was given stereotypically Jewish characteristics. And of course, there’s the debacle about Darth Vader, powerfully voiced by James Earl Jones, but portrayed by David Prose.
This inclusion of Nyong’o and is also a win for Disney Studios in general, who have had their share of representation snafus, many of which revolve around the Marvel film franchise. This year alone was a crushing blow for female fans.
Avengers: Age of Ultron was met with a media firestorm for a wide variety of issues, both on set and off. Jeremy Renner and Chris Evans were met with criticism for accusing Black Widow of being a slut, Black Widow was omitted from the film’s merchandising, and email messages leaked from Marvel CEO Ike Perlmutter which insinuated that he didn’t think female superhero movies could ever be profitable. The leak came at an unfortunate time, when audiences learned that we wouldn’t see a standalone female superhero movie until 2018.
Ant Man too was criticized for never giving its heroine, Hope, an opportunity to prove her value, a problem that has proven to be all too common throughout the Marvel Universe.
Marvel is not alone in these issues, and is a microcosm of representation of women in Hollywood as a whole. Studies by University of California’s Annenberg School of Communication indicate that issues of representation are as prevalent as they’ve ever been. Over 73.1% of major film casts are comprised of white people, and 69.8% of the characters in popular films are men.
Graph courtesy of USC
As a woman who identifies with geek culture, Star Wars looks to be a refreshing change of pace, and a step in the right direction for inclusivity not only for women everywhere, but also for the film industry as a whole. The kind of conscious diversity in casting is important, especially when female representation has gotten so bad that the federal government has stepped in to investigate.
While we know Nyong’o’s character in the upcoming Star Wars film is portrayed on the big screen through voice acting and CGI, her casting in a beloved franchise with somewhat problematic casting history is something to look forward to. Especially when you consider that voice-over acting is a field largely dominated by white actors. Films with all-star casts such as The LEGO Movie, as an example, have casts that include only one Black actor to every 13 white actors.
Nyong’o’s casting is also proof that women are being cast for their prolific acting skills, rather than being cast as side characters strictly written to meet the bare minimum requirements of the Bechdel Test. Director JJ Abrams on the decision to cast Nyong’o said,
“We needed a powerful actress to play a powerful character…Lupita was someone I’d known a little and was enormously fond of. More important, her performance in 12 Years a Slave blew my mind, and I was vaguely desperate to work with her.”
And even beyond Nyong’o’s contribution, fans have been seeing a large influx of hints that more women will be joining the franchise. Just this week producer Kathleen Kennedy hinted at the fact that the character Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, might be “extremely significant” to new film’s plot, in an interview where she simultaneously urged the film industry to promote more women.
Joining Nyong’o are ther actresses such as Crystal Clarke, Christina Chong, Maisie Richardson-Sellers and Jessica Henwick, women who only add to the rich diversity we can expect to see from this sequel, and also other Star Wars films to come in the next few years.
So make room, white men of Marvel, Nyong’o and her gang of powerful female role models are coming for you.
Danika McClure is a musician from the Northwest who sometimes takes a 30 minute break from feminism to enjoy a tv show. Enjoys crying about Drake, cheap wine, store bought guacamole, and angry girl music of the indie rock persuasion. Follow her on Twitter @sadwhitegrrl
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