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Rogue One and the Token Protagonist

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First, let’s get this out of the way: I thought Rogue One was a great movie. Well-paced, thrilling, with a story that I think we need right now. I definitely recommend it, if for some reason you haven’t seen it already.

But this blog isn’t just about whether movies are enjoyable, and Rogue One failed on one major issue. Women, apparently, are shockingly rare in a galaxy far, far away.

It feels like it should be impossible. The protagonist, Jyn Erso, is female. People have been complaining about this avalanche of female Star Wars protagonists and the sexism against men included therein for months. Another female protagonist? What, is every person in space a woman now?

But Rogue One suffers from token girl-ism, with the twist that that token girl happens to be the protagonist. I think the film passes the Bechdel test, as I think Jyn talks to both her mother and Mon Mothma, which is an improvement. There are a few women around, at least. But beyond Jyn, they’re all required women. Her mother has to be a woman, and she quickly dies anyway. Mon Mothma is one of the few women in existing canon, so she has to stay, and have a small, if powerful, role. But there’s pretty much no-one else with an even vaguely significant speaking role. Could we have had a female leader of the Death Star project as the main villain, maybe? A female rebel who raised Jyn? A female blind monk, a female pilot, a female other pilot, a female-voiced droid? I left Jyn’s father off this list initially, because I thought perhaps Galen Erso was part of existing canon, but it looks like that’s not the case, so even he could have just as easily been a female character instead. The crew of Rogue One was wonderfully diverse in terms of race, but Jyn was one woman in a crew of six, with very, very few other women scattered across the landscape.

I’m sure people will argue that gender had no effect on the story, whether the characters were male or female, so we shouldn’t force diversity on them. After all, it didn’t really matter whether the defecting Imperial pilot or the Krennic the Death Star planner were men or women. But that’s kind of the point. It didn’t matter. There was no plot or world building reason why they should be men, but they fell to that as the default, even though the result is a world that really needs to worry about its minuscule female population.

It’s pretty frustrating, especially since the movie seemed seriously committed to improving the franchise’s racial diversity. Although I doubt the film’s creators meant it to be political, since they’ve been working on it for years, it feels incredibly political and relevant in the current climate, and that powerful message is slightly undercut by this idea that very few women can be in the revolution. Maybe, instead of simply moving the team’s token woman into the lead role, we could get rid of the concept altogether and have some gender balance instead? It’s not that hard to have women in space, is it? Unless, of course, they were all strangled by their non-expanding bras.

Rhiannon

Rhiannon Thomas is the author of A WICKED THING and KINGDOM OF ASHES. She lives in York, England.

11 thoughts on “Rogue One and the Token Protagonist

  1. I was noticing that…they did such a good job with random women present in the Force Awakens, I was wondering if maybe they went with the skewed gender ratio to better match the original trilogy, which also lacked any women beyond Leia and Aunt Beru. Not that that’s much of an excuse, but it was the impression I got.

    1. Haha, that’s kind of funny, if they did do that. Like women suddenly appeared in the galaxy sometime in the 30 years between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens. Luke brought balance to the Force, and to the gender ratio too!

      1. Not just women. They conveniently killed off all the minorities just before A New Hope starts. ;B

        But seriously, if I were making the film, I would’ve made 50% of the cast diverse women, top to bottom. Both Rebels and the Empire. Limiting the Empire to 1977’s Nazi reference limitations only means more acting opportunities for white men. Plus, it’s not a good look. Fully diversifying the Empire doesn’t make it any less evil.

        And to those who complain that it wouldn’t match up to A New Hope, I say, “Use your imagination.” 😉

  2. I was thinking exactly the same when watching the movie. Not only was Jyn the only woman in a crew of six, but also there wasn’t a single woman in the larger group of volunteers that later join Rogue One. Most of them were essentially extras; it would have taken zero effort to gender-flip any (or half) of them. And, as you said, pretty much each of the new male characters could have been a woman, without any major changes required to the script. As it is, we end up with an unrealistically small female population. I have no idea what happened — the movie really seems to be trying.

    1. I started playing “spot the female character” about halfway through, and there were a couple. One of the X-wing pilots, I think, and a woman who spoke a line or two while discussing the mission to steal the Death Star plans. I think they put a lot of effort in on increasing racial diversity, but they seem to have missed the idea of intersectionality… or perhaps having non-white people and women in one genre movie was too much for people. Honestly, I could see that being the case, which is depressing in itself.

  3. “Unless, of course, they were all strangled by their non-expanding bras.” Does this joke mean that the human body expands in zero-gravity which would make the bras go upwards? Or shall it be interpreted differently?

    1. It’s something that Carrie Fisher said, after George Lucas explained why she wasn’t allowed to wear a bra while filming Star Wars.

      “What happens is you go to space and you become weightless. So far so good, right? But then your body expands??? But your bra doesn’t—so you get strangled by your own bra. Now I think that this would make for a fantastic obit—so I tell my younger friends that no matter how I go, I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra.”

  4. Interesting observation. I haven’t watched Rogue One because I don’t really care about Star Wars and still have to watch everything else out of this universe but the phenomenon is painfully familiar to me. The Hobbit Movies had the same problem except that Tauriel wasn’t the Protagonist or even in the books. Great text :)

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