There is no denying that the women who sat on the panel “Fangirls Find the Force: Star Wars from Episode VII and Beyond” I moderated at GeekGirlCon 2014 all were inspired to be heroines in their own rights by the stories of Star Wars. Their passion is infectious. They wear their fandom proudly and spend much of their free time promoting the brand. They embody the best things George Lucas packed into Princess Leia, who was the first human character audiences saw when Star Wars opened in 1977.
Appearing on convention panels is a blast, but it is also a little bit daunting. Panels require research and preparation, and for the moderator self-reflection, as well. What are my goals? What are the goals of my panelists? My goals for FANgirl have been front and center since I started the blog. My panel summary told the audience what goals I had set for the hour we had at GeekGirlCon.
It read, “Fangirls are speaking up about what they want from the Star Wars mega-franchise! They have voiced their concerns over representation of women in the galaxy far, far away. This panel will discuss media and fan reaction to Star Wars diversity news and the response from Disney|Lucasfilm. We also highlight the reasons why it’s important for women to speak up as consumers of pop culture, and how to do it both positively and effectively.”
You can read the recap here.
One part of the panel that didn’t really fit in a summary of the discussion, though, was the apprehensive feeling lingering all the way until the point I had a chance to ask my fangirl peers the all-important question: if they were still waiting for Disney|Lucasfilm to give them a clear indication that Star Wars really is for both boys and girls. What my inner fangirl was hoping was that the kernel of doubt still floating around inside my heart was just a sign that I might be too suspicious of the franchise, that I still held onto the clear chain of disappoints over the past few years that have struck female fans particularly hard. Instead what happened was that every fierce, passionate fangirl on the panel told me Star Wars hadn’t done enough – that they were still waiting for the franchise to embrace them as wholly as we have embraced it.
We’re now closing on the end of the year, with a lot of exciting events like The Force Awakens teaser and the excellent first half of the season for Star Wars Rebels. Yet the feeling of waiting hasn’t gone away, and I still see hesitation from prominent female Star Wars fans across social media. So I reached out to the panelists. Here is what Meg Humphrey from GeekGirlCon and Far Far Away Radio, Lisa Granshaw from Daily Dot and our own Kay had to say.
Meg: Lucasfilm made the decision to showcase two men of color and a woman in the teaser trailer. Although there have been the odd, ignorant comments questioning the existence of a Black stormtrooper, on the whole the reactions have been very positive. The push back after cast announcements saying that Star Wars didn’t need more women or people of color was disheartening. People talked like white men were the key to making good movies. But I’ve been seeing my friends, followers, and strangers all over the internet talk about how excited they are to find out the stories behind these three people (and a fourth cloaked figure that has been speculated to be anyone from Adam Driver to Lupita Nyong’o). The fact that people can get fully behind these characters of underrepresented backgrounds is a huge step forward!
But Star Wars is more than just the movies and much more than what we saw in that short teaser. It’s toys, books, comics, clothing, and a bevy of other merchandise. Will Daisy Ridley’s character come out in the first wave of Episode VII action figures? Is she going to be left out of fabric prints and t-shirts? There’s a lot of promise with the sequel trilogy, but it’s up to Lucasfilm and it’s licensed merchandisers to a) listen to fans and b) provide what they ask for without discrimination.
Kay: After seeing the teaser trailer, I continue to hold hope. We had a female character featured prominently, taking action, and fully clothed. Additionally Lucasfilm made the decision to release the trailer online the same day as it was premiering in theaters, making the experience of seeing new Star Wars more accessible and easy to share the experience with friends, family, and fellow fans.
But we’re still seeing merchandise leaving out female characters, Star Wars shirts only in the men’s side of the store, and most of the books being announced centering on male characters. I didn’t expect this all to change in two months, but I’m still not sure when we’re going to see any of this change either.
Lisa: Seeing the teaser trailer unfortunately didn’t make me feel any differently. While I’m glad to see Daisy Ridley featured in it, I’m not surprised she was included after the initial outcry about the lack of women (and diversity in general) in the cast. Since it was so short though, I can’t say it changed my concerns about Star Wars reaching out to female fans. I still have hope for the movie though, and that we might see changes as we get closer to its release. I’m hoping as we see more trailers, posters, and learn more about the story, I might start to feel differently. I’ll also really take notice if Ridley and the other women are actually included in the first wave of merchandise and toys released, and especially are included on shirts and other apparel alongside their male co-stars. I will continue to hope to see these changes as we move forward, but at this point I still feel the same.
While the movies seem to be tempting and promising, the ever-present problem in the eyes of female fans remains: what is currently being offered isn’t yet equitable between genders. Sure, it takes a while for a culture to shift, but female fans have plenty of reasons to be wary of lost potential – from the way Padmé’s death was handled in Episode III to the cancellation of books like the Nomi Sunrider novel and the fact that Mara Jade’s life ended solely to put a punctuation point on long stream of female characters who have served Luke’s manpain.
Today in a TV Guide announcement about Yoda’s appearance on Star Wars Rebels, executive producer Dave Filoni said, “This…show is meant to fit in with everything that’s going on: Clone Wars, features, novels. We do a lot of work to make sure there’s continuity between these things now.” While Star Wars Rebels passes the Bechdel Test, other interconnecting parts like the books and comics aren’t positioned with a composition of the characters that suggests they possess the potential to pass the test, or for a standout storyline like the episode “Out of Darkness” to occur, especially as far as the upcoming novels are concerned.
Of course, we’re hoping for things to improve for the portrayal of female characters in stories coming out in the front half of the year, but we’re also not seeing much in the way of writers who speak knowledgeably about, or who have proven they can tackle, gender stereotypes and harmful female character tropes – or even apply the Bechdel Test in their writing. When even eternally optimistic fangirl blogger Johnamarie Macias of the Wookiee Gunner expresses anxiety about the sole upcoming book with a female lead, what does that say about the pieces of the Star Wars puzzle that will lay the groundwork between now and the movies? To many female fans, the composition of the main characters in the upcoming books and comics, as well as the slate of authors, artists, and comic writers who are creating them, still gives the same impression that inspired anxiety and outrage when the Episode VII cast photo was revealed. More importantly, we still don’t see ourselves – women – in the trenches of the creative process.
What I said back then was, “Between the franchise and the fandom, female fans experience a never-ending cycle of awkwardness from something we want so badly to embrace yet it keeps holding us at arm’s length.” In light of Gamergate and other incidents across the internet this year, it has become even more obvious how female fans have been treated. Star Wars Rebels voice actress Tiya Sircar and Rebels Recon spokeswoman Andi Gutierrez both have been challenged publicly about their participation because of their gender. It is undeniable that when female fans express fear for the franchise’s future, they are treated inequitably and more harshly.
Truly, it’s not that female fans don’t want to believe. But Star Wars as a franchise – by way of Filoni’s remarks and many other recent public references to the role and influence of the Story Group – is stepping out and declaring a new commitment to overseeing the entire web of continuity. To honor that commitment, they need to consider the full context of the messages they’re sending to the fans at all levels of Star Wars storytelling.
(Updated to include thoughts from Lisa Granshaw.)
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