This Isn’t Just About Star Wars: The 5 Worst Arguments Against Gender Diversity
UPDATE (10/10/2014): Yesterday, Sony Pictures announced that Paul Feig and Katie Dippold, the team behind The Heat, were scripting an all-female reboot of Ghostbusters in lieu of the long-gestating third film in the original series. As a lifelong Ghostbusters fan, I’ve spent the last 48 hours stunned and embarrassed at the absolute temper tantrum being thrown by a distressingly large portion of the online fandom in the fan pages I follow on facebook. Many of their arguments against this sound quite familiar — a reminder that, again, this isn’t just about Star Wars.
UPDATE (06/02/2014): Lucasfilm has just announced that 2013 Oscar winner Lupita Nyong’o and Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie have both been added to the cast. This is great news, but of course, I’d like to remind folks, before they add any new comments gloating that we ought to have waited or that somehow these additions invalidate the piece, that the headline to this article is “This Isn’t Just About Star Wars” — the point, of course, was to talk about gender diversity in all forms of fantasy and sci-fi, film and television, or just plain old fiction in general.
As anyone with an internet connection knows, the cast of the new Star Wars trilogy was announced yesterday by Lucasfilm. It’s a top-notch roster of actors, many of whom are often mentioned when blockbuster movie roles are being cast, but are eventually passed over for bigger, blander marquee names. Unfortunately, although the announcement shows a hint of racial diversity, it shows almost no gender diversity.
The original Star Wars trilogy was light on female characters (there’s Leia, and Mon Mothma and, uh…Aunt Beru?), and the prequels didn’t improve on that disparity much (there’s Padme, and Shmi and, uh…Aunt Beru?), so it’s disappointing that J.J. Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy didn’t take the opportunity to encourage another “expanded universe” while they were busy killing the old one.
Predictably, the mere suggestion that women ought to be added a movie brought out a bunch of people rehashing the same old arguments about why this could never, ever work. Instead of focusing on Star Wars, let’s take a look at five of these arguments from a general perspective (one that encompasses television, comics and video games as well as film, even if I focus on film), and lay them to rest once and for all.
1. “But What About This Exception?”
Just because someone can spout the names of a few great movies that have great female characters and/or work in spite of a gender imbalance, those lists don’t mean anything when looking at the big picture. Maybe someone’s entire top 100 favorite films of all time were all chosen for the great roles for women in each of them. That’s fantastic, but the numbers don’t lie. According to a 2013 study by the Women’s Media Center, only 16 percent of film protagonists in the 100 top-grossing films of the year were women, and women made up only 33 percent of all characters in those films. Many people may not see the disparity, especially with female-led franchises like The Hunger Games and Divergent making headlines, but examples will only form a finite list that can’t counter every other film ever made.
Women made up only 33% of all characters in 2013’s 100 top-grossing films.
More to the point, the degree to which women are marginalized is so skewed (70/30 at best, less than 80/20 at worst) that it’s a valid complaint in and of itself. The situation for female characters (not to mention female filmmakers) has been so bad for so long that even imagining a minor increase in equality is a struggle. Picture another Hunger Games-esque property for every Marvel character allowed to carry his own series of films. Those five or six would-be blockbusters may sound like a ton of additional representation, but the numbers clearly show it’d be an attempt to get close to even 25 percent of the marketplace. It’s an imbalance that simply doesn’t make sense and cannot be justified: no matter how many examples of women-led films one can come up with, they’ll only form an anthill next to a mountain.
2. “Forced Diversity is Not Real Diversity”
“So, what are you saying?” sneer the naysayers, “That filmmakers should just stuff women into movies because it’s politically correct?” Um, yes.
This line of thinking, and many of the reasons that stem out of it, point to a double standard that people will bend over backward to avoid acknowledging: the character “default” is a straight, cis white dude. If the insertion of a character from any group that complains about under-representation is considered “forced” or “trying too hard,” the implication is that there must be a natural alternative that is considered free of that controversy. If non-white, gay, trans and/or female audiences openly object to their limited representation, that kind of narrows down the alternatives. (One example in the theaters right now? Noah, a film that “avoided” the race question by simply casting white actors.) According to a study by USC’s Dr. Stacy Smith, even extras are subject to the gender gap: crowd scenes in both animated and live-action movies contain on average only 17 percent female characters—a ratio that hasn’t changed since 1946.
Real-world diversity is pretty close to an even split, but even if it wasn’t, analyzing population data leaves out the obvious: fiction doesn’t have to adhere to reality. There’s no reason films have to reflect anything that exists in the real world, much less a hypothetical demographic survey. There’s no limit to what people are capable of inventing or envisioning, and when all that creativity merely reflects an untrue gender bias perpetuated by the media itself, that’s really disappointing. One of the principles of the original Star Trek was to create a world where diversity and positivity were celebrated. That’s a vision artists should be working toward, not away from.
Of course, it’d be a mistake not to point out that such a gender bias just might come from the same bias being present behind-the-scenes. A 2013 study by The Celluloid Ceiling out of San Diego State University says women made up only 6 percent of directors and 10 percent of writers on the top 250 highest-grossing movies of 2013. Not only are the men in charge of these blockbusters refusing to make a conscious decision to add more women into their screenplays and films, but they’re also diverting responsibility. “Make your own movie!” is a common retort, but it’s not that easy: women aren’t getting the jobs, the contracts or the offers to do these big-budget productions that men are handed 94 percent of the time.
Some would argue that a mandate to include women is some sort of a weight, restriction, or even a form of censorship placed on the writer, but there’s nothing challenging about adding women (or anyone else) to a screenplay: just make some characters women. There’s no reason gender should upset whatever narrative is pictured with radical revisions unless that narrative is inherently sexist. Hell, writers could just leave the genders (and race and sexuality etc. etc.) of their characters ambiguous and leave it up to the casting director to find an actor whose personality or take on the character matches up with what’s on the page. The original Alien was cast this way, a decision which eventually resulted in one of the most celebrated female sci-fi and fantasy characters of all time. Which brings us to the next point…
There’s no reason gender should upset whatever narrative is pictured with radical revisions unless that narrative is inherently sexist.
3. “Characters Matter!” and/or “But is That Good Enough?”
“You haven’t even seen the film. You don’t know anything about these characters.” That’s true! That’s also not important. There are three possible interpretations of a comment like this:
- The film will just be so well-written that nobody will want to criticize it.
- The female characters in the film will be so well-written that nobody will want to criticize them.
- The film will somehow justify the vast majority of its characters being men.
None of these are valid arguments.
The first two possibilities are easy to write off. Although the treatment of women in entertainment is certainly a worthwhile discussion, that can only happen if they’re widely represented in the first place. People often complain that the Bechdel Test doesn’t having any bearing on how well female characters are portrayed, but it’s not supposed to. The point of the test (two women who talk to each other about something other than a man, in case anyone doesn’t know) is that it looks for minimum amount of effort on the part of artists to include women. If a movie was presented with the opposite bias as the Star Wars casting, with only two main male roles and the rest of the speaking characters women, with no on-screen acknowledgement of the disparity, there’d be never-ending discussions about what sort of world was being presented and questions about what happened to the men in the movie’s universe, but the reverse seems acceptable—the same “default” discussed in the previous point. The fact that we don’t live in a world where such a test isn’t even necessary should be utterly embarrassing.
The third interpretation is more implied than stated, but it’s the most pervasive reasoning of all. Writers trying to justify their bias will often argue that a unique perspective is required when writing a woman or that the script doesn’t call for a female character, but not only is that not true, it conveniently ignores another double standard. It’s really hard to come up with a reason that a male character in a film needs to be a man, and justifications for characters being women are generally lazy or sexist (girlfriends, mothers, characters who are pregnant).
Although gender roles ingrained in us from childhood (ones which stem directly out of the attitudes and behaviors seen in mainstream media) would have people believe men and women hail from different planets, we’re all human, and anyone who can write compelling, believable men should have no trouble writing equally compelling and believable women — a good character is defined by aspects apart from their gender.
There are antagonists in every story, and most of them don’t “contribute negatively” to the portrayal of men in film.
Those who don’t get hung up on whether they’re capable of writing women can fall into an alternative trap: the “strong female character.” Although the phrase started out as a buzzword that stuck to nerd-friendly writers like Joss Whedon and George R.R. Martin, it’s become a stumbling block itself. With each new nerd-friendly female character, the hand-wringing sets in: “Does this contribute positively to the way women are portrayed in film?” It’s a dumb question, because almost every story features an antagonist, and most of these roles are played by men. Those characters don’t contribute to a “negative portrayal” of men in film, because there are so many roles for men, offering such diversity and range, that film as a whole can’t be said to have a single “portrayal” of men. If people get so wrapped up in how women are viewed that nobody writes any challenging, unique or new roles, that puts more pressure on the few that do make it onto the silver screen to be an impossibly perfect creation, not to mention it creates a false dichotomy between “quality” and quantity, when both are equally important, and should simultaneously be improved.
4. “I Don’t Care About Representation.”
Not everyone goes to the movies and demands to see “themselves” (in the sense that there’s someone up there with the same gender, race, sexual orientation, etc.). I’m an Asian guy, but I was adopted just a few days after I was born by a mixed-race family, and I don’t feel any particular kinship toward Asian characters. However, that doesn’t mean I should go around arguing with people who hold up the Sulus of the world as groundbreaking and deeply important to them. Additionally, I recognize that I might feel differently if I had ever been oppressed or treated differently because I was Asian.
The idea that straight cis white guys don’t care much about representation in entertainment really isn’t surprising: most entertainment is catered to them. Even if they logically understand some of what oppression feels like (or have experienced some oppression themselves for some other reason), they’ll never know the full extent of what it feels like to deal with the media’s omnipresent male gaze on a daily basis.
Women who love movies, TV, comics and more are forced to acknowledge the male gaze every day, all while men continually reduce “women’s” entertainment with terms like “chick flicks”, “chick lit” and so on—a perfect example of how unwilling men can be to try and relate to a perspective outside of their own. The opinions of those who don’t have to think about the quality or quantity of their media representation are automatically less relevant than the opinions of those who have, and that’s not “reverse sexism / racism”—it’d be no more valid than someone trying to argue that their opinion on a restaurant they’ve never been to is as important as those who have, simply because they’ve eaten food before.
The opinions of those who don’t have to think about the quality or quantity of their media representation are automatically less relevant than the opinions of those who have.
Worst of all, those same white guys do care about representation … when they perceive it as cutting them out of the picture. Just like the thinking behind a list of “examples,” gender bias has been around for so long it’s perceived to be the norm, yet when women argue for equality—actual, measurable equality—up pop the men who can’t see the death grip they’ve already got on everything for what it is, complaining that they’re being marginalized. One clear-cut example of this is that while the age-old idea stands that “women talk too much,” science shows otherwise: men consistently talk more than women in studies and even on TV programs, yet when women talk the same amount as men, men see the women as taking up more than their fair share of the discussion time.
Again, it’s not “reverse sexism” to suggest that men are so omnipresent in a property that some of them could be written out, and the activation of that empty persecution complex tends to derail most online discourse. As mentioned in the previous point, one can only imagine the outrage if one were to suggest the next Transformers film were to focus solely on female characters, all from “marginalized” male fans.
Above all, “I don’t care” isn’t a stance in the first place. Many women do care about how they’re being treated at the movies, and it’s selfish to try and argue that a lack of interest (especially one created by societal bias) is somehow equally valid. The 21st century has given birth to terms like “outrage culture” and “white knighting,” but those insults have been warped from legitimate criticisms of controversy-courting journalism and facetious or malicious camaraderie into easy ways to write off those who have the gall to care.
5. “That’s Not Faithful!” / “That’ll Be Great, But Not For This.”
We live in a world where properties and franchises are routinely rehashed, remade and resurrected for a new generation of audiences. Everything from board games to theme park rides are fashioned into movies. Each one of these established fandoms is full of people who are worried about the sanctity of their beloved properties, and so there is a degree to which it’s understandable that they resist when someone calls for change.
That said, this may be the worst reasoning of all. First of all, women are not “outsiders.” We’re not talking about the “PC Police” (which is not a thing, by the way). Women love plenty of the same movies, books, shows and other forms of entertainment that men do, but the reason those universes look so male-centric is because they’re generally not welcoming for women, especially women who have opinions about how those universes could be better. Either the tone of the work, the fandoms, or the creators themselves are actively pushing away the women who would otherwise be interested, or women are forced to keep their opinions to themselves for fear of being labeled any number of awful things.
There’s no reason that any geek property couldn’t stand to be more diverse.
There’s no reason that any geek property couldn’t stand to be more diverse. Unless, of course, those fans are admitting that their favorite movies (or perhaps, they themselves) are sexist or racist to their very core. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: the addition of more women doesn’t have to alter the characters, change the story or affect the tone or style of a movie. Plus, why wouldn’t someone want a wave of new fans to discover their favorite thing? Well, aside from equally useless whining about “fake geek girls” or perhaps just “fake geeks” — more ways to shut out legitimate criticisms.
As far as outright changes go, stagnation is boring. When adapting something famous to a new medium or perhaps updating it for a new generation, one would hope fans desire more than just the same thing spewed out at them over and over again. Although I’ve just spent several paragraphs reiterating that gender diversity doesn’t have to change established properties, variety and change is the spice of life, and filmmakers can find new life in an old property if the changes are fully embraced or even worked into the narrative.
One obvious recent example: the change of John Watson (white man) to Joan Watson (Asian woman) on CBS’ Elementary, one of many alterations that turns the program into something fresh and new. SharcTank’s own Liane B. also points out that multiple characters on NBC’s cult favorite Hannibal were gender- or race-swapped from their original book incarnations, specifically to increase the diversity of the cast.
This article isn’t about Star Wars specifically, but in the 30 or so hours since this casting notice went live, I’ve gotten roped into arguments left and right about diversity. The worst moment? Last night, someone even went so far as to say that Star Wars being aimed specifically at young boys and not young girls was part of the franchise’s legacy, and something J.J. Abrams and company ought to be fighting to protect. That’s as outrageous as it is offensive, and it’s disappointing that anyone who isn’t crazy wants to be on that side of the fence. There was a time when geekdom was inclusive, because being a geek was totally uncool. Now, with geeks in the mainstream, one hopes the first order of business isn’t to build walls around this tree fort.
Even if it wasn’t really easy to shoot holes in each one of these tropes, there’s an even simpler reason to care. Women are the marginalized party, and they’re explaining how Hollywood can improve to accommodate them. In the movie industry, money is the bottom line. Despite the gender bias, the Motion Picture Association of America reports that 51 percent of the movie-going audience is women, and they have edged out men since 2009. Who better than them to tell the world whether or not their own gender is being represented properly? More importantly, why would anyone want to argue?
If you want more thoughts on the Star Wars casting and its gender inequality, check out these articles:
- Hey Star Wars — Where the Hell Are the Women by Annalee Newitz @ io9
- J.J. Abrams Misses His Chance to make Star Wars History by Amanda Marcotte @ slate.com
- Where’s the female side of the Force in ‘Star Wars VII’? by Bonnie Burton @ cnet
- Where are the women in the new ‘Star Wars’ Cast? by Gavia Baker-Whitelaw @ dailydot
- Why Star Wars Needs Women by Emily @ tosche-station
(Note: A special shout-out to Liane, who not only edited the piece, but contributed a number of invaluable insights and additions to the article.)