Warning: This article contains spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. If you haven’t seen it yet, encase yourself in frozen carbonite and come back when you’ve recovered from hibernation sickness.
In a 1978 interview on The Tonight Show, Johnny Carson asked astronomer Carl Sagan about the scientific accuracy of the Star Wars films. Sagan responded with disappointment about the one-dimensionality of the series’ creatures: “They’re all white. The skin of all the humans in Star Wars, oddly enough, is sort of like this [points to his skin] and not even the other colours represented on the earth are present, much less greens and blues and purples and oranges. […] Everybody in charge of the galaxy seems to look like us.”
It appears our culture still has a narrow imagination. Like most other pop culture objects, studio executives prefer our onscreen heroes to be white, male, able-bodied, thin, and straight. Even in science fiction, where alternate realities, alien societies, and strange worlds are possible (in galaxies far, far, away, no less), our films and television series’ end up mimicking patriarchal structures that exist in the “real” world. Rogue One, A Star Wars Story is no exception.
Rogue One has a women problem. In short, there aren’t many. In a universe where space wars are possible on a massive scale, where droids are self-aware, and where weapons made of light can cut through anything, there just don’t seem to be many women around. You’d think, in a galaxy-wide rebellion, there’d be at least a handful of women who cared enough to fight. They can’t all be stuck at home scavenging ship parts for Insta-bread portions and schlepping “Little Ani”s around.
Skeptics will point to the fact that our main character, Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones), is a woman, marking the second film in Disney’s Star Wars reboot that features a female lead. But this does not change the irrefutable fact that Jyn’s entire entourage – Cassian Andor, Chirrut Imwe, Bodhi Rook, Baze Malbus, even the droid K-2SO (Alan Tudyk) – is made up of men. Were there really no female martial artists for hire? Or the one they cast couldn’t quite handle the “I am one with the Force. The Force is with me” mantra?
The lack of female characters in the Rogue One squadron is compounded by the painful fact that, as a viewer, it is hard to relate to or care about Jyn. Like with other squad members, Rogue One takes almost no time to develop its characters. We never get to know what makes Cassian tick (other than, well, the Empire?), why Bodhi defected from the Imperial army, nor what caused the Alliance to view Saw Gerrera’s tactics as “too extreme.” Most importantly, as she’s our main character, we don’t feel the personal stakes behind Jyn’s reluctant mission to steal the Death Star’s data tapes. Unfortunately, this leaves our much lauded female hero feeling flat and uninteresting. Making Jyn Erso the centre of Rogue One, it seems, is nothing more than a token gesture in an overwhelming man’s (star) world.
On occasion, we did catch glimpses of other women in the galaxy: Mon Mothma, Jyn’s mother, the unnamed black Senator at the Alliance table, the unnamed female fighter pilot, and even a (stiff) digital likeness of the late Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia. However, there is no denying the rest of Rogue One is predominantly male. There’s a scene where Cassian Andor approaches Jyn with a small army of Rogue fighters ready for a rebellion. As I watched, I couldn’t help but feel angry that the film presumes women wouldn’t make up a major facet of the rebellion and frustration at the missed opportunity to be more inclusive. After 40 years, how can a franchise have regressed in its representation of women?
There is no doubt that Rogue One succeeds at progressivism in its diverse (male) casting choices – there are a wide array of skin colours, accents, and physical abilities in this film. However, you cannot achieve progress unless it is progress for everyone. In this sense, Rogue One is a regrettable step backwards for the representation of women in popular science fiction. As I left the theatre, it was difficult to feel anything resembling Princess Leia’s final word: “hope.”