When I was in elementary school, we did a lot of role-playing during recess. One game we played was “Spice Girls.” All of my (mostly white or at least passing) friends would pretend to be the five Spice Girls and I would be their maid. Because we were 10 years old and you had to look like the character or it wouldn’t make sense. And the Spice Girls were all white. Where do you put the Asian girl? You make her the side character, cleaning up the mess.
Tonight, I was watching the pilot of “Supergirl” where a random character uttered this phrase: “Can you believe it? A female hero! Nice for my daughter to have someone like that to look up to.” Yes it’s a bit too on the nose but the same thought raced through my head while I was watching Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The film featured not one, but a whopping four female characters, one of whom (Rey) was the chosen one that was strong with the Force and the first speaking character in the Star Wars movie universe to hold a lightsaber. (There was a midriff-baring blue female alien in the prequels who I recall didn’t have any lines) And the female characters were in leadership roles where their gender was hardly mentioned: general (Leia), captain (Phasma), bar owner/seer (Maz Kanata).
Rounding out the leading players was a black Stormtrooper with a full-fledge story arc and character development (Finn), and a brown pilot (Poe). For all of the criticisms of how derivative Episode VII was, it had something that none of the other films had. It had diversity. It had equality. It was unapologetically feminist as hell and John Boyega rightly dismissed all of the racists who could accept green aliens but couldn’t accept black men as heroes.
Watching the movie, I was reminded of that perfect moment when I first watched “Battlestar Galactica,” where I realized that this was not a universe occupied by just white characters, and where the heroes weren’t just men. There was a mixed-race Admiral, a female president, a female pilot, and Asian Cylons and pilots. All of them got an individual spotlight, with character arcs and fully rendered backstories. They were all heroes. And their race and gender were non-issues.
“Battlestar” and Episode VII created a science-fiction universe where gender and racial norms were nonexistent, where a woman can be the chosen one (or Jesus, in the case of “Battlestar”) and a black man can save the day (in the case of Episode VII). They portrayed a world where men are allowed to be emotional wrecks (Kylo Ren’s temper tantrums being the most effective showcase). For once, it is not the woman with tears on their faces, it is the men as well too.
Science fiction as a genre invites us to imagine a more perfect, more advanced world. And with Episode VII, perhaps we finally, consistently have a world where its individuals are being truly judged not on their appearances, but on their abilities. It’s an inclusive world, one that can finally accommodate everyone: white, black and brown, blue and green.
Now they just need an Asian Jedi and I will die happy.
It’s not just Star Wars. 2015 was the year that diversity dominated the conversation. Just look at how many think pieces were written about the colorful casting in Hamilton (mine included). Or the rain of praise on Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” and its truthful representation of the immigrant experience or of casual racism in the entertainment industry.
It was the year where Viola Davis said, “The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.” And opportunities were aplenty for women and actors of color, to play against type. You can’t have two Indian characters occupying the same screen in the fictional “Master of None” universe. But you can today. Not even Indian, but East Asian (“Fresh Off the Boat,” “Dr. Ken”), black (“Empire,” “Blackish”), all the races (“How to Get Away with Murder,” “Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt”), and shows that actually pass the Bechdel Test (“Jessica Jones,” “Supergirl”).
It was the year that we all called out the entertainment industry on their racist, sexist bullshit, from the wage gap, to casting controversies in theater, to Aloha. It was the year we were introduced to black Hermione.
So for all of my frustration with the entertainment industry, I do know that a better world is ahead. Because people of color and women are no longer sidekick or servant, girlfriend and mother. We can just be people.
Can we go farther? Absolutely. I’m looking forward to seeing what other genderqueer stories surface now that The Danish Girl is out. One of the best plays I saw this year was about a transgender character (by a genderqueer playwright) and January alone promises two more works about trans* individuals.
I’m excited and one thing’s for sure, kids of color and girls won’t be servants or damsels in distresses any longer. To borrow a phrase from David Bowie: They can be heroes. We all can.