You might have heard that men’s rights activists have been claiming they cost The Force Awakens millions in ticket sales by boycotting the film because of its female lead, Daisy Ridley. If you want to read a really, really bizarre take on the film, I recommend Davis Aurini’s (of The Sarkeesian Effect fame) review. It helpfully explains how the new film is like “auto-castration” and teaches us that all white men are evil.
I have a hard time listening to people complain the only white male heroic presence in a movie is Han Freakin’ Solo, but I digress.
To many folks, Rey’s place as the heir apparent to the Star Wars hero’s journey might feel like the sinister influence of social justice pushing a feminist message onto the franchise. After all, Amidala started out strong and full of her own agency but settled down into a tropey character totally defined by the male leads by the time credits rolled in Revenge of the Sith. However, Star Wars has been becoming steadily more feminist since the ’90s.
In the time between films, the Star Wars brand was maintained through the expanded universe of books, comics and video games. A lot of those have been ripped out of the official continuity, but all that happened is that they were replaced with a new, official crop. Spin-off material is often how a franchise evolves and mutates in a less high-risk environment, and Star Wars is no different.
Back in 1994, there was a new trilogy of books by Kevin J. Anderson called the Jedi Academy Trilogy. The books introduced the first truly memorable villain since Grand Admiral Thrawn got shanked; Admiral Natasi Daala. Though a bad guy, obviously, Daala ended up being one of the more sympathetic characters in the Star Wars novels. She was feared as a soldier even though she tended to be rather easily defeated. She would even aid the Alliance on several occasions, but never let anything stand in the way of her quest for control of the galaxy for long.
One of the reasons that Daala was so interesting is that her character was purposefully feminist. The Thrawn trilogy had painted the Empire as a racist regime, with Palpatine disliking non-humans and thus sending Thrawn to the furthest corners of space rather than have him in the fight. Any fictional empire will eventually start to go Nazi Germany to keep the heat on.
Daala, though, openly muses to herself that the Empire also had a distinct, if less overt, sexism problem. She is the only female admiral (a rank below Thrawn), and throughout her time in the books, she is constantly in a fight with groups of men demanding she prove her worthiness based on her gender. It’s probably not all that surprising she eventually worked with the Alliance.
That’s one of the ways that Star Wars has been portraying the good side and the bad side since the original trilogy. The Alliance is a diverse mix of races. In Return of the Jedi, the commander of the Alliance is a woman, Mon Mothma, while her second in command is Admiral Ackbar, a dark-skinned alien. The assault against the second Death Star is led by Lando Calrissian, a black man, and Nien Nunb, an alien, and though they were cut in the final film, the fighting force featured female pilots. Meanwhile, the Empire is almost exclusively white male (and British for that extra bit of colonialism). The only woman we see in any role is Captain Phasma, and the only person of color is Finn, who defects nearly as soon as we meet him.
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It’s not just that Daala was challenging the sexist status quo; she was making people acknowledge it even existed. Any comb through the manosphere on the Internet will net you plenty of people claiming women don’t have a disadvantage in the world, or at least not in America.
In 1997 Star Wars tried its hands at a fighting game, The Masters of Teras Kasi. It was pretty damned terrible, but it did create an interesting new character in Arden Lyn. Lyn, a master of an obscure martial art, is sent by Darth Vader to eliminate rebel leaders. Production manager Camela Boswell said in an interview with Star Wars Insider in 1998 that Lyn was specifically created so that there would be more women in the hugely male-majority franchise.
Slowly over the course of the past 20 years, Star Wars has worked hard on including more women. Clone Wars gave us Ahsoka Tano and Asajj Ventress, with the former going on to survive into the Rebels series as a main character. Norra Wexley seems poised to be the heroic lead of the new novel trilogy starting with Aftermath. Whether some fans are aware of it or not, Rey is just the next logical step in a long journey toward gender equality. It’s been a dedicated evolution, directed by a variety of contributors who consciously wanted to end complete male supremacy in a galaxy far, far away. That may have flown under dudebros’ radars, but it doesn’t make it less true.