I fell in love with Star Wars at the library.
The films had been at the edge of my consciousness for most of my childhood—how could I avoid them? The special editions were re-released in theaters the year I turned seven; though I did not see them then, my sister had plenty of action figures and toy lightsabers that I promptly stole for my own purposes. I watched Return of the Jedi at a sleepover when I was eight, but it failed to make a lasting impression (the only part I paid any attention to was Leia strangling Jabba the Hutt). The following year, The Phantom Menace came out, and this time, something was different. Perhaps it was the magic of the theater, but I fell in love with Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and especially Queen Amidala. I wanted to be her; I wanted to learn everything about her. And at the library, I discovered that I could.
“I am Amidala, Queen of Naboo. I am fourteen years old. I did not get to be Queen by being intimidated.”
Jude Watson penned Queen Amidala’s journal, Princess Leia’s journal, and more than two dozen other middle-grade Star Wars novels that I eagerly consumed over the next three years. Of course I grew to love the films of the original trilogy (Return of the Jedi, ironically, would become my favorite), but the tie-in books—commonly known to fans as the extended universe—became my whole world. Through them, I learned of Padmé Amidala’s friendships and insecurities; I felt the grief and horror inflicted upon Leia during her captivity on the Death Star and Alderaan’s destruction. I met Leia and Han’s children and grew up with them at the Jedi Academy, and I saw Leia’s efforts to build a new government then tried (and failed) to copy her diplomatic skills in debate club. The novels filled in gaps that the films never could, providing an emotional depth that, with a few exceptions, the original trilogy always lacked. They cured the Star Wars universe of its Smurfette syndrome and gave me a whole slew of female characters to love and admire, from Jedi to smugglers to ruthless politicians. Even as I grew up and the expanded universe timeline went increasingly off the rails (let’s not talk about the Yuuzhan Vong), those favorite books stayed on my shelves through college and my early twenties.
Then, in 2014, Lucasfilm rebranded all expanded universe books as “Legends” and declared them noncanonical. It gave Star Wars clean slate for the new, upcoming trilogy, a chance to tighten and recanonize the vast and often contradictory stories that made up Legends.
I was furious. I was convinced that nothing could match my love for the stories of Legends, that they would ruin everything I’d loved about Star Wars.
I was wrong.
Nostalgia is a funny beast—its rose-colored glasses can make you forget the flaws of something you loved, while elevating its strengths to a pedestal that perhaps it doesn’t deserve. I will always love Legends for what it gave to me as a child and teenager, but there were limits to its forms of representation. Like the Star Wars films themselves, their casts were overwhelmingly white and completely heterosexual. Their portrayals of disability fed into internalized ableism I’m still struggling to overcome. Yet in the depths of my nostalgia, I only focused on what they did give me, and didn’t stop to consider that the new expanded universe could provide me and other marginalized fans the kind of representation we’ve always lacked in Star Wars.
I am so happy that I gave the new expanded universe a chance, because it has gone above and beyond in ways that Legends never did. Through their TV series, novels, and comic books, the new expanded universe gives fans a chance to see themselves. It shows them that they matter in a universe far more vast and varied than our own.
Growing up, Legends drew me in with its wide array of nuanced, capable female characters. Unsurprisingly, my favorites were two women of color in Jude Watson’s Jedi Apprentice series: the Jedi Masters Tahl and Adi Gallia. Tahl, especially, meant everything to me. She was a disabled woman of color, with skin like mine, and she was everything I thought I needed in a hero. But there were many ways in which her portrayal fell short: as a Jedi, the Force gave her an “ability ex machina” that was often used to overcome her blindness, and ultimately, she was killed off for the sake of furthering Qui-Gon’s manpain. As an adult, Tahl is not enough: I need to see disabled and/or WOC heroes who take center stage and are considered whole beings, without the aid of the Force.
The lack of characters of color in Legends and the Star Wars films is particularly jarring given their unfortunate habit of using non-human species as stand-ins for real-world racial oppression, while their human casts and crew remain overwhelmingly white. The sequel trilogy has improved on the original films regarding race and representation: in casting John Boyega as Finn and Oscar Isaac as Poe Dameron, the sequel trilogy created a much more diverse core trio than Han, Luke, and Leia. But prior to the release of The Last Jedi in 2018 and Kelly Marie Tran’s debut as Rose Tico, even the new films were sorely lacking in terms of representation of women of color: both main female characters of The Force Awakens and Rogue One are white.
The television series Clone Wars and Rebels improved on this somewhat: Clone Wars frequently featured two of my other favorite WOC Jedi from Legends, Barriss Offee and Luminara Unduli, as well as Mace Windu and Bail Organa. All three of the human main characters of Rebels are people of color, although only one of the three voice actors is a person of color (Indian American actress Tiya Sircar voices Sabine Wren). That being said, I was also viscerally turned off by Rebels when one of the first episodes in 2014 featured the death of Luminara Unduli in a very intense, disrespectful sequence zeroing in on her dead body. It threw me off the show and made me reluctant to go on, despite knowing how prominently Ezra, Kanan, and Sabine would feature. Once again, the death of a woman of color in Star Wars kept me from feeling valued or seen within the universe.
After the premiere of The Force Awakens in 2015, I finally returned to the expanded universe of Star Wars, hoping to see some improvement in terms of representation. I was delighted to discover that Claudia Gray’s Lost Stars, a young adult novel following two childhood friends on opposite sides of the Galactic Civil War, features a black woman, Ciena Ree, as one of the two main characters. I loved Ciena the way I loved Luminara and Tahl from Legends, and latched on to her fierce sense of loyalty and determination. It was also the first time I could remember a woman of color as a lead character in a Star Wars novel, rather than filling a supporting role. She survives until the end of the novel, and though her future looks rather grim, Gray makes sure to infuse her storyline with hope and the promise a stark reminder of just how much had been missing from books of the past.
Ciena is one of several WOC protagonists who appear in the post-2014 Star Wars books: Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy stars Rae Sloane, an admiral struggling to take control of the Imperial Navy following the events of Return of the Jedi; one of the most popular comic series, Dr. Aphra, follows a scientist recruited by Darth Vader before she strikes out on her own; Leia’s adoptive mother, Breha, features prominently in Leia: Princess of Alderaan; and Justina Ireland’s middle-grade novel Lando’s Luck features a princess named Rinetta who proves to be more than a match for Lando Calrissian. Through these characters, readers—especially young readers—can see themselves in a way that the films are only just starting to provide.
Although the new films are improving regarding racial representation, queer representation still lags behind. Despite online fandom’s clamoring for Finn and Poe to get together in the new trilogy, it seems unlikely that Lucasfilm is going to center a queer romance in their flagship films. It’s a disappointment, though sadly not an unexpected one, but unlike twenty years ago, the expanded universe has tasked itself with providing queer representation that, prior to 2014, was unheard of in Star Wars. In this way, the new canon is providing even more points of entry into a fandom that, until recently, was entirely heterosexual.
Looking back, the complete absence of queerness in Legends is glaring: of the dozens of novels published between 1992 and 2014, I cannot think of a single LGBTQ character. I have always wondered if I’d have come out to myself sooner had I had more examples of queer people, particularly queer women, in the fiction I read as an adolescent. We’ll never know, but the compulsory heterosexuality of both the films and the Legends novels is fairly damning in hindsight, with even such minor characters as Wedge Antilles getting paired off in straight relationships prior to 2014. Wedge still becomes romantically involved with a woman in the new canon, but thankfully, other minor characters are heavily implied or stated outright to be queer. In Leia: Princess of Alderaan, Amilyn Holdo, the Vice Admiral who clashes with Poe in The Last Jedi, implies she’s attracted to both men and women of multiple species.
More explicitly, Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath trilogy features Sinjir Rath Velus as the first openly queer POV character. Although his relationship with another man is not the main focus of the novels, his openness about his sexuality is light-years ahead of the Legends I grew up with (and was enough for a bunch of right-wing trolls to get Chuck Wendig fired from Marvel). Daniel José Older’s novel Last Shot features a nonbinary character, Taka Jamoreesa, as a hotshot pilot who lost their family on Alderaan and teams up with Han and Lando while working as an agent for Leia Organa. Dr. Aphra is openly queer and has multiple ex-girlfriends (one of whom, Sana Starros, is also a main character in the flagship Star Wars comics). Queer characters are taking center stage, and perhaps just as important, are showing up as background characters, painting a picture of a more diverse galaxy where queerness is openly accepted as the norm.
While portrayals of queerness in Star Wars have thus far operated on an upward trend, providing more points of entry and relation for queer fans, issues of disability continue to be varied and messy, at times shutting out potential new fans. As previously stated, I have a complicated relationship with the disabled characters of Legends. Tahl’s confrontation of her blindness, for instance, was frequently a mirror to my own negative emotions and struggles with my hearing loss. It was certainly a more sophisticated portrayal of disability than the films, where Luke’s missing hand is replaced with an identical prosthetic with little muss or fuss, and Darth Vader’s cyborg state is overtly coded as villainous. But the overwhelmingly negative emotions associated with her disability left little room for me to interrogate my own internalized ableism. Furthermore, nearly all disabled characters from Legends were also Jedi or Force-users, meaning they had multiple ways to compensate for their disability. Ton Phanan from the X-Wing novels is the sole exception, but even he sees his cyborg state all too often as negative (and he dies tragically. Of course).
Such portrayals of disability continue in the new expanded universe: rogue Jedi Kanan Jarrus is blinded in Rebels, and relies on the Force as an ability ex machina to compensate for his disability a la Daredevil in Marvel comics. When he dies at the end of the show, his sight is somehow restored, thus “curing” him before his death. Furthermore, prosthetics are still portrayed poorly; the novel A New Dawn features an Imperial villain whose numerous prosthetics are coded negatively.
However, there are improvements and bright spots that give me hope. I could write an entire essay about Claudia Gray’s portrayal of Breha Organa, Leia’s adoptive mother, who is never given a single line of dialogue in Legends. In Leia: Princess of Alderaan, Breha takes an active role in her daughter’s life and in the formation of the Rebellion, giving us a positive mother-daughter relationship that is rarely seen in SF/F and is unheard of in Star Wars. But most important to me was the choice to give Breha a disability and have it just be: not a negative experience but simply there in the background of the story. Breha deliberately chooses to have her prosthetic heart and lungs on display, rather than hidden. And the unexpected, positive consequences of her disability are explicitly laid out in the text:
“It was after the accident that Breha’s heart and lungs had been replaced by the pulmonodes that still glowed faintly in her chest. And it was due to the accident that her parents had elected to adopt a child rather than strain Breha’s body further.
Without that one terrible incident, Leia’s life might have been very different.”
Disability within Star Wars is an example of the importance of pushing for more and better representation, of calling attention to the ways in which the expanded universe still falls short even as we celebrate the great strides it has taken within the past few years. Breha Organa is an example of disability I never thought I’d see in Star Wars, and I want to see more characters like her. It’s equally important in this context to push for representation behind the scenes and for Star Wars to hire marginalized writers to tell the stories of POC, queer, and disabled characters. The writers group still has a long way to go in this sense: at the time of this writing, WOC writers make up a tiny minority of those writing Star Wars properties. But the slate of authors is already far more diverse than it was twenty years ago, and one hopes that they continue to hire writers who reflect the diversity they’ve committed to within their fictional universe. In this way, the Star Wars expanded universe can deliver on a promise it has implicitly made to new readers: here, you are seen, and you belong.
While drafting this essay, I finally watched Solo: A Star Wars Story, eight months after it premiered in the theater. Mixed reviews and nostalgia for A.C. Crispin’s old Han Solo novels kept me away, but curiosity finally got the best of me. It was a moderately enjoyable film, but disappointingly forgettable. The characters who intrigued me the most were either killed off or shunted to the side (all women and/or people of color). The development of Han’s wannabe bad boy persona was fine, but not nearly as compelling as Lando Calrissian’s roguish charm. Woody Harrelson’s mentor figure was boring and predictable. Queerness, as usual, was completely absent. Ultimately, I felt let down by a Star Wars story that was, at its core, not made for me.
In some ways, this shouldn’t have surprised me. The original Star Wars trilogy similarly focuses on characters with an All-American vibe, whether it’s Luke Skywalker’s boyish enthusiasm or Han’s fully developed bad boy persona. But after three years of finally, fully seeing myself in Star Wars, whether through Rey and Rose in the films or Ciena and Breha in the expanded universe, a return to the old status quo was a huge disappointment. It reminded me that it was Legends, far more than the original films, that truly cemented my love of Star Wars and made it such an important part of my life. The new expanded universe has taken up that mantle and surpassed its predecessor in ways I never could have imagined (A.C. Crispin’s Han Solo novels are much whiter and fridge-heavy than I remembered). Despite the inevitable bumps in the road, the expanded universe continues to provide the representation that the films still lack. While a nine-year-old girl watching Solo might be as ambivalent as I was about Star Wars twenty years ago, the new expanded universe opens more doors for her than ever before. She can discover the wonder and possibility that is synonymous with Star Wars, through stories that were written for her. It’s not perfect, and one hopes that someday, the blockbuster films will write these stories too. But they are there, in the pages of novels and comics, and they prove to us that we can be heroes in a galaxy far, far away.
© 2019 Suzanne Walker
One Response to ““We Are What They Grow Beyond”: Star Wars and the Extended Universe”
Thank you for a great article. Your thoughts are very similar to mine on the Expanded Universe and the Legends. I’ve been perusing both lately and I’m liking the Expanded Universe more so far.