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Why Star Wars’ Increased Female Representation Is Important

Why Star Wars’ Increased Female Representation Is Important

Rey and Jyn Erso

Some of my strongest and most cherished memories growing up are connected to Star Wars. Star Wars provided me with a wealth of characters to idolize and pretend to be. As a white male, the archetypes within these films indicated nothing short of my ability to be anything I wanted. After all, everyone looked like me.

For a girl watching Star Wars, however, options were substantially more limited. While, yes, Leia is a strong and interesting character, she’s still the only substantial female character in the original trilogy. Since the release of The Force Awakens, followed by the first trailer for Rogue One, things have been looking more positive in this realm, however, which has led me to have many discussions with women in my life about how important the increased female representation in the franchise is and how their experiences differ from my own incredibly privileged one.

To look at this more deeply, I talked with two women I know who are around my same age but had entirely different levels of interest in Star Wars growing up, as well as one who is old enough to have experienced Star Wars since the beginning.

Anja Crocker is a photographer who just graduated from Boise State University and also happens to be my wonderful girlfriend. Erin Nelson is a 25-year-old musician, writer, cat mom, and marketing expert living in Boise, ID. We play together in the band We Are Apes, where she composes, sings lead, and plays keyboard. Patty Evans is my mom. She’s a teacher in a deaf and hard-of-hearing program, and is on the verge of a well-deserved retirement. Like many things in my life, she is at least partially responsible for introducing me to Star Wars as a child.

I asked each of these women the same five questions to get their perspectives on Star Wars and the importance of female representation in these films. While they can’t possibly be a complete cross section of how women feel about Star Wars, their differing experiences are no less interesting.

Zachary Evans (TMS): How would you describe your background with the Star Wars films? Did you grow up watching them?

Anja: I have a brother who is three years older than me, and loves Star Wars, so I definitely grew up watching them. Both of my parents saw A New Hope in theaters, so they raised us on the Star Wars movies.

Erin: My background with Star Wars was minimal. I watched the movies growing up, but nothing about them really grabbed me as a kid. I didn’t buy any of the toys or watch the films obsessively; I saw every movie once and that was enough.

Patty: The first one definitely fell into a wave of must-see films in my post-college life, and it was always exciting to see what would happen as each came out. I remember going to see them was a really big social thing, and there were lots of parties and groups asking “Have you seen it?” or “Do you want to go again?” I wouldn’t say I was as immersed with them as other people were, but I highly enjoyed them as entertainment. Eventually, your dad and I thought it would be a really fun thing to introduce you and your siblings to them.

TMS: Was the lack of female characters in the original films something you noticed?

Anja: Absolutely! When there is only one substantial character that is female, only one character you get to “be” when playing Star Wars games with friends and family, it’s definitely noticeable.

Erin: As a kid especially, I noticed it immediately. I was at an age where I started to notice overwhelmingly that most of the women I saw on TV or in movies were either secondary characters or villains. I’m an only child, but two of my cousins were born the same year so we grew up together. They had a much easier time relating to characters on screen.

I remember our moms taking us out to buy Halloween costumes. We were all going as Power Rangers that year, and, of course, I wanted to be the pink ranger (the only female ranger on the show at the time, I might add). My cousins found their costumes for the red and blue rangers at the first store we went to, but we had to drive all over town to try to find a pink ranger costume. They just didn’t make them even though the pink ranger was a prominent character in the show and plenty of young girls were part of the fandom.

That was probably one of my first experiences with understanding how media marketing is slanted in favor of men.

Patty: Oh, sure. Absolutely. It was a time when I think Hollywood started to realize that they needed to start appealing to women, but had no idea how to actually do it, so there was Leia and not much else.

TMS: How did you feel about The Force Awakens? What about its representation of women?

Anja: I loved The Force Awakens, especially as someone who found the prequels to be largely underwhelming, it was definitely a step in the right direction.

As far as representation of women goes, it was also a huge improvement. I am so happy to see a strong female lead character that is not being saved, but rather doing some saving herself. Finn would have been out of luck if Rey had not come running after him.

There are also countless female background characters that are not just weird sexualized alien women. Even seeing women portrayed in the background of the Resistance base, women in positions of power, is so important!

Erin: It felt validating to see women portrayed on screen in a way that enabled them to actively participate in the franchise for the first time. Rey is not reduced to being simply a “strong female character.” She doesn’t emulate masculine traits with her heroism. She’s a vulnerable teenage girl who cries on screen. She’s nimble and strategic and witty. She’s developed, and she passes the Bechdel test, which is a big deal for Star Wars.

Most of all, she is undeniably feminine, and she is the undeniable hero. The Force Awakens challenges a lot of the conventions Star Wars bound to itself, and it’s exactly what the series needed.

Patty: I really enjoyed it as entertainment. I definitely wanted it to continue and wanted to find out more about what is going to happen.

For me, I thought that Rey was maybe a bit inconsistent as a character, like they aren’t sure how to write a strong female leader, but the effort and intention was clearly there. It was cool to see them obviously stretching themselves in this regard.

I would say that this larger presence made me feel more comfortable as a female viewer.

TMS: How do you feel about Star Wars movies going forward? Has this changed because of the increased female representation?

Anja: I am very hopeful and excited for Star Wars movies going forward, and the increased female representation has everything to do with that! After the prequels, it was very easy as a Star Wars fan to be skeptical for The Force Awakens. However, using The Force Awakens as the new precedent, I’m so looking forward to whatever Star Wars will throw my way. What I would love to see next from Star Wars are more women of color as main characters and in positions of power!

Erin: I’m optimistic about the series moving forward, and that’s not just because of its improved treatment of female characters. For the first time, we also heard the perspective of a stormtrooper who became another undeniable hero. Finn is also an up-and-coming young Black actor who I’m looking forward to watching in the coming films. I think forcing the famed Luke Skywalker to interact with a young female Jedi is going to be interesting and worth watching. I hope the series continues in an increasingly inclusive direction, not just because it creates diversity on screen, but because it forces writers to tell better, more truthful stories. Diversity and gender representation is our reality as people, which is why I’m such a strong advocate for it.

Patty: I definitely want to see more. I’m really glad that they’re obviously trying. I want to see a more focused vision for the women in leadership in the films, so I hope they can do that.

TMS: What was your reaction to the Rogue One trailer and the fact that the movie will be another with a female lead?

Anja: I’m very excited about the Rogue One trailer, and the fact that the movie will feature another female lead, because I think it’s important to portray women in a variety of roles. The Force Awakens did a great job of that, between Rey, Captain Phasma, Maz Kanata, etc. I’m looking forward to the story arc for the female lead in Rogue One, but again, I would like to see a woman of color as a lead, and that will always be a drawback for me until it happens.

Erin: I’m excited to see Rogue One, especially because the writers of the Star Wars franchise are integrating interesting female characters into plots that many die-hard fans are familiar with. Rogue One will take place before Episode IV, which is pretty cool considering underdeveloped, yet interesting women like Mon Mothma appeared early in the series, and now we follow another rebellious heroine as she plots to steal the plans for the Death Star. This is going to force long-time fans to fold in these characters into the plot they love and know, and it challenges how we think about heroes in general. How many fans assumed the person who stole the plans for the Death Star was a man, and how many need to confront that reality now?

Patty: I definitely want to see it after watching that, now. I think that it’s great that they’re making another film with a female lead. If it’s done well, that is.

Anja’s point about background and smaller characters in The Force Awakens is an important one. Even in background roles, the gender demographics in the Star Wars universe has been far from balanced. Even this kind of representation is incredibly important, because when female representation is lacking even at this basic level, it says that women are not only unimportant in this universe, but they hardly belong there at all.

The fact that each of these women have the same takeaway from the increased female representation in Star Wars is telling. Regardless of prior feelings about the films, female representation in these films is incredibly important, and the improvements in this area are a welcome and refreshing change, and it’s something that needs to continue.

Obviously, female representation is not just a Star Wars issue. Its effects can be seen across a wide variety of industries and activities. According to Ohio University, there are substantially fewer opportunities for girls to participate in sports than there are for boys. This lack of opportunity helps perpetuate one of the most widely-used, (but deeply flawed) ways to defend gender imbalances: “Girls just aren’t into it as much as guys are!”

What more equal representation does, however, is bring awareness and interest through exposure. Above anything else, this has been abundantly clear when talking to women about their experiences with Star Wars. When women are given opportunities and increased representation, the misconception that they are not interested breaks down.

Not only that, but it also shows that, despite the opinions of the more horrendously misogynistic corners of Star Wars fandom, increasing the role of women in this universe will not somehow change or damage the franchise. In fact, increased involvement of women has been shown to bring improvement in many different arenas where they have been traditionally excluded.

For example, as the University of Alabama at Birmingham’s Collat School of Business points out, women have been shown to bring huge improvements in the business world, despite societal pressures and norms working against them. Why then, shouldn’t men celebrate the inclusion of women in a world that they want to be successful? When looked at like that, the only possible answers left are simply rooted in selfish and entitled misogyny.

For men, our place within Star Wars is heavily established and is continuing to grow with the new films. My love for the series was never based on the imbalance of men and women, and I highly doubt that was the case for anyone else who grew up a fan. Instead, what the wealth of male characters provided me with was a wide variety of characters to identify with. Playing in my backyard with my brother, I could be anything I felt like being, and that was a creatively freeing and powerful experience. I always wanted to be Luke, but that was fine, because he preferred Han.

Going forward, I am hopeful that young girls will never be in a place where they are Leia by default, but will, instead, have a variety of characters to identify with. It’s beyond time, and there are no excuses anymore.

(image via Disney/Lucasfilm)

Zachary Evans is a freelance web writer from Boise, Idaho. He graduated from Boise State University with a Bachelor’s Degree in English with an Emphasis in Creative Writing. He spends his time writing, reading, playing music, and thinking about outer space. You can follow him on twitter: @ZacharyMEvans

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