I admit it: I’m a Star Wars nerd. The franchise and I were born in the same year, so I’ve never known a world without Star Wars. The opening fanfare music gives me goosebumps every time I hear it. I had a Hoth System play set as a kid. I own a Yoda key chain.Back in the day, being a girl and a Star Wars fan was fairly rare, since it was mostly boys playing with Luke Skywalker and Han Solo action figures. Today, it’s a different story – literally. Star Wars returned to the big screen in 2015 and 2016 with Episode VII: The Force Awakens and the spin-off Rogue One, both starring female protagonists. You don’t have to be a Jedi to sense that there is an effort being made to attract young female fans to a galaxy far, far away. Consider the following:
Rey is the new Luke
The Force Awakens represented the start of a new Star Wars trilogy, and its main character is Rey (played by Daisy Ridley). The next instalment, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi, continues to follow Rey in a plot line that begins with her receiving training from Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). My generation knows Luke as the central figure from Episodes IV to VI, but now he’s in a supporting role to his 20-something female counterpart.
I wanted to know if the Rey character was connecting with girls in a positive way, so I asked two of my nieces (who have seen all the movies) about it. In describing Rey, nine-year-old Ella said: “I like that it’s not like in fairy tales, where the girl finds a prince and they live happily ever after. I like that she can do this by herself.” Older sister Julia agreed, calling Rey “fearless” and “a hero.”
That’s clearly the intent, as The Force Awakens goes out of its way to portray Rey as independent and self-reliant. In the scene where Rey first meets Finn (John Boyega), she repeatedly brushes off his gallant attempts to show protectiveness, saying through gritted teeth: “I know how to run without you holding my hand!”
New, improved female characters
Rey wasn’t the only female character in The Force Awakens. Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), the high-ranking silver stormtrooper, was introduced and will be back for The Last Jedi. The iconic Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) appears in both movies as well.
Julia, who’s 11, said she likes Princess Leia because “she is brave and fierce. She’s not afraid to do anything.” Ella seemed to resent the fact that Leia was the only female character of any real importance in the original movies from the late 70s and early 80s. Here’s how that conversation went:
Ella: “That kind of annoyed me. I was like, ‘why aren’t there any other girls?’”
Me: “Why did it annoy you?”
Ella: “Because it’s sexist.”
Me: “And what does that mean?”
Ella: “It means they’re saying boys are better than girls. And she’s the only girl that you even see in the movie. All the backup characters are boys, too.”
Help is on the way, Ella. According to pre-release publicity for The Last Jedi, there will be several new female supporting characters, including Resistance crew member Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran) and her sister Paige (Veronica Ngo). Well-known actress Laura Dern joins the cast as a prominent Resistance officer named Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo.
It’s worth noting that some of the real-life people in charge of steering the Star Wars ship are female. Kathleen Kennedy has been the President of Lucasfilm (founded by Star Wars creator George Lucas) for the last five years. Lucasfilm’s Executive VP and General Manager is also a woman, Lynwen Brennan.
Porgs and other toys
A new creature called a porg is seen alongside Chewbacca in the trailer for The Last Jedi. These cutesy beings – which to me look like a cross between a penguin and a hamster – are likely intended to appeal to kids, especially girls. On starwars.com, porgs are described as “small, flat-muzzled avians that flock about the rocks and roost in the cliffs of Luke Skywalker’s secluded island.” Return of the Jedi had walking teddy bears known as Ewoks; The Last Jedi has porgs.
It would be naive to think that the presence of female characters and big-eyed cuddly creatures has only the most genuine purpose, to serve the story. This is also about marketing. More characters mean more faces to feature on action figures and backpacks, while furry sidekicks lend themselves to mass-production stuffed toys. The Star Wars licensing empire is now owned by Disney, a corporation that may be trying to Force (pun intended) its way into the hearts, minds and wallets of young girls.
This year, the Disney Channel launched a new animated series called Forces of Destiny, which features female characters and seems strategically targeted at girls. The show has a related line of Star Wars dolls, similar to Barbies. If you don’t believe me, check your nearest toy aisle to see the new versions of Rey, Princess Leia, Rogue One’s Jyn Erso and others.
It’s hard to know if the recent emergence of female Star Wars characters and products is a promising sign of the times or a marketing strategy to boost sales. When I asked my niece Ella for her theory, she said: “In the beginning, it was probably supposed to be a movie that boys watched, but since it got really big, girls have also started watching it. And then people are like, ‘why aren’t there very many girl characters?’”
It’s a great question – and I hope her generation continues to ask it.