Star Wars Rebels executive producer Dave Filoni was recently invited to the National Centre for Women and Information Technology to discuss the role of women in the Star Wars universe.
In his 25-minute long talk, Filoni talked about the franchise’s various female characters, the challenges of creating an apprentice for Anakin Skywalker, his childhood inspirations, and his own responsibilities as a storyteller.
Princess Leia: Not Your Average Princess
Right off the bat, Filoni shot down the common criticism that Princess Leia was little more than a princess that needed rescuing, reminding us all of her pivotal role in pushing the narrative forward (i.e. her decision to upload the stolen Death Star plans into R2D2’s memory). Without her quick thinking and self-sacrifice, the stolen plans would have been recaptured by Vader in that opening scene on the Tantive IV and, well, there’d be no movie or, indeed, franchise.
As Filoni argues, Leia is a brilliant strategist, independent, outspoken, has a sense of stature, and pointed out that she was already a member of the Imperial senate at the age of eighteen, which was “pretty revolutionary for the time”.
He returned to the contentious issue of Leia needing to be rescued, drawing attention to the princess’ casual demeanour and attitude towards her rescuers, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, the way she rapidly assessed and responded to the situation in the hallway, and that contrary to popular belief, Leia didn’t need to be rescued; she was the one who took charge.
“Princess Leia: Not just your typical princess”.
Childhood Inspirations & Adult Responsibilities
Filoni went on to talk about the two female characters that made a huge impression on him as a young boy: Princess Leia and Eowyn from J.R.R.Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. The revelation that the latter, a woman, slew the terrifying Witch-King “blew his mind”. Both women were a source of inspiration for his own storytelling career and he believes that “if we can put these characters out there…if you see it, you can become it. That idea, that notion of inspiring people is a very powerful thing”.
At this point, Filoni took some time to give the audience an idea of his upbringing, highlighting how people don’t really give a lot of thought to the things they say, and how simple phrases like “Don’t be such a girl” may seem innocent enough as a child but often carry negative connotations. He felt that now that he’s older and at a point in his life where he can look back at how he was raised and examine the tropes that are out there, he can challenge those ideas directly.
He gave credit to his wife, Anne Convery, for opening his eyes to womens’ rights and gender equality in everyday life and popular culture. As a storyteller, he feels he is in a position to effect change and that “we have to get rid of these ideas like ‘That’s a man’s job’, ‘That’s not your place’. We have to start acknowledging these things get said and we have to start changing them in our stories, in our vocabulary”.
Which brings him to Ahsoka Tano.
Creating a Padawan for Anakin
In 2005, Filoni was hired by Lucasfilm to work directly with George Lucas on Star Wars: The Clone Wars and was tasked with creating a young female apprentice for Anakin Skywalker. A challenging concept to begin with since there had never been any indication that Anakin had ever had a Padawan, much less one who was a teenage girl.
And while he welcomed the idea, he admitted he had “zero perspective” on what it was like to be a fourteen-year-old girl. He explained that he had tried to gain some insight from his female colleagues at Lucasfilm but ultimately came to the conclusion that “the girl’s a Jedi. I know what Jedi are like. I’ll just write a fourteen-year-old Jedi and see how that goes”.
Filoni explained how he, Lucas, and the writing team wrote a young Jedi who faced certain challenges, who had grown up in a world where she was a peace-keeper but suddenly had to be a warrior, who had fears but was intelligent. They saw Ahsoka as book smart while Anakin was her street-smart mentor and thus had to find ways to resolve their different, but complementary, personalities.
He went on to talk about Ahsoka’s widespread appeal. “There’s this assumption that young girls were going to like the character of Ahsoka. Of course, we make the young girl character so all the young girls will like Ahsoka”.
Some may have wondered what this decision would mean for the young male audience but the team soon found out that “when you create a strong, independent, intelligent character that shows no fear, that can do amazing things, boys and girls like her”.
A Brave New Universe
Ashley Eckstein, Ahsoka’s voice actress, has often said that Ahsoka paved the way for female leads such as Rey and Jyn Erso and it’s clear that Lucasfilm is deeply committed to creating characters that reflect the diversity of contemporary society.
The fact that both The Force Awakens and the upcoming anthology film, Rogue One, have female leads has upset a very tiny (but vocal) minority of the cinema-going public but Filoni quickly pointed out that “there’s more than one woman in the world” and that no one seems to blink when five men in a row are made heroes.
Filoni feels that he and other men (and women) are in a privileged position to challenge the status quo and just make “great, interesting characters” because, as he correctly points out, the audience wants a “real, feeling, dimensional person” to root for.
And with regards to female characters, he wants to move away from the idea of a “strong female character” as he believes it marginalizes every other type of female character, implying that they’re weak. What he wants as a storyteller are dimensional, diverse characters of “every race, every age, every description doing interesting things and being dynamic”.
This quest for diversity is one Lucasfilm is dedicated to and Filoni argues that the company has actually been doing this all along, ever since the conception of Princess Leia in the 1970s. That said, he believes that “storytelling is a combined effort” and that his visit to the National Centre for Women and Information Technology has inspired him to see how the Star Wars franchise can properly reflect the realities of what he has seen and learnt there.
With Lucasfilm now under the leadership of Kathleen Kennedy, Filoni explained, the company is trying to create an environment where the top men and women of their fields can tell these dynamic stories and open the door to a new generation of film-makers, where women can come into Lucasfilm, be creative, find their voice, and get the support they need to be “the true visionaries that we know they will be in the future”.
Filoni ended his talk with a clip showcasing the saga’s ever-growing cast of female characters and reassured his audience that Lucasfilm’s commitment to creating new female characters won’t end after two movies.
And when you take the current spin-off media and future projects into account, it’s clear that women (be they fictional or real) have a bright and promising future within the Star Wars franchise.