Star Wars, gender, and female leading roles

Feature Ryan Lambie 6 May 2014 - 06:16

Following the Star Wars: Episode VII casting news, Ryan argues that it's the quality of female characters, not quantity, that is important.

The 29th April saw the appearance of what has already become one of the most scrutinised and discussed photos of recent months. You'll already know what we're referring to from this piece's headline alone: the artfully composed, black-and-white photograph from Star Wars: Episode VII's read-through. Since it was published on Starwars.com's web page, it's become the franchise's equivalent of Da Vinci's Last Supper.

That this picture and its accompanying announcement has attracted so much fierce criticism and debate says a lot about the hunger and anticipation for a Star Wars sequel. Everything from the unexpected additions to the cast - not least Max von Sydow and Andy Serkis, whose connection to Star Wars was a rare surprise - to their seating positions have been mulled over in detail, not least on this very website.

Among the debate, there was a certain amount of disappointment over the male-dominated nature of that monochrome image. Among the 15 people sitting around in comfy chairs, apparently chatty and relaxed, only three are women - and one of those women is Kathleen Kennedy, producer and Lucasfilm head honcho. The other two, of course, are Carrie Fisher (returning as Princess Leia) and Daisy Ridley, the relatively unknown British actress who's said to be playing a major role in next year's sequel.

Director JJ Abrams has since said that there's a further actress who's yet to be announced, but the fact remains that Star Wars: Episode VII, as it currently stands, looks to be just as male-dominated as its predecessors. Over on io9, writer Analee Newitz wrote about her reaction to the Episode VII read-through photograph, and how much she loves the Leia character in the Original Trilogy. Star Wars, Newitz rightly argues, is a universal story that draws in fans of both genders, and they deserve a diverse cast they can identify with.

I do wonder, however, whether we're being a little hasty in judging Episode VII on the basis of a single casting announcement or black-and-white photograph. Sure, the Star Wars franchise has long been told through the eyes of male characters, and that widely-shared image implies that nothing much will change in Episode VII, but isn't it just possible that the sequel's writers have something a little different in mind?

Take, for example, the air of secrecy surrounding actress Daisy Ridley. Despite intense media interest, little is known about the actress at all: her Twitter account is now private and her Vimeo showreel is no longer available to view - even her precise age is currently a mystery. It's been said in earlier reports that she was one of the first characters to be cast; all signs suggest that her role in Episode VII is a major one.

This is pure speculation, of course, but wouldn't it be a bold move if Episode VII was led by a heroine - perhaps the descendant of Han and Leia, as has been rumoured, or even Luke Skywalker? Movies like The Hunger Games and Frozen have, after all, proved that a female-led fantasy film can make a huge impact at the box-office.

Even if Ridley's character is a co-lead rather than the central character - another persistent rumour is that Attack The Block's John Boyega is Episode VII's hero - a Star Wars film headed up by a female and a young black actor would serve as a decisive response to the franchise's (understandable) criticisms of a lack of diversity.

This brings me to another thought: does the number of female characters in a Star Wars sequel  - or any film - matter as much as how well they're written or portrayed? The issue of how characters are written is an important one. A film could quite easily be packed full of female characters who are flatly delineated and poorly treated by the writers and directors. On the other hand, a movie could also contain a single female character who’s superbly rounded, treated respectfully and positively leaps from the screen. Isn’t the latter a vast improvement over the former?

There are examples of this within the Star Wars universe itself. Just look at Princess Leia in 1977‘s A New Hope: confident, funny and vibrant, Leia gets all the best lines, and is far more than the mere love interest she could have been. George Lucas would admit himself that he’s no genius when it comes to characterisation and dialogue, but Leia, thanks in large part to the inspired casting of Carrie Fisher, becomes one of the film's most interesting and rounded protagonists. Lucas allows Fisher’s inherent intelligence and sardonic nature to come through in her character, and while she’s a fairytale princess, she’s very much a spin on that old archetype, just as Harrison Ford provides his own peerless take on the rogueish pirate template.

By contrast, Padme Amidala in the prequel trilogy remains stubbornly flat through six-or-so hours of popcorn cinema. Red Letter Media addressed this problem brilliantly in their now-legendary dissection of The Phantom Menace, where it was correctly demonstrated that the characters in Episodes I to III aren’t even fairytale archetypes - they’re simply a collection of attitudes.

Leia can be described in a number of ways - sarcastic, brave, cynical, witty, strong, loving. Amidala, on the other hand, is simply stoic. There’s little sense that her character has any life or personality beyond what we see on the screen: she’s repeatedly upstaged by her own gowns and gonzo hairstyles. This problem isn’t limited to Amidala, either; the male protagonists are equally hollow, from the impenetrably solemn Qui-Gon Jinn to the blank-eyed young Obi-Wan.

What’s surely important, then, is that Star Wars: Episode VII builds on what made A New Hope so brilliant, and learns the lessons of where the prequels went wrong. That Leia is the only rounded female character in the Original Trilogy is a fair criticism, but if Episode VII had at its core a character as well-written and acted as she was, wouldn’t that still make for a great Star Wars film?

In the 21st century, mainstream genre movies can and should provide great characters for people of all races and genders to identify with, and characters such as Jennifer Lawrence's Katniss Everdeen and Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow prove that they’ll be eagerly embraced by film fans. While ratios of male-to-female undoubtedly matter, I’d argue that it’s equally - if not more - important that female characters in these movies are three-dimensional and treated respectfully. If Star Wars: Episode VII can do this, then it will surely satisfy moviegoers everywhere, irrespective of gender.

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