The Last Jedi had numerous diversity problems, failing in its characterisation of marginalised characters. Could Star Wars Episode IX fix them?
With the Blu-ray release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, one of the most divisive films in the Star Wars-universe, fans are once again debating the pros and cons of the latest instalment in the franchise.
Much of this revolves around the new trio of heroes who, many felt, were sidelined in their own story. But, there is hope – Episode 9. The fanbase has been theorising how the franchise can show solidarity with its diverse characters in the next instalment.
We look at the top five ways JJ Abrams and Disney can bring their roster of female characters and people of colour to the forefront in Episode IX to win back the righteously angered Star Wars fans.
1 – Give Rey more screen time
Let’s admit it, The Last Jedi did not give Rey, our new Star Wars hero, her due. She was basically relegated to playing second fiddle to Luke Skywalker, who has already had an entire trilogy focused on him.
In fact, instead of amazing training montages, Rey’s primary function in the film is to coax Luke out of retirement, which she had already done with Han in the first film, and to coax Kylo Ren to the light side.
The Last Jedi did this by turning the badass Rey we were introduced to in The Force Awakens into a crying, whiny, part-damsel whose actions and emotions were driven wholly by the men around her.
Even the highly-debated, and fascinating, secret of Rey’s life – who her parents were and why they left her on Jakku – was revealed to the audience by Kylo Ren, not Rey, removing her from the narrative of her own life story. She was completely excluded from the final battle on Crait, where not only did the film fail to account for her whereabouts but essentially demoted her to getaway driver. Can we admit that this would never have happened to a male protagonist?
Rey had no growth at all in The Last Jedi, nor did she get the chance to explore her relationships with Finn and Leia, let alone Poe, who after two films, has still only shared a 10-second scene with her. Even though Rey, Finn and Poe are the new Star Wars triad.
If Episode 9 wants to convince fans that the new Star Wars creators and Disney really do care about its female protagonist, it needs to give Rey a massive arc, an impactful mission, tons of screen time and a bunch of breath-taking fight scenes.
2 – Make StormPilot canon
Star Wars has had unlikely relationships at its core in earlier trilogies – the smuggler and the princess, and the former slave turned Jedi and the senator-queen. Not to mention some star-crossed romances in the animated shows. Surely a relationship between a Resistance pilot and a former Stormtrooper isn’t beyond the realm of possibility?
Star Wars, like the MCU, Disney’s other large property, has managed to infuriate fans by excluding the LGBTQIA+ community from its films. There is yet to be a single queer character in the live action Star Wars films. Though this was somewhat excusable in the first two trilogies, there are no longer any valid excuses for not including canon queer characters in blockbuster films.
There was much excitement following the release of The Force Awakens due to the obvious chemistry between Poe and Finn. The ‘keep the jacket’ scene may have been small and considered insignificant, but, as many have pointed out, had the characters been a male and female, a romantic relationship would have ensued.
Look at Leia and Han, for instance. There was nothing pointing to a relationship in A New Hope. The two were at loggerheads throughout, but by the first scene in Empire Strikes Back, it was established that they were romantically interested in each other. And, not only did fans love the relationship, but they have consistently ignored the more toxic elements of it to fit their idyllic narrative.
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story‘s Chirrut and Baze seemed the most likely to drive the queer narrative with many fans reading their on-screen relationship as more than platonic. Unfortunately, the novelisation portrayed them as brothers in arms, not romantic partners, and the extended universe has sealed their platonic status.
It thus fell on The Last Jedi to make StormPilot a reality, but fans were again disappointed. Not only did the film put paid to rumours of a relationship between the two characters, it kept Poe and Finn apart for the major portion of its runtime, that too, on a flimsy excuse – director Rian Johnson said the characters got along so well that he couldn’t reasonably add any conflict between them. Really, Rian Johnson? Are you sure that’s why? Then, why crowbar in a kiss between Finn and newest entrant Rose Tico?
Having said that, the chemistry between John Boyega and Oscar Isaac was undeniable in the few scenes they did share in The Last Jedi. Plus, Finn did look very confused by Rose’s kiss so, perhaps, there is hope? If given enough screen time together in Episode IX, the two could finally have the relationship that the characters and fans deserve.
3 – Delete Reylo
If it wasn’t bad enough that The Last Jedi practically wrote StormPilot out of the franchise, it also gave rise to the unbelievably toxic and dangerous Reylo pairing – Kylo Ren and Rey.
What started off as a ‘ship’ adored by a handful of fans after The Force Awakens has become the primary ship of the new trilogy because of the number of scenes the two characters shared together in The Last Jedi. But it is seriously problematic. Like Christian Grey from 50 Shades of Grey problematic.
Apart from the fact that Kylo Ren is an out and out villain who killed fan-favourite and father figure to Rey Han Solo, he is also a whiny, annoying man-child who has used his family’s clout to get ahead in life without being grateful for it. He has a history of being violent – towards everyone, but also towards Rey – but thinks that sob stories and appearing shirtless before Rey can earn her respect and affection. The narrative really should have shown that this kind of behaviour does not get rewarded by any woman’s affections!
Instead, the film decided to show Rey not only warming to Kylo but has her go as far as defending his actions. The Last Jedi effectively makes everyone a bad guy, particularly Luke and Han, for failing Kylo Ren, when it should have been questioning why a grown-ass man refused to follow in the steps of the amazing women in his family to become a politician who works hard to bring peace and security to the galaxy.
Additionally, by having Rey act as messenger and arbiter in the Kylo-Luke conflict instead of placing her as a protagonist to Kylo’s antagonist, the film not only diminished Rey, it turned the focus of the narrative on Kylo, the villain, which has never been what Star Wars is about. Yes, a believable, 3-dimensional villain is excellent, but not at the expense of a much-needed minority protagonist!
The potential for romance muddies the waters further. Since Rey’s arc in The Last Jedi became about saving Kylo instead of about training to become a Jedi herself, Rey is now a mildly-accomplished Jedi with only a bunch of old books to tell her anything about the Force.
Episode IX could possibly turn Rey into nothing more than a love interest, torn between her desire for Kylo and her need to avenge her father figures. It’s very Romeo and Juliet except that story has been done to death. What we need is a female character who is not defined by the men in her life, or her love life.
Or, it could finally let Rey be the hero she is meant to be. The Force is strong with her. Let Luke’s Force-ghost return to help her on her way to conquering the light. But allow Rey to delve into the dark side and come out on top. She has said goodbye to the ghosts of her pasts so the dark side should have nothing to hold against her. Have Rey give up on Kylo and make him the primary antagonist, since Snoke has already been summarily dismissed. Give Rey a mission to duel Kylo and his Knights of Ren (we definitely want those people back).
In the process, Rey can save Kylo by showing him how to balance the two sides of the Force. This should keep all fans happy and give Rey a good conclusion to the path she began on in The Force Awakens.
4 – Give POC And Women Characters More To Do
The Force Awakens finally rectified one of the main problems of the Star Wars franchise – including more people of colour in prominent roles. The first trilogy took till the second film to add Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrissian, initially as a villain and then as a hero. The prequel trilogy had Samuel L. Jackson but, as badass as his Jedi Master Mace Windu was, he was merely a supporting character.
In The Force Awakens, John Boyega is only barely a secondary character to Daisy Ridley’s Rey. Though Oscar Isaac’s screen time was undoubtedly less than that of Harrison Ford’s, he is obviously part of the new trinity of characters. Rogue One went a step further by assembling the franchise’s most diverse cast but alas, all the characters were dead by the end of the film.
However, the franchise continues to struggle with the diversity of its women characters. All the lead female characters have been white women. Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico is the only female character of colour with a sizeable role but, even though many consider Tran to be a complete treasure, Rose Tico was made superfluous to the plot of The Last Jedi. Remove her from the film and the plot is barely affected. Her necklace had more significance to the plot than she did!
Having more than one prominent female character has been an issue for the franchise, but critics have also spoken up about the films consistently failing the Bechdel-Wallace test. For example, fans were excited about the prospect of Rey and General Leia Organa interacting more after their brief meeting in The Force Awakens.
Unfortunately, The Last Jedi completely failed the test again and kept its female characters far apart from each other. Even the one tender moment between Admiral Holdo and General Leia begins by focusing on Poe Dameron.
One can understand putting a cast member from the first trilogy as a mentor figure but the order in which the new films have done it has left much to be desired. First, it was all about Han, then about Luke. Presumably the plan was for Episode 9 to have Leia as the mentor but the loss of Carrie Fisher means there is no way for that to happen now. Apparently, Fisher was slightly frustrated by not being given equal importance to Ford and Mark Hamill and now the franchise will never be able to rectify that.
So, what can be done? First, Rey and Rose Tico need to have more to do with the primary plot and should be more involved in action scenes. They also need to interact and pass the Bechdel-Wallace test.
Episode IX could also do itself a huge favour by bringing back Captain Phasma, who has been criminally wasted in the first two films and is considered dead but hopefully not, and making better use of Lupita Nyong’o as Maz Kanata. The Knights of Ren will presumably make an appearance and it can’t hurt to include women of colour in that group.
More than anything else, the female characters and the people of colour need to be written as people, not a set of tropes! It just doesn’t make sense for there to be tons of characterisation for villains Kylo Ren and General Hux but little to zero for Rey, Finn, Poe and Rose. Who are these new films about, after all? If Disney is to learn any lessons before production for Episode 9 begins, let it be this one!
5 – Villains are supposed to be jerks, not good guys!
Over the past decade, thanks to the internet, marginalised groups have been able to discuss and bring awareness to a lot of issues that had heretofore been swept under the carpet. One of them was mansplaining. To anyone tempted to say that women can also condescendingly explain simple things to people, stop now. Yes, we know that, but the point about mansplaining is that it is done by most men exclusively to women.
The Last Jedi decided to tackle such trendy issues head-on by including a couple of mansplaining scenes. The mansplainers the film chose to highlight? Not Hux, Snoke or Kylo Ren, the film’s actual bad guys akin to white men most notorious for doing this, but the film’s primary men of colour, Poe and Finn. What?
The mansplaining scenes made Poe and Finn, who had been charming and brave in The Force Awakens, look like jumped-up, full-of-themselves toxic masculinity-espousing non-white tropes. It was a terrible depiction and has severely tainted fans’ perceptions of the characters.
Adversely, by not having Kylo Ren and Hux act in similar ways, the film effectively elevated them, and their white maleness, as the ideal for fans to look up to. Particularly in this aspect, The Last Jedi took a massive step backwards from the advances the franchise made with The Force Awakens and Rogue One.
There is also the issue of Poe Dameron getting in Admiral Holdo’s face when she refuses to tell him her plans. It’s bad enough that Leia was removed for a considerate portion of the runtime to make way for Holdo, when the film could have benefited from having two female leaders side by side, but having Poe butt heads with Holdo hurt his characterisation again.
One could go as far as to say that The Last Jedi actively worked against its characters of colour. The film opens with Poe disobeying a direct order from Leia, leading to the deaths of an entire squadron of Resistance fighters, a matter that Leia brushes off far too easily because… plot? He then sends Finn and Rose on a stealth mission without informing his superiors. When he is side-lined by Holdo, he leads an ill-advised mutiny against her that ends up wasting the Resistance’s time.
Even Poe’s plan to disable the battering ram goes to hell because the Resistance is overpowered on Crait. And then his escape plan from Crait almost fails because he follows the Vulptices to a dead-end. Had Rey not appeared at that very moment, the Resistance would have been crushed.
And the mission that Poe sent Finn and Rose on? Not only did they completely botch it by parking in the wrong place, of all things, they end up getting the wrong guy who sells them out to the First Order within seconds of being caught.
So, Finn and Rose’s epic adventure on Canto Bight amounts to… nothing. The captured animals they ‘save’ will likely be captured again because the planet isn’t that big and the security guards were already perilously close to finding them in the first place. Rose and Finn also didn’t bother to save the indentured children, who we see at the end of the film still working as slaves.
Their inadequacy leads to the death of most of the Resistance fleet and prompts Holdo to effectively suicide attack the First Order. No ‘white saviour’ trope there, surely!
As many fans have been saying, Poe Dameron should be court-martialled for his actions, but if that is a bit extreme, The Last Jedi could have at least had him apologise for his actions leading to the deaths of so many! After the wanton losses of life audiences witness on-screen, hearing Poe declare that he and the other Resistance fighters are the spark that will bring down the First Order was laughable. The film once again showed that it was paying lip-service to characterisation for its characters of colour; it was far more interested in building up Kylo Ren than any of the diverse good guys.
Even General Hux, who should not have been anything more than a snivelling do-badder, was portrayed as a rising star in the First Order, his intentions excusable because of his need to best Kylo Ren and prove his superiority. One would almost think the film wanted us to feel sorry for him!
And, of course, Kylo Ren, who was given the most sympathetic portrayal of all – a man who took his master’s one moment of weakness as an excuse to kill his fellow students, his father and countless others. From the narrative, it felt as if Johnson et al expected viewers to feel sympathy for him and excuse his actions. Rey practically says as much!
This sympathy, however, was not extended to former child-soldier Finn, who didn’t even have a name till Poe gave him one. Instead, the narrative had him firmly chastised by Rose about the evils of the universe during the Canto Bight adventure.
His entire arc in the film is about learning to be a hero, apparently because in The Force Awakens he wasn’t one when he refused to fire on innocent civilians, escaped the First Order (the only life he had ever known), vowed to rescue BB-8 and honour his dead friend, stuck around to save Rey, fight Kylo Ren and then be injured so badly during the final fight, he is left in a coma. Finn being tasered for attempting to save his friend and constantly being belittled for enjoying the wonders of Canto Bight was a sharp dagger in an old wound in The Last Jedi. He deserved better!
I added up all the writers & directors who've ever been hired to work on a Star Wars film. The creative roster is 96% white men. I've got a bad feeling about this. Here are my thoughts (and the math): https://t.co/9v76Ljnmhg
— Mo Ryan (@moryan) February 7, 2018
Episode IX will have to change this narrative. JJ Abrams got his diverse trinity just right in The Force Awakens and presumably should be able to do so again. He gave us a believable villain in Kylo Ren, one that was definitely torn apart in his fight between light and dark, but who was clearly evil by choice and not circumstance.
The wilfully ignorant and dangerous acts of the good guys in The Last Jedi portrayed them in a poor light but it isn’t too late to fix it. Have them repent for their crimes and the losses that have resulted from their actions, then give them a dangerous mission into the heart of the First Order. Have them come out victorious after trials and tribulations but let their actions inspire hope in others, on-screen and off.
For more like this, read about why the ‘Fat Best Friend’ trope needs to die.