Star Wars and Gender: The Galaxy is Finally Female

Being a fan of Star Wars is tough, especially when the biggest problem you have is other fans.

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A look at gender representation within the Star Wars franchise.

Sometimes it is hard to be a fan of the franchises we love and remain active on social media. I don’t know about your feeds, but mine can be a minefield of spoilers, unwanted hot takes, and one-sided points of view that make me scroll quickly to get back to images of food and pets. One of the toughest things to be a fan of these days is Star Wars. That’s not because of the Disney take-over, the constant behind the scenes shuffling of writers and directors, or keeping up with the many-layered timelines and what is or isn’t canon (R.I.P. to the Legends-era novels). The real problem these days are other fans. Let me explain.

The Impetus

I am not the kind of person that watches tv shows (network, cable, or streaming) as they happen. I have tried over the years, but I really hate the experience. I prefer to watch at my own pace, preferably once a series or at least a season is over. Trying to watch some shows this way is particularly hard if you have a Facebook or Twitter account (I’m looking at you The Walking Dead), so I don’t tend to watch things the day they first air or are available. Trying to avoid spoilers is almost impossible. The worst-case scenario of this has been The Mandalorian. It is assumed that everyone watches the minute the show goes live on Disney+.  I waited till I knew that almost all of the episodes were available before starting to watch. Suffice it to say that when the season finale aired, I did not see it till about a week later. The Internet was a sea of spoilers, memes, and vaguebooking.

While it was annoying to see hints of how the episode would end, reactions from some fans were starting to get me angry. The phrase I kept reading over and over was, “The two seasons of The Mandalorian are better than any of the Star Wars films that have been made in the past 15 years.” or, “This show is the only thing worthy since Return of the Jedi” or even, “This is the best Star Wars since Empire!” Then I started to realize that almost all of the people I knew that were making these massive boasts were all men. I took to my socials to voice my disappointment.

This hit me hard. There are fans out there who don’t realize just how special the modern films have been for so many of us. On casual observation, I believe that white males tend to miss the fact that many of us felt left out, left watching the galaxy being saved from the sidelines. While I can at least say that there was a strong female represented in Princess Leia, I also distinctly grew up wondering where the rest of the girls were in the galaxy. As a little girl, I would have to have multiple Endor Leia figures so that I could pretend there were other girls fighting in the rebellion. That isn’t true of Episodes VII-IX, Rogue One, or even Solo. There are so many female characters now, it’s amazing.

I have to admit that I never quite related to Leia growing up. I always pretended to be Luke or Han when I would play pretend in the schoolyard. Smugglers and Jedi seemed like more fun than being a princess would be to me. Sure, she could be out in the battles with the guys, but she still ended up having diplomatic responsibilities when they got back that everyone else could shrug off. So instead, I had DIY lightsabers and would pretend to train with Yoda in the backyard. You have no idea how emotional it felt as a grown woman to see Rey on the big screen learning to become a Jedi, knowing that little girls everywhere would now have the dream to be like Rey. Having someone that looks like you up on the big screen is so important. This is what I feel many male fans don’t seem to get about the new films.

The Experiment

So I decided to do an informal survey. I wanted to watch the original trilogy versus the modern trilogy and tally the female characters in each film as a comparison. I needed to set some boundaries for this experiment. Obviously, on one pass for each film, I needed to have criteria and margins for error. How does one determine gender by visuals in a galaxy far, far away? Mostly I would concern myself with humanoid lifeforms that had forward presenting female attributes. Body structure and hairstyles, types of clothing and voices, mannerisms, and even pronouns were all used. I was definitely aware that this plan was far from foolproof. There would be some species that I would not be able to judge. There was also the fact that I was basing this on old fashioned concepts of binary gendering, which I know is flawed. This was an informal survey in order to create a basic tally for the purposes of this article. If I get the opportunity to go further with this concept and explore more of the franchise, I will have to take all of these issues into account to build a better set of criteria. For now, though, this would be close enough to get the basic idea.

Taking it a step further, I broke these observations into three groups based on character faction: Rebels, Imperials, and civilians. Those were then broken down by importance of character role: lead characters, supporting roles (including those with one or more spoken lines) and extras. What I found was unfortunately close to what I could have guessed, but far worse than I had imagined. In the original trilogy, an average of two women speak in each film and obviously, Leia is one of them, so that will give you an idea of what is to follow.

© Lucasfilm/Disney

In A New Hope, aside from Leia, we only hear from Aunt Beru. The only other women in the film are the six female characters at the Mos Eisley Cantina (and believe me, I had to dig online and do lots of freeze frames to even find them all). So that gives a total of only eight female characters in the entire film (to put that in perspective, there are seven male leads in the film)! That’s insane when you think about how many extras a film that epic in scale has in it.

Things get a little better in The Empire Strikes Back. I got a total of sixteen females this time, but most of them were extras evacuating Cloud City. There was literal hope this time though. Aside from Leia, I counted four female tactical operators and technicians on the Hoth base and one of them gave a verbal update at one point. Finally, proof that there were other women fighting for the Rebels!

Even though Return of the Jedi got the same tally of sixteen, things looked even better for the Rebellion. I counted one woman in the hanger and four at the briefing before the Battle of Endor. Most importantly was the woman in power, Mon Mothma, who explained the mission and what they were up against with the second Death Star. Aside from the Rebels, there were five females at Jabba’s Palace including Oola (the twi’lek slave girl), Joh Yowza (the singer of the band) and Yarna D’al’ Gargan (the female dancer) (I should be clear that I did not count the re-release editions from the 90s, so this is the original house band). Let’s not forget that there were about four female ewoks as well. Again, some of this is guessing, but I did my best.

So the original trilogy gave us a galaxy with approximately 38 women. Aside from Leia, we only heard from Aunt Beru, Mon Mothma and one technician on Hoth. There are quite literally hundreds of men in each of these films, possibly thousands…and maybe 40 women. Let that ruminate in your brain for a minute before I use cold, hard data to tell you exactly why the new trilogy has meant a lot to female fans all over the world.

© Lucasfilm/Disney

At eleven minutes into the film, The Force Awakens showed just as many women as the entirety of A New Hope. At twenty-eight minutes there were already twenty women, which was more than either Empire or Jedi had. The average in the original trilogy had two speaking female roles per film. Here we already see four important speaking roles in Rey, Leia, Maz and Phasma. This will grow with each movie. In total, The Force Awakens had 94 female characters I could identify with the four leads and eight speaking roles. I also was happy to see that not only were there more women in the Rebellion now, but there were finally female Imperials. Aside from Captain Phasma being among the highest ranking Storm Troopers, there were female technical operators and even other female voices for troopers. How much fuller the galaxy was starting to feel already!

And the numbers just keep going up! The Last Jedi gives us the amazing triple digits that I had hoped for with 113 female characters in total. As we saw in The Force Awakens, there are now women on both sides of the struggle as well as civilians. There are women techs, pilots as well as in command positions. The Rebels still overpower with fifty-two, including four minor speaking roles and seven leads (Leia, Rey and Maz are now joined by Lieutenant Connix – now in a larger role, Commander D’Acy, Vice Admiral Holdo and Rose), but the Imperials this time had three speaking roles aside from Phasma. As we will see, things are going to get even bigger before we finish this trilogy.

I am going to admit that getting a full tally for The Rise of Skywalker was outright daunting. Aside from Rebels and Imperials, there are an amazing amount of civilians in this film. I fear that my final count is even too low of an estimate, but I came up with an amazing 173 females in this film! Almost half of the female Imperials had lines and there were over a hundred Rebels. This time around Leia, Rey, Maz, Connix, D’Acy and Rose were joined by Zorii and Jannah, which is amazing to introduce even more primary female characters at what is essentially the end of the trilogy. All in all, this film felt like a first attempt at having close to equal representation for a movie in the franchise. So the biggest issue I found in trying to get these tallies on the modern trilogy is that relying on watching the backgrounds of scenes to count potential female extras does lead to the possibility of double counting some people that are walking through a scene or are too far in the background to be distinct. Even with this possibility and cutting off even up to a third of my count to make up for this, The Rise of Skywalker would still have about 116 female characters. This still puts it at the top of the six films for numbers. Clearly, there has been a push to make sure there are women in this galaxy far, far away.

The Conclusion

I do hope that this can show to those that love to bash the modern Star Wars films as being less than what has come before them, that there is a lot more at work here than just carrying on the legacy of Jedi and Sith. The ability to see a set of films in a franchise that I already cherish doing their best to find ways to be more inclusive and tell stories representing more of the audience is deeply important to me. To know that girls everywhere have someone else now that helps them to see themselves in the story is wonderful.

And this is without going into the side films Solo and Rogue One, that both also excel in having multiple female characters of importance. Not to mention the need to go back and review both the prequel trilogy and re-release versions of Episodes IV-VI. On top of that, there is the extended universe of the novels, comics, and animated as well as live action series. Even if The Mandalorian is what set me off on this journey, don’t forget that the show is also populated with strong female characters like Cara Dune, Fennec Shand, Ahsoka Tano and Bo-Katan Kryze.

It is fair to say that this is the proverbial tip of the iceberg in an exploration of gender representation in the Star Wars universe. Much more could be done and I hope to revisit this topic again at some point. Of course, there is the need to look beyond just simple gender, especially in such a binary form, but also including ideas of race and sexuality in further studies of the franchise. Most importantly, I hope readers can walk away from this article with a better understanding of at least one aspect of how the modern Star Wars movies are important to fans everywhere and are helping the franchise and genre cinema make positive strides in gender representation.

© Lucasfilm/Disney

Here’s to the hope that one day all of us will see ourselves in the galaxy, fighting alongside each other to bring down the Dark Side as well as the trolls.

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