This is a guest post by Lydia Huxley, a writer who loves playing music or a musician who loves writing. Is there a difference?
Upon looking at the recently-released theatrical poster for Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens, one character stands out more than the others. Part of it is because she’s located at the very middle of the poster: a place typically reserved for the star. Part of it is because she is – well …a she. Daisy Ridley’s character, Rey, is the first woman to fill such a spot in the previously male-dominated franchise. In the previous six films there have been a total of two women in major roles: Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia and Natalie Portman as Padmé. And these are supporting roles!
Ridley is not the only actress to land a major role for the latest installment of the sci-fi series. She will be joined by Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma, Lupita Nyong’o voicing and motion capturing Maz Kanata, and Carrie Fisher returning as Princess Leia. With the exception of Leia, almost nothing is known about these characters, but all four appear on the theatrical poster so it’s a safe bet that they will be integral to the plot. Four women in major roles? In one movie? That’s double the number in the previous two trilogies combined.
Of the named characters on the poster, 3 are women, 4 are men, and 5 are nonhuman (whom the franchise most often personifies as male). Of the nonhumans, C-3PO and Chewbacca are widely considered male. Each is referred to as “he” and played by a male actor. Despite also being called “he” and occasionally having a man inside the dome in early films, R2-D2 has no humanlike features and a voice created by an ARP 2600 analog synthesizer, rendering R2 and the similar BB-8 droid as genderless characters. The animated Maz Kanata is presumably female with Nyong’o providing the character’s voice and motion-capturing. So, droids aside, the ratio of female to male characters is 4 to 6. If the poster’s gender ratio is at all indicative of the rest of the film’s characters, this puts The Force Awakens much closer to having a balanced cast than almost all other films of its popularity.
A study by University of Southern California looked at the top 700 most popular films released between 2007 and 2014, and found that only 30.2% of speaking characters were female. That percentage is even lower for action and adventure movies specifically. Of the top 100 movies in 2014, only 21 featured a female lead or co-lead.
(Image by University of Southern California)
A Renewed Hope
This cast can go a long way in terms of cultural impact. Currently, Star Wars is the third-highest-grossing film franchise and it holds a world record for “Most successful film merchandising franchise,” coming in at over $30 billion as of 2012. This includes books, video games, clothing, home video sales, toys, and more.
Toys, in particular, have the potential to cause a shift in the gender role paradigm. Remember the uproar over the lack of Black Widow merchandize following the release of Avengers: Age of Ultron? Hasbro seems determined not to let this happen again, releasing action figures of Rey and Captain Phasma before the movie’s release date, as well as reissuing original trilogy-era Leia toys. And these aren’t Barbies. These are action figures. The same as, say, Iron Man. Or any other action hero. The availability of female action toys is a step in the right direction. If we can get children to acknowledge that women can be just as exciting of action heroes as men, they might question gender roles later in life.
This is the hope, anyway.
The film itself, which is expected to break box office records, could believably set an excellent example for other filmmakers if they acknowledged that its success is due to more than just the Star Wars brand. It proves something. A balanced cast can work. A balanced cast can sell tickets. A balanced cast can get great reviews. A balanced cast can be badass! And as Bustle’s Courtney Lindley puts it, “I think more importantly that we, as audience, are finally, finally ready for her.”
The impact The Force Awakens will have on the film industry, children’s toys, and gender paradigms in general will only be known after the film’s release, which is currently more than a month away. Until then, let’s hope for great female characters in a widely-influential film.