Have you heard the story of Ariana Tenzar? She’s a naive, but eager girl who is desperate to live an exciting and important life. She meets an old warrior woman, Sen Hidale, who decides to teach Ariana how to use her innate and mysterious powers to become a protector of the peace like she was. They hire a couple of smug pilots, Quinn Nar and her alien companion Shokaa, to fly them safely to the world of Tamis Banne where they can meet with Prince Canden: a young politician wise beyond his years who is also a prominent leader of the not-so-secret vigilante movement that is trying to restore freedom to the galaxy. Together with the help of Quinn Nar and Canden, Ariana sets off on a journey to fulfill her destiny of redeeming her fallen father and overthrowing the tyranny of the hateful emperor.
That’s the same Star Wars story we all know and love. The only things I changed were the names and I made the characters of Luke, Obi-Wan, Han, and Chewie women and turned Leia’s role to a man’s. Think about the entire original trilogy done in this way. Does the story of Ariana Tenzar hold less merit than that of Luke Skywalker? Is it less relatable? My answers are no - Ariana still a hero who firmly believes in good, Quinn Nar is still a rogue with a heart of gold, and Canden is still empathetic and resourceful. If your answer is ‘yes’ to either of my questions, think critically about why you feel this way.
Let’s look at three huge sci-fi/fantasy franchises in pop culture: The Hunger Games, Firefly, and Harry Potter. I would say that they’ve employed gender neutral marketing and the ratio of male to female fans for each of these are pretty equal. They all boast examples of multifaceted female leads - Katniss Everdeen, Zoe Alleyne Washburne, and Hermione Granger. But what is really important about these cases is that the “strong female character” doesn’t exist within a vacuum where little to no other women are present. Katniss personally has Prim, her mother, and Effie, but also half of the tributes for the games are women. When it comes to Firefly, I had a hard time choosing which woman I would qualify as “the” lead because Inara, Kaylee, and River are as featured as much as Zoe is. Hermione may be the only woman in the main trio, but characters like Professor McGonagall, Luna Lovegood, Ginny and Mrs. Weasley, Lily Potter, Fleur Delacour, Cho Chang, Bellatrix Lestrange, and Professor Umbridge have carried weight and importance to the stories. This is where the Star Wars movies have failed us. We were given Leia, Padme, and Shmi, but they are out there virtually alone. So we were scared when Daisy Ridley was the only female addition to Carrie Fisher. Would we be left hanging again? Thankfully, no. The news of Lupita Nyong'o and Gwendoline Christie joining the cast was like a heavenly choir.
So why does it matter if we see two or ten women? Because representation affects us whether or not we notice it. I think more than news or history, the things we devour as entertainment have strong impacts on how we perceive the world around us. Something as prolific and lasting as Star Wars reaches millions of people. It can be hard to believe in female warriors, pilots, innovators, or presidents because we don’t often see them and when we do, they are usually pointed out as an aberration of the norm or used as novelties. If we can’t see women in every kind of role when literally anything is possible (because it’s all made up!), it’s no wonder women face harsh criticism in reality when they want to participate in male dominated areas. The more female characters we see in mainstream pop culture, the more women will be accepted in any space and believe that they can achieve anything.
Women are needed in Star Wars because Star Wars is for everybody. It teaches universal lessons that defy gender, class, race, or religion. Creators have to understand that in today’s society, messages about equality, tolerance, and balance don’t hold their weight when there’s a distinct lack of women, people of color, and other minorities involved. The Star Wars universe is giant and must have more than a handful of women.