Q&A: Women in Star Wars

Are the amount of women in the military in the new Star Wars really unrealistic? I saw a guy complaining about how the movie didn’t explain why there were so many women in positions of power when I thought this was unfair. We have Leia, Holdo, and Phasma. Leia is a Princess with a lot of power and a great reputation— of she can make herself a general even if she wasn’t good at it. Phasma might be the only high-ranking woman in the First Order. That leaves Holdo. But is it really that shocking?

We have way more than that. Even if we restrict ourselves to screen canon, that includes Sabine and Hera from Rebels, Jyn Erso from Rogue One, Ashoka from Clone Wars and Rebels. I’m also skimming over mountains of background characters from the original trilogy who, technically, have names. Even in 1983, the version of the Rebellion on screen had a substantial number of women in their ranks, and was led by Mon Mothma (Caroline Blakiston.) In the original films, Leia Organa was more than a princess. She was a politician in the Senate, a key agent and leader of the rebellion. She smuggled the Death Star plans and got Artoo off the ship at the beginning of A New Hope.

This is without dipping into the old Expanded Universe, which had loads of significant female characters, including Mara Jade. I’m still somewhat baffled that, if Disney was going to salvage anything from the EU, Mara wasn’t on the top of the pile, even ahead of Thrawn. Worth noting that in the Old EU, Leia was the New Republic’s Chief of State.  

Important to remember that in almost all of the Star Wars media, women appear semi-consistently at nearly every cross section. There are leaders, support personal, junior officers, pilots, commandos, and soldiers, with a few notable exceptions. For example, I’m not aware of another female Stormtrooper aside from Phasma (outside of EA’s Battlefront games.) That could simply be a personal oversight.

Star Wars hasn’t always been extremely female friendly. There’s always the infamous metal bikini, and some of the stuff with Xizor was more than a little rapey in the old EU. I’m also not inclined to wave this off; it is a problem, and something that needs to be considered in the larger discussion.

However, complaining about fairness is a trap. It tries to derail the overall discussion with irrelevant minutiae. “But, it’s not fair, because it should have been [insert male character who hasn’t appeared in print since 1996 and is probably no longer in canon here] instead of…”

It’s not that there can’t be an intelligent discussion on fairness, it’s just that in this context, the discussion would be pretty damn short: “Is it fair to evaluate the competency of a candidate based on their genitalia?”

This also doesn’t mean that everyone in a position of power is the right person for the job, or even the best qualified. There’s nothing fair about it, but their genitals are irrelevant to that discussion. Someone whining about how “it’s unfair there are so many women in positions of power,” is deliberately conflating these two threads.

So, is the number of women on screen realistic? Maybe. I’d argue that, if anything, it’s still a bit low. Slightly over half of the human population are women, so it’s entirely reasonable to have a setting where your military is pretty evenly split. Is it realistic for women to hold positions of power in a setting where modern day gender discrimination doesn’t exist at all? Yeah.

The person you’re reacting to has no interest in an honest discussion. They’re not shocked, they’re throwing a petulant tantrum, because they see female representation as a zero-sum loss of prestige for themselves. Realistic? No. Fair? No. Shocking? Only in so far as they can milk it. They’re horrified of the idea that they might need to engage with women as human beings, and as a result, they’ve gone to the internet in search of a venue to cry about it, where they hope someone will toss some concessions their way.

Also worth noting, on average, people like your example here will start complaining about, “over-representation,” when the number of female characters exceeds ~30%. Long before you’re actually including a greater than average number of women to your story. Just, something to consider, the next time someone starts crying about how there’s too many women in a story, when more than half of the cast are male.

So, let’s move on to world building: It’s entirely possible that a resistance or other underground organization would include disproportionate female membership. This time with 20th century examples:

During World War II, the French resistance (the Maquis) made extensive use of female operatives for both support and combat roles. This was in part because the French military had been decimated prior to the occupation, but it was also pragmatic, because women would draw less attention from the Nazi occupation.

Similar examples occurred with German Intelligence operations in the United States during WWII, where the vast majority of the adult male population was subject to the draft, and as a result, men were far more conspicuous. This strongly incentivized the use of women as spies.

Another example, this time after World War II, is slightly more ironic. During the Algerian revolution, the rebels made extensive use of female operatives because the occupying French forces were resistant to interact with them, and as a result, they had easier access through, and around, security.

The Maquis are particularly relevant when discussing Star Wars, because there are intentional parallels between the Rebellion and the French combination of surviving military units mixed with and reinforced by civilians with limited combat training, engaging in guerrilla hit and run tactics.

When you’re making your own setting, there’s no reason you should think you need to adhere a specific quota of characters by gender. Except, maybe, to check yourself, and make sure you’re not being biased. Otherwise, yes your character’s gender is an important part of their identity as an individual, but that doesn’t dictate what their jobs can (or can’t) be, unless you’re baking rules like that into your setting. Star Wars doesn’t, and it’s stronger for that.

Diversity is an important part of your media consumption habits. It helps you see the world from new perspectives. Seeing how other people look at the world and respond to it. The guy you found was, quite literally, complaining about being exposed to a perspective he didn’t want to have, because he might accidentally empathize with a member of the opposite sex.

-Starke

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