I cannot count the number of times I watched Star Wars and its sequels when I was a teenager. As a girl who was also a fan, I took it for granted that women were not a major part of a science fiction narrative. Back then, everyone knew and accepted this. For a movie series that began in the mid-1970s in the USA, it’s not surprising that the movie is white male dominated, and features an archetypal hero story. If anything, much praise could be given to how progressive its treatment was of Leia in letting her participate in her rescue, and in giving her some power and agency as a political figure.
Nearly two decades later, George Lucas released the prequel trilogy. Once again, the primary characters in the story were white and male, but there were token figures of varied gender and ethnicity in the background. It was a step in the right direction. This week, the major stars of the next movie in the franchise were announced. A hue and cry instantly went up at the once again male dominated cast (at least this time one of the major players isn’t white). As always, there is one woman in the sea of men.
The cast list is definitely disappointing in its lack of women, but let’s pause for a minute and speculate on the plot. What if Daisy Ridley gets to play the protagonist of the new movie? In a post Buffy, CSI, and Katniss world, it’s clear that audiences are ready to watch women take the lead in fantasy, action, and science-fiction stories. J.J. Abrams himself delivered us Sidney Bristow, a character who could kill and cry and party with her BFF. Perhaps he will give us a pleasant surprise with his treatment of women in Star Wars: Episode VII, one which he has spectacularly failed to do with his reboot of the Star Trek franchise.
Another point of hope is that Star Wars is now a Disney franchise. Frozen is now the top grossing animated film of all time (not adjusting for inflation), and its protagonists are two sisters who end up saving each other. If we’re lucky, the studio has taken away the lesson that all audiences, boys, girls, men and women, will flock to a good story - even if it turns out to be all about girls. If we’re even luckier, this will influence the characterization and remaining casting of Episode VII.
Here’s the thing: in the rules of the Star Wars movie universe, the Force is the source of great power. There is absolutely no need for a person to be physically large or strong in order to prevail in combat (witness Luke Skywalker’s stature next to Darth Vader, or Obi-Wan next to Darth Maul). This begs the question, why couldn’t a woman be the strongest Jedi in the universe? Why couldn’t women be the principal actors in the story?
There are usually two types of responses to these questions. One is, “Who cares? It’s entertainment.” The other is of the, “Stop whining, girls. Be glad the boys are letting you in the movie at all,” variety. To the latter, I have no response because, well, I can’t think of how it deserves one.
To the former, however, I say that entertainment in the form of stories always sends a message to the consumer. People have been telling stories to each other, and especially to children, as far back as we know. Whether you like it or not, the Star Wars stories have become an iconic part of our cultural narrative, and they are sending a message to the audience that the story is never about the girl.
By now, the script is complete, and a major rewrite is unlikely. Switching the gender of the protagonist, especially after casting the role, is even more unlikely. All I can do is hope that the Force is strong with J.J. Abrams, Lawrence Kasdan, and Michael Arndt, and they have given Star Wars the heroine it deserves. The new movie is due out in December, 2015. Isn’t it about time we get to see a woman in the fullness of Jedi power?