Diversity Aboveground: Star Wars Heroines
Star Wars isn’t known for its strong females. The original six films have Leia Organa and Padme Naberrie and about six seconds of various other females like Mon Mothma. The new television series and films are changing that.
Tano became a fan favorite on Star Wars: The Clone Wars and now appears on Star Wars: Rebels. Being twenty years later, Tano has matured into a veteran of battle and one of the leaders of the rebellion. Her opinion is highly respected and she’s one of the most powerful Jedi left behind after the Empire’s purge. The reason for her survival is due to her leaving the Jedi order on her own after disagreements. She is also one of the few users of the Light Side of the Force to wield two lightsabers at once on a regular basis. However, she will have to come to terms with finding out Darth Vader is none other than her former master, Anakin Skywalker. There is also the fact that she’s not even mentioned in the films which has lead to speculation that Vader may kill her at a future date.
Maz Kanata is a new character in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. A member of a long-lived species, Kanata manages a haven/tavern for those avoiding Imperial or Republic entanglements. It appears that she’s held this role for hundreds of years. In that time, she’s developed an ability to read people. She can tell whether a person is lying or what they truly want or need. Even Han Solo holds her in high regard and she’s been entrusted with multiple relics, including the Skywalker lightsaber lost at Bespin. It’s not demonstrated in the film but supplemental material claims she enjoys writing poetry and painting. There has also been suggestion that she developed Force abilities along the way.
Her origins are “classified” which has caused wide speculation with all the possible hints found within the latest film and the newest Disney Infinity game appears to have Kylo Ren referring to her as “cousin”. Whatever her parentage, she has proven to be the most powerful of the new characters. First of all, she’s exceptionally skilled in the force; possibly from being trained at a very young age. Her mechanical skill is on par with that of Han Solo even though he has three times as much experience as she does. Solo is so impressed with her skill that he offers her a crew position. Her talents could either be the force and/or innate ability. Another rarity within the Star Wars universe is her ability to understand droids without a cockpit translator or protocol droid. It’s not just simple affirmatives or negatives but Rey is able to translate a complex thought that BB-8 recognizes her master’s jacket on another individual and believes he stole it. She’s also amazing with a lightsaber: the first live action female to have significant screen time in a cinematic battle using her lightsaber and not be cut down immediately afterwards.
John Williams also said of composing music for her character that “It’s an interesting challenge with her because it doesn’t suggest a love theme in any way. It suggests a female adventurer, but with great strength.”
Sabine Wren is one of the crew members on Star Wars: Rebels. She was born on Mandalore. While the name may not be familiar, it’s the culture responsible for the armor that Jango and Boba Fett wore. Unfortunately, the government collapsed, as detailed on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and Mandalore welcomed the Empire as the solution to all their problems. Young Sabine believed whatever she was told to believe until she became a cadet and saw the truth through the Empire’s lies. This is similar to Finn’s story but her decision to become a bounty hunter and live on the other side of the law is more like Han Solo. This career was short-lived because by age 16, she had already joined the rebel alliance. Her skills gained in the Imperial Academy and collecting bounties made her a weapons expert and she’s developed even more techniques and equipment by the time Star Wars: Rebels occurs. However, what sets her apart the most is that she uses her military knowledge to make street art. The Star Wars equivalent of Banksy is a woman. Her “favorite art tool” are thermal detonators rigged to explode with color. She also modified a fire extinguisher into a high capacity aerosol paint sprayer. Her street art uses vivid colors to contrast with the monochromatic colors used by the Empire. Her trademark is a starbird that was adapted and adopted later by the rebel alliance as their official symbol. Joel Aron, who acts as a CG Supervisor on the series, described her as “She’s adding something that we haven’t really seen before in the Star Wars universe. You have a character that is expressively creative through art—whether it’s the color of her hair or what she’s done to her armor.”
There is a rumor that Felicity Jones will be playing Wren in Star Wars: Rogue One to be released next December. As exciting as it would be to have Wren on the big screen as the lead character, Jones’ casting would be a mistake. Wren isn’t Caucasian. Her skin is orange, her features would suggest an Asian ancestry on Earth and her voice is supplied by Tiya Sircar. Sircar’s family is from India.
The Seventh Sister
No, she’s not a heroine but even females can revel in the Dark Side. Her character was introduced in the second season of Star Wars: Rebels. She’s officially an Inquisitor: duly trained in the Force but without the Master scenario of an actual Sith. Her lightsaber is red and double-sided but she’s already been bested in battle by Ahsoka Tano, Still, it’s important to show females are capable of any role. Disney is also acknowledging her importance by including her in the Jedi Training Academy activity offered at Hollywood Studios in Orlando. Participating children can battle a variety of opponents, including the Seventh Sister.
In Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there are women in the latest incarnation of the Empire: The First Order. All different races are serving aboard the battleships and bases, including Starkiller. Captain Phasma appears to be the highest ranked and can be found on a lot of the film’s merchandise. However, she was only vital in one scene and her screen-time was limited. From a story perspective, it suggests that the First Order is still struggling with diversity. Females and people of color are allowed to advance but only Caucasian male humanoids are allowed at the very top and allowed to communicate with Supreme Leader Snoke. In stark contrast, the rebellion was first formed by three individuals: two females and a male person of color. Ever since, the rebellion has welcomed all genders, races and species.
BB-8 and the work that is still needed…
In the first three Star Wars films released, the only female droid was EV-9D9. She was owned by Jabba the Hutt to manage his droids and took sadistic pleasure in torturing them.
The prequels added BD-3000, a luxury droid. Yes, she’s a pleasure bot although on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, this amounted to hosting a radio show for the Republic. There was also TC-14, a protocol droid. The animated film that kicked off the television series debuted R2-KT: a R2 unit who’s painted hot pink. R2-KT was created by the founder of the 501st Legion, Albin Johnson, to comfort his daughter with terminal cancer and her name honors Katie’s memory. This artoo unit appeared multiple times on the show and is also seen in Lego Star Wars: The Yoda Chronicles. The official R2-KT droid was shipped to England for the filming of Star Wars: The Force Awakens and can be seen in the final group scene as the Millennium Falcon flies away. If R2-KT is the same droid in the new film as she was in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, she’s the first character to debut in animated form before appearing in a live action Star Wars film since Boba Fett in the Star Wars Holiday Special in 1978.
Earlier in the year at Star Wars Celebration, Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy referred to their brand new droid, BB-8, as “she”. Anonymous sources confirmed that “There’s never been a strong female robot in any Star Wars film. [JJ Abrams] was determined to make BB-8 cute and strong – and female. They want to appeal to girls as much boys, who have traditionally been the fan base. She’s going to be one of the breakout hits of the film.”
It sounded terrific until the actual film release when both BB-8’s owner, Poe Dameron, and Finn refer to her as a “he”. What happened?
“BB-8 was female in our eyes. And then she became male. And that’s all part of the evolution, not only visually, but in the way they move, how they hold themselves,” explained Neal Scanlan credited as “Special Effects” for Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Scanlan was in charge of the more unusual characters, like BB-8.
But how did BB-8 become male? Was it simply habit because of an overwhelming majority of male droids? Was it because everyone in charge of her performance was male? Was it because no one fought to keep her female?
What about the fact that all of the promotional material and previously released merchandise pushed Finn as the Jedi instead of Rey? Was it simply not to ruin the surprise or did they think it was easier to sell a Black man as a Jedi than a woman?
“Gender is a very fluid thing when it comes to a droid,” Oscar Isaac, who plays Poe Dameron, answered in an interview with Collider. Could this mean that BB-8 could still be female in upcoming films? Is there hope for more changes to Star Wars: not just the films’ stories but how they’re made, merchandised and promoted?
If you want to read more on how female characters have been treated in the Star Wars films, read Christopher M’s review:
What are you watching this weekend?
Next column will be about the males advancing diversity in Star Wars.