A few days ago, the trailer for the latest Star War film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story dropped online. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=frdj1zb9sMY
For those unfamiliar, it is a stand-alone prequel that takes place immediately before the events of 1977’s Episode IV: A New Hope and tells the story of the mission to retrieve the plans for the Death Star which ultimately led to its destruction by Luke Skywalker and the Rebel Alliance. Remember the data that Princess Leia hid inside R2D2 for delivery to Obi-Wan Kenobi on Tatooine? That’s what the team in this film will be stealing. From the Empire. Before Darth Vader was killed. So, it’s a pretty important and dangerous errand. And from the trailer, it looks as though the task will be assigned to a woman by a woman. [Insert fist pump here.]
First, we have Mon Mothma (Genevieve O’Reilly), who was supposed to have made an appearance in Episode III: Revenge of the Sith as a Senator and one of the founding members of what would later become the Rebel Alliance, but was cut from the finished film. In Episode VI: Return of the Jedi she appeared as one of the strategic leaders of the destruction of the second Death Star. In the new film, Mothma recruits another strong woman, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), who is described on the Rogue One Wookiepedia page as a loner with a criminal past who is “impetuous, defiant and eager to bring battle to the Empire.” Essentially, she is Han Solo with a vagina. She is also the first female within the Universe to have a checkered past and was the first action figure design to be released to the public. With this new progressive development, it seems relevant to take a look back on the evolution of the main female characters throughout Star Wars history, critically and commercially.
Jyn follows on the heels of the strength of other female characters in the Universe, beginning of course with Princess Leia Organa, the outspoken rebel leader who got caught as a spy and not only showed no remorse, but insulted Darth Vader to his face in his own castle and lived to tell the tale. She endured torture and watched her adopted home planet being blown up by her captors and still didn’t give up the location of the rebel base. There are those who argue that she wouldn’t have survived had it not been for Luke and Han rescuing her, but in the context of her knowing that the plans had been stolen, it only makes her stronger. She was ready to die in that prison cell should her cohorts successfully launch a run on the Deathstar while she was still on board. Then, she bagged Han Solo, the bad-boy with the heart of gold on her own terms, giving up none of her strength of character in the process. [Insert high-five here]. Not to mention rescuing him from Carbonite and choking Jabba the Hutt with her own slave chains while rocking a bikini. She was an icon for a generation of young girls. We embraced her in the form of readily available dolls and action figures and dressed up in the official Princess Leia Halloween costume. Generation X girls had it good.
Then came the prequels and arguably weakest female lead of the Universe. Although Padme Amidala (Natalie Portman) in Episodes I-III is a morally strong elected leader on her planet Naboo, she talks more than she acts. She is very rarely pro-active in any way (other than with her hair and wardrobe) and simply allows things to fall apart around her. She voices her concerns to the Senate time and time again, but she spends most of her time hiding out, or sitting in her throne room lamenting the crappy future. Then, in the most baffling development of all, she falls in love with, marries and becomes impregnated by a whiny teen stalker-cum-serial-killer who later becomes Darth Vader. Why? What is likeable about this guy on any level? Yes, he can make apples float using the force. But he’s an asshole to the core, who only sees her an object of beauty and clearly has nothing in common with her. She is even denied a decently written death in childbirth when the robot OB-GYN rolls into the room and declares “We don’t know why. She has lost the will to live.” So, she would rather die and leave her unborn children parentless than envision a life without the serial-killer dude who just slaughtered 50 kids. This is the mother of Princess Leia? Seriously? Deep sigh. Despite the poor example she set on screen, Padme was graced with a rich and varied line of merchandise available to the kids of the ‘90s, which was consistent with the marketing of the original films.
Then came Rey, the sarcastic force-sensitive ace-pilot survivalist of last year’s Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Rey was reminiscent both visually and in terms of personality, of Leia Organa, who is represented now as a General. She was set up to the start of the next generation of Jedi. But the franchise’s new parent company, Disney, made the mind-bogglingly bad decision to exclude her from the first run toy line despite her being the MAIN character of the film. After a social media rebellion of its own, Disney had to reverse course and make her the star of the second line of toys. Something we took for granted in 1977 and again in the late ‘90s was now something young girls had to fight for. This showed a clear regression in the understanding of the appeal of such characters to young girls and their spending power by those in charge of marketing.
So, here we are 2016 with the trailer for Rogue One and the merchandise preview. So far, it looks like Disney, as the new guardians of the franchise, is taking its first step into a larger world. A world, that is old yet new again, filled with well-written strong female characters AND widely available connected merchandise. Let’s hope they continue this trajectory so that the young girls of today will have the same great memories 30 years from now that countless women have today. May the Force be with them. Always.