Hoth White: Why Diversity Matters In STAR WARS

Red Letter Media is wrong.

Though Star Wars Episode VII – The Force Awakens came out almost a year ago, its release hasn’t felt complete until just now. You see, it’s been years since Star Wars was on the silver screen, and in that time new traditions have formed around the saga. One of the most beloved—at least around internet film geek circles—is watching the guys from Red Letter Media heckle these movies to pieces.

Against all odds, RLM’s centenarian serial murderer caricature Mr. Plinkett has become the preeminent voice on Star Wars-related shenanigans. Using equal-parts sadism and story analysis, Plinkett laid the Prequel Trilogy bare in a five-hour long video series which has since become required viewing. And now, finally, the wait is over for Plinkettfans (or people who just haven’t been keeping up with our resident Hulk) to find out exactly what makes or breaks the new chapter in the Star Wars saga.

But there’s something off about Plinkett’s latest mega-rant. Maybe it’s the lack of structure: how it jettisons in-depth textual analysis in favor of tired jokes about dead sex workers, millennials and poor old George Lucas. Maybe it’s how RLM spends half the video’s nearly two-hour runtime reiterating points about the prequels, or maybe it’s how the only deconstruction they attempt is wasted on their presumptions about Hollywood economics and pointless fan theories. It definitely doesn’t help that they perpetuate this tone-deaf (even for Plinkett’s standards) old chestnut:

“However, in a weird way I think Star Wars has always been immune to the whole ‘race and gender’ thing.” (It’s at the 01:28:56 mark.)

Ah, the ol’ White Male Default. How I wish I could say I missed you. Make no mistake: that’s exactly the line of thinking Red Letter Media has to be using in order to come to a conclusion like the one above. The White Male Default is the only possible explanation for this.

For those not in the know, White Male Default is a symptom of white male privilege. You may remember it from hit blockbusters like “The Vast Majority of Hollywood’s History and Output”, “Boycotting Fury Road for Featuring a Fully-Capable Woman with a Disability as its Ostensible Lead”, “The Ongoing Unpleasantness Surrounding the Ghostbusters Reboot”, and more recently, “Tim Burton’s Inane Musings”. WMD puts its victims in a stasis where they expect everything to be white or male or (preferably) both, and anything that does not fall into this very specific paradigm suddenly needs a reason to exist. Subscribers of the WMD usually believe white men make up the vast majority of any world’s population, with the exception of dystopias. Put too many women in the background of a movie, or a PoC in a role that does not conform to the WMD’s preconceived notions, and the entire medium goes into anaphylactic shock. If you live within a Western culture, chances are you’re constantly surrounded by the White Male Default, and if you haven’t been forced to look closely at it before it’s probably still invisible to you.

The people who exist despite the White Male Default are forced into complacency by a media which constantly others them. Yeah, sure, they’ll enjoy some products of the WMD, maybe even obsess over them, but they’ll do so with the subtle acknowledgment that they’re always on the verge of being ejected from the art with which they engage. Settling with the wrong skin tone in the ears of your hobbit Halloween costume is akin to realizing your second-class citizenship in a fictional world. There’s already plenty of great writing and scholarly studies which explain the effect media representation has on children, so nothing I say here will be groundbreaking, but just know this: it matters. When kids—black, brown, Asian, or white—play Avengers on the playground and they all argue over who gets to be the African prince, it matters. When the streets get flooded this Halloween with Reys and Wonder Women and Katniss Everdeens, it matters. Even something as simple as populating a movie’s extras with close attention to the proportions of real America does wonders in breaking down the White Male Default, by imprinting images of humanity’s multitudinous shades, shapes, and sizes in the audience’s sub-consciousness.

In this aspect (as Red Letter Media’s review extensively points out—from 01:27:29 on) Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a triumph in diversity and representation, and if the promotional material for Rogue One is any indication, this is the permanent direction of that galaxy far far away. Star Wars isn’t even a great innovator in this regard; many studios are tailor-making their marquee franchises to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, and part of that means acknowledging large swaths of people who have been ignored or misrepresented. It’s been said before, but Star Wars, much like the society it was generated from, no longer stands to benefit from the WMD. There’s a new audience of young people whose approval Star Wars needs if it wants to stay profitable ten years from now, and with that new audience comes a new default. Technology and the general trajectory of progress has led to young people being more aware than ever of the world around them. Potential audiences who were once outsiders now have the tools and information to demand representation from the companies that want their business, and the kids who currently spend their afternoons on Tumblr and watching Stephen Universe are having their concept of the White Male Default slowly annihilated.

Star Wars is fundamentally a kids’ series. RLM seems to forget that in their next point, when they bring in “sex” as a weird foil to diversity (01:31:35.) To go on a Plinkett-esque tangent, I have to point out that the assumption that sex inherently leads to more depth in a story is a horrendously juvenile point of view, and it lead to WB Animation thinking they could get away with this:

RLM uses the example of the Original Trilogy to justify their bizarre point of view, despite spending earlier parts of the video claiming they want Star Wars to go in a new direction. Of course it helped add texture to Luke’s plight by saddling him with all the affectations of a sexually frustrated teenage boy; that’s his archetype and his story. Moving into the current era, not all young men have to be Pee-Wee Morris, and adding sexual tension to every male-female relationship is just as trite as another Death Star. At one point (01:35:10), they compare Rey and Fin’s relationship to the Kirk-Uhura kiss scene from the Star Trek episode “Plato’s Stepchildren.” The comparison is made with good intentions, but bringing in the racial, sexual, and gender politics of 1968 primetime television to contrast with that of a 21st century Hollywood blockbuster movie reveals the retrograde progressive undercurrent of RLM’s diversity complaints. They want equality to continue the nice, comparably inoffensive strides it was making fifty years ago, not the big scary changes the world calls for now. Things can be diverse, but “not annoyingly diverse.” Star Wars can take risks, but not the types of risks that don’t cater to white males, aged 24-49.

Red Letter Media’s argument in the “sex” chapter and their conspicuous non-argument in the “diversity” chapter expose a narrow-minded reductionism that seems to have enveloped the entire review. There’s a sequence where Plinkett questions the need for more LGBT representation in the series which is followed by a cavalcade of allegedly coded-gay characters from the Original Series. In all likelihood, the sequence was made in jest, and I’d even be willing to call it funny if it hadn’t been preceded by ten straight minutes of bemoaning the onset of diversity in their precious space wizard movies. It only made me think of a question: who ever said the characters in Star Wars have to conform to the gay/straight male/female binary? It might sound strange to ask a question like that now—when there’s yet to be a single main character in a Hollywood blockbuster who identifies as something other than heteronormal—but the doors to representation are opening, and if you don’t want to fall behind like Mr. Plinkett, it’s important to stay ahead.

On a certain level, I understand the RLM guys. When the days of a privilege you’ve had your entire life (the White Male Default) are numbered, it’s easy to get cynical. After all, it’s not like this happened out of the goodwill and generous heart of a boardroom in Burbank. The Hollywood executives have essentially been strong-armed into acknowledging women and minorities because of rapidly increasing profit margins. That’s why it’s no longer the exception to have more than one skin tone on a release poster, or more than one woman in the main cast; it’s all a long con.

But where RLM might see a con, I see an exchange, one that benefits everybody. Since representation is just more room for new perspectives, the storytelling possibilities are unlimited. Representation is still a type of risk, but one that pays off exponentially. When our stories no longer have to justify diversity, when they can finally just be diverse, and every child will have a better idea of the world they live in just by watching Star Wars, then we can say with some certainty that the chaotic bundle of art and profit called “the movie business” has worked.