Last week the main cast of Star Wars Episode VII was announced, and it quickly became clear that it was mostly men. There's only one new female castmember, upholding a Star Wars tradition, which sees only two lead females over the course of six films (one per trilogy). Some people got mad. Some people got mad that those people got mad. And then someone in the JJ Abrams camp went into damage control (including emailing geek bloggers) and said there was still a 'substantial' female role to be cast.
Setting aside the fact that JJ Abrams isn't just a liar, he's a guy who seems to revel in lying to the press, and setting aside the idea that 'substantial' isn't the same as 'leading,' this is good news. It's not great news, because only two women is still not enough, but two women are better than one woman.
Some people didn't seem to understand why this is important, so I'm going to try and break it down. First, it's vital to note this isn't just a problem with Star Wars - all film has a representation problem. A 2013 study showed that only 13% of the protagonists in the top 100 movies of 2012 were women, while women only made up 33% of all characters in those films - ie, not just leads or important roles, but all roles period. That's a big deal because women make up 51% of the population. We should stop and ask ourselves why exactly it is that half of the population is being so vastly underrepresented in film; what does it say about our ingrained concepts of gender roles that we assume half the population doesn't belong in our films.
This is a drum I have beaten before, especially when it comes to the Marvel Studios movies; I believe Marvel Studios has a unique responsibility to bring female superheroes to the screen and, specifically, to give them their own films. The 2013 box office - dominated by female-skewing movies The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Frozen show this to be good business sense, as well as morally correct.
That responsibility extends to Star Wars. I can't think of a major geek property* that has such cross-gender appeal. Women love Star Wars in huge numbers, despite having being left out of the series for the most part (when the most iconic female image in your series is a princess enslaved in a bikini you know you're having some issues), so on a basic business level Star Wars owes it to their base to represent them. I think about my niece, who will be about eight or nine when the third film in the new trilogy comes out, and I wonder what characters she'll have to choose from for Halloween costumes. If she was that age today she'd have Princess Leia or Padme, while a boy her age would have a ton of options (options that cover non-humans and non-organics, who are always coded male for some reason). Making your base feel included just makes good sense.
More than that, no other franchise has the freedom to include that Star Wars does. Set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, Star Wars has almost no bonds connecting it to the real world. It's a fairy land, for all intents and purposes, a place where science is meaningless and magic is the order of the day. It's a universe freed from the constraints of standard logic and one that doesn't map onto any human society in a one to one way. While elements are borrowed from human societies and religions of the past, it's all jumbled together in a way that makes it free to go its own way. The Star Wars universe has some elements we recognize from our world - there's prejudice, although it's against robots, and the Empire seems to be a humans-only affair - but gender and racial (human racial, anyway) inequality isn't there. The Star Wars universe does not seem to be a patriarchy - even though women are rarely seen in the films when they are, it's often in positions of power. Mon Mothma runs the Rebellion, while Padme is in charge of her planet. In the real world misogynists can argue that women in certain cinematic situations don't make sense because our society doesn't allow women into those situations; that argument cannot be made in the Star Wars univers, which canonincally includes female Jedi, fighter pilots and statesmen.
Some will get hung up on this point, saying that the fact that the few women who have been in Star Wars are strong makes up for how few of them there are. This is a beguiling line of reasoning, but it's real Dark Side of the Force business. See, the issue isn't with strong female characters - something that in and of itself is a ghettoization (it's the female equivalent of the Magical Negro, the wise character who helps the white male hero reach his goals). What needs to happen is the representation of women more generally in cinema, not just as strong characters. They need to be as present on screen as they are in the world. That includes weak characters, bad characters, evil characters, etc. Just as men are depicted in all varieties in movies, so should women be.
This is the point where someone bursts in demanding that the story be sacrosanct; why shove a woman into a story when it calls for a man? The thing about Star Wars is that, while it's dominated by men, it isn't a man's story. It's not a story about masciulinity or about how men behave. It's not a story about patriarchy or gender dynamics. The original trilogy is, one could argue, a father/son story, but if you gender-swapped that and made it a mother/daughter story you would lose literally nothing in the beats of the story. I don't even think you'd lose much of anything thematically, and in fact you might gain - many women I know are horrified of turning into their mothers, while men tend to struggle to come up to the standard set by their fathers. The Luke/Vader story is much more of a mother/daughter story if you ask me. I've tried gender-swapping the entire six film saga in my head and I can't think of a major beat that is ruined by having Han Solo be a female pirate or by making Queen Padme into a King.
Star Wars is so big it has a holiday. I may not be a fan of the series, but to deny its cultural impact would be to maintain purposeful ignorance. Any cultural behemoth has a responsibility to the culture it is impacting, and I believe that responsibility should be a positive one. Because Star Wars isn't an adaptation - Marvel Studios, no matter what, ends up beholden to comics written specifically for boys in an era when women often didn't even have jobs, let alone super powers - and because Star Wars isn't based in the real world - as fantastical as it is, Game of Thrones is essentially George RR Martin's fanfic of the War of the Roses - it has the ultimate freedom to make characters and race, color or gender. There are zero restrictions; putting a woman in the platoon in Saving Private Ryan doesn't make much sense, but making any character in Star Wars a woman makes perfect sense.
If you're the kind of person who bristles against 'forced inclusion,' I ask you to simply reflect on why this bothers you. Why do you believe that women don't have a place in Star Wars movies? Why do you believe that women are such unnatural fits into cinema that their very inclusion is 'PC?' Why do you assume that the default setting for a character must be male (and even more specifically, white male)? Is it possible that your attitude is part of the problem? Is it possible that your attitude is coming from a place of misogynt that you were previously unaware even existed?
There's no reason that half the cast of Star Wars Episode VII shouldn't be female. I can guarantee you right now that there will be no story concerns that dictate this is a men's film. This isn't True Detective, which explored toxic masculinity and the impact it had on women. This isn't 300, which was a historical fantasy set in a male-dominated military society. This is a complete fantasia, a world where the laws of physics don't much matter, so why should our primitive, still-backwards gender roles play a part?
For more reading on this subject, and to have every single argument you could make against women in film dismantled, click here.
* It's a totally mainstream property, but let's pretend it's a geek thing because Star Wars fans like to keep pretending they're geeks.