In May of 1977, Star Wars, written and directed by George Lucas was released. It was the first film of the many-part space-opera that takes place in the past (despite the vast technological advantages). It starred Mark Hamill, Harrison Ford, Peter Cushing, Alec Guinnes, and of course, the beloved late Carrie Fisher as “Princess Leia.” Her performance as the strong, sexy lead left females cheering. She was a feminist as a product of her time, which was great for 1977, but 2017 requires a more independent heroine.
Now, 40 years later, young women need strong females in film more than ever. So how has the Star Wars saga changed to fit their needs?
Cue the scrolling screen for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (or Episode VII) filled with many of the familiar beloved faces, but oh, what’s this? “Rey” (Daisy Ridley) an orphaned girl who has taken care of herself since she was abandoned by her parents. She is a self-sufficient scavenger on the planet Jakku, a desert planet inhabited by dangerous cut-throat characters. Rey is fierce, unafraid and ready to fight for what she knows to be right, and as many critics say, she is the first feminist protagonist character. Rey is the first woman who refuses to allow her gender to get in the way of her story, she is a skilled fighter, and incredible pilot. Throughout the film there are slight comments towards her gender, but her abilities in combat bring honor to the phrase “you hit like a girl” and quickly shut down anyone who doubts her. With little makeup, and her conservative clothing, her power is subtle, but impossible to miss. While Rey is never explicitly labeled as a feminist, her strength shines through making her all the stronger.
However, as writers strive to continue the Star Wars legacy, their attempt at a strong female lead in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story left me scratching my head. Rogue One features “Jyn Erso” (Felicity Jones) living on her own, and not so different from our beloved Rey. Jyn has been fending for herself since she was separated from both of her parents as a child, and her story explains how the Resistance acquired the Death Star plans and knowledge of the weakness at its very core. After sitting through all two hours and thirteen minutes of the film, I stood up in confusion and shouted where are the women? alongside many other viewers who have been blogging about it ever since.
Even though Jyn stands as Rogue One’s female lead, the attempt to include women is disappointing. Females include Jyn’s mother “Lyra Erso” (Valene Kane) who dies in the beginning of the film after a pathetic attempt at heroism. Then there’s Rebel Alliance leader “Mon Mothma” (Genevieve O’Reilly) who has little screen time, and less dialogue than her male subordinates and there is Jyn, who lacks the independence and fierceness of Rey and Leia, and without the support of women around her, it seems she stands alone as a token female character and sadly, a cipher. Unfortunately, Jyn is not written with the same power and finesse as Rey. Rogue One lacks the empowering quality that Force Awakens effortlessly embodies. Despite Rogue One’s female lead, its attempts at feminism are depressing. While Jyn is a fantastic character, she is often the only female character on screen, and female characters in total are few. Even when surrounded by the rebel leaders, the lack of women is apparent, and appalling, especially after we meet such interesting females in The Force Awakens.
I get it, Rogue One had a set timeframe in the Star Wars world. The plot couldn’t have dramatic twists because we’ve already seen films that take place directly before and after it chronologically, but to that I say, so? This film had the opportunity to feature a lot more women and they could have been in positions of power. We could have seen more female pilots, more females involved in the Rebel Alliance scenes, even more female extras (we see you Ruth and May Bell as “Jedha Servers”). This cast was drowning in male roles, albeit the lead cast were ethnically diverse just like in Force Awakens and for that we are grateful, but there is no reason character-wise why half of them could have been played by women.
The female heroine has come a long way. And I mean.... a long way. From scantily clad bikini badass Leia, to humble roots bow staff wielding Rey, women in space are changing, and showing audiences everywhere that a woman’s place is, in fact, in the revolution. Female heroines are evolving for today’s needs, despite the occasional set back, in the way they are formed as characters, the way their dialogue is written, and in the way they are portrayed. Over the years, women have been desexualized and depicted as strong heroines and less like objects, but there is still a long way to go. The best way to keep promoting these female heroes? Keep making our voices heard, keep pushing for production companies to employ females, and female writers so that we have characters written from our own voice. This beloved saga has come so far in 40 years, but this is not the end, only the beginning.
Lindsy M. Bissonnette is a freelance director, and comedy performer/writer in New York City. She has an MFA in Performing Arts from the Savannah College of Art and Design, where she wrote a thesis on using improvisation in the rehearsal room. Before that, she earned her BFA in Acting and Directing and a BA in Communications from the University of Rhode Island.