I honestly hadn’t planned to chime in on this.
By now I imagine most of you are aware of the Great Gender Kerfluffle of 2012 that cropped up in the Star Wars fandom over the last few weeks with much being said about the need for more well-developed female characters in this franchise. Emily chimed in last week and eloquently put things into perspective. Frankly, people far more knowledgeable and better with wordy-like-thingamawhatsits than I am said what needed to be said. Still, as I was reading through things on the sidelines, I ran into one comment in the Club Jade post that got my gears turning. I can’t even remember what exactly it was or who posted it, but it set off a bit of something in my head that needed to be addressed. Well. Three things, specifically. A trio of arguments that I’ve seen recycled numerous times during the recent dustup and over the years.
While I was turning these arguments over in my head, another thought hit me. There’s a television show, a current one, that has addressed these points that were troubling me. Then it all clicked.
Star Wars has a lot to learn from The Legend of Korra.
Argument One: Star Wars is for young and teenage boys, so focusing efforts on developing deeper female characters would hurt the bottom-line and turn off the target audience.
This seems to be the most common argument thrown out whenever a subset of fans ask for better developed female characters and, heaven forbid, female leads. Common thought says that boys don’t care for female characters in their entertainment, so using your creative efforts to craft them would amount to a waste of time at best and franchise suicide at worst. Personally, I think this whole “Star Wars is for boys” notion is complete and utter bunk, but for the sake of argument let’s go ahead and take this statement at face value.*
*And then blow it to pieces later.
The idea that boys only want to see boys and men in their entertainment is becoming an antiquated concept. Sure, when The Legend of Korra was in the planning stages, Nickelodeon was concerned about casting a female character in the lead role. In an interview with NPR, creator Bryan Konietzko noted that screen tests uncovered something interesting.
Some Nickelodeon executives were worried, says Konietzko, about backing an animated action show with a female lead character. Conventional TV wisdom has it that girls will watch shows about boys, but boys won’t watch shows about girls.
During test screenings, though, boys said they didn’t care that Korra was a girl. They just said she was awesome.
Korra isn’t the first female character in this franchise that boys have taken a liking to. Toph, the deadpan snarker, became an almost instant fan-favorite. Katara was given a tremendous amount of backstory and given many chances to shine on her own (including one episode that might have been my favorite character-centric episodes in the whole series). For a long stretch, the protagonists’ primary foil were a band of three young women. Azula in particular had one of the most tragic and well crafted character arcs in the entire run.
Are we seeing a fundamental shift in what this demographic is willing to watch and, more than that, embrace? We very well could be. Korra could be on the leading edge of capturing this shifting market, but it’s not alone. Maybe the wheels began turning back in the 90s when Hollywood’s current most-valuable-director Joss Whedon found a winner with a show that starred a young woman with an odd name. Or perhaps it was when a young woman by the name of Veronica Mars showed us that a detective’s guile wasn’t exclusive to men.
More recently, there’s no denying the runaway success of The Hunger Games, a book and film franchise centered around a girl named Katniss. Heck, the books are told exclusively through Katniss’ perspective and that hasn’t deterred enormous sales numbers. Taking a look at the film’s opening week figures reveals more surprises that are blowing up the “[x] is for boys, [y] is for girls” stereotypes.
The crowd who saw the film this weekend was slightly more female, as 61% of the audience were women. By comparison, the most recent “Twilight” film attracted an 80% female contingent back in November, indicating part of the success of “The Hunger Games” had to do with its appeal to both genders.
Appeal to both genders? Something with a female lead? What demonry is this?
The simple answer? Young and teenage boys aren’t going to instinctively balk at a piece of entertainment that features well-developed female characters or even, gasp, female leads. If Korra is any indication, not only are they tolerating these characters, they’re loving them. The notion that the creative minds at Star Wars would simply be wasting their time and efforts in introducing these characters into the franchise doesn’t hold much water in this day and age. The Hunger Games has succeeded in the face of these old stereotypes. Korra and Avatar: The Last Airbender have thrived.
You see, a funny thing happened on the way to being an entertainment oddity. Korra wound up being cable’s highest rated scripted program. Yes, you read that right. It beat out Game of Thrones. Let that sink in a moment. Even considering the HBO versus Nickelodeon thing, a 30-minute animated cartoon on what’s widely regarded as a children’s network featuring a female lead character beat out Game of Thrones.
Doesn’t look like a female lead has hurt that Legend of Korra at all.
Argument Two: If it ain’t broke …
Still, so what? Okay, perhaps boys aren’t nearly as averse to female characters as people have thought. What’s the big deal? Star Wars continues to be a license to print money, so why change what’s working?
Ah, the attitude that sank a thousand products, ideas, and companies. Cassette tapes? You’re out of your mind, vinyl sales have never been stronger. Why invest in that digital compact disc format? Cassette tapes are selling great! Why bother with that MP3 stuff? Have you seen the CD sales numbers?
Adapt, evolve, or die.
Star Wars managed to rebrand itself in the 90s with the release of Heir to the Empire, launching a golden era of the Expanded Universe that managed to bring back fans who had wandered away and, more importantly, bring in new fans and get pre-existing fans to engage in the franchise in a way they may not have before. The brand had stagnated over the years and needed a spark. It came when Lucasfilm gave the okay to produce a high-quality product in a medium that hadn’t exactly been their focus to that point. Countless bestsellers later, it seems like they were onto something twenty years ago. They had captured a new demographic and had begun to tap a market that would prove to be incredibly fruitful for them.
You can’t rest on your previous accomplishments, however. Star Wars had to find something new to rebuild its relevance and a concerted focus on the Expanded Universe was just what the doctor ordered. Admittedly, things are pretty good for the Galaxy Far, Far Away these days. Books are selling well, the Clone Wars television series is popular. I imagine some of you are reading this right now and are thinking I’m being somewhat of an alarmist. I’d counter by saying a product like this should always be looking for a new market to tap or strategy to deploy. Maybe a much more concerted effort to welcome females is what’s needed now.
I would argue that to ensure this franchise’s relevance for the next twenty years, they need to reach out to the demographic that has deservedly felt slighted for a long time: the female fans. We can’t keep ignoring what’s plainly there. Women and girls love Star Wars too. Look at one of the most popular fan blogs on the web, Club Jade. Look at the runaway success that is Her Universe. Heck, look at the staff makeup here at Tosche Station, three women to two men. Female fans are a part of this fandom, and an integral part at that.
Really, though. Given the success of Korra and The Hunger Games, I’d say that something is wrong with Star Wars. Those two franchises feel much more welcoming to fans regardless of gender. For Star Wars? It still feels like there’s a barrier keeping people out. That’s why I’d argue that right now Star Wars is broken. Some could say it’s little more than a minor defect now, but it’s one that could cause great harm to the fandom the longer it’s ignored.
Argument Three: We should just worry about having well-developed characters, not worry so much about creating well-developed female characters.
You know, it would be nice if we were at a place in society where making strong characters in general was all we had to worry about. Sadly, we’re not.* I direct your attention back to Argument One. How many people say with a straight face that Star Wars is for boys? That’s the problem. That’s the problem perfectly summed up. These gender stereotypes are not going to go away on their own. Concerted efforts need to be made to break them down. We as a fandom need these female characters to be developed. We need these characters to be a sign that these gender stereotypes aren’t acceptable anymore.
*While I was writing this, author John Scalzi posted a piece that I think has adds a great deal to this whole topic. Definitely worth the read.
Korra is potentially a game-changer. A well-developed female lead character that has been designed from the ground-up for a medium that, traditionally, was believed to be a boys-only zone. Korra is changing all of that. She’s a fictional role model, one that boys are enjoying and, more importantly, one that girls can identify with in a medium and genre they have for so long been excluded from. Korra’s a beacon to them, a signal that it’s perfectly normal to enjoy something that traditionally has been viewed as belonging to boys. It’s a sign that you are welcome into fandom regardless of your gender.
The argument has never been to focus on female characters at the expense of male characters or the stories in general. There’s this bizarre notion that seems to permeate around the fandom that if the creative forces were to do that, the fandom would suffer in quality as a result. There’s an undercurrent of thought that there’s no way to develop female characters and integrate them into the stories organically because Star Wars was designed for boys (which we’ve debunked on several levels in the last 1,500 words).
I’m baffled as to where this false dichotomy has come from. Let me spell this out clearly: well developed female lead characters and strong stories are not mutually exclusive. The Hunger Games has demonstrated that. Korra has achieved critical acclaim by tossing these tired conventions to the wind. Star Wars can too, if both the creative forces and the fans are willing to make the effort and follow the path Korra is setting.
If the forces behind Star Wars in all media formats are smart, they’ll take notes from Korra. Not only can female leads work, they can succeed beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. They’ll see there’s a market to be tapped and potential fans that are just waiting for the signal that it’s okay to come into the fold of fandom. With Korra’s success, the forces behind Star Wars will, hopefully, see they are at risk of being left behind as entertainment becomes more progressive and inclusive.
But maybe, just maybe, it’s more than that. Maybe Star Wars needs to do this for a greater purpose than just staying relevant and surviving. Perhaps with all that clout they have, they need to exercise their social responsibility to tear down these gender stereotypes. Perhaps they need to develop these female characters to send a clear signal to the rest of entertainment and fandom.
I would say there’s no maybe about it. Star Wars needs to learn from Korra: it’s time to break down these gender walls. Everyone is welcome here.