Star Wars has always been known for its iconic, brave, well-written female characters. The one problem is that for a long time, there had been only one of them.
There is much that could be said about the presence of women in Star Wars, but I would like to focus today on one particular aspect of it: the presence, or rather absence, of female characters on the “Dark Side” or within the ranks of the Empire in particular.
Phasma Is A Breakthrough, Because…
Before captain Phasma came along, there have been no major female villains in the films, less so Imperial officers. A minor villain (but not necessarily “evil”) who had a few lines came in the form of Zam Wessel, the changeling bounty hunter in Attack of the Clones. We can’t really say if she was a “baddie” – sure, she wanted to assassinate senator Amidala, but it was only a job. A female character who consciously sided with the “Dark Side” is nowhere to be found in the original six films.
This had a lot to do with the objective ratio of male versus female actors on-screen at the end of 1970s and later, when the first films were made. When female villains appeared on TV back then, they very often fell into the trope of “Bond villainesses”, and such character did not fit the Star Wars story as George Lucas envisioned it. As far as background characters went, it felt much more “natural” to cast male extras as Imperial officers and technicians.
“I Wanted To Cosplay A Star Wars Villainess, But…”
This posed a problem later when books and more material started coming out, the fan-base became wider and some began to wonder why there weren’t any female Imperials. Later, with cosplay coming into the picture, there was an increasing amount of women and girl fans who would have liked to portray specific characters that would represent their favoured side in the galactic conflict. Cosplaying Leia or later Padmé was always the easiest option for Rebel-favouring fans, but there have always been many fans who liked the Galactic Empire, and equal proportion of them were also women. Nothing prevented a woman from cosplaying Darth Vader, but for many, it would have still been preferable to portray a specific character who was female. And such one has been lacking in the films for a long time.
The extra materials like books, games or comics have been more generous in that respect and have filled in the empty space. You definitely can pick your favourite even among those affiliated with the baddies. The spectrum ranges from the super-sexy Darth Talon to solemn Darth Traya, from Vader’s “female Indiana Jones” assistant Doctor Aphra to Mara Jade, the Emperor’s Hand. Devout fans are sure to recognise those at conventions; however, you still can’t make the same impression on general public that a Darth Vader casually walking through a railway station would make (“I am sorry, you are supposed to be Asajj who?”). Captain Phasma is a good start in that respect.
Sexism Is Evil, Empire Is Sexism
J.J. Abrams and his team have confessed that the fact that Captain Phasma is female was actually a late choice. Originally, the character of the “chrome trooper captain” wasn’t envisioned to be a female, but was planned to be male by default. The story group around Lucasfilm nowadays seems however more aware of the fact that the Star Wars universe has been lacking in terms of female representation.
One issue shows it plainly, and that is the recent change inside the canon. Previously, in the pre-Episode VII expanded universe material, a canon developed in the sense that the Galactic Empire was sexist (of course, it was all only an explanation provided for the fact that there were no female Imperials in the films, while Rebels eventually got other characters besides Leia). Women would not achieve high ranks in the Imperial military because of discrimination present within its structures. And we are not talking about the sort of “structural sexism”, but even about the straightforward, blunt sexism in the sense “a woman has no place in a leading post” (this explains why there was place for incompetent officers like Ozzel in Empire Strikes Back).
In the old canon, the only woman to achieve the rank of an Admiral in the Imperial military was Natasi Daala, who was so impressive that even the sexist machinery could not completely ignore her; and having impressed Moff Tarkin himself, she had the support of the powerful man to help her overcome the obstacles. Still, she had to struggle for her place more than any man ever would, and much like the alien admiral Thrawn (who faced analogical problems because of the Empire’s humano-centrism), she had been assigned to a secluded post away from the centre of Imperial power.
The Empire For Everyone
In the new material published after Episode VII, the Empire is portrayed as different from the previous canon. The First Order has female officers like Phasma or several unnamed characters who also appear on the screen, but Palpatine’s Empire, too, is not considered sexist anymore. If we look inside the newly published books, for instance, the character of Admiral Sloane is a prominent one, and in the Rebels animated series, the Imperial government is first represented by minister Maketh Tua and later by governor Arihnda Pryce.
There are good arguments for both versions of the Empire: both the chauvinist one and the non-chauvinist one. An Empire which discriminates on the basis of gender or species, as was the case of the old canon, makes sense if you want to underline the fact that it is evil. Its structures are corrupt and oppressive, those in power try to keep it and push those below them even lower, and any latent negative aspects of human nature – such as cruelty, the wish to oppress others, xenophobia or sexism – become manifest. It is good in the sense that it makes it clear what the Empire really is. It de-masks the evil. Nobody can pretend that they are the “good guys”, because they clearly are not.
At the same time, there are many fans who like the bad guys. And, I mean, most of us (yes, I confess, I am one of “us”) do not like Darth Vader because he kills Rebels, we like him because we think he’s cool. It would be much more difficult to sympathise with him, however, if we knew he was on the side of chauvinist pigs, so to speak. Equally importantly, if the Empire is sexist, you can’t really ever hope for a nice Imperial female character you could relate to, because any Imperial characters of note would have to be male.
The new canon has therefore made sure the Empire is here for fans who would like to find characters of any gender also among the baddies, this time also in the films. (I am personally hoping for some to appear in some of the stand-alone films set in the “classic” Rebellion/Clone War era.) Star Wars is such a great and wide Galaxy and it should serve us a large spectrum of characters with the mixture of all possible traits, and gender should be just one item among those.