Other Voices

‘Star Wars’ changes gender stereotypes, but more is needed

Rey (Daisey Ridley), left, and Finn (John Boyega) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, directed by J.J. Abrams.
Rey (Daisey Ridley), left, and Finn (John Boyega) in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, directed by J.J. Abrams. AP

As a professor who teaches college courses on “Star Wars” and transmedia storytelling, I have been a Star Wars fan for more than 30 years and a fan scholar for more than a decade.

My wedding cake even depicted the battle of Hoth, complete with lightsaber cake cutter.

Imagine my surprise when I opened up my computer for the latest The Force Awakens news to see writer and director J.J. Abrams matter-of-factly state on a morning news program that “Star Wars was always a boy’s thing.”

That statement gets at the heart of a problem.

Context is important. Abrams was expressing excitement for female audiences to see themselves in Rey, the female scavenger at the center of the movie, and the idea that this film might begin to bring representational balance to the franchise’s cultural force. It’s an enthusiasm that I share.

Abrams can celebrate that The Force Awakens features a woman and a black man in the leading roles. What he can’t claim is that this movie will bring minority audiences to the franchise.

Much like the mythic Yoda exiled on Dagobah, when female fans, queer fans and fans of color view the media, it’s frequently accompanied by a palpable sense of disbelief or disappointment.

The problem with Abrams’ comment is that it powerfully perpetuates the notion that geek culture was, and still is, “a boy’s thing.”

And within this cultural formulation, geek culture is not just a masculine preserve. It is an oft-unspoken but always implied white, straight, male preserve.

Abrams has since apologized for the comment. But if he or Disney were really concerned about making the “mother and daughter” demographic feel welcome, they should turn their attention to their local toy retailer.

In the aisles, the cultural myth that Star Wars was and remains “a boy’s thing” is alive and well.

This has been an issue since the 1980s, with the paucity of Princess Leia action figures.

During the past year, there has been a marked rise in hashtag activism around the systemic erasure of female characters from mass-marketed fan merchandise.

When merchandise for The Force Awakens hit shelves this fall, the inevitable #wheresrey and #wewantleia hashtags were as routine as they were representative of how little the franchise’s approach to representational diversity had actually changed.

As the old Jedi saying goes, size matters not — unless we’re talking about piles of licensed T-shirts or stacks of action figures that fail to acknowledge both the franchise’s commitment to diverse representations of heroism and the diversity of the franchise’s fans.

Then, it matters a great deal.

But it’s not just a question of creating more merchandise to clearly label Star Wars as a “girl’s thing.”

To have any real impact, Disney needs to change the gender stereotypes that are reinforced through this merchandise.

Don’t relegate Leia and Rey to beauty products and pink T-shirts with “princess” platitudes.

Don’t demarcate — and by extension, devalue — which toys are designed for girls.

Don’t presume boys wouldn’t want to play with, or identity with, a female character. Design merchandise for fans.

Suzanne Scott is an assistant professor of media studies at The University of Texas at Austin.

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