With only days until its release, Rogue One is being lauded as a Star Wars film that doesn't shirk the ugliness of war. While intergalactic conflict has always been the main theme of the sci-fi saga, violence has always been draped in the fantastical, with bullets replaced by beams and blood distinctly lacking.
Rogue One's brutal, unflinching look at the chaotic events surrounding the era of A New Hope (1977) is justified by the struggle of the time, as the Rebel Alliance attempt to prevent the tyranny of the growing Galactic Empire by stealing the plans to the Death Star.
But amid the excitement and the intrigue surrounding the first anthology movie, the talks of reshoots, the inclusion of legendary villain Darth Vader or questions about the film's dark tone, much of the discourse surrounding the film has centered around the casting of #FelicityJones as #JynErso, leader of the rebel group. Or, more precisely, Disney's decision to avoid shirking away from casting a female lead.
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Rogue One's Antidote To Hollywood's Gender Inequality
In an ideal world, the build up to a film wouldn't gravitate toward the gender of the lead character. Strong female leads should be so common that this is the norm. But this isn't an ideal world, and Hollywood is an uneven stamping ground for gender inequality, so much so that a recent study by Polygraph revealed a shocking 78% of movies are male-led. Considering they tested a sample-size of 2000 films, this is no coincidence.
In an industry where only 30.8% of speaking characters are women, having a protagonist like Jyn Erso in one of the biggest films of the year is important. Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm since 2012, has spoken of her desire to celebrate diversity in the starry backdrop of all things #StarWars, identifying Erso as key in that process.
The tentacles of patriarchy aren't severed by merely including female characters, though, something Kennedy is conscious of. Talking during a press conference for Rogue One (reported by ComicBook.com), she addressed the challenge of shattering the status quo. She said:
"I find it really interesting, when I first stepped into this job, I started looking at, what does it mean to be a female hero? And when you look at it in this industry, it's pretty shocking."
This is a crucial distinction. Jyn Erso isn't the first female to lead an action movie, with actresses such as Uma Thurman in Kill Bill, Jennifer Lawrence in the Hunger Games, Sigourney Weaver in Alien or Milla Jovovich in Resident Evil proving women can kick-ass too. But, as is the case with heavily-ingrained societal structures, often roles are still crafted under the watchful eye of the male gaze. Kennedy added:
"I think the character of Rey, the character of Jyn, these are empowered women that are not necessarily just taking on male characteristics. These are genuinely female heroines. I think that's really important, and I think it will make a difference."
A Genuine Rejection Of Gender Stereotypes
Kennedy's comments link to the concept that masculinity — and all the traits that term encompasses — is all-powerful. Gender stereotypes for men include aggression, domination, ambition, self-confidence and emotional "strength." For women, similar stereotypes include submissiveness, purity, domestication and becoming an object of male sexual desire — particularly in media portrayals.
In reality, of course, men cry, women can be self-confident, men can be insecure, women ambitious. In cinema, female heroes will often take on defined masculine traits, making the link between heroism and masculinity mutually exclusive. They'll wink at the camera in the knowledge that, despite the illusion, men are the true saviors, waiting to sweep in and save the day.
The progressive step of throwing stereotypes out of the Death Star thermal exhaust port is a welcome move. In Jyn Erso, Kennedy identifies a nuanced character who is powerful, resolute, vulnerable, caring, aggressive and not confined to the claustrophobic paradigm of gender expectation. In an interview with Glamour, Felicity Jones spoke of the "rare opportunity to be able to play a female who's not just thinking about [romantic] relationships."
This is significant, considering cinema's influence on helping to shape the worldview of millions. Star Wars is one of the widest reaching franchises, and with characters such as Rey and Jyn leading the way, Kennedy is right to think it could have a wider impact — although Hollywood is still lightyears away from being truly equal.
Rogue One is released on December 16, 2016.