When the cast of Star Wars: Episode VII was finally revealed on Tuesday after months of rumors and speculation, the Internet’s reaction quickly switched from one of excitement to one of confusion. “Hang on a second,” everyone said, “where are all the women?”
Of the seven new actors added to the franchise, only one of them, Daisy Ridley, is a woman. And while her inclusion means that Episode VII has twice as many female leads as the original trilogy (thanks to Carrie Fisher reprising her role as Princess Leia), the female population of that galaxy far, far away is desperately lacking in representation. Director J.J. Abrams does seem to be attempting to balance out the cast, though, as The Hollywood Reporter revealed that he’s still looking for another female lead, and though no information has been released about the role yet, some are speculating that it could be the same part that producers met with Lupita Nyong’o about just before the Oscars.
But just opening up more roles for women in the franchise isn’t enough to fix the standing issues with its female characters. The films’ lack of women has long been a point of contention among fans and critics, many of whom were hoping that Abrams would diversify the universe when he took the helm. But the quality of female roles is just as much of a problem as the quantity of women present. Thus far, none of the films have featured more than one female lead, and while she was given plenty of depth attention, her like-gendered supporting players were one-dimensional and got a minimal amount of screen time. All of which means that even though we might be getting another female lead, there’s still no way to predict how well Star Wars VII will handle its female characters. There hasn’t been much in the Star Wars cinematic universe to suggest that this new character will be just as three-dimensional and compelling as the one that Ridley is set to play, or vice versa.
There’s no doubt that Leia is a great female character, but the few other women who appeared in the films were as well-rounded or interesting. Similarly, Padme Amidala was given plenty of attention in the Prequel Trilogy, but it’s hard to name another female character off the top of our heads that had the same amount of depth or development (maybe Yaddle). The odds are stacked against Episode VII when it comes to female roles, and even though Abrams seems to be taking steps to bring more women into the franchise, he doesn’t have the greatest track record with multiple interesting female characters either.
His most recent sci-fi franchise, Star Trek, does have a great female lead in Uhura, who is just as complex and engaging as the men she works with on the Enterprise. The other female characters, however, haven’t fared as well. The two only two other women who played a major role in the films’ plots both unnecessarily appeared in their underwear: Gaila, the green girl who spent the night with Kirk, and Carol Marcus, whose nudity was used to liven up a bit of exposition. Even though Carol played a much larger role in the film than Gaila did, she was primarily there as a plot point to help reveal Admiral Marcus’ betrayal and give his battle with the Enterprise an added layer of emotion. That lack of dimension frustrated many fans, who felt that she didn’t add anything to the film overall and were insulted by the fact that her primary function was to look pretty. It would have been easy to give Carol some depth – after all, she’s a science officer whose father turned out to be the enemy – but it seemed as if the films didn’t think they could support two interesting female characters.
Abrams’ TV shows haven’t done much to disprove that theory, either. Even though Alias centered on the compelling, complex Sydney Bristow, there weren’t any other female characters that received the same kind of attention. Most of the female characters that did play a major role on the show died, leaving Sydney surrounded by a supporting cast of men. His most recent show, Fringe, also had issues with developing female characters, as Astrid’s personal life and background weren’t explored with much depth, despite her being one of the leads on the show.
None of this bodes particularly well for the way female characters will be handled in Episode VII. Since she was cast first, it’s likely that Ridley’s character will be playing the Leia-role this time around, while the character that has yet to be cast will be more of a secondary, supporting lead. Based on the way those female supporting roles have been treated by Abrams and the Star Wars franchise, it’s hard to feel a great deal of confidence that we’ll see a second woman with just as much character development and depth as Ridley’s.
It’s easy to find blockbusters that are filled with female characters that exist to play the hero’s girlfriend or add some sex appeal to what would otherwise be a film dominated by guys. Star Wars has the opportunity to put female characters at the forefront of a major franchise, characters that are just as interesting and exciting and complex as the men. To simply ignore that opportunity in order to stick with the “one woman” rule that the original trilogy established is pointless and it’s insulting to the legions of female fans who have waited to see more women given the chance to shine in these films. The Expanded Universe is filled with well-written female characters, many of whom, like Mara Jade and Jaina Solo, are fan favorites. Star Wars fans want to see more women brought to the forefront of the series, both in numbers and in complexity.
The news that Episode VII plans to add more female characters is a good thing, even if it does feel a little bit like damage control right now. But just casting more women isn’t enough if it means that most of them are relegated to looking pretty in the background. We want to be excited about the film and the new female characters, but it’s hard to muster up any enthusiasm for the same old thing we’ve seen already in blockbuster after blockbuster.