“As a writer I was very hungry to create female characters who felt real, and I was interested in telling stories from an outsider’s perspective,” Ms. Hart said, recalling Hollywood in the early 2000s. “There wasn’t a lot of receptivity to the things I really wanted to write about at the time. I think there is increasing openness to those things now, which makes me really hopeful.”
Today, the Lucasfilm story group is a diverse outlier in Hollywood: five of its members are people of color, and the team includes four women and seven men. This is a rarity in 2017, where women account for 13 percent, and minorities represent 5 percent, of all writers working on the top-grossing films. In addition to maintaining the continuity of the “Star Wars” universe, they aim to increase its diversity. This goal has sometimes led to struggles over their female characters.
Early on, the story group fought for the character Ahsoka Tano, a 14-year-old girl created by George Lucas and further developed by the director, producer and writer Dave Filoni. Not initially popular, she had a high, whiny voice and all the self-control of a bratty teenager when she was introduced in 2008 in the animated film and subsequent series “The Clone Wars.” In his review, Roger Ebert called her “annoying,” and angry letters and emails flooded in from fans.
Yet Mr. Filoni and the story group were insistent that there was more to Ahsoka Tano. Even after the series was canceled in 2013, the team would not let her die. Instead they included her in a new animated series, “Star Wars Rebels,” taking her on a journey from adolescent to compassionate 30-year-old adult, one whose nuanced arc reveals flaws in the Jedi order and insight into Anakin Skywalker’s descent. She now has a considerable fan following, including many young women who treasure their “Ahsoka Lives” T-shirts.
Characters like Ashoka Tano are gaining prominence in the “Star Wars” universe. A new, unpublished analysis of “Star Wars” films shows striking progress in their representation of gender and race. Using computer software that analyzes the content of movies, Shrikanth Narayanan and the University of Southern California’s Signal Analysis and Interpretation Lab found that women spoke 6.3 percent of dialogue in “A New Hope,” the 1977 film that kicked off the franchise. In contrast, women accounted for 27.8 percent of all dialogue in “The Force Awakens” in 2015. Even more promising, in “Rogue One” (2016) nonwhite characters accounted for 44.7 percent of all dialogue, a marked increase from zero in the 1977 original.
Dr. Narayanan, however, is quick to note that the percentage of dialogue spoken by women in “The Force Awakens,” while a peak for the franchise, is comparable to what his team found after analyzing more than 1,000 popular film scripts from the last several decades.
Where his research distinguishes the “Star Wars” saga is not in its lines of dialogue, but in the centrality of its female characters. The laboratory’s character network visualization software is able to tease out each individual character interaction. The more interactions characters have, the more vital they are to the plot. The team found that in the vast majority of Hollywood scripts, women play mere accessory roles, their characters inessential to plot development. In contrast, preliminary research has found that the “Star Wars” franchise has an unusually high degree of female centrality, indistinguishable from that of men in the films, and one that appears to be increasing over time.
While writing “The Last Jedi,” the writer-director Rian Johnson moved to San Francisco, spending three months working closely with the story group to develop ideas for the film. Ms. Hart credits Mr. Johnson with the decision to introduce diverse characters for “The Last Jedi.” Of the new cast members, several are women, including Rose Tico, played by Kelly Marie Tran, the first Asian-American women to star in the saga.
“The characters that end up on screen are there because there is a groundswell of energy around this idea of creating a more honest reflection of the world around us,” Ms. Hart said, “and it’s coming from people all over the process. That feels miraculous, and really hopeful, not just for ‘Star Wars,’ but for movies in general.”
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