Space race: How 'Star Wars' became a battleground for diversity

Los Angeles (AFP) –


"Star Wars" may well be set long ago in a galaxy far, far away but it has become a battleground for a very modern debate over race, gender and sexuality that has sucked in fans and stars alike.

The new trilogy launched by Disney in 2015 has seen women and characters of color like Rey (Daisy Ridley) and Finn (John Boyega) take center stage -- angering a vocal, toxic minority.

Asian-American actress Kelly Marie Tran, who became the franchise's first leading actress of color in 2017's "The Last Jedi," was hounded off social media by racist and sexist abuse.

The saga-concluding "The Rise of Skywalker," out on Friday, sees black British actress Naomi Ackie joining as bow-wielding warrior Jannah.

"Being part of a team of people that looks a little different, that are from different places -- in whatever form that is, gender, race or whatever -- that itself is a legacy to be proud of," said Ridley.

Her words summed up the theme of tolerance, and rejection of online abuse, that dominated a recent, celeb-packed "Star Wars" news conference near Los Angeles.

But the filmmakers have also been fending off a backlash from the opposite flank, as LGBTQ fans grow increasingly vocal about the series' lack of representation of gay or trans characters.

"'Star Wars' is the epicenter. It was the franchise for millions of people," said pop culture writer Kayleigh Donaldson.

"I don't think that we should accept the absolute bare minimum of representation from Disney," she told AFP.

- 'Full diversity or nothing' -

Actor Billy Dee Williams, returning as Lando Calrissian, briefly set the internet alight by revealing he uses male and female pronouns when referring to himself -- although he doesn't identify as non-binary.

"So many of the positive reactions were coming from younger 'Star Wars' fans," said Donaldson.

"We have a whole generation of potential consumers, to use that horrible term, whose basic level of expectation is full diversity or nothing."

Noting the chemistry between renegade Stormtrooper Finn (Boyega) and roguish pilot Poe (Oscar Isaac), many fans have been clamoring for a "Star Wars" first: a gay relationship.

Isaac appeared reluctantly to shoot down hopes for a storyline dubbed "Finnpoe" in an interview this month.

"Personally, I kind of hoped and wished that maybe that would've been taken further in the other films, but I don't have control," he told trade publication Variety.

"It seemed like a natural progression, but sadly enough it's a time when people are too afraid, I think, of... I don't know what."

While such a character arc may have been too much for the traditionally conservative Disney, director JJ Abrams has hinted at some LGBTQ representation in the film.

- 'Table scraps' -

But progressive fans are reluctant to get too excited.

James Whitbrook, writing for Gizmodo, bemoaned the offering of "table scraps" of queer representation, pointing to a fleeting cameo in Disney's "Avengers: Endgame" for the Marvel superhero films' first gay character.

Others have taken to social media to call Disney "cowards," or accuse the firm of pandering to censors in more conservative markets such as China.

Abrams said diversity and representing the "underdog" was just as important as the franchise's trademark spectacular space battles.

"There's a movie that you know you're presenting to the world. And then there's the things you're doing, not necessarily secretly, but meaningfully," he told journalists.

That meant "bringing people together and seeing all oddballs represented," he said.

Actress Ming-Na Wen, who moved to the US from Hong Kong as a young girl and appeared in "Star Wars" spin-off series "The Mandalorian," said the 1977 original "fed so much into my core being."

"And I think everybody has that kind of experience with it. You know, it's magical."