Qi’ra from Solo: A Star Wars Story holds a primacy among the Star Wars characters in one way: she is the first female protagonist who is “morally gray” and somewhat ambiguous.
This article doesn’t contain any direct spoilers for Solo, so you can safely read on even if you haven’t watched the film.
First Among the Leias
Let’s face it. For forty years, Star Wars hasn’t had a great record of female protagonists – at least on big screen. Leia was, of course, amazing, but she had been the only one for a long time. When Padmé appeared, the amount of female protagonists just doubled – but in many ways, Padmé is only a Leia no. 2. The similarity is intentional and makes sense (they are mother and daughter, after all). But the archetype of “a lady with a rebellious streak who stands up for the rights of the less fortunate” has firmly rooted itself in the Star Wars universe, and the writers have had hard time leaving it.
The new films have introduced Rey and Jyn Erso as chief protagonists (Rose, who came in TLJ, already breaks away, but Rey has been around for longer, leaving Rose somewhat in her shadow – at least for the time being). Both Rey and Jyn still build on the above archetype. They may come from lower origins than a princess/senator, but they both show some compassion with the oppressed and have the strong, independent streak and confidence we see in both Leia and Padmé. On top of that, Rey is still essentially a “goody-goodie”: she doesn’t possess any major character flaws.
Limited Size of the Sample
There is a reason for it: Rey was meant to be the “proper role model for her generation”. It makes perfect sense that if you release one story per 20 years, and it has one female protagonist (or essentially, one female character whatsoever), you want her to present a good role model for the girls (or whomever identifies with her). In that way, I understand why giving Leia, Padmé or Rey’s personality some major flaws was unwanted. The hero (heroine, in this case) needs to be essentially good – not greedy or selfish or do things that are clearly immoral from the audience’s perspective. And that is all well.
But that is also why we had to wait for decades for a female protagonist who wasn’t a goody-goodie. Just look at Jyn: the mere fact that she was a second female character in recent Star Wars films gave the writers the liberty to make her a much more dubious heroine (and much more complicated personality, too). In fact, she had to be less of a goodie just so she could be different. I believe the Star Wars writers are now going to rather find themselves pressed to make their female characters different from the Leia archetype. Not that it should be a difficult thing to do, they just need to start building from square zero, not square one.
Enter the Bad Girl?
Qi’ra moves still one step further than Jyn. Qi’ra is a criminal. She does bad stuff on regular basis. We were not told about Jyn’s years as an outlaw before the events of Rogue One: they are only hinted at. But we still got the picture that whatever she had been doing was more or less okay, because it was against the Empire.
In Qi’ra’s case (and now minor spoilers for Solo follow in the upcoming paragraph), we know that she did some bad stuff. First, she grew up in a criminal environment, where she really couldn’t avoid getting her hands dirty one way or another. Second and more importantly (and now minor spoilers for real!), she told Han that she had done some things so terrible he wouldn’t bear to hear about them. You could imagine literally anything, since she is being vague – which, in my opinion, was a good move. (At least we are not straightforwardly served the cliché that “bad stuff” she did needs to automatically have something to do with sex, since she’s a woman. Even though many people probably imagined just that – exactly because it’s a cliché. But imagine a male character saying the same words: would the same occur to you? Myself, I imagine Qi’ra talks about situations where she had to shoot a person, for example. Which is terrible, even if it was a question of her own self-defense, regardless how casually an average movie presents it to you. Or maybe she had to extort money from people on behalf of the criminal organisations, when they had barely enough to feed their children. Qi’ra could easily imagine Han hating her for that, since they both had been on that side once.)
Along the same lines, Forces of Destiny has recently released a short animated clip featuring Qi’ra during her criminal years. I believe it illustrates the same point I am trying to make if we compare it to the previous clips. The purpose of Forces of Destiny was to show Star Wars women as positive role models, so each episode underlined their traits such as compassion or kindness. Qi’ra’s apparently didn’t have such option, so the writers had to look for some praiseworthy characteristic: they found it in her cunning.
Curse of the Last Brunette
Let me pause at one last aspect of Qi’ra’s existence. There’s one thing Leia, Padmé, Rey, Jyn and Qi’ra have in common: they are all caucasian brunettes. I believe looks should be the last thing a writer should be concerned with, and indeed, according to Lucasfilm, it just “happened”. Obviously however, this has broader connotations in terms of representation. But maybe it is good after all that Qi’ra still belonged to the same group with all her predecessors.
Why? Because now, this arrangement also states: “If you are a caucasian brunette, you can be a goodie, but you can also be a more dubious character”. Imagine if, say, Qi’ra were a woman of colour. Inevitably, it would prompt questions like “so in Star Wars, white women are the good ones, but women of colour are evil?” Now, after we have seen also at least some women of colour in more significant roles (like Rose and Val), Star Wars should feel safe enough to cast anyone any way they like without fear of creating anything that would resemble a pattern. And even the pattern of “Leias” can be discontinued – or resurface again, but not for any other reason than the needs of the story.