UWM historian takes on race, relationships, and representation in Star Wars

Greg Carter inset on Star Wars characters

The Star Wars movies are a major force in popular culture, spanning eleven motion pictures and dozens of associated television shows, books, comics, and other media. They’re also a mirror for the eras in which they’re written, and that’s particularly evident when it comes to racial representation.

Greg Carter, an associate professor of history at UWM, studies interracial relationships and mixed-race identities in the United States. He’s also a huge fan of Star Wars. Why not, he thought, combine his interests in his research? So, Carter is writing a new book that explores race and identity in a galaxy far, far away.

Tell me about your book.

Being a historian and writing about Star Wars, the fun challenge is to go back in time and look at it with fresh eyes. We’ve had Star Wars going on 44 years now, with billions in merchandising and terabytes of web conversations.

Part of what I am doing is going back in the historic record and looking at how race relations and racial representations unfolded at the times of the movies’ releases. Since in many science fiction movies and TV shows, race is hidden under other symbolic layers, it is not always obvious.

I think that the real interface has been in the stuff that the fans say, do and believe. This has been the nexus between the fantasy world of Star Wars and our real world of race relations in the U.S. That carries through to the current day.

The book I’m writing does have some analysis of the story of Star Wars and its visual representations, but I also look at the story of a fanship surrounding the movies. Minority fans are very marginal in that, unfortunately. Finding their voices has required more work than the mainstream, predominately white fan voices.

Does Star Wars have a large non-white fanbase? I think most people think of a Star Wars fan as the stereotypical white nerd who lives in the basement.

See? Even for the white fans, there’s a stereotype of what they look like, which isn’t really true. I think overall, the real fan looks nothing like the stereotype.

If it’s hard to see the white mainstream fan for what they are, it’s especially hard for writers to develop an eye for detecting the minority fans. I’m resistant to say minorities don’t like Star Wars or don’t like collecting, cosplaying, and writing fan fiction. Instead, I’ve been asking – how do they do it differently? What is important to minority fans? Where can I find their perspectives?

You mention there is hidden symbolism to denote races within science fiction. How so?

In the initial thinking that led to this project, I had a literal spreadsheet where I laid out every interracial and inter-species relationship I could think of in all of the movies. Whether based in cooperation, servitude, intimacy, or violence, white characters are the norm, are the most valued. Most other sentient beings are subservient. Often, when is someone doing labor, it’s a droid, alien, or indigenous being. Princess Leia even calls Chewbacca a ‘walking carpet.’

Star Wars is very elitist. Generally, when we look at them in a racial way, aliens and androids are non-white people. They are secondary to the main characters, who are mostly white.

What about among the main characters?

In the book I look at the idea of, was Darth Vader black? I look at the sources and the conversations coming on the heels of blaxploitation movies in the early 1970s. Hearing James Earl Jones’ voice, who was not a major blaxploitation star, but was in black films of that time, Darth Vader was not that clearly a white guy.

It’s very easy now to say, Darth Vader is Anakin Skywalker and Luke Skywalker’s father – definitely a white guy. But when you go back to 1977 and view Darth Vader as an original moviegoer might have interpreted him, there is the black suit, the swagger, and the very distinctive voice of James Earl Jones.

In the original trilogy, there is one black character. What was the fan reaction to Billy Dee Williams as Lando Calrissian?

It was incredibly revolutionary for Lucas to cast the African American actor, even that prominently. Lando was a developed character who contributed to the story. He’s in two of the movies, and he has a positive legacy. At the same time, Lando was a sidekick to Han Leia, and Luke, three squarely white people. I have not run across backlash to Billy Dee Williams’ casting. That kind of reactionary, hostile attitude seems to take off later with the prequel movies.

The most recent Star Wars movies feature actors of several different races. What has fan reaction been to the new casting?

George Lucas is, I believe, a regular guy who absorbed the well-meaning thoughtlessness of the time and didn’t put in a minority actor until the second movie. I think a lot of his work since then has been trying to remedy that.

The prequel movies (1999-2005) had a lot of diversity – more minority characters, more speaking aliens. Lucas did stumble here and there, but I think the prequels are far more diverse than the originals. And the sequels (2015-19), definitely. A woman is the hero of the whole trilogy. A Latino actor (Oscar Isaac) and a Black actor (John Boyega) join her as principals. I think that, for viewers who care about diverse representation, the excitement going into the recent trilogy sprung from the minority characters.

There’s also been backlash.

Let’s talk about the backlash.

It was disappointing that the moment the teaser trailer for “The Force Awakens” came out later in 2014 and John Boyega’s face was up there, there was a voice in the internet that hated it and wanted to boycott the movies. Hostility increased for “The Last Jedi” (2017).

A scholar at USC named Morten Bay did a content analysis of six months of tweets and discovered that 11.4 percent of the ones mentioning the film’s director came from right-wing political activists, bots, and trolls/sock puppets. The total number of hateful, racist, sexist statements was probably about 21.9 percent, but it’s still enough that it’s disconcerting.

In the months following the December 2019 release of “The Rise of Skywalker,” it’s interesting that fans are critiquing the producers and critiquing representations and so on. I think a lot of people could tell that Disney and Lucasfilms kowtowed to the backlash and played it safe by dropping progressive storylines and sidelining minority actors. (Director J.J.) Abrams built up a lot of that stuff in “The Force Awakens” and dropped it when he returned to the director’s chair. That’s incredibly disappointing.

In fact, some of the fans got really invested in these characters and relationships.

Yes. The last chapter of my book looks at ‘shipping,’ which is a fan activity based on the hope that particular characters get together in a romantic way. All through the recent sequels, “Reylo,” the fantasy that Rey and Kylo Ren would become romantically involved, has been the prominent ship out there.

She’s too good for him.

Right? I never liked the guy.

I’ve been following “Finnrey” a lot, which is a dark horse in the realm of shipping. Even people who don’t love Finnrey recognize that the first movie did set up that Finn (played by black actor John Boyega) and Rey (white actor Daisy Ridley) had a deep emotional connection that producers later dropped.

Sci-fi is often seen as a pioneering genre – Star Trek featuring TV’s first interracial kiss, for example. Given the tokenism and symbolism, does Star Wars buck the trend of science fiction being progressive?

I wouldn’t go that far. George Lucas was a fallible creator, but the values that he tried to put into the movies are anti-militarism and anti-imperialism. It’s people coming together against ‘the Man.’ It’s planted in his time, in the early ‘60s and ‘70s and Vietnam, but also very liberating.

That’s a very different mission than Star Trek’s original series, which was pro-NATO, pro-UN, and pro-inclusion. Rather than ranking them as more or less progressive, I think it’s better to look at the story each are trying to tell.

By Sarah Vickery, College of Letters & Science