Star Wars, Mako Mori and the Token Girl

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A long time ago, in a galaxy far far away, there lived a Token Girl character who was as good as any boy, but never met another female character for as long as she lived...

Last week, the cast of the new Star Wars movies was announced. And some people were rather unhappy. Because, returning original trilogy cast excluded, the announced cast featured 6 male actors and only one actress. Aka, the main characters of the movie will be all male except for the one Token Girl.

And the internet was rightly displeased.

Since then, rumors have spread across the interwebs that Lupita N'yongo will also star in the movie (I, at least, thought she had been cast until I did research just now), but there doesn't seem to be any evidence that this is true. And even if this does mean there's another female character in this movie somewhere (as some sources have independently claimed), that still leaves only 2 women out of 8 characters. Which is not exactly a stellar-ly balanced cast.

And, to be honest, this is nothing surprising. The Token Girl trope is alive and well. But movies had added a twist to the Token Girl to make her appear more acceptable. No longer is she just eye-candy, or just the love interest. Oh no. Sometimes she's the stereotypical Strong Female Character, kicking ass, making quips and wearing very little while doing it, but sometimes she's actually a well-developed, interesting and compelling female character.

The only problem is that there's only ever one of her. And we're so starved for compelling female characters that, when they're not presented in a revealing cast lineup like Star Wars, we even praise this lone figure for being a beacon of feminist media. We try to bend our (generally very low) standards to accommodate the flaws of the Token Female Character.

Recently, I've been thinking of this as the Mako Mori Effect.

A couple of weeks ago, I saw Pacific Rim for the first time, and although I really loved the movie, I was confused by the fact that this has been hailed as some feminist triumph. By my count, Pacific Rim has two female characters: Mako Mori, and the Russian female Jaeger pilot who has approximately one line and is never seen independent of her male piloting partner. The male character count includes at least 8 Jaeger pilots of varying plot importance, the commander of the project, a scientist, a mathematician, and a crime overlord. And none of those roles could be fulfilled by a female character? Really? None of them?

Yes, Mako Mori is a well-written and interesting character with compelling backstory and great importance to the story. And that's awesome. But she's still just one female character in a world otherwise filled with men. The only difference to lots of other action/adventure/hero-type movies is that the Token Girl is given a lot of attention and actually portrayed as a character, rather than just eye candy or just a love interest. And that's good (although not unique), but it doesn't change the fact that she's still the only girl around.

Hell, even the Russian Jaeger pilot fits into the Token Girl principle. Mako Mori is the Token Girl among the protagonists, and the Russian is the Token Girl among the background Jaegar pilots. Because to have them all be men would be bad. But one female Jaegar pilot... that makes it OK.

Part of me is reluctant to tear into Pacific Rim on the "progressive character portrayal" front, because it does do racial diversity better than most films of its ilk. The fact that Mako Mori is not only female but also Japanese is fantastic, and the movie actually passes the race-based version of the Bechdel test, which is as rare as anything. But that's still only two non-white characters with speaking roles, compared to the seven significant white male characters, while in Hong Kong, and a better-than-usual portrayal of race does not erase other issues.

Pacific Rim proves that the Token Girl is still alive and well, except now the media are even convincing us to defend it. It's OK, because that one female character had depth. It's OK, because the movie was multicultural. It's OK, because it did better at female representation than most action movies. People were even inspired to create a new feminist movie test, the Mako Mori test, because the Bechdel test was "broken" when Pacific Rim failed it. And yes, Mako Mori is a great character, and the rubric of the test sounds great in isolation. But we might as well call it the Token Girl test, considering its origins. It says it's OK if there's only one girl in the universe, as long as that one girl is given decent development.

No wonder Star Wars felt comfortable announcing a cast with only one female character in it. If A New Hope is anything to judge by, that female character will probably have motivations and a backstory of her own, an emotional arc, and lots of personality and spirit (at least, I really hope so. We haven't gotten worse since 1977, right?). And if you've got one of those, we've said, who needs another? As long as the Token Girl doesn't feel like a Token Girl, she can be the only woman in the universe.