The Nexus of Pop-Culture Fandom

Why the New Star Wars Should Have a Female Lead

Written by: Beth Woodward, CC2K Books Editor

I should just go ahead and put this out there right now: I am a huge Star Wars fan.  I watched the original trilogy for the first time when I was in 8th grade, and I loved every second of them.  I didn’t care for the prequels, though, because they lack both story and character development—things I consider pretty important to a movie.  Also, they just weren’t fun.  I felt like they were six straight hours of George Lucas saying, “Look what I can do with CGI!”

I don’t know whether my Star Wars fanliness is enough to push me to the level of “Star Wars geek”; the entry threshold seems to be pretty high for that one.  I’ve never had Star Wars toys or stuffed animals—but I did have the Star Wars Trivial Pursuit game back when I was in high school.  So maybe that counts for something.

Last week, J.J. Abrams was announced as the director of the as-yet-untitled Episode VII.  Before his film directing career took off, Abrams was best known as the creator of Felicity, Alias, Lost, and Fringe.  These shows all featured very strong females in starring or co-starring roles.

With that in mind, I’m just going to say it: I think the next Star Wars movie should have a female lead.

Point #1: There just aren’t enough female leads in science fiction or fantasy films.  Think about the science fiction and fantasy films that you’ve seen.  How many strong female leads—or hell, strong female characters—can you think of?  Ellen Ripley in the Alien films.  Sarah Connor in Terminator II.  Maybe if you’re thinking a little outside of the classics box, you’ll add Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games.

Now you could make a case, and a fairly convincing one, for Princess Leia as a strong female science fiction character.  She blasts her way out of captivity with the Storm Troopers.  She disguises herself to rescue Han Solo from Jabba the Hut.  She helps disable the shield for the second Death Star.  Not to mention that she continually holds her own against Han Solo, Darth Vader, Lando Calrissian, and a brother who has wildly inappropriate feelings for her.  I would argue that she doesn’t even come close to an Ellen Ripley or a Sarah Connor, because she remains, throughout the trilogy, defined by her relationship to the men around her: Luke’s sister, Han’s girlfriend.

Also, unlike Ripley or Connor, she’s never the lead.  Luke Skywalker is the hero of the movie.  He gets to destroy the Death Star and rescue Han and duke it out with Vader.  But, you know, really, shouldn’t be so bad.  I mean, guys should get to be the heroes sometimes too, right?  It’s only fair.  It’s not like women don’t have the chance to shine in half the other roles in the movie.

Oh, wait…

Which brings me to point #2: Star Wars has a serious case of Smurfette Syndrome.

It’s actually called the Smurfette Principle…but Smurfette Syndrome just has such a nice alliterative ring to it.  Basically, it’s a work of fiction that has one female character in an all-male cast.

Anita Sarkeesian of “Feminist Frequency” explains this much more eloquently than I can:

Let’s think about the Star Wars series for a minute.  Who are the characters?  Luke.  Han.  Darth Vader.  Obi-Wan Kenobi.  Yoda.  The Emperor.  Lando Calrissian.  Hell, even the droid C-3PO is male in appearance.  (I guess it’s hard to tell with R2-D2, but I’ve always assumed he was male-esque, and that R2 and 3PO were having the robot version of a bromance.)  The only female among them is Leia.  In fact, the only other named female character I can remember is Luke’s Aunt Beru, who shows up for about two scenes, says about four lines…and then gets murdered by the Empire.  Awesome.

Fast forward 20-something years to the prequels, and it’s just as bad—if not worse.  At least Leia got to be kind of badass, but Amidala spends the latter two prequel movies mooning over Anakin—and then dies!  (Of what?  Of blood loss?  Of heartbreak?  I never did get that.)  Beru shows up again, but this time she has even fewer scenes and fewer lines—but at least she gets to make it through the whole trilogy alive.

Half the population of the world is female, yet we’re virtually invisible in the Star Wars universe.  Which brings me to…

Point #3: Men completely, utterly dominate the Star Wars fandom.

It’s been more than 15 years since the first time I saw the original Star Wars trilogy.  I gotta tell you, they spoke to me the way that very few movies had at that time—or have, even since then.  Maybe it was because Leia was so fierce and kick-ass, and Han was so sexy.  Maybe it was because I had just lost my own father, so I got all of Luke’s daddy angst.  Maybe it was because they were fun, exciting adventure movies, and I had never been exposed to anything like that before.  It doesn’t really matter.  I fell instantly in love with the movies.

In those 15 years, I’ve met lots of other self-proclaimed Star Wars fans.  But you know what?  Not a one  of them has been female.  Now, I’m quite sure I am not the only female Star Wars fan out there.  But I think my (admittedly unscientific) sampling of the Star Wars fandom shows a pretty large gender gap.

Listen up: you want more female fans?  Cast more women.

Female characters have already made tremendous strides in the science fiction and fantasy worlds.  In the book world, we’re seeing more and more books pop up with female authors and/or female leads.  Urban fantasy, a sub-genre of fantasy, is dominated by female protagonists and authors.  (That’s not to say that urban fantasy doesn’t have its problems, but that’s a subject for another article.)

J.J. Abrams’ own Lost featured some of the best female characters on television.  (Hell, I would argue that it featured some of the best characters on television, period.)   You may not have liked all of them, but they were all complex and multi-faceted characters.  More recently, Abrams created Fringe, another science fiction show that featured Anna Torv in the starring role.  

My favorite television series of the moment is Game of Thrones.  Its ensemble cast of characters include exiled queen Daenerys Targaryen; the conniving Cersei Lannister; loyal knight Brienne of Tarth; and Catelyn, Sansa, and Arya Stark, all of whom are incredibly brave and strong in their own ways.   Game of Thrones excels in balancing a large, ensemble cast of strong, well-developed male and female characters.

I suspect one of the reasons women have traditionally been so invisible in the science fiction/fantasy universe is because it’s typically been thought of as a “guy” genre.  If you cast a female lead, it’ll become a “girl” movie, and men won’t watch it.  But the recent cross-gendered success of The Hunger Games, which featured a female lead, proves that’s not true.

I think the real reason men tend not to come to movies starring women is that most of them tend to be romances or romantic comedies—a genre that, at risk of over-generalizing, most men just aren’t interested in.  Try making a movie starring a female that guys might be interested in.  (And no, not a movie starring a female that guys might be interested in because she spends half of it barely clothed.  Something like Tomb Raider might nominally star a female, but it’s all about the male gaze.)

Star Wars, as I’ve pointed out, already has a large, primarily male, fandom—and all of us, male or female, are dying to know what comes next.    The reality is, the movie could be two hours of Chewbacca and C-3PO doing the Mexican Hat Dance in the Tantooine Desert, and people would still pay to come out and watch it.  It would get SLAMMED, big time, but people would still pay to watch.

Which brings me my final thought, point #4: Star Wars has nothing to lose by casting a female lead.

The audience for this movie is already there.  This movie is the cinematic equivalent of sitting on a gold mine that, magically, also happens to have flawless diamonds in it.  People are already excited about this movie, and it’s not even scheduled to be released until 2015!  Many Star Wars fans have felt increasingly disillusioned since The Phantom Menace was released in 1999.  But now, the fact that George Lucas has stepped aside and allowed someone else to take over the franchise has energized the fandom like I haven’t seen in more than a decade.  (More so, really—I don’t recall people being this excited about the prequel movies.  I mean, we already knew how they’d turn out, and I remember there being this general feeling, long before Menace came out, that they just wouldn’t be up to the storytelling standards of the original trilogy, what with Lucas assuming total control of both the writing and the directing.)

In other words, and to quote a completely different movie: “If you build it, they will come.”  It will cost the Star Wars franchise nothing to put a female in the protagonist’s seat this time around, and it may give Abrams and Co. a chance to put a female character into the sci-fi/fantasy lexicon that will rank with the Ellen Ripleys and the Sarah Connors.  

J.J. Abrams is up to this challenge.  Based on what I’ve seen of his work, I believe he can create a female heroine who is complex and well-developed, and who is not defined by the men around her.

But even if we don’t end up with a female protagonist, I hope that, this time around, filmmakers remember that we XX-chromosomers account for half the population, and cast the supporting roles and background players accordingly.  Maybe this is a reach, but I truly believe that making women more visible, developed, strong characters in “guy” movies is one small way of combatting the sexism that still runs so rampant in our culture.

After all, isn’t it time that our fantasy reflects our reality a little bit more?