the Force is with white men, and hardly anyone else [update]

A long time ago, this is what the future was going to look like:


This is a mission to the moon as envisaged by Collier’s magazine and artist Chesley Bonestell in the 1960s. The future was all about white men taking to space and conquering the high frontier. And only white men. (Check for yourself in this larger version. Every person in this image is a white man.) I wonder if anyone involved in the production of this piece of art, and in the long series of magazine articles about the future that Collier’s published at the time, saw anything off-kilter about this. I doubt it.

The most depressing thing about science fiction — always — is how conservative it is. This is, allegedly, the genre that is all about imagining grand new futures for humanity… and yet early literary SF — let’s call it pre late 1960s — seemed incapable of conceiving of a world in which the talents of women and people of color and non-Westerners were embraced and nurtured for the betterment of all. Early SF writers were able to dream of starships and faster-than-light travel, but not feminism, the civil rights movement, and the sexual revolution.

This is how entrenched the presumed dominance of white men is in our culture: even those who believed their imaginations were soaring couldn’t see around their huge blindspot.

SF literature has gotten better (though it still has a long way to go, as do both the fan and professional cultures around it). SF on television still lags the literature but has been far better than movies for ages: While Stanley Kubrick crammed his 2001: A Space Odyssey with white men doing all sorts of exciting things and women as flight attendants on a moon shuttle serving them, Star Trek was offering us both a black woman and an Asian man as officers on a starship (even if a white guy was still in charge). (In the 1980s, Star Trek: The Next Generation included two black officers and two women officers. White guy still in charge, though. Later series, and other non-Trek shows, have had nonwhite and female captains and commanders and other leaders and authority figures.)

But this is what the future looks like, in 2014, to the producers of the most popular science fiction movie franchise of all time*:


This is a photo released today (larger version here) by Lucasfilm, and posted on StarWars.com, of a table read of the script for Episode 7, along with the announcement of the film’s cast:

Actors John Boyega, Daisy Ridley, Adam Driver, Oscar Isaac, Andy Serkis, Domhnall Gleeson, and Max von Sydow will join the original stars of the saga, Harrison Ford, Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill, Anthony Daniels, Peter Mayhew, and Kenny Baker in the new film.

Only one woman among the new cast? (That would be Daisy Ridley.) Only one nonwhite person? (That would be John Boyega.)

Director J.J. Abrams is quoted at the site:

It is both thrilling and surreal to watch the beloved original cast and these brilliant new performers come together to bring this world to life.

Perhaps the plot of this movie will be about the mysterious plague that has wiped out almost everyone who isn’t white and male across the galaxy. I’m not sure what other story would, given this cast, constitute bringing a world to life. (The fan rumor mill is speculating that perhaps Ridley will be playing Han and Leia’s daughter; she is sitting between Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher in this photo. How awful for Leia, if the only way she could find another woman to talk to was to give birth to her. Ridley could even be playing Jaina Solo, one of the most prominent characters from the Expanded Universe… but since Lucasfilm just threw out the Expanded Universe, and all its many female characters, this doesn’t seem likely.)

Star Wars may be taking place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away,” but let’s be clear: it reads as taking place in the future, not the past. But it is stuck in a 1950s mindset that was already outmoded when the first film was released in 1977. And it oozes Hollywood’s unspoken assumption that men — mostly white men — are the ones who should get to do all the interesting stuff in movies. (And even if, by some wonderful chance, Ridley’s or Boyega’s character is the main protagonist, that still would not excuse the preponderance of white men in the cast.)

The absence of women in the new cast has been noted around the Web (io9, Forbes, The Atlantic). And these commentaries are already prompting whines from fanboys — which I am not going to link to — complaining that movies shouldn’t have to shoehorn in women to satisfy feminazis and that there shouldn’t be gender quotas films and filmmakers must meet. As if the world — or even the galaxy far, far away! — weren’t full of women and nonwhite people of every gender doing interesting things.

It is so damn dispiriting. These fans — and we should probably include J.J. Abrams among them — are okay with the Force, with lightsabers, with alien creatures, with moon-sized battle stations that can destroy a planet… and they’re incapable of imagining a story set among all these wondrous things that might have a woman at its center.

What is it like in their heads? That’s something I am incapable of imagining.

(*Of the top 10 highest-grossing science fiction movies of all time, six are Star Wars movies.)

UPDATE 04.30.14: I am calling bullshit on The Hollywood Reporter’s scoop that casting for Episode VII isn’t done yet. From its blog Heat Vision:

Several sources tell The Hollywood Reporter that director J.J. Abrams has another substantial role to fill — and it’s a female part. No further details are known.

This was posted many hours after the initial announcement of “the” cast for the film, in which director J.J. Abrams was quoted as being “excited to finally share the cast” (emphasis mine). That sounds pretty final. And there’s no mention of any other major roles still left to fill. (I’ve got a screengrab of the page at StarWars.com in case it gets altered.)

I’m calling bullshit not because I don’t believe that Abrams is now scrambling to cast another woman… but because I think the cast was complete until people like me starting shouting about the lack of women. And this is a big problem. If Abrams is going to add another character now — with the script already done and shooting set to begin in the next couple of weeks (as also mentioned in the cast announcement), then it’s very likely that the presence of this character will reinforce all the standard complaints about what happens when filmmakers shoehorn women into movies where they don’t “belong.” She will feel shoehorned in because that’s exactly what will have happened. She won’t be an organic and necessary part of the story.

Unless… unless Abrams fires Oscar Isaac or Adam Driver or one of the other men just announced and hires a woman to fill his role. I don’t mean to imply that I want any of the men in the cast to lose their awesome new jobs — I don’t — but that’s the only way there can genuinely be 1) a female actor still to be hired for a role that 2) feels like it actually belongs in the movie.

Filmmakers! You need to be thinking about female characters from the inception of your projects. Or you need to write all the characters male and then flip the genders — without changing anything else about the characters! — when you start casting.

It’s not that difficult. But when you get to the point that Abrams now finds himself at, you don’t have many good options left that aren’t going to — rightly — piss off many of your fans.

Note: Do not read the comments on that Heat Vision post unless you want to have whatever shreds of faith in humanity you have left destroyed.

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