Why Star Wars Needs Complex Female Characters in Different Roles

Phasma author Delilah Dawson talks about bringing new female characters to the Star Wars saga.

There has been a lot of conversation in the Star Wars fan sphere about representation and villains lately. Characters like Iden Versio in Battlefront II, played by actress Janina Gavankar, enable women and fans of color to see people who look like them in the Star Wars universe. However, some fans are concerned that the focus on the bad guys in the recent canon novels have placed these characters in an awkward position.

Marginalized groups may be seen on screen more often now, but why do they keep being portrayed as the villains in a blockbuster series? Characters like Iden Versio and Imperial admiral Rae Sloane may be given strong motivations and relatable characterization, but they are villains regardless, and in Star Wars, the heroes win. 

Author Delilah S. Dawson talked to Den of Geek at NYCC 2017 about her work on the Phasma novel and the importance of complex female characters in the Star Wars saga. To Dawson, the Phasma novel was a chance for female characters to occupy lots of different roles. 

“As a person who believes in equality, I feel like there should be a wide array of [female characters],” Dawson said. “I don’t want to see women only being pure and good. I want to see ruthless women and pushy women and nasty women and bitchy women. I like that there is no internal sweetness in Phasma, that she is unapologetic about who she is and that she doesn’t hold to anything about what a woman should be.”

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I have a theory about why these Star Wars stories are focusing on villains. We’re currently in the The Empire Strikes Back stage of Star Wars marketing, with the saga shifting from the devastating end of Rogue One to the middle installment of the Sequel Trilogy in The Last Jedi. In both Attack of the Clones and The Empire Strikes Back, the Jedi heroes become stronger by fighting their greatest enemies. And in both cases, the movie ends on an ominous note. Luke puts his newly-robotic hand around the shoulders of his grieving sister; Yoda watches the inaugural march of the clone army that will turn the Jedi Order into warriors. As much as I want to see Rey succeed in the Sequel Trilogy, classic Star Wars storytelling structure seems to indicate that The Last Jedi might be a downer for her.

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That said, there are some optimistic stories being told in the Star Wars galaxy these days, too: Forces of Destiny shows quick, colorful tales of Rebel and Jedi heroes on YouTube and Disney XD. Later this year, we’ll get Cobalt Squadron, a middle grade novel by Elizabeth Wein focusing on Rose and Paige Tico from The Last Jedi. Leia: Princess of Alderaan is a bittersweet book with hindsight, but not nearly as grim as Leia’s later life. The MG and YA books are focusing on heroes while more high-profile adult books seem to often tell the stories of not-quite sympathetic villains like Captain Phasma and Grand Admiral Thrawn. 

But the Phasma novel also portrays multiple different types of women, not just the ruthless and evil Phasma. 

“In some of the original discussions on how to set this up, we knew we wanted a Resistance spy that was being held by a First Order person and interrogated to get the story,” Dawson said. “I’m a huge fan of Star Wars too. I read all the books, and I want to write characters I’m interested in. Vi I think of as like female Poe Dameron. She’s not a hotshot pilot, she’s a hotshot spy. … I wanted her to be wisecracking, but also tender, especially about her family.”

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Like Poe, Vi is charismatic and smooth, contributing to the idea of the Resistance as a cool band of besieged but laid-back rogues. Dawson also adds some flaws and quirks to the character early on in order to make her feel more real. 

“I really wanted to show her knitting in hyperspace! Because I thought Star Wars needs fiber arts! And it shows you can be badass and a terrible knitter. Not everybody is awesome at everything all of the time.” 

Dawson said that another female character, Siv, was meant to function as Phasma’s polar opposite. Siv is kind, hopeful, and she forms strong, loving relationships with the people around her. Phasma, Siv, and Vi are multifaceted and show that there are places for women with many different kinds of personalities and skills in Star Wars

What about the fact that villains like Iden and Phasma are still the headliners? While it’s great that Star Wars has finally given an actress a chance to take one of those dramatic major villain roles, there is concern that representation isn’t empowering when the character who looks like you is a villain. Hopefully we’ll also see more characters like Rey and Vi, who grow and change on their paths to becoming heroes. After all, there aren’t enough female heroes in Star Wars yet to take any of them for granted. 

Read the full Den of Geek NYCC Special Edition Magazine right here!