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The Force Awakens and Representation

6:00:00 AMJulia Premus

One of the most powerful ways to fight discrimination and prejudice is to represent marginalized communities in the media as relatable protagonists and multi-dimensional heroes. Statistically, however, it is no secret that Hollywood still under-represents marginalized communities. They are overlooked during auditions for protagonists, are cast instead as villains, sidekicks, stereotypes, and extras, or simply not cast at all. These decisions made by those in Hollywood have real-world repercussions, and ultimately reinforce the narrative that objectifies and ostracizes minority communities and women in both social and professional life. Yet, as Hildebrand writes in Transformation in Christ,  “Even in the midst of conflict, we must remain eager for peace.” (1) Media and casting decisions really do matter; countless studies show that low representation affects marginalized communities’ self image, disempowering their self esteem and career pursuits. So long as marginalized actors and actresses are limited to one-dimensional roles, society will be encouraged to internalize those prejudices, shaping the roles and opportunities afforded to those communities in real life. These effects particularly harm children viewers as well, limiting the constructs they use to conceptualize humanity and ultimately forming those same prejudices. Children need characters that can help them empathize with people who are different from them. The first six movies of the Star Wars trilogy, as much as I love the films, are definitely tainted by some problematic shortcomings. However, J.J. Abram’s new take on the franchise in Star Wars: The Force Awakens shows exciting promise for increased representation - and not just of droids (although BB-8 is amazing). 
This is new ground not just for the franchise but for Hollywood as a whole. Marginalized people are shown as brilliant, powerful, and essential to the operations and success of the missions; they are welcomed into full participation with society and are given equal opportunities.The film stars Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Carrie Fisher, and others as heroic, multi-dimensional characters. Best of all, the protagonists (a young scavenger woman, Rey, and an ex-Stormtrooper, Finn) are both wonderfully multi-dimensional, relatable, and refreshingly non-conforming to Hollywood gender and ethnic stereotypes. Daisy Ridley’s Rey is portrayed as a capable, resourceful, and intelligent young woman with Han Solo flying skills; she duels with a lightsaber and even exhibits masterful abilities with the Force, two skills not often delegated to female characters in the Star Wars universe. Rey’s dexterity in the Force is a power shared with Carrie Fisher’s General Leia Organa - changing how we conceptualize female characters in Star Wars and tearing down Hollywood taboos. While Abrams repeats George Lucas’s casting of white men as the majority of the characters and extras, women also appear prominently, not only as main characters, but also control panel operators, T-70 X-wing fighter pilots, mechanics, space pirates, entrepreneurs, military generals (in both the Rebels and the First Order), and trusted mentors. They are young and old, and are not judged or restricted based on their appearance. This is far wider range of roles than women held in the original Star Wars. Such a difference is extremely empowering for young children to see, as it encourages young girls to pursue their careers, and helps young boys empathize with and relate to female characters. John Boyega’s ex-Stormtrooper Finn does not conform to another Hollywood stereotype of the “Black sidekick” that many filmmakers still cling to; rather, Boyega is featured as one of the film’s leading men and beloved heroes. Hints at his budding romance with Rey are also refreshing for Star Wars, which has not previously seen a biracial couple. Additionally, the Latino actor Oscar Isaac plays the noble Rebel pilot Poe Dameron - a character who was originally written to die within the first part of the film. J.J. Abram’s decision to make Dameron a major character instead was huge, considering the fact that only 4.9% of all Hollywood speaking roles are comprised of Latino characters. It is so refreshing to watch Rey, Finn, and Poe come to life as fully fleshed-out and relatable people. It’s a step forward for representation in Hollywood - and for social justice.
The Force Awakens has given the next generation of Star Wars fans a more diverse choice of iconic heroes to emulate. It allows for children to role-play as and empathize with characters beyond the box of young white male characters they see constantly in other films. The Star Wars canon finally gives children more exposure to relatable, nuanced heroes - in this case, those who are Black, Latino, and female. Increased representation grants all children more exposure to heroes that look like them and heroes that don’t, teaching children to recognize themselves in all people and ultimately laying the foundations for more social equality in the future. Hildebrand notes in Transformation in Christ that it is essential that we work to develop a healthy community that validates all of its many diverse voices, and certainly in modern contexts this includes Hollywood media. Hildebrand urges that we work “for the sake of our relationship itself—of the restoration of that intimate union of hearts which essentially demands the clearing up of all misunderstandings and the healing of all disharmonies” (2). The Force Awakens is an announcement to Hollywood that representation does matter - and can tangibly help uproot ideas of racism and misogyny for the next and future generations.

Works Cited
  1. von Hildebrand, Dietrich. Transformation in Christ. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001. Kindle AZW file. Kindle Page 5089.
  2. von Hildebrand, Dietrich. Transformation in Christ. San Francisco: Ignatius Press, 2001. Kindle AZW file. Hildebrand 5049.

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