The latest installment in the nearly 4 decades old Star Wars franchise, Rogue One, released last week and it has been generating a lot of very specific buzz. It is no secret that often times the franchise overall is seen as a sausage fest, i.e., just a collection of dudes doing some things while the women are relegated to the sidelines. And such a criticism is justified because while there are countless secondary media where the roles of women in Star Wars have been magnified and given center-stage, the movies have made no progressive decisions outside of the norm.
Today, while on Facebook, I came across a post from a female friend who saw the movie and was put off by the dismal representation of women in Rogue One. I cannot blame her for that. Despite having a strong female lead in Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso, she really is the only woman who is doing anything significant. The post has generated a lot of feedback from both sides of the aisle on representation in the movie in specific and in Hollywood at large, and I wanted to take a different tactic here, talking about how what we did get was still a bold move, and why it all matters moving forward.
Note: There are some spoilers from Rogue One here so if you wish to avoid those spoilers, please do not read the article. If you want to read my (spoiler) review of the movie, you can read it here.
Last year’s The Force Awakens was notable in that it gave us three primary female characters, with one of them being the lead. Daisy Ridley’s Rey was one of our focal characters throughout the movie, with Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia Organa reprising the role from the original trilogy (but as General Leia) and Gwendoline Christie as the Imperial officer Captain Phasma bringing up the supporting cast. Lupita Nyong’o was also in the movie but you wouldn’t really know it, considering that her character Maz Kanata was all CGI. Still, four prominent roles in the movie went to women, making a big departure from the previous movies where we only really saw Princess Leia and Natalie Portman’s Queen Amidala contributing as the major female characters.
The years have certainly changed the franchise. From the “acceptable” canon elements as defined by Disney, we have also had two prominent female characters in Hera Syndulla and Sabine Wren from Star Wars: Rebels, with Ahsoka Tano of the animated movie and series The Clone Wars rounding out the rest of the prominent characters in the “acceptable” canon. But are they really all there is? These characters have all found a home among fans and have proven to be very popular, high enough that many of them have becoming recurring characters and have starred in their own novels and comics and have influenced the galaxy beyond their lifespans.
Let’s just take what the significance of female representation in Rogue One is. As I said, we have Jyn Erso as the lead protagonist around whom the entire plot revolves. She is the audience surrogate. But she isn’t the only prominent character for we also have Mon Mothma and Leia Organa in the movie. As fans of the now-defunct Star Wars Expanded Universe will recall, some years after the events of Return of the Jedi, the Rebel Alliance manages to conquer the Imperial capital Coruscant and establishes the New Republic as the new major galactic government. And Mon Mothma, a senior Alliance leader since the beginning is the first Chief of State of the nascent New Republic. She is the senior-most government leader of the “free” galaxy. And eventually over the years, Leia Organa Solo replaces her in that position. That is very significant as far as I’m concerned.
Disney’s decision to declare the Star Wars Expanded Universe as non-canon is one of the most egregious mistakes made by the company to date. They have removed decades of lore and stories and then gone ahead to something like thirty years in the future after Return of the Jedi. There is so much that happens in that interim that we will never really know about. And this makes me really sad. Because this cuts out the contribution of so many wonderful characters. Leia’s journey from Rebel leader to Chief of State, her growth from just a Force-sensitive to a Jedi, her journey from being a young woman in love to a wife and mother and even grandmother. We will never really see it on the big screen. And the same goes for Mon Mothma who has been a defining element of the Rebel Alliance and the New Republic. Her journey from being a Rebel leader to a Chief of State, her mentorship of Leia and others, all of it is gone. These are characters from the movies who went on to do great things but most people will never know that.
And as such, despite them having only minor cameos in Rogue One, I think it is still very important that they got any screen-time at all. If the early success of the movie is any indication, making approximately $290.5 million in the opening weekend, then the concept of Star Wars standalone movies is a hit. What is to stop Disney from making more such movies? A stand-alone movie set after the fall of Coruscant in which Mon Mothma and Leia struggle to rebuild the galactic government while under assault by detractors from within and enemies from without would be something I’d love to see.
But why limit ourselves to just these women? They are prominent from the beginning, but they are hardly the ones who should have to continue the torch for women in the franchise. Both Sabine and Hera are still alive and kicking during the events of Rogue One and once the animated series is complete, perhaps something can be made of them as well, presenting us with the first non-human leading female character in Hera. That would be a kicker. Or how about covering the early life of Mara Jade? She was an SWEU character who was introduced as one of Emperor Palpatine’s secret Force-using assassins who later on goes to become a smuggler and eventually becomes a defining member of the Skywalker-Solo clan. Or what about giving us some more action-focused movies in the form of adaptations of the X-wing novels from Michael Stackpole and Aaron Allston? They have some really interesting female characters who would be a good fit.
There are endless possibilities for sure.
To get back to the representation that we did get however, I consider the inclusion of Mon Mothma and Leia to be more than just fan-service. For one, without these character, I really doubt that Rogue One would feel as cohesive a part of the franchise as it did. Certainly, we wouldn’t have gotten such a clean feeder into A New Hope, which I hold to be critical for the movie’s resolution. And then in minor roles we also have a woman who is probably another Rebellion-sympathizing Senator like Leia and Mon Mothma, and at least one female pilot (there might have been another, not sure). Is that not important? This last bit is even more crucial if we consider the possibility of an X-wing style movie where the protagonists are all pilots fighting against the Empire. Why not?
Disney is all set to give us standalone movies featuring Han Solo and Lando Calrissian. I see the appeal for those movies, but in my opinion, neither of them solves the core issues we are discussing here. It is just more and more dudes doing dude things. They are both also major characters from the movies. We don’t need to know more about them. An idea has been floated about the possibility of a “Young Leia” movie as well, but I’m very much against that. The reason is that Leia led a very unremarkable life as a child despite her parentage and her eventual career decision. It wasn’t until she had served for a while as a Senator for Alderaan that her father brought her into the Rebellion and had her actively take part in defying the Empire. Some of these missions even brought her close to capture by Imperial forces. If the movie would choose to focus on that, I would be all for it. But it is like trying to make a movie about a young Luke on Tatooine or a young Chewbacca on Kashyyk. These are not the stories to focus on. Besides, the period between Episode III and Episode IV is already being so well-covered and it would all be more of the same with similar characters.
We need new blood. If Rogue One did one thing different from expectations, it was the concept of the Rebellion not being as unified an entity as the original movies would have you believe. Saw Gerrera’s extremism and his philosophies explain that fairly well. General Draven’s controversial orders to Cassian Andor explains that. Disney could build on this concept and give us new characters. The Rebellion did not happen overnight with just disgruntled politicians and sympathizers. There was a massive support operation from all over the galaxy with planetary governments involved, with smugglers and others involved. There is so much to explore here. This could also be the perfect way to introduce the cinema audience to Mara Jade and eventually tie her into the events of the new trilogy of direct sequels.
Over the years, the Star Wars Expanded Universe has proven time and time again that the franchise is a rich and fertile paradise of imagination. Disney should actively seek to channel that. There are concepts here that are just begging to be covered. The life of Jedi Aayla Secura, one of the most kickass female Jedi ever. Mara Jade. Young Jedi Tahiri Veila. New Republic intelligence officer Winter. Wedge Antilles’ niece Syal. Rebellion sympathizer and smuggler Mirax Terrik. They could even go into the far-far future of the Legacy comics which focus on distant descendants of the Skywalker-Solo clan, the most prominent of which is Ania Solo.
Anyways, that’s all I have for now. I apologize for the rambling nature of the editorial. I might have some more at a future date.