Rogue One and the Token Protagonist
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.