Science fiction is a vision of what our own future could be; what we want, what we expect, and even what we fear. It is a genre of infinite possibilities, where anything you could imagine can be brought to life—as long as you’re straight, White, and male.
Star Wars is a massive franchise with almost limitless influence that has fans from every background. Despite this, the main characters of the current six films are all White, mostly male, and arguably straight. It’s refreshing when diversity is seen, when usually it’s left to “happen naturally” through “race blindness“. It’s especially refreshing when a character out of the typical whitebread mould is introduced to the galaxy far, far away.
Steela Gerrera is one of these characters.
A young rebel fighting for the freedom of Onderon, Steela is originally introduced as a romantic foil for Ahsoka and her inferred romantic feelings for Lux Bonteri—a subplot that still frustrates many fans. Despite her coming across as cold and a little arrogant at first, it’s clear that Steela is driven, caring, and while she can be insecure at times, she’s still confident in herself and her abilities. Even the other rebels recognize this, electing her as the head of their group.
This is no surprise, given she’s a crack shot and a born leader. She’s definitely a capable fighter even at her young age. Though young women and girls, like Ahsoka and Steela, fighting wars is a distressing idea when really thought about, both Steela and Ahsoka show that it’s not just men who can change the outcome of a planet’s history. It’s not just men who win wars.
This is as true in real life as it is in Star Wars. The news recently has been all about the first women graduating the Army’s Ranger School, though women have been driving forces for history since forever, from soldiers, to educators, to revolutionaries. When it comes to revolutions, Black women have, like Steela, been major players—though it’s not uncommon for them to be written out to create a more White-washed history. Characters, like Steela, both reflect our own reality, and show young girls that they can and do exist in science fiction universes, like Star Wars.
It’s no surprise that the self-esteem of Black girls and boys can be decreased by watching television. To see oneself be positively portrayed in the media you love is vitally important, and if young kids aren’t seeing this, what are they meant to think of themselves? When a woman’s importance is based on her beauty—that beauty being generally thin and White—in media, young girls will internalize these lessons.
Children see that. And if no one explains segregation to young children, then they think people hang out like that because they are different kinds of people. [Kids conclude:] “Black and Whites would hang out if they were the same, but they don’t, so they must be different.” That’s what makes them think racial groupings are important.
Then they start to figure out… “If White people are different from Black people, if Asian people are different from Latino people, then I have to figure out how they are different.” Nobody sits kids down and does this explicitly anymore—sit kids down to explain the differences. Well, except for maybe Neo-nazis. But the rest of us don’t talk to our kids about race–White people, especially; most try to pretend that they just don’t see it. So kids are really left to trying to figure out themselves what it means to be Black, White, Asian, Latino…
So they construct ideas based on what they see in the media, the model. And it’s implicit, not explicit. And it doesn’t take a while to look around and see that in the media, White people do better stuff than Black people and mostly the representations of Asians are so few and far between.
…By the time kids are six, the majority of six year olds know all the presidents have been White and men.
– Rebecca Bigler (via RaceBending.com)
Even when books, like Ender’s Game or The Hunger Games, write in better diversity, the films will still have ethnicities cast wrong, even the main characters. In the case of The Hunger Games, it’s yet another revolutionary woman of colour. Characters, like Uhura in Star Trek, have been major influences in both science fiction and in the real world. Nichelle Nichols appearing as Uhura inspired Whoopie Goldberg, who in turn helped to inspire Lupita Nyong’o, who will soon be playing Maz Kanata in The Force Awakens.
“Well, when I was nine years old Star Trek came on,” Goldberg says. “I looked at it and I went screaming through the house, ‘Come here, mum, everybody, come quick, come quick, there’s a Black lady on television and she ain’t no maid!’ I knew right then and there I could be anything I wanted to be.”
– Whoopi Goldberg (via StarTrek.com/Whoopi Goldberg on Stage and Screen)
“Until I saw people who looked like me, doing the things I wanted to, I wasn’t so sure it was a possibility. Seeing Whoopi Goldberg and Oprah in The Color Purple, it dawned on me: “Oh—I could be an actress!” We plant the seed of possibility.”
– Lupita Nyong’o (via Glamour)
Characters, like Steela, Black girls who do amazing things and are worthy of respect, are essential in such wide-reaching fiction as Star Wars, especially as the GFFA is not and has never been an all-boy’s club despite what some fans think. Let little girls see themselves on the screen, in the books, everywhere.
Steela is a hero; she may even be the hero of the Onderon arc despite the episodes centering around Ahsoka. Ahsoka is unable to participate in the rebellion against the Separatists because of her orders, and Steela is the one who leads her people to victory—though at the cost of her own life. War may cost lives, but I’m personally not a fan of her death in the story. Her death wasn’t even written as heroic, more as a failure for Ahsoka’s own character arc. Still, through Steela’s determination and bravery, Onderon became a free planet.
“I didn’t want to become the ‘Black’ representative, or some shining example of diversity. What I wanted, needed really, was to become an integral and valued part of the mosaic that I saw around me.”
– Walter Dean Myers (via the New York Times)
I’ve written previously about the importance of showing female friendships, and Steela and Ahsoka show that even if girls have something coming between them—like a boy—they can still form a respectful relationship. The Clone Wars shows that these two can get past an issue that is often relatable for many young girls in the real world. In a similar vein, Steela isn’t afraid to let her feelings show—a contrast to Ahsoka’s Jedi training coupled with her own insecurities. Steela’s affection for Lux and her love for her brother and her planet are clear to see, and she’s not ashamed of having these feelings.
Despite the writing’s flaws—or maybe they’re just my own biases talking—Steela is an amazing character who is a wonderful canon addition to the Star Wars mythos. Though she can only be seen in four episodes—episodes 2-5 of the fifth season of The Clone Wars—she is a powerful figure, and no doubt one that influences Ahsoka’s life into the future.
“That’s boring. The Black characters are always the friend, or the side kick, not the hero.”
“Yes,” said a Sudanese girl. “And if the main character isn’t White they never have any fun. Who wants to come as someone who doesn’t have fun?”
– Sam Hepburn (via the Guardian)
Steela Gerrera is one of the best new characters to be introduced during the course of The Clone Wars. She’s a young Black girl in a leadership position and a courageous revolutionary who helps to free an entire planet from the Separatists. She veers away from the typical Jedi and senator representations of women in Star Wars, with her expressing emotions and being unshackled by the rules of the Senate or the Jedi. Despite her death, she should be forever remembered as one of the greats.