OP-ED: Disney’s Star Wars Doesn’t Understand Strong Female Characters

Hoo boy. I know this topic is getting tagged with “Controversial” without even having finished it. Crud, it’s controversial just from the title. Discuss anything to do with female characters, strong or otherwise, and you’re painting a gigantic target on yourself.

Which is why I’d like to point out, for those sharpening their pitchforks before they were even finished reading the title, that I’ve had some experience with strong female characters of a wide variety. Yeah, it sucks that I have to lead with a disclaimer, but people are just that trigger happy these days. But I’ve written some very well-received female protagonists who are strong and capable, whether they be Meelo Karn, the Imperial Inquisitor of Shadow of an Empire, with her quick, deductive mind and talent for investigation, or Samantha, a young journalist determined to be the first to interview her city’s elusive superhero.

Crud, I’ve written Being a Better Writer articles on here before about gender in stories, and in those admitted that I have a fun habit of flipping a coin for secondary characters just to keep things fresh and fun. I don’t have a problem with strong female characters. The world needs strong women and strong men. Neither should be excluded.

Which, in a way, is where Disney is getting things wrong. And with that, we get to the point.

Disney’s Star Wars, as well as the company itself, has come under fire as of late. Once maligned for being a house proposing (generally) only a singular type of female character, Disney has in recent years worked to round themselves out, giving us characters like Moana or Rapunzel that are more varied than their female protagonists of the past.

Unfortunately, some aspects of Disney have shown they don’t quite understand what this approach entails, and have simply flipped everything as far the other direction as they can manage. The result is, well … bad. And I don’t just mean cringeworthy, but flat-out showing that the folks making the decisions don’t understand A) What a strong female character is and B) How to make one.

Still puzzled as to what could have made me write this post? No, it wasn’t The Last Jedi, though that movie falls into many pitfalls that are only expanded on what you’re about to see. And yes, I do understand that this now means there needs to be a BaBW post on strong female characters. It’s now on the list.

But that’s for a Monday in the future. For the here and now, I want to talk about Disney’s new Star Wars Galaxy of Adventures.

So, here’s the short of it: Star Wars Galaxy of Adventures, hereafter referred to as SWGoA for brevity, is a new advertising series Disney has developed to pull kids into Star Wars. Basically, they’re quick, animated “shorts” that are either character bios or redone bits from the movies, in a mass-market animated style that’s designed basically to pull kids in and say “Hey, check this out. Isn’t Star Wars awesome! Go watch one of the shows or a movie!”

All right, sounds all well and good, right? Well yeah. Had that been all it was, even as advertising, I’d find it fairly harmless and not really pay it any mind. After all, I’m already familiar with Star Wars, grew up on the original trilogy, read a lot of the books, am literally listening to the soundtrack to Rogue One as I write this, etc, and these trailers are for kids that haven’t found the magic yet. So I hadn’t seen any of these shorts.

Or at least, I hadn’t until Disney pushed the advertising for their latest, a Princess Leia character bio, all over the place including my Facebook feed. Not one to pass over something Star Wars related, especially something a minute long, I watched it.

I came away with some serious concerns. Quite serious. Because this is … Well, actually, rather than me talking about it first and possibly coloring first perceptions further, I’m just going to embed it so that you can watch it for yourself. Then I’ll commence with voicing my concerns.

Okay, that was a minute. Did you see the issue there with this new portrayal of Leia? The one single issue that makes this “bio” completely fail at what it attempted to do?

They “made” her a “strong” female character by making everyone else incompetent. Worse, in doing so, they took away from her character’s core strengths she exhibited in the original series in the first place, giving them lip service in a single brief moment (that also doesn’t quite happen in the actual series).

Leia was a leader. That was one of her core strengths in the original series. Crud, the movie opens with her ship running from the Galactic Empire, with rebel soldiers sacrificing themselves for her because they knew they needed to buy her time. Leia was one of the most important faces of the Rebellion, and as the series rolled on we saw her working not to steamroll everyone around her, but to see that everyone worked as a team to their greatest strengths.

Take, for example, the prison escape scene as showed in the original trilogy. Leia goes with Luke and Han’s plan until she realizes that they don’t have a plan for getting out of the block once the exit is cut off. She then improvises because she knows the cell block better, and gets them out through the garbage chute. Once out of the compactor, however, she immediately demands the next step of the plan from Han and Luke. Why? Because the breakout is their mission, and barring deviations like the chute, she understands that they do have a plan, and know more about what’s currently going on.

That’s leadership. Look at Hoth, where Leia stayed behind until the last to coordinate the evacuation, making sure everyone possible was where they needed to be as they got out. Or on Bespin, where once again she called the shots.

Leia was a leader. A good one. Now, I’m not saying the original films were perfect in pointing this out, but it was there, and it was her strongest trait.

Then you have … this short. And that strongest trait is gone. Because here’s the thing: In order to be a good leader, you have be willing to work with a team. And this short?

We don’t see any of that. Instead, we see the opposite. This short shows no leadership at all. Instead Leia just runs over every other character like they’re a step to be stepped on. It’s bad enough that the short makes them out to be incompetent idiots, but then it brings down Leia’s character even further by having her angry and unhappy with them at every turn and doing everything herself.

Take the grappling hook scene. In the original scene, there’s a very clear case of interaction between Luke and Leia. She‘s the one that shuts the door, and then summarizes for Luke what their next steps ought to be to escape. Luke covers for Leia, and then, when Luke thinks of a solution and remembers the grappling hook, she covers for him while he gets the hook ready.

Compare that to the short, where Luke is a bumbling mess and Leia takes everything from him and does it all on her own while shooting him angry glares. There’s no sense of working as a team, no sense of leadership. Just a case of “everyone around me is an incompetent fool, so I’m going to take over and do things my way.”

Interestingly enough, that makes this new portrayal of Leia far more in line with the Emperor she was trying to unseat than her original character.

And that’s what alarms me. This version of Leia is an angry, unrepentent bully, and it seems to me that this is, of late, what Disney Star Wars thinks a “strong female protagonist” should be. Worse, they’re marketing it to kids.

Again, the original movies could have done better to show Leia’s strengths, but at least she had them. What’s the takeaway for a young girl from this new short? I can think of a few:

  • Everyone else is just in my way. They’re not as smart or skilled as me, and I should just shove them out of my way because that’s being strong.
  • I don’t need to work with anyone else, because I’m the best. Everyone else just gets in my way.
  • Leadership means giving orders that everyone else obeys.

Crud, from there, a few more extrapolate themselves. What’s going to happen when a young girl sees this short, learns from it, and then is told by a teacher to work with a team. Princess Leia takes command, and tells everyone else what to do. Because she’s smart and they’re not.

Oh yeah, can you see the sparks flying there? Because that’s not going to lead to a good group project.

This is not a strong female character. In fact, Disney’s Star Wars division seems to have a lot of problems with this. The Last Jedi encapsulated many of them with its character of Holdo. Disney backed her as a “strong female commander” but in truth? Holdo’s logic ran on positional power and implicit threat. She straightforwardly told those whose respect she demanded ‘I’m in charge, and that means you’ll do what I say because I’m in charge.’ Like this new Leia, she seemed only concerned with proving how “strong” she was by bowling over everyone around her and cowering them into submission.

That’s not strength. Nor leadership. That’s bullying.

And that’s where Disney’s Star Wars seems to be completely blind. What they’re giving viewers—no, what they’re pushing at young girls with this short is that to be a strong woman they need to tear down those around them and push them around, demanding respect at every turn.

But … that’s not a strong female character. Or a leader. In fact, the original films, in a way, negate this very message. Han Solo’s debut was as a character who didn’t listen to anyone, worked alone (save Chewie), and frequently tore down those around him. And those films treated those aspects of his character as flaws. It was growing past those flaws that saw Han grow and become a hero of the Rebellion.

New Star Wars, specifically SWGoA with this short, instead lauds these flaws as desired attributes rather than the toxic traits they are. And I don’t like that. Not one bit.

And again, I feel at this point I should post a reminder that I am 100% for strong female characters, and have written and read many. But those characters? They are strong female characters, not bullies. Meelo Karn works with Salitore Amazd, understanding that they’re a partnership in pursuit of Nirren, and that they each bring their own strengths and talents to the table. She doesn’t demean him or push him down, insult him or bully him, and likewise he doesn’t to her. Instead they work together, relying on one-another’s talents and skills to work as a team.

That’s a strong female character. Is she perfect? Of course not. No character is, male or female. But she’s intelligent, aware, skilled, and knows who she is.

Speaking of which, that knowing who she is bit? I feel it’s something SWGoA, and by extension, all of Disney Star Wars doesn’t understand. From what we’ve seen, especially with this short, they seem to think that “strong female character” means a character who is A) better than everyone around them, which means making everyone around them weaker, and B) leads through pure power and force. Which is … crud, I wasn’t aware that a strong female character meant “generic fantasy warlord expy.”

Which is because it doesn’t. And isn’t. A strong female character is, in what should be no surprise to anyone but sadly seems to be, a female character that is strong of character.

Tearing down everyone around them? That’s not strength of character. Sure, tearing down every building in Chicago that’s over ten stories save your own will mean you’re technically the largest … but only now that Chicago is a smoldering wreck, not because you worked your way up. You just brought everyone else down.

Leading by brute will and positional authority? Well, as anyone who has had a boss that relied on exactly that can tell you, it sucks. No one wants to work with someone like that save other people who believe in leading through force, coercion. And even then, they do because they’re looking at the one they’re under as a stepping stone to more power.

I think at this point I’ve said all I wanted to say, so I’ll sum it up and tie it off here. Simply put: I do not like this new portrayal of Princess Leia. In fact, it’s kind of an insult to the character she was in that it shows a complete lack of either understanding or interest in her original strengths. Instead, they’ve been cut out and replaced with something that’s a shadow of what a strong female character should be … and a dangerous one at that. Either someone at Disney Star Wars doesn’t understand characters, or worse, they’re a toxic individual who really thinks that strength is combination of “rule of the fittest” and tearing those around you down.

On that note, I’m glad I don’t work there if that’s the case. Yikes.

And again, as I said, it also is an insult to her original strengths as a leader who worked with people rather than stomping all over them. Who Leia was is not evident in this short, but someone with a very different set of principles. And absolutely not a diplomat you’d want both working with others and running secret missions.

But as bad as this portrayal is, I worry more for the kids that this is advertised as, showing this idea of “strength” as one for them to absorb. Because it’s toxic. A kid who sees this short and decides to “be like Leia” by grabbing things from other people and shoving them around? That’s absolutely not the kind of message I would get behind.

Will Disney change? Well, I’d like to say yes, but at this point I kind of doubt it, since I’ve looked a little bit at what’s going on behind the scenes, and Disney has not just doubled-down but tripled-down on this approach.

But it does make me sad. This bio could have been one that showed off what a strong female character really was, that showed Leia organizing the group and being a real leader.

Instead, we got something that delivers the very opposite, replacing building up with tearing down, and teamwork with single-minded steamrolling.

I already wasn’t really planning on seeing Episode IX. But after this? I’m feeling my decision is all the more correct.

Give us heroines that build up, not tear down. That work with, rather than shove aside for the spotlight. Give us strong female characters that we can all look up to, that kids can learn from.

Don’t give us “role models” that rub everyone else’s nose in the dirt about how much better they are than everyone else, or tear down those around them so that they can be the tallest.

People—young or old—need heroes.

And this short? This character?

This isn’t one of them.

3 thoughts on “OP-ED: Disney’s Star Wars Doesn’t Understand Strong Female Characters

  1. honestly i feel like this says more about disney’s marketing department rather than the writers of the star wars content.
    i plan on seeing episode 9, probably a long time after it comes out because star wars isn’t a top priority in my life- hell, i’m 6 episodes behind on the resistance show and i’m not that bothered. i’ll binge it at the end of the season. but i feel like the movie will be fun.
    as for heroines that build others up… ahsoka tano. jin erso. hera syndula. sabine wren. and mismanaged as they might have been, this is what rey, leia, and rose were meant to be in episode 8. and i’m not going to argue about intent versus execution, that’s an entire different issue and also depends largely on a subjective view of the stated execution.
    and again, i feel like this is a marketing thing. because there’s a similar issue going on with captain marvel. i have no doubt that kevin feige has paid very close attention to captain marvel and has ensured that it’s a good film. he’s wanted to make a captain marvel film for many years now, i cannot imagine him screwing it up. but there is no denying that the trailers for captain marvel have largely sucked. and as i see it, there’s one main reason: she looks invincible.
    see, most other superhero movie trailers show the heroes getting beaten to shit. the villains get a bunch of scenes in the trailer and are made to look like someone the hero has no way to beat. this is especially true of recent marvel trailers, since the avengers trailers have all focused on how unbeatable thanos is and how nothing the heroes do matters. contrast that with captain marvel- we barely see the skrulls, there are plenty of scenes of her blowing shit up in what is certainly the climax of the film where she *should* be invincible to a certain extent, and the only shots of her falling down are immediately juxtaposed with shots of her getting up. because according to the marketing department, *she can’t show weakness*. that’s what the issue is, and i cannot wait for the fan trailers that will come out after the film hits blu-ray and be 10x better than the real trailers.
    though i will admit that brie larson’s politics haven’t helped much. she’s still a better person than comics captain marvel.
    anyway, point is- i know you didn’t like the last jedi. but blaming the writers of that sort of content for disney’s shitty marketing that definitely transcends franchises? kinda missing the big picture there.


  2. I usually try to leave my identity out of my opinion, but I’d say this counts as an exception. As a “strong independent woman of color” I couldn’t agree more with this post! For one thing, I couldn’t get over how inaccurate this was. And for another, Leia looked extremely ungrateful about the fact that she was being rescued from certain doom. This really is the problem with feminism today: There’s nothing empowering about being rude and demeaning to the people around you, regardless of what their gender is. I’d hate to work with this Leia because she looks like a real jerk.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s