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Sunday, November 5, 2017

Meet Taris, the WOC-Led Planet that 'Star Wars' Needs

You've probably never heard of Taris. It has a pretty rich history in the Expanded Universe involving various ancient wars with the Mandalorians, the Jedi, and the Sith. But in the new canon, there are only a few things we know about it: it's an urban planet (like Coruscant), it's heavily polluted, and it's exclusively led by black women.
First: Star Wars is in desperate need of women of color representation

In the past few years, Star Wars has done wonders for its women and its men of color. The Force Awakens and Rogue One both centered on female protagonists and included multiple black, Latino, and Asian men in their supporting casts. But women of color have still been massively underrepresented.
Rogue One was led by a woman and its supporting cast included a Mexican man, two Chinese men, and a British Pakistani man
Last November, Just Add Color examined the history of women of color in Star Wars, pointing out that Lupita Nyong'o, the first black woman with any real part in the movies, is coincidentally buried under CGI as Maz Kanata. What's even more troublesome is that in the past, women of color have often been cast as scantily-clad, defenseless Twi'lek sex slaves. 

Other stories in the new canon have struggled far less with racial diversity among their female characters. Recent books and graphic novels have introduced tough women of color like Rae Sloane, Korr Sella (whose role was mostly cut from The Force Awakens), Sana Starros, and Doctor Aphra. The singleplayer campaign in the massively-anticipated Battlefront II will also be led by Imperial soldier Iden Versio, played by Janina Gavankar, an American actress of Indian descent.
Rae Sloane, Doctor Aphra, and Iden Versio
These women are beloved by WOC fans who can finally see characters who look like them in Star Wars stories, but the core of Star Wars has always been the movies; that's where representation is most important.

The cinematic side of the franchise has been moving in the right direction, just not in the roles that matter the most. The enormously talented Thandie Newton will be playing one of Star Wars' first on-screen black women in Solo: A Star Wars Story (assuming that her performance won't be motion-captured like Nyong'o's), and Vietnamese-American actress Kelly Marie Tran is joining The Last Jedi as Rose Tico, but both actresses only have supporting roles.
It's worth noting that when casting the female lead for Solo, Lucasfilm were considering a slew of talented actresses of color, including Tessa Thompson, Zoë Kravitz, and Jessica Henwick. They ended up choosing Game of Thrones star Emilia Clarke instead, making her just the latest in a long line of white brunettes at the forefront of Star Wars movies. (At least Thompson went on to star as Valkyrie in the MCU, another mega-franchise in need of WOC representation.)

The galaxy of Star Wars is supposed to be a diverse one, for both aliens and humans. Earth and its continents don't exist there, but we can still recognize different racial groups in the characters that we see and, most importantly, identify with them (as well as describe them with real-world labels such as "black" and "Asian," either because those are the races of the actors portraying them, or because those are clearly the races that they are modeled after).

Simply put, Lucasfilm is constantly designing new aliens, creatures, and droids to add to its mythos; it shouldn't be that hard to include women of color, too.

Now, back to Taris...

In Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Kin Robb frequently appeared in the background of Senate meetings, generally associating with political powerhouses like Padmé, Satine, and Onaconda Farr. The series' character encyclopedia identifies her as a representative of the "faded city-world" of Taris. 
At the time of Rogue One, Tynnra Pamlo (Sharon Duncan-Brewster) of Taris was one of many senators who were reluctant to strike against the Empire, prompting Jyn's speech. ("You're asking us to invade an Imperial installation based on nothing but hope," Pamlo said, to which Jyn famously replied, "Rebellions are built on hope.") Though her voice was a pessimistic one, Pamlo nevertheless drew attention from fans as the sole black woman speaking her mind at a major Rebel Alliance conference.
As pointed out to me by Chris Werms on Twitter, Taris' history of well-dressed black female leaders doesn't end there. Star Wars: The Force Awakens' visual dictionary includes Andrithal Robb-Voti, Taris' senator in the New Republic (and a probable relative of Kin Robb's) who was killed when Starkiller Base destroyed Hosnian Prime in the film:
No, none of these women are portrayed in a positive light. Kin Robb is essentially mute when it comes to sharing her own opinions. Pamlo is only used as a plot device to make Jyn look more inspiring (when it would have been so powerful to see her take a stand with Jyn against space Nazis). And to the best of my knowledge, Andrithal Robb-Voti has literally no on-screen presence whatsoever.

But this can't be a coincidence. Someone in the Lucasfilm Story Group must have decided at some point that Taris is a world in which fashionable black women – and as far as we know, only fashionable black women – are in charge. And the best part? All of this is canon.
(Well, actually, the Star Wars: The Clone Wars character encyclopedia is filed under "Legends" on Wookieepedia, so Kin Robb's association with Taris is not confirmed to be canon. But considering her apparent connection to Robb-Voti and the lack of any evidence to the contrary, it's fairly safe to assume that Robb is canonically from Taris. Either way, Pamlo and Robb-Voti are 100% Tarisian.)

In both the real world and the Star Wars franchise, women of color have a long history of being marginalized. Taris is a place where they're empowered, where black women seem to have risen to the highest political ranks not because racism and sexism were gradually overcome by their society, but because they never existed in the first place. Is this not a world that we need to see more of?
Ursa Wren and her daughter Sabine, both Asian women, in Star Wars Rebels
Truthfully, Taris probably won't be expanded on anytime soon. It's too much to hope that we'll ever learn more about its culture that seems to favor females. And obviously "black women" and "women of color" are not interchangeable terms; a whole movie centered on Taris still wouldn't rectify the lack of representation for other non-white women.

But if a place like Taris can exist, couldn't there be worlds out there exclusively ruled by Asian, Hispanic, Latina, Middle-Eastern, or indigenous women as well? Maybe they, too, have been lurking just below the surface, waiting for fans to discover them. Maybe they haven't even been imagined yet. What Taris represents is a glimmer of hope that in five years, or 10 years, or even 20, planets like these will be at the forefront of Star Wars stories.
Steela Gerrera, a young rebel leader who was introduced in The Clone Wars before her death
Kin Robb. Tynnra Pamlo. Andrithal Robb-Voti. Remember these women, even if the franchise itself doesn't. Remember Taris, not as a mostly-discarded piece of the Star Wars continuity, but as one tiny corner of the galaxy where women of color get the representation they deserve. 

With any luck, they won't be in the background much longer.

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