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Women and Non-White Characters Are Speaking More in Recent Star Wars Movies

If it’s at all similar to its immediate predecessors, “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” is likely to give more talking time to women and minority characters, who in recent films have grown more prominent in the increasingly diverse Star Wars universe.

USC engineer Shri Narayanan has begun harnessing the force of artificial intelligence (AI) to quantify and measure character dialogue, giving Hollywood filmmakers a scientific tool to increase diversity in films. It’s a work in progress, said Narayanan, USC’s  Niki & C. L. Max Nikias Chair in Engineering. His team of doctoral students have been developing software that can analyze scripts, identify speaking parts and cross-reference actor names with a race database to breakdown dialogue by gender and race.

A recent analysis of the Star Wars films, dating back to the 1977 original, “A New Hope,” shows stark advancement for women and minorities in a franchise with global cultural power.

According to the analysis, all of the dialogue in “A New Hope,” written and directed by George Lucas, was spoken by white (and mostly male) characters. It wasn’t until “The Empire Strikes Back” in 1980 that a non-white character had any speaking time: Lando Calrissian, played by Billy Dee Williams.

In 2015’s “The Force Awakens,” the amount of female-driven dialogue more than tripled from 6.3% in “A New Hope” to nearly 28%. Moreover, the dialogue in the “Force Awakens” passed the Bechdel test, which asks whether a work of fiction features at least two women speaking to each other about something other than a man, a test “Force Awakens” passed. “A New Hope” did not. “The Force Awakens” also expanded racial diversity. Non-white speaking dialogue accounted for roughly 40% of all lines.

“The Last Jedi,” bowing Dec. 15, brings back Daisy Ridley, John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Gwendoline Christie, and will introduce Kelly Marie Tran, a Vietnamese-American actor, who is bringing visibility to Asian actors who have long struggled to win meaningful roles on major movies.

Because the Star Wars franchise has tremendous power to shape perceptions and inspire a generation of kids that see themselves reflected in a major film franchise, Narayanan argues that his software can provide a tool for storytellers to counteract implicit biases.

“The global reach of this media talks to people around the world, for years to come, for generations to come,” he said. “People still go back and see the first movies from the original trilogy. These movies also capture a snapshot of society as we are.”

 

The increased representation in the recent Star Wars features has not been accidental. J.J. Abrams, director of “The Force Awakens,” has spoken of the importance of diverse casting, saying films have a responsibility to reflect society. He has also been tapped to direct “Star Wars: Episode IX.”

Last year’s “Rogue One,” the first Star Wars spin-off, featured female lead Felicity Jones as well as Diego Luna, who did not try to hide his Mexican accent when he portrayed the character Cassian.

While “Rogue One” featured a female lead, Felicity Jones’ character spoke far less than male characters, who made up nearly 82% of all dialogue. The film, however, featured the widest range of racial identities, and made for the lowest amount of non-white dialogue as more characters from a range of backgrounds had speaking time.

“One of our motivations is to see more (diverse) representations, especially those that are facing children,” the researcher said. With media, “you create what this sort of norm is, implicitly or subconsciously: that women look like this or that mostly, these movies should have this type of race, but the world is not that way.”

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