In honor of International Women’s Day, we’re taking a look at how women’s presence in Star Wars has increased since 1977.
Princess Leia started a revolution back in 1977 – a revolution which said that the princess can rescue herself, that she can play the same games as the boys, and that she can do it all wearing dresses. Until Star Wars books started coming out a few years later, however, Leia was practically the sole inhabitant of the female demographic in the franchise.
That’s now changed. Through the course of hundreds of works of literature, four new films (five counting The Clone Wars) and two animated series, women’s presence in Star Wars has at last become a burgeoning normality.
First, let’s talk about the heroines and villainesses of the Legends timeline, which up until 2014 remained, more or less, the canon history of the Star Wars universe. Mara Jade is the name perhaps most familiar to Legends readers, being among the first new characters introduced to us through literature in Timothy Zahn’s Heir to the Empire trilogy. Jade was the one-time dark side agent of Emperor Palpatine, a smuggler alongside Talon Karrde, and the wife of Luke Skywalker. She also became a formidable Jedi, and was only defeated when her nephew, Jacen Solo, turned to the dark side and killed her in battle.
Mara’s niece, Jaina, was also a Jedi, as well as a skilled X-wing pilot. She was a prelude, of sorts, to Ahsoka Tano from The Clone Wars, in the way she was faced with heart wrenching choices but came out stronger because of it.
Then there’s Winter, Tenel Ka, Lumiya, Mirax, Lella, Abeloth (hey, she’s a character, too), Daala, Juno Eclipse and Maris Brood (from The Force Unleashed game and novelization), Tahiri, Anileen… the list goes on and on, leading up to 2014 and even continuing beyond into the canon literature timeline. Some of these canon offerings, like Dark Disciple, Aftermath, and Lost Stars featured females in leading roles. Comics like Darth Vader and Princess Leia introduced and continue to introduce readers to more well-rounded and diverse female characters.
And that’s just from Star Wars literature. Starting in 1999, a new trilogy of Star Wars films brought us strong females like Padme Amidala, who was both queen and senator of her home planet as well as the husband of Anakin Skywalker and the mother of Luke and Leia; Anakin’s own mother, Shmi Skywalker; powerful Jedi like Shaak Ti, Aayla Secura, Luminara Unduli, Depa Billaba; and scattered throughout, female politicians, pilots, a bounty hunter, and even a dark acolyte (Sly Moore, one of Palpatine’s most trusted servants in the Senate).
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Then came The Clone Wars, and the introduction of Ahsoka Tano which kicked off another revolution. This time, it opened the doors to fangirls of all ages to the idea that a female could be a Jedi and a main character and have an emotionally stirring story arc. Ahsoka broke the floodgates, along with Count Dooku’s evil enforcer Asajj Ventress (who also experiences incredible character development over the course of the series and the novel Dark Disciple), and after them came Satine Kryze, Mother Talzin, Bo Katan, Aurra Sing, Sugi, Numa, Riyo Chuchi, even Mama the Hutt (every part of Star Wars has its elephant in the room, I guess). As with female characters from Star Wars literature, the list is so long it’s impossible to name them all offhandedly, something the original Star Wars film trilogy didn’t achieve.
Star Wars Rebels followed in the footsteps of The Clone Wars by giving us females in lead roles. Hera and Sabine make up two of the most crucial members of The Ghost crew, with Hera as pilot and Sabine as the explosives expert (an important position among rebels). Recently, the show’s female ranks have expanded to include the return of Ahsoka Tano, Numa, and female rebel starfighter pilots.
More present in the public consciousness, though, is the existence of Rey, Captain Phasma, Maz Kanata, and Princess Leia from Star Wars: The Force Awakens; a record number of most female characters in a leading or supporting role in the Star Wars films. The Force Awakens is even more significant for its treatment of female characters, particularly when you realize Rey is without question the main character of the film. She receives the most character growth and screen time, as well as the biggest emotional moments in the movie. That’s a big step for Star Wars, considering the previous two trilogies starred males as the primary protagonists.
Finally, consider this: Rogue One, the first live action, canon, theatrical standalone Star Wars film to be produced, will feature a female rebel soldier as the main character.
There’s no doubt Princess Leia was the ultimate Star Wars heroine for many decades. What’s satisfying is that now, the amount of female characters with her depth of strength and intelligence present in the franchise is uncountable.