We are on the verge of most anticipated film release in history, when Star Wars: The Force Awakens comes to theaters later this month. The insane level of hype around this movie is to be expected. After all, Star Wars is so universally loved that even its popularity absolutely shadows even its biggest competitor. The Force Awakens has massive cultural importance based on this alone, but there is another aspect of the film that has the potential to give it even greater societal meaning--its increased level of diversity over the rest of the franchise.

A Long Time Ago, In a Galaxy of White Men

The original trilogy was far from diverse, with Billy Dee Williams and James Earl Jones being the only people of color with substantial speaking roles, and Jones only voicing Darth Vader and never actually appearing on screen. Women don't fare much better, with a total of five with speaking roles that total less than one-hundred words outside of Carrie Fisher.

For some, it might be easy to excuse the original trilogy as a product of a different time and say that the lack of diversity stems from different cultural attitudes in the 1970s and 1980s. However, the prequel trilogy absolutely destroys any chance of credibility that this explanation might have, while revealing even more troubling issues. While there are definitely more female characters with speaking roles in Episodes I and II, almost none of them are significant to the plot, and by Episode III, Natalie Portman is the only actress with a speaking role. Considering the great importance placed in the Star Wars universe about the wide range of crazy looking aliens, the fact that, when it comes down to it, Star Wars is still a story about white men is not just an oversight, it is symptomatic of much larger issues within Hollywood.

Also incredibly troubling is the confounding amount of racist caricatures and stereotypes present. In Episode I, we are introduced to three different alien races that are glaring racial stereotypes. The Neimoidians of the Trade Federation display multiple Asian stereotypes, Gungans, especially Jar-Jar Binks speech sounds like a highly exaggerated version of African American Vernacular English, and Watto the Toydarian is like something out of anti-semitic Nazi propaganda cartoons. These failures of representation that these characters display is not one of omission, as the lack of diverse casting is. Instead, it is actively offensive.

Fortunately, this time around Star Wars seems to finally be headed down a better track with a substantially more diverse cast, both in terms of race and gender. Of the actors cast for new characters in The Force Awakens, very few are white men. In fact, among those actors, only Domhnall Gleeson as General Hux is playing a character that is not either CGI or wearing a mask, as Adam Driver as Kylo Ren and Andy Serkis as Supreme Leader Snoke are.

Movies seem to be getting better about diversity, but there is still tons of ground to be made up, especially at the top of the box office. USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism conducted a study examining portrayals of race, gender, and LGBT status in the top 100 grossing films of each year from 2007 to 2014, and the results were quite abysmal. In the 700 films looked at for this study, only 30.2% of the 30,835 speaking characters were female, and only 11% of these films had casts where female characters had around half of the speaking roles. In terms of race, 73.1% of characters were white, with all other race/ethnicities making up the other 26.9%.

Representation is not only about the number of people from diverse demographics on the screen, however. Even with its diverse cast, if The Force Awakens is still full of the same horribly stereotypical characters that The Phantom Menace was, then it is no better, if not worse, than not having these characters at all. It is incredibly important that Star Wars not only leaves these types of portrayals behind, but actively goes against them by creating diverse characters that are fully fleshed out and stand on traits outside of their race and gender. In the past, Star Wars has come incredibly close to achieving this with certain characters, but has found ways to fall short overall.

Princess Leia is constantly inverting gender norms throughout the original trilogy, but in Return of the Jedi, she is still highly sexualized and objectified after being captured by Jabba the Hutt and turned into a sex slave. Yes, she does overcome this and ends up literally using the chain that binds her as a weapon against her oppressor. However, the positive impact that this might have is still overshadowed by sexualized imagery, especially considering its use as a major marketing point for the film before its release. The lasting legacy of Leia being captured in Return of the Jedi is not her killing Jabba or helping lead the ground assault on The Death Star's shield generator. It is of the gold metal bikini.

Fortunately, there are rumors that Disney is phasing "Slave Leia" imagery out of merchandise to permanently retire it. This is a hugely important step for Disney to take (if the rumors are indeed true). It shows that there is a much higher level of awareness and sensitivity about women's place within the franchise. Because, regardless of how iconic this image is, the reality is that sex trafficking is a very real and terrible issue, and should never be exploited or used to market Star Wars.

A New Hope Awakens

Signs seem to say that The Force Awakens will be giving us much better representations of women and people of color. This doesn't stop with simply having a greater number of these roles, but also the types of roles available for these actors and actresses. In The Force Awakens, we have actors from underrepresented groups in roles across the spectrum of the light and dark side, including all three of our new major protagonists with Daisy Ridley as Rey, John Boyega as Finn, and Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, to Lupita Nyong'o's morally unclear character, space pirate Maz Kanata, to Gwendoline Christie as the imposing Captain Phasma, officer of The First Order, aka The Empire 2.0.

The USC study shows that a lack of diverse representation is far from only a Star Wars issue, and therefore, the fact that The Force Awakens has a diverse cast doesn't mean that Hollywood has suddenly fixed its diversity problem. However, the fact that a film that will almost surely become the highest grossing film of all time has such a diverse cast has substantial weight when it comes to these diversity issues changing for the better. It eliminates any validity to arguments that say diverse casts aren't as marketable and having a mostly white, male cast is a better business decision.

The fact that the Star Wars universe is becoming more diverse with The Force Awakens is incredibly important, and is something that should be celebrated. However, this does not mean that Hollywood's diversity problem will disappear. Despite all the great moves Star Wars has made, even it needs to criticized and called out when it falls short, as the recent news that Carrie Fisher was pressured to lose weight for the film, just as she was when she first played the role. Because of this, fans need to continue being critical of the film industry when it routinely falls short, as well as support when improvements are made, both financially and vocally. This way, Hollywood will hopefully follow in Star Wars' footsteps, and we will continue to see improvements.