A week or so ago, I saw the official Star Wars Twitter account share a poll, asking which character fans were most excited to see in the upcoming Forces of Destiny series of animated shorts, which, incidentally, reminding me that it even existed—I’d heard a mention of it a while back, but had completely forgotten. So I looked at the poll, and the provided image, and it quickly became apparent, even before I looked more into it, what this actually was. Put simply, the Forces of Destiny series is meant to “celebrate the female heroes of Star Wars.” This is said as though it was something desperately needed, like Star Wars‘s heroines had previously been ignored or marginalized. (Actually, a couple of male characters will be appearing—Chewbacca, BB-8, and Wickett the Ewok. Yes, just the ones that essentially don’t talk.)
This has been par for the course, since Disney acquired Star Wars. We’ve seen it in both movies released thus far, the Rebels television show, as well as in the new comics, books and the upcoming game Battlefront II. Female characters, specifically “badass” female characters, are being pushed heavily. They are very much in the forefront as the primary characters, and have essentially become action heroes. One can speculate as to the reasons for that, and there is a very fair politically charged reason that comes to mind, but truthfully, that isn’t what bothers me the most. What truly bothers me, as a lifelong Star Wars fan, is that with all the focus on these characters, making them the central characters of the new movies and comics, making a new show solely dedicated to them, and with constant talk about how great and important it is to have these characters, is leading to inferior characters. This, of course, is only magnified by similar-minded people in the media and in the Star Wars fandom. This hitting us over the head with the character they deem as “important,” simply because they are female, seems to have become the goal, as opposed to creating great characters, and the quality of the new characters—both female and male—suffer because of this.
I cannot be the only one who has felt that many of the recent female characters have been, simply put, bad characters. We need look no further than Rey, the star of The Force Awakens. Much has been said regarding her possibly being a Mary Sue (though I’m personally giving her the benefit of the doubt until The Last Jedi comes out—I have not become completely pessimistic yet.) She was fairly bland, boring, and could very easily have been a male character, defined primarily by her physical capability (both in the film and in promotion), and in many of her actual actions. That of course isn’t to say that we can’t have a physically skilled, take charge character who is female, but there is nothing there that necessitates being female. She also is yet another reluctant hero character, notably one way in which she is most unlike Luke Skywalker, and she really never makes a true choice to fight for something greater than herself until the end of the film, after getting caught up in the action. (She did offer to help Finn on Jakku, but had no plan to do more than that until the plot forced her into it.) But she was “badass,” (I really want to nuke that word) could handle herself in a fight, pilot like a pro, and win a lightsaber duel against someone who (as far as we know) has more training. She very much fits the archetype of “strong” female character (that is, physically strong), and that’s it. And many people hail her as a great character, citing that as the reason, rather than something deeper about her as a person.
Even worse is Rogue One‘s Jyn Erso. If Rey was a bland character, Jyn might as well be a plank of wood. Yet another reluctant hero, Jyn is dull and sullen throughout, and she only deigns to get involved because the conflict has a personal connection to her. At least Rey had some moments of wonder and excitement. Jyn is even more a victim of the “action girl” archetype, taking out armored stormtroopers in close combat single-handedly. Because being a “badass” makes her an awesome character, right? Wrong. She, too, could just as easily have been a male character. On her own, she defeats armored, highly trained stormtroopers with a blunt weapon. She shows little to no emotion, or compassion for others, apart from her father. There is nothing about her that could be described traditionally feminine. Furthermore, both she and Rey have essentially no strong emotional connections with other characters, specifically romantic ones. We get a tiny hint at the film’s end from Jyn, with her embracing fellow rebel Cassian Andor near the end, but then she dies, ending any possibility of character growth.
However, as anyone who’s a really fan of Star Wars knows, the series has never suffered from a lack of female heroes. Going all the way back to the original trilogy, Princess Leia is one of the three main characters, and proves to be quite a competent character. She stands up to both Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin while very much at their mercy, and, despite seeing her home planet destroyed, retains her composure and plays an active role in her rescue. Not by single-handedly mowing down stormtroopers, but by being clever and getting the heroes out of a tight spot. She remains focused on the grand scheme, on the larger fight. In the following two films, she takes on a primarily leadership role, making the few times she does make use of physical violence all the more impactful. It was great.
I write this, and think about these characters, I realize that I can’t remember any lines spoken by the female protagonists in the recent two films, not without effort. On the other hand, I could easily quote lines spoken by Leia, or even Padme, from films I haven’t watched in some time.
Before we move on and contrast them with great female characters from Star Wars past, apart from Leia, who I already discussed, I’ll briefly touch on several of the other Disney era characters this new show will spotlight. The only other film character, Maz Kanata, is a non-character; essentially a plot point in the movie, she suddenly needs to be “celebrated,” as part of this series, with no discernible reason other than that she is a female character. We also have three characters from the Rebels animated show. One, the token black character, Ketsu Onyo, is a non-character as well. She appeared in maybe two episodes, and is another “badass,” who only reluctantly helps the heroes. The other two, Hera Syndulla and Sabine Wren, are actually leagues above the others, which follows with something else I’ve noticed in the last several years, that we get better characters from the television shows, because they have more time to develop them. Hera is the type of female character that they really should be pushing as a strong female character. She’s the leader of the rebel team in the show, and the writers even refer to her as the “team mom.” She is the heart of the group, fighting for something greater than herself because it is right, and doesn’t fall into the “action girl” trap. She contributes via her leadership and piloting skills. Sabine, while an “action girl,” gets more depth in the show’s more recent season, as we learn of what caused her to choose to fight the empire, and the sacrifices she made to do the right thing and save a family that would not appreciate her actions, and opens up about how much this sequence of events both hurt her and drives her current actions, a level of emotional openness that we do not see in male characters. They give me some hope that at least some aspect of the modern Star Wars juggernaut remains capable of writing decent, if not good, female characters, whose character comes first rather than the fact that they’re women who can kill bad guys.
This doesn’t need to by the case, however, and it shouldn’t be. Star Wars is more than capable of creating great female characters who are strong without needing to “prove” that by beating people up, characters who have depth, have emotional connections to others, who play to their personal strengths, and, most importantly, could not be easily replaced with men.
Princess Leia, of course, is the most obvious, and I don’t think I need to go into what has made her a great and timeless character more than what I wrote about her above. Leia didn’t need to be described as a “strong female character,” because she was just a great character, beloved to this day. But moving beyond her, we have fan-favorite Mara Jade from the old EU books, who quite possibly had one of the greatest character journeys of anyone in Star Wars. And, to use a more recent example, Ahsoka Tano from the 2009 Clone Wars animated show, who, after her initial introduction, was feared to be another Jar-Jar, became one of my favorite characters in the franchise. We see her grow from a (somewhat irritating) and brash kid to a confident Jedi Knight, going through many trials and tribulations along the way, and developing strong relationships with many people. She then returned in Rebels as an older mentor figure, taking her development to another level. She was, of course, and extremely skilled in combat, as a Jedi, but that was always just one of her skills, not her entire character. Even Padme, from the much-maligned prequels, is a much better character than what we see now; her character was impaired by some combination of Natalie Portman’s acting and George Lucas’s directing, but in concept, she was a character who could’ve been as memorable as a Leia or Mara Jade, and Clone Wars did serve to improve her in that respect. These characters, while partaking in action, are not defined by that or any other “male” characteristic, and we see, multiple times, that these characters develop emotional attachments to others as well as demonstrate significant degrees of empathy.
All of this is another example of people with an ideological agenda placing that over what should be the focus for creating entertainment, great characters. None of us care whether a story’s heroes are male or female, and I would venture to say that most of us enjoy heroines or various types, including the ones that do ride into battle, but we want characters who are truly people, who are not dull, violent entities that could just as easily be men. In a desire for “strong” female characters, these creators have taken a traditional masculine form of strength and stuck it on women, because that’s the only kind of strength they know of. And while male characters that are more defined by physical or martial strength, that often comes with character flaws, such as emotional detachment, selfishness, and they often make poor choices. But these “strong women” are portrayed as all but infallible, because, in the minds of some, making mistakes makes a character not “strong.” I have since watched a number of the Forces of Destiny shorts, and in all of them, the featured female character does something action-oriented to save the day. No mistakes are made. The episodes themselves range from alright to cringe-inducing.
It’s not openly evident what we lose when so many female characters (it often feels like all of them) are like this today, but it is something that should not be overlooked. Just as when many people these days speak of “diversity,” whether in fiction or in real life, it’s only skin deep. Diversity of thought, and even diversity of character, are not wanted. In much mainstream fiction, we are losing that variety of characters, which, ironically, hurts women most of all—the ones that those behind this trend decided needed it. When all of the female characters they see in the fiction they grow up with act like men, present unrealistic depictions of what women are physically capable of, and don’t show women that make strong emotional connections with others, what is that telling them?
If this trend continues, we’re not going to get any more characters like Princess Leia, at least not in the vast majority of mainstream science fiction and fantasy. Moreover, because the female characters in modern Star Wars, among other things, are becoming bland like this, it inevitably also negatively impacts male characters. Because they couldn’t let them be too interesting and take the attention from the front and center “badass” women. In The Force Awakens, Finn has a bit more going on than Rey, but still is not a character that has made a significant impact. And as for Rogue One, the character that stood out the most, had the most personality, and, for lack of a better term, life, was the droid.
This post has focused on Star Wars, but it is merely part of a larger trend. The order of the day is to portray women as perfect action heroes, which makes them boring, in addition to showing that the only sort of strength they acknowledge is the traditional masculine form, which is why we end up with characters that in every way except for their appearances, are male. And since the women are presented as perfect and always right, male characters are crippled. Either they need to be portrayed as inferior, or they will act in so similar a manner that they are barely distinguishable from the females. And there is no sign of this changing any time soon, at least in mainstream entertainment. At this point, calling it “increased representation” for women feels inaccurate, with “replacement” of men looking more appropriate. See the Ghostbusters reboot and the just announced 13 Doctor on Doctor Who for more examples of this.
Fortunately, there are fresh, new alternatives, both in science fiction generally as well as more specifically Star Wars-like or Star Wars inspired stories, from those of us involved in the #PulpRevolution and SuperversiveSF, stories that prioritize excitement, interesting plots and great characters over pushing an ideological agenda, authors including Brian Niemeier, Jon Del Arroz, Nick Cole, and myself. We’ve already seen alternative versions of sites like Twitter and Wikipedia in Gab and Infogalactic, and we have Alt-Hero coming down the pipeline in response to the current state of comics. This is the time for the SarWarsNotStarWars alternative.