The Representation of Dr. Aphra
Months before The Force Awakens premiered, Asian representation in Star Wars took a major stride forward outside the entrance to a massive armory with multiple blasters leveled at a rogue archaeologist. Her name was Dr. Chelli Lona Aphra and all she wanted to do was liberate weapons of mass destruction from a dust collecting fate. Aphra, as her many fans reference her, was introduced in Marvel’s Darth Vader no. 3, written by Kieron Gillen and illustrated by Salvadore Larocca, as a soon to be henchwoman for the eponymous Dark Lord of the Sith for the twenty-five issue run of the series. Envisioned as an amoral mirror of Indiana Jones, Aphra was drawn as an identifiable Asian woman, representing one of the first times in the current canon that someone of that community was presented as part of the Star Wars universe.
Prior to Aphra’s arrival, that representation was severely limited, an astonishing fact given how much the franchise has borrowed from Asian philosophy and culture. For as much that George Lucas desired the Japanese star Toshirō Mifune to play the role of Obi-Wan Kenobi, as well as how heavily A New Hope leaned into Akira Kurosawa’s Hidden Fortress, the original trilogy is a veritable desert when it comes to Asian representation. Leaping forward to the prequel trilogy, produced approximately two decades later, also left much to be desired outside of Pacific Islander actors Temuera Morrison, Daniel Logan, and Jay Laga’ala. As a result, not until Darth Vader recruited Aphra in the March 2015 issue did Star Wars finally take a large step toward representing individuals of Asian culture and heritage. But Aphra was not quite done trailblazing her way through the Galaxy Far, Far Away.
Her popularity rising, other Star Wars titles wanted their crack at Gillen’s creation, and soon Aphra found her way into the main Star Wars title, joining Princess Leia Organa and newly introduced character, smuggler Sana Starros (herself one of the first identifiable African-American women to show up in the Disney era), on a Die Hard-esque space prison escapade. In the course of the “Rebel Jail” story arc, a past romantic relationship between Aphra and Sana is revealed in the midst of dodging killer droids and escaped prisoners. Both joined Chuck Wendig’s Sinjir Rath Velus as the first major LGBTQ+ characters in the Star Wars universe.
While Starros’s character has intermittently appeared in additional Marvel stories, as well in Daniel José Older’s Last Shot, Aphra has become the consistent gay icon of current Star Wars storytelling. Aphra’s popularity resulted in her own self-titled series, Dr. Aphra, in which Aphra’s sexual orientation was not allowed to simply be a footnote tokenism, but played a role in one of the series’ major story arcs through a romance with an Imperial inspector, Magna Tolvan. At this time, the only visual depiction of two women kissing in Star Wars belongs to this couple (along with a backdrop of exploding tookas). Likewise, as the romance progressed, Dr. Aphra’s writers and editors did not shy away from implying a sexual relationship between the women, another first for Lucas’ sci-fi creation.
At over thirty plus issues, Dr. Aphra has exceeded every other self-titled Star Wars series outside of those dedicated to Darth Vader (approximately half of which Aphra was featured in). Aphra, likewise, has appeared in video games, the collection of short stories,From A Certain Point of View, and of course, has her own action figures. Most importantly, Dr. Chelli Aphra is among the first characters in Star Wars to represent Asian and LGBTQ+ individuals, and she is not going anywhere soon. Representation matters.