• Mon, 31, Oct, 2016 - 5:00:AM

Hey filmmakers: Stop disempowering your female characters

Image: Felicity Jones, star of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story / Aaron Vincent Elkaim / Wikimedia Commons

A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, there was a film trailer. The trailer was for a gritty, science fiction space opera – and part of perhaps the most famous film franchise of all time. Star Wars. To be specific, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Many of us were all kinds of thrilled when the first trailer for the film, due to hit Kiwi cinemas in December, came out earlier this year. Not only would it be a film about “regular” people who weren’t magic space wizards (otherwise known as Jedi), but its main lead (played by Felicity Jones) came across as a rugged female action hero who kicked ass, took names, and asked questions only after she completed her mission as a one-woman wrecking crew out to thwart the wicked plans of Darth Vader and the Empire. Naturally, the ever-so-secure “men’s rights” crowd had a collective meltdown, but the vast majority of the rest of us cheered. Feminism for the win, right?

That’s what we still thought when the second trailer was released. Sure, the Death Star looked big and bad, but Jones’ Jyn Erso looked badder. Then came the third trailer… and let’s just say the previous hopes of a kickass female lead appear to be in doubt.

Without going into too much detail, among the biggest concerns with the new trailer is what appears to be director Gareth Edwards and producers Kathleen Kennedy, Allison Shearmur and Simon Emanuel falling back on stereotypical tropes such as a female character needing to be “rescued” by men for the plot to progress (the trailer shows Jones being freed from prison), being more of a “cheerleader” than an actual fighter (Jones’ voice is heard while men are engaged in the majority of the action), and what seems to be a motivation for Erso to see her father again rather than, you know, destroy a superweapon with enough power to destroy a planet that happens to be in the hands of an organsiation that’s pure evil. Of course, all this could just be a coincidence, but given the fact the film underwent extensive reshoots this past winter amid rumours Disney was unhappy with the tone of the movie (to say nothing of Disney’s well-known history of forcing gender stereotypes upon us all from a very young age), there’s cause for concern. And sadly, if the film does end up in Jones being disempowered, it would hardly be a first.

We all know the tropes of women in film: virgins, whores, damsels in distress, evil queens, tomboys who become more feminine in order to be with a man, and more. They’re all terribly depressing.

Think about this for a moment: how many of your favourite films feature strong, empowered female characters? While there’s thankfully now a fair number of them (Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich and Rooney Mara in the English version of The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo come to mind, for example), the sad reality is that there are far more films that objectify women and fail to show them as, well, people who are capable of making their own choices on their terms. We’re all pretty well aware of what these inaccurate, and offensive, depictions do to young people, too (the “princess effect” has been discussed extensively, as has the problem of boys growing up treating girls as lesser than them because of what they saw in movies).

It’s a sad reflection on society that a studio might think that by disempowering a female character in a film they can make more money. Unfortunately, it also does not appear to be limited exclusively to big-budget Hollywood productions. The disempowerment of female characters seems to be a global problem. The New Zealand Film Commission says the following on its website: “The voices and perspectives of women are integral to telling the stories of our country, its culture and communities. We are committed to increasing awareness of gender equality in the New Zealand screen industry.” While it mentions goals of a 50 per cent participation rate for women filmmakers, identifying and engaging with female filmmakers, and encouraging proposals from guilds and industry organisations that support the professional development of women in the screen industry, it does not mention addressing how women are portrayed in film.

There’s no reason why we can’t have more empowered women in films. There’s a common fable that “men won’t pay to see movies starring strong women,” but aside from the very vocal Neanderthals of the “manosphere” and the so-called “alt-right”, that seems to be bullshit. Case in point: when last year’s Mad Max: Fury Road debuted in the US, about 70 per cent of the audience that went to see it during its opening weekend was male. And let’s not forget the most recent Star Wars film before Rogue One. The Force Awakens made almost $2.8 billion (US$2 billion) in cinemas – making it the second-highest-grossing film ever. Oh, and its main character was a strong, empowered woman who rescued herself when she was kidnapped.

So here’s the thing, filmmakers and aspiring filmmakers, and studios large and small: you can have a strong female lead and still make a lot of money. You know about the Bechdel Test, so why can’t you also be conscious of the empowerment (or lack thereof) of your female characters?

You really don’t need to be a magic space wizard to figure that one out.


  • Star Wars /
  • Felicity Jones /
  • Rogue One /
  • Women /
  • Film /
  • disempowerment /
  • Disney /
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