|Jennifer Lawrence as Katniss|
In the Star Wars universe of 2012 we have Mara Jade, Callista, Ahsoka, Aayla Secura, and the recent Juval Charn to show impressionable viewers and readers that a Jedi girl - or a Rebel girl - is a tough girl who stands up for what she believes in. That’s a great lesson for younger fans to learn, especially if they, like Katie, who made headlines last year, are still feeling pressured by Star Wars being “boys’ toys”. (McDonalds isn’t doing anything to change the stereotype that “girls don’t like Star Wars” with their tie-ins for the TPM release.)
However, with the last live-action Star Wars movie having come out eight years ago and many fans still powered by the passion they hold for the original trilogy when they saw it in the theaters, I believe that we as a group of fangirls have the right to a higher standard. The argument I’m going to make here must by nature be a personal one, born as it is from my experiences of fandom. Not everyone’s experience is exactly the same, and different interests guide each of us.
When I first got into Star Wars, the character that drew me in the most was Luke Skywalker. I wanted to be him: to have an orange flightsuit and and X-Wing and a lightsaber. I wanted to get out of my small town and do new things. I was attracted to the actor, but that existed simultaneously with wanting to be the character.
I learned of the existence of Mara Jade Skywalker in that same summer, maybe the June after Attack of the Clones came out. I was voraciously searching out everything about the Star Wars universe I could find. This was the era of the New Jedi Order, and I loved its strange aliens and new, teenage characters. Some older girls in my social circles adored Mara. While I was taking the first shaky steps that people at the beginnings of fan fiction careers take, those girls were writing about Luke and Mara. They used her as a substitute for the fan-characters I would create in my own image. I felt that, through Mara, these girls had claims to the canon that I did not.
Mara bothered me. She brought a romantic element to the character of Luke, who I had seen as either romantically attainable for myself, in that fannish, hyper-emotional teenage way, or as an asexual, monkish, almost genderless figure upon whom I could project my own traits to adventure vicariously through the Star Wars world.
It’s important to be to be able to identify with a character. There is of course an element of wish-fulfillment in all fantasy: I wish I could fight with a lightsaber and use the Force, for example. This sort of wish-fulfillment probably drew many of us to Star Wars. However, wish-fulfillment is not enough to drive a character alone. You have to be able to identify with them on a more realistic level.
Your first question might be: what about Leia and Padmé? Lots of fans love them. They’re both competent, confident main characters who have been explored pretty well in fan media. However, they rarely appear on my own radar as characters who will make or break the sale of a book.
This is an entirely personal opinion (or lack thereof), but I think it does have something to do with Leia and Padmé’s presentation in the films. While that presentation isn’t bad, it’s notably different from that of Mission Vao or Deena Shan. My perception of them may be skewed because both of them are presented as adult characters in opposition to a childlike hero. This is literal in the case of Padmé, who meets Anakin when he is nine and she is in her teens. In the case of Leia, she is an established, independent woman with a career (two, if you count senator and Rebel leader as separate careers), whereas when Luke first meets her he is living with his adopted parents and working only on their farm. I came to Star Wars as a teenager, and many fans come to it earlier in their lives. It isn’t as easy to identify with Leia and Padmé because they are set apart as separate from children. Some fans who have said that George Lucas puts his female main characters on a pedestal might be coming at this same idea from a different angle.
created directly as a foil for Luke. She is a man’s woman, shapely and strong. Mara’s voice cannot be mine.
It’s great to support beautiful, talented female characters and then say that they can inspire real women too. It’s also easy. It’s harder to say that a franchise needs varied, flawed female characters of average appearances in order to let the fangirls emotionally connect with those characters. It’s through watching flawed characters that viewers learn about life outside the fiction. Luke’s hero’s journey gave a moral message. I couldn’t find the same in Mara’s development.
However, saying that a publishing house should produce only self-doubting characters I can identify with is a pointless gesture. The franchise is not built around me. There are fans who identify with Mara Jade because they are confident and red-haired and want to be beautiful. This is neither an unheard-of opinion nor an exercise in shallowness. It’s just true. And that’s how demographics go. If movie studios wanted to cater to a young, freckled audience, they’d cast a young, freckled lead. But I’m willing to bet that not all female Star Wars fans can identify with the nearly-perfect people. Some of us can. But not all of us can, or want to. So where’s our representative? Where’s our demographic?
The next argument that one could make is well, where’s the representative for averageness or fearfulness in male Star Wars characters? Many main characters, like Luke, Anakin, Han, and Dash Rendar, are wish-fulfillment avatars for men. But there are some problems with this:
1. Male is the neutral gender, grammatically and socially. Therefore most characters whose gender is not significant to their actions or role in the plot are male. Thus: Yoda, Chewbacca, Dexter Jettster, the announcer at the Boonta Eve race track, etc. A character being male doesn’t elicit a gender-specific reaction in the viewer. A character being female, well - she’s instantly either an empowered representative of her gender or intended to be attractive. Or both. (It’s when you try to do both that you get Mara Jade.)
2. Most lauded science fiction (I do not count the numberless Anita Blake etc. spinoffs in fantasy) is written by men, for a young male audience. When they put Princess Leia in a bikini, it is not to show empowerment for women, it is not because that outfit just happened to make the most sense for the scene. It’s because scantily clad people are entertaining, and because if you can grab a young person by the hormones you have them hooked to your franchise. This works for women too, whether it’s intended to (Twilight) or not (Halo).
3. Although beauty is certainly subjective, the list of average-looking males is much longer than the list of average-looking females. More traits are coded to be beautiful in females: most of the Star Wars women are tall, skinny, with brightly-colored hair, at some undefinable age between twenty and thirty, wear makeup and lipstick, and are flawless fighters. The males do not have such clear similarities in type. They vary in age, face shape, attitude, and motivation. Luke, Wedge Antilles, Biggs Darklighter, most of Rogue Squadron, most of the aliens, and most of the bad guys are male. (Exceptions do exist: Asajj Ventress is a good example.)
Instead of just critiquing, I’d like to put forward traits that I would prefer to see in female characters:
1.) Less confidence. Yes they should be role models, yes they should be awesome, but I want a moment, just a moment, of fear to show that they’re human. Someone once said that courage isn’t the absence of fear, it’s going on in spite of fear. If our heroines don’t show any fear, their young fans are not going to know how to deal with it when it comes in the real world. One of my least favorite lines ever in The Clone Wars is a bit where Ahsoka says something like “I used to be afraid but then I decided not to because fear doesn’t get you anywhere.” Life doesn’t work like that. That’s too clinical, too disciplined to be realistic. Maybe a Jedi could do it but that caveat is never given.
2.) More varied body shapes and traits. Short people in Star Wars are usually aliens.
3.) Varied professions, interests, and points of view.
4.) Character arcs that focus on real emotions and how to live with them: fear, jealousy, charity, enthusiasm, or simple, honest dislike.
I want to show one more example of the representation of females in a current Star Wars product. The two quotes below are referring to the MMO The Old Republic, a game which has received mostly positive reviews among fans.
Another observer has a different perception: "In my opinion, the worst one could say is that the 'fat guy' is a bit easier to believe is 'fat' while the 'fat girl' is really just buxom. I think their objective for 'fat guy' was 'built like a brick house,' and they just sort of landed on 'fat guy,' but pulled it off with the female version."
The underlying idea in his point is that the characters in TOR were meant to be fit. As Jedi, smugglers, or whatever character class they chose, that character would have to be physically fit to some degree in order to complete the tasks they are given in the course of progressing through the game.
Just as damsel has made way for action girl, action girl needs to make way for unique characters the likes of which are usually seen outside science fiction. Women in science fiction can progress again to become not types, but, you know, real characters. My advice to writers and franchise publishers is to vary your heroines: give them different occupations, interests, and areas of speciality. Not everybody has to be good with a blaster. BioWare does this well: witness Mission Vao, and Atris from Knights of the Old Republic, or Jack and Tali from Mass Effect. In addition to unique backstories they have strong traits and features: Jack’s tattoos, criminal record, and penchant for cursing, or Tali’s almost polar opposite shyness and constantly concealing suit. These characters are more like real people, whose likes and dislikes the reader can predict. Maybe a good test is asking the reader what they think the character would like for as a gift. If the reader can think quickly of a few areas of interest they might start looking in, the character has enough traits at least for a start. Joss Whedon, as has been discussed extensively in the internet (and, increasingly, in academia), is good at writing characters like this. Keep in mind, I don’t hate a character instantly if they’re good at fighting. I love warriors. Jaina Solo from Star Wars, or Tex and Carolina from Red vs Blue, are great. They just have to have personality traits in addition to their skills.
I hope that I have accurately pointed out the inequality in character designs and why more characters like Mara Jade will not change that. There are some great female characters in the EU and elsewhere in science fiction. I shouldn’t go on without mentioning Jaina Solo, Deena Shan, Laranth Tarak, Yaddle, and the Knights of the Old Republic characters mentioned above. All of these are great. But they aren’t enough yet.