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'Star Wars' needs a woman director, not the 'Game of Thrones' guys

Rey (Daisy Ridley) in <em>Star Wars: The Last Jedi</em>. (Photo: Disney/Lucasfilm/courtesy of Everett Collection)
Rey (Daisy Ridley) in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. (Photo: Disney/Lucasfilm/courtesy of Everett Collection)

Yesterday, Lucasfilm announced that a new Star Wars trilogy is being developed by Game of Thrones creators David Benioff and D.B. Weiss. In many ways, Benioff and Weiss are an obvious choice to rule a new sector of the galaxy far, far away. Their HBO megahit has shown their proficiency in building rich fictional worlds, juggling dozens of character arcs, and turning the politics of a fantasy realm into high-stakes drama (just as George Lucas attempted to do in his prequel trilogy). “David and Dan are some of the best storytellers working today,” Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy said in her press statement, and many would agree. But it’s exactly because Benioff and Weiss are the obvious choice that Kennedy’s pick is so disappointing.

When the Star Wars cinematic universe was relaunched with 2015’s The Force Awakens, it came with the promise of a new future for Hollywood blockbusters. The protagonist was a woman. Her co-star and potential love interest was a black man. This new Star Wars had female stormtroopers and a Resistance army diverse enough to look like the present-day U.S. Army, rather than the cast of a 1940s dogfighting movie. Those casting and character decisions sent a clear, bold message: Star Wars was not just going to pander to its original fans; it was going to win new fans, fans who hadn’t yet seen themselves in a Star Wars film. Lucasfilm had its eyes on the future.

But as the studio has rolled out more sequels, and more plans for expanding the franchise, one thing has remained exactly the same as it has since 1977: The writers and directors are all men. Specifically, they’re white men. The only contribution by a woman was Leigh Brackett’s original script for The Empire Strikes Back (which was rewritten by Lawrence Kasdan after Brackett’s death in 1978). That means, according to Variety’s math, 96 percent of the Star Wars film universe has been written and directed by white men. That includes The Force Awakens and Episode IX director J.J. Abrams, The Last Jedi director (and creator of another planned Star Wars trilogy) Rian Johnson, Rogue One director Gareth Edwards, Solo: A Star Wars Story director Ron Howard, and now Benioff and Weiss. It also includes all the writer-directors who were hired and replaced on the aforementioned films: Colin Trevorrow, Phil Lord, and Christopher Miller. At no point has a female director or a director of color been offered a Star Wars gig.

What does this mean for audiences? It means that the vision of the Star Wars universe is ultimately limited to one perspective. It means that female heroines are created in male imaginations and characters of color are seen through the lens of white experience. It means that for all their forward-thinking casting, Lucasfilm is playing it safe, just like every other Hollywood studio. And “safe,” in this case, means hiring the same white, male directors who already helm around 90 percent of Hollywood films.

This is particularly outrageous considering that Lucasfilm is one of the few major studios with a female CEO. Time and again, Kennedy has affirmed her commitment to putting “really strong women” front and center. She has said that diversity is “incredibly important to Star Wars” and “important to the film industry in general.” Lucasfilm’s story group, the team of 11 writers and artists who shape and guide the Star Wars canon, reflects these ideals: The team has four women and seven men, and five of its members are people of color. Onscreen, the new films appear admirably diverse. However, the direction and story of each individual Star Wars film ultimately comes down to the writer and director. It sends a message when the people behind the camera are as monochromatic as a stormtrooper in a Hoth snowstorm.

It’s not just principle that makes Benioff’s and Weiss’s hiring seem like an ominous sign. For all of their accomplishments, these two showrunners have exhibited a blind spot when it comes to women and minorities. On Game of Thrones, they have repeatedly (and notoriously) relied on graphic sexual assault as a plot device, leaving few female characters spared. A female writer or director might have helped steer the story away from this but in eight years of Game of Thrones, Benioff and Weiss have hired only one woman director (out of 19) and two female writers (neither of whom worked on the last three seasons).

Similarly, the duo’s treatment of nonwhite characters has been widely criticized, with the few actors of color on Games of Thrones exoticized, portrayed as primitives or slaves, or pushed to the margins of white characters’ stories. Benioff and Weiss also came under fire for their planned HBO series Confederate, an alternate-history drama in which the South won the Civil War and slavery still exists; worse, they seemed baffled by the inevitable backlash. All of which is to say, these guys aren’t exactly forward-thinking.

What they are is popular. Stark and Targaryen sigils are stiff competition for Jedi and Sith symbols in the geek-merchandise market. The show draws a massive audience of both casual viewers and die-hard fans. And those fans, according to a widely published survey, are mostly men.

Granted, there’s other data showing that women make up as much as 44 percent of the Game of Thrones audience. But one has to wonder: Is Kennedy hiring Benioff and Weiss as a concession to a certain group of fans? Perhaps the same group of fans who conspired to torpedo The Last Jedi’s Rotten Tomatoes ranking because the film offended their alt-right ideals of masculine domination and white supremacy? (A quick search turns up plenty of evidence that the alt-right is pretty into Game of Thrones.)

It would be a crushing disappointment if Kennedy is truly trying to win back the small, vocal group of fans nostalgic for a white, male-dominated Star Wars. Because in the end, she doesn’t need them. Star Wars is popular on a scale that no other film property has achieved. The Last Jedi made more than a billion dollars in less than three weeks, even with the overpublicized backlash. Yes, that popularity is partially nostalgia. But as the producers behind many a failed reboot know, nostalgia takes a film only partway. Star Wars remains a vital property because the new films are telling a bigger story. They promise a fantasy universe that’s more vast and inclusive than moviegoers have ever seen before, one where every child can look up at the screen and see himself, or herself, in a Jedi warrior. There are so many directors who could take it there; Johnson himself has suggested Ava DuVernay, Gina Prince-Bythewood, and Karyn Kusama. It’s time for Kennedy to seek out a new kind of visionary for Star Wars. After all, as Luke Skywalker learned in A New Hope, the universe is much bigger than a white boy’s dreams.

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