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 bullshit 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 wanted to draw 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 she 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 she was used as bait, a metal-bikini-clad sexual draw card for male viewers. Creator George Lucas hedged his bets, choosing not to have Leia herself become a sexual character, but having sexuality imposed on her by her captor. That way he got to keep his spunky, chaste Princess, and offer up some eye-candy.
But I digress, Leia was - as someone who entered the action rather than sitting on a throne - 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 strapped for other options, 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 brought up by a Rebel extremist, who gets tied 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 this filled my heart with. 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 Rey in The Force Awakens or Padme in the prequels Jyn’s storyline is free of flirtations and brewing love affairs. Not once does she become a damsel in distress, instead working alongside her male counter-parts 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 telling of the progress this franchise is made. There were no bikinis in sight, no skin-tight spandex, no conveniently places tears to bare her midriff, no viriginal white cloth. Jyn wore sensible uniform-style gear suitable for a person at war.
The filmmakers’ choice to cast a female lead has left multitudes of men unhappy, who 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.
“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 that’ what they find attractive.” (Note: he made it very clear 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. Some people unhappy with the character of Jyn would probably say they support female equality - but they don’t realise they only want this as long as 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 ilk.
We are lucky the male audience doesn’t seem to be slowing down 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 is even, finally, some representation for people of colour with the protagonists 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 amount of 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 start to take beef with powerful female protagonists? A quick skim of the comments on the IMDb message boards for the shows and films above did not bring up any angry rants about the ~feminist agenda~ or suggestions of boycott.
I’m not sure how long it will take for strong female characters to be normalised beyond (mass) scrutiny, but I look forward to it, because I feel sick to my stomach 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 reportedly 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.