I flipped from delight to despondence faster than you could say 'light saber'. The main cast for Star Wars Episode VII had been revealed overnight, an occasion for geeky glee. But as I scanned the actor profiles, it became apparent that no brown actress was among them.
Nearly 40 years after George Lucas' first instalment — and despite all that has occurred during that time in terms of historic milestones for 'ethnic' women around the world — the mythology he created remains predominantly white.
If it were the case that the integrity of the Star Wars narrative rests on white characters, then the page-to-screen process may be excused. But given the wide array of organic life forms and androids that serve as contrast to humans, it bears pondering why the variety among humans must be so miserly.
Are white male characters just more recognisably 'human'? The absence of significant African, Middle Eastern, Asian or South American female characters suggests so.
This isn't an exclusively Star Wars problem. Most ensembles in pop culture are glaringly white. The Hunger Games, Game of Thrones, the Marvel franchises. Brown characters, and in particular brown female characters, are peripheral to the main narrative. They are martyred or rescued, sometimes villainous, occasionally pivotal to a scene, but never the star of their own story.
Whenever I rail against my own invisibility in the media that I consume, someone helpfully points out the one non-white character in a cartoon or blockbuster. I suppose tokenism has a role to play in pushing against barriers but am I meant to be grateful for it? Aside from Storm in the X-Men, most tokens don't even look remotely like me. Last time I checked in the mirror, I was not a black or Latino man.
I shouldn't presume to speak for an entire continent but I must object to the fact that people who look like me so rarely see our reflection in pop culture. It matters, not least because we pay money for it and deserve representation.
What happens when brown women are kept out of the picture, deliberately or not, is that their invisibility is normalised. We are not seen to contribute, much less lead. This is not harmless. It makes our presence in society incidental. Dispensable. Our contributions minimised as exceptions.
The truth is that television and film emit cultural signals that either validate or refute the dynamics within our society. Consider, for instance, the impact of Nichelle Nichols playing Lieutenant Uhura on Star Trek in the 1960s. When she and William Shatner kissed on television, interracial marriage had only just been declared legal by the US Supreme Court.
No less a fan than Dr Martin Luther King Jr convinced Nichols to stay on the show when she was on the brink of leaving. 'Don't you understand,' he said, 'that for the first time, we are seen as we should be seen — as equals. You don't have a black role; you have an equal role.' According to Nichols, Star Trek turned out to be one of the few shows that King and his wife Coretta let their children watch.
This speaks to the importance of including non-white characters in pop culture. Non-white children absolutely deserve to see themselves in it. Being able to insert themselves into a story, having their humanity visualised in full — these are no small things. Twenty years after Nichols appeared on Star Trek, Mae Jemison became the first African-American woman to travel in space. She credits Uhura for moving the stars within reach.
It is not just that characters like Uhura, atrociously rare as they still are, open up the possibilities for young girls everywhere and validate their ambition. Having multidimensional non-white protagonists onscreen not only presents a more realistic version of society, it endorses it. It signals diversity as a societal norm and that it is good, not an aberration to be minimised or controlled.
It also affirms the agency of minorities. Brown women are not invisible, nor are they blank canvases upon which desires and resentments are projected. They are not a species separate to humans, vying with aliens and androids for a meaningful role in the story.
We are not and should no longer be optional.
Fatima Measham is a Melbourne-based social commentator who contributes regularly to Eureka Street. She tweets as @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated.
Original artwork by Chris Johnston
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01 May 2014
I understand your point Fatima but would point out that in most countries the dominant culture makes films to appeal to the people that make up the majority of their audience. This is because they are making the films for commercial purposes and want to sell tickets. If you want to see brown women in films then find the lever to make it so. As an example how many white people are seen in Bollywood films? Does it make it right? No. Will it change in a hurry? Probably not.
01 May 2014
I take John's point, but given 30% of the US is non-White I am more inclined to agree with Fatima that there should be more representation of non-Whites in Hollywood. Maybe Hollywood is a bit of a 'white enclave'?
01 May 2014
Great points, Fatima. I agree there's a terrible dearth of non-white female leads in any genre of western film. It's an issue that deserves noise being made about it. I'm also actually excited with the possibility that Daisy Ridley could be the main protagonist of the next Star Wars, and also that John Boyega might be the male lead (as has been reported). Having both would be a welcome advance on the original trilogy in terms of diversity. I suspect that's got a lot to do with the criticism around the originals and prequels. With Disney planning more Star Wars films, let's hope they listen to this criticism in future.
01 May 2014
I think you make an excellent point, Fatima. America has never been a monochrome nation. However this has not prevented the long term presentation on film and television of it being such, with the odd non-white person appearing as a comedy foil, as Rochester in the Jack Benny Show, or as a villain (Fu Manchu anyone?), or object of desire. Star Trek had a very broad, deep, real moral base. It is the sort of broad humanistic base - so relevant for the multiracial 21st Century world - that George Lucas should think of transplanting to the Star Trek universe. At present Star Trek's world is woefully obsolescent.
02 May 2014
Thank you for pointing this out to me. I remember Star Trek's humanitarian and social justice philosophies being a rare and wonderful oasis in a white male-oriented media and literary world. Notwithstanding Yoko Ono's comment about the place of black women in this planet's hierarchy, I bemoaned the fact that women were mainly represented as domestics and handmaidens to powerful heroic white men. It helped seal our own second-class view of ourselves. That brown women are still invisible and therefore, dangerously, optional extras, shows that many women, especially white women, are being hoodwinked. I am angry that, despite Motown, Oprah, J Lo, Beyonce etc, I have been so blind. Whilst despairing about the long history of the loss of women's natural and powerful roles in society - from mother goddesses, agriculturalists and providers, herbalists, midwives and queens of hearth, home and society - I also failed to include ALL women. We haven't come a long way, baby, at all! Western media world-wide divides and conquers; we are not just barefoot and pregnant, or half clad and ditzy, The MAJORITY of women, our brown sisters, are not merely the butt end of the world, they have been 'rubbed out'. Forgive me.
02 May 2014
I think it is a reasonable expectation that a nation's art will reflect in general, its national face. As time goes by the national face of Australia will change from the pinkish white to a light shade of brown. A new benchmark of normality will be established.
I was somewhat amazed, even shocked, recently on reading a story about Bollywood movies and the preferred skin colour of lead actors. The producers interviewed were remarkably candid in admitting that fairer skinned principal actors were preferred over the often very dark features of many Indians.
Obsession with a whiter shade of skin and round eyes seem to be highly desirable in many Asian countries, particularly among young women.
03 May 2014
What is the role of women in the modern world?
At age 21 I joined a male-only religious order on the outskirts of Melbourne.
In my 4th year of living in a secluded male-only environment, I was sent into the city. As I walked through the streets, I was struck by the realisation of something I had once known, but which had somehow never entered my consciousness in those first 3 years. "Half the world are female.!"
While there are many exceptions, most women have more important roles than competing with men "That of ruling the world". As Ghandi said, "The hand that rocks the cradle rules the world". Perhaps Women's main role seems to be to work behind the scenes to humanise the sterile world of technology and politics, and turn the house of the earth into a home.?
06 May 2014
Thanks all for engaging with this article. I'm passionate about advocating for diversity in the media/ pop culture. I hope that you will join me in stimulating discussions about this in your own circles.
JOHN: I take issue with the idea that brown images aren't commercially appealing. That needs to be overhauled. The people in power who think that don't tend to be brown. As Shonda Rhimes says, stop having meetings about diversity - just hire people. That's what she does, and it's not a big effort.
06 May 2014
EDWARD/ANNABEL: I think that post-Battlestar Galactica or even post-Serenity/Firefly, there is no excuse to create ensembles or populate fictional worlds with only white characters. This is why I'm sorely disappointed that the first major cast reveal for Episode VII does not include brown women. Additions will feel like afterthought.
06 May 2014
DAVID: The preference for fair skin in India (and the Philippines where I'm from) is a complex thing, probably partly to do with lingering sense of colonial inferiority. But it is likely also related to the fact that 'brown' is not even an aesthetic on film or television, privileging conceptions of beauty that are 'white' (or western). You'll find that skin whitening products are a huge industry in Asian countries. It serves the point that lack of diversity is not harmless.
08 May 2014
I disagree that this is all about race - but more about people's perceptions of beauty, and that often what the "other" has is better. White people want to be tanned and have fuller lips and bigger buttocks, for example. Asian people want rounder eyes not because they want to be caucasian but because of perceptions. And white people with dreadlocks ?- now that just looks silly.