When I was younger and playing at ‘pretend’ with my friends, I always chose to be Luke Skywalker. It didn’t matter if we were pretending to be part of a space war, were mermaids under the sea, cowboys in the Wild West or simply playing house, I always chose to be Luke.
I grew up watching the Star Wars films with my dad. I loved them. I even loved the prequels, being the perfect age to find young Anakin, like, a total babe, and Ja Ja Binks hilarious, rather than a waste of screen-time.
So it makes sense that when it came to playing with my friends, in a world of imagination where I could be anyone I wanted, I drew inspiration from Star Wars. The problem was that as far as female role models went, my options were limited to Leia or a few sexy dancing aliens - so I chose Luke. I wanted to be the badass with the light sabre.
It’s a controversial time to say I think Leia was a flawed feminist hero. It was of course to no fault of Carrie Fisher - whom I, like everyone else, adored - but her character was the product of her time. Despite being a rebel and rather skilled with a laser gun, even young-Mary was savvy enough to notice the bulk of her storyline revolved around a man, and being rescued. A lot of Leia’s character development is defined by her relationship with men, and in one of her most memorable scenes she was dressed in a metal bikini and used as bait (obvious fan service for male viewers). Creator George Lucas chose not to give Leia sexual agency, but instead forced her to have sexuality imposed upon her by her jailer. This narrative allowed Lucas’ princess to remain chaste, while also providing an opportunity for her to be stripped down down for the audience’s viewing pleasure.
But I digress, as someone who was permitted to be part of the action rather than sitting on a throne Leia was a fantastic leap forward for female empowerment, but her plot still suffered at the hands of her creators. Either way, young-Mary had no time for bikinis, and couldn’t care less about love. So with no where else to turn, I pretended I was a boy and saved the galaxy, one light-sabre battle at a time.
This week I went to see Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. The film stars Felicity Jones as Jyn, the daughter of an Imperial scientist and brought up by a Rebel extremist, who gets caught up in the revolution. When I left the film, I found myself walking alongside a group of children around eight to 10 years old, all chatting excitedly about the movie.
“No I want to be Jyn!” one girl was saying.
“But I already bagsed her!” another whined.
“I’m an only child, so obviously I’m going to be Jyn,” a third shouted above the rest.
I can’t tell you how much warmth filled my heart upon hearing this. Once more for the people in the back: This is why representation in film matters! These girls won’t be forced to pretend to be boys, because a new era of film and television is beginning to provide them with their own bad-ass heroes. And in Jyn they found a powerful female role model. Unlike Leia, Padme and even Rey, Jyn’s storyline is free of flirtations and brewing love affairs. Not once is she forced to become a damsel in distress, instead working alongside her male comrades as their equal in strength and skill. She remains a fiercely independent warrior from start to end.
Her costumes throughout the film are also very indicative of the progress this franchise has made. There were no bikinis in sight, no skin-tight spandex, no conveniently places tears to bare her midriff, no virginal white cloth. Jyn wore sensible, uniform-style gear suitable for a person at war.
The filmmakers’ choice to cast a female lead has left a lot of men disgruntled and they are more than happy to voice their opinions. Scanning through the IMDb and Reddit message boards after seeing the film I was less than surprised to find plenty of people still having a cry about it.
(Note: These IMDb links no longer work because since writing this the site has removed its message boards. Can’t imagine why.)
“Of course, the antagonists are old white guys and the protagonists are all minorities led by a white woman,” one user wrote.
“The left's obsession with identity politics and continued hostility toward whites is getting ridiculous.”
A user on Reddit made sure everyone knew he was “really sick and tired with all the Female lead/Black guy lackey movies”.
One person suggested that women who wanted to watch a female protagonist must be lesbians.
“I really wonder if they’re in the closet and they don’t know it,” he wrote.
“It’s never been in a woman’s nature to be a hero for her man. Men are usually trying to save the women and children, and most of the time that’s what they find attractive.” (Note: he made sure to add the disclaimer that men wanting to watch male stars “has nothing to do with homosexuality”.)
Well, that’s a relief.
The only time these people seem to approve of the female lead is when they’re talking about how attractive they think she is.
Every time we shatter the glass ceiling the patriarchy rears its ugly head to let us know it’s threatened by strong women. I’m sure some people unhappy with the character of Jyn would probably claim they support female equality - but this only rings true as long as the women aren’t empowered at the expense of men.
It seems these commentators were all too content with the fact that every line spoken by a woman other than Leia in the original three Star Wars films makes up a total of 63 seconds. The three films run for 386 minutes. There are only three women with lines apart from Leia in the entire trilogy and it seems a lot of male fans of the franchise are happy for future films to follow the same pattern.
Thankfully, these same detractors don’t seem to be halting the progress of children’s television. As someone who doesn’t have children I’ll be the first to admit I’m not in the best position to make sweeping claims about the impact (or lack thereof) of changing themes in children’s media. But from an outsiders perspective, the industry seems to be making large strides.
Where I watched Woody and Buzz, Arthur, Bob the Builder, Nemo, an entire team of Mighty Ducks and countless princesses pine after princes, today’s young girls are looking up to Dora, Anna and Elsa, Peppa Pig, Dory, Zootopia’s Judy Hopps, Brave’s Merida and Inside Out’s Riley. There’s also finally some diverse representation, although there’s still a long ways to go, with People of Colour in protagonist roles in Disney’s Princess and the Frog, Moana, The Jungle Book, Big Hero 6 and Dreamworks’ Home.
So it seems, at least on a surface level, young women growing up in the 2010s have a fair few more female role models.
But while this is indicative of progress, change to children’s and adult’s media shouldn’t be mutually exclusive. Why is it that only when we grow up people begin to develop serious problems with female protagonists? A quick skim of the comments on the IMDb message boards for the children’s shows and films above did not reveal any angry rants about the ~feminist agenda~ or calls for boycotts.
I’m not sure how long it will take for strong female characters to be normalised beyond scrutiny, but I look forward to it, because I feel sick to my stomach when I think of those young girls I overheard leaving the cinema being told their new favourite movie is a “beaverfest” (thanks FamineX!) and that Felicity Jones’ “X-Wing call sign is “Muff Diver” (good one, BrownBoognish!). I want those girls to grow up loving Jyn as much as I loved Luke - except they won’t have to hide their long hair under the collar of their shirts to pull it off.