The new 'Star Wars' and women: Female sci-fi directors on Leia, Amidala, and what lies ahead

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Image Credit: Lucasfilm

Who can forget Carrie Fisher’s gold, swirly, shamelessly skimpy bikini as a slave girl held captive by Jabba the Hutt in 1983’s Return of the Jedi? Cue sex icon posters of Fisher taped to salivating fanboys’ walls. Fast forward almost 30 years later, with both fanboys and fangirls, er fanmen and fanwomen at this point, awaiting an upcoming Star Wars: Episode VII by 2015, following Tuesday’s huge announcement about Disney acquiring Lucasfilm.

It’s a new world for women in sci-fi fantasy since the metal bikini days, or even since George Lucas’ Star Wars prequels, released in 1999, 2002 and 2005, which starred Natalie Portman as the elaborately dressed yet restrained Naboo queen-turned-senator Padmé Amidala, mom to Luke Skywalker and his sister Leia. EW reached out to female sci-fi directors about their take on the new Star Wars universe when it comes to representing women in a modern and diverse way.

“I screened at Comic Con San Diego this year and to me there seemed to be as many enthusiastic women as men, lots of them eager for strong, well-rounded characters, male and female. If you stop thinking ‘fanboy’ then you have a greater understanding of the science fiction audience that is out there these days,” said Maureen “Mo” Perkins, whose sci-fi short Laura Keller, NB, starring Buffy the Vampire Slayer alum Amber Benson, won best film at September’s first-ever Etheria Film Festival showcasing women-directed fantasy and sci-fi short films.

Perkins discussed focusing on characters such as Mara Jade Skywalker, a stealth fighter and the wife of Luke in the Star Wars expanded universe books and comics. “I think there definitely could be an opportunity in the Star Wars world to mine some formidable female characters,” Perkins said. “Mara, for instance, or Leia’s daughter Jaina, characters who could easily become as iconic as Princess Leia was to the children of the ’80s, with the possibility of speaking to a balanced and modern sci-fi audience.”

Case in point: Recent powerful female sci-fi fantasy heroes such as Noomi Rapace’s Elizabeth Shaw in Prometheus (whether you liked this year’s over-hyped movie or not, she’s arguably tough and has a role model in the larger-than-life footsteps of Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley in Alien), Katee Sackoff’s unapologetically butt-kicking Captain Kara “Starbuck” Thrace in the Battlestar Galactica TV reboot, and Jennifer Lawrence as bow-and-arrow armed The Hunger Games winner Katniss Everdeen. Then there are the female characters who came before them, and many others: Buffy, X-Files’ Dana Scully, Terminator‘s Sarah Connor.

Lynn Hershman Leeson, who wrote and directed 2002’s cyborg sci-fi film Teknolust, starring Tilda Swinton, and is working on a new movie shooting next year with Charlotte Rampling and Marilyn Manson about genetic mutation, also agreed that lead characters in Star Wars: Episode VII should be strong women. Not only that, she said, but the movie needs a female director to really make an impact. So far director names thrown around have included Christopher Nolan, J.J. Abrams, Brad Bird, and Joss Whedon — but few women, save for The Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow.

“It’s about time this story takes on a real and vital transfusion which will only happen with an empowered female director — like Miranda July or me!” Hershman Leeson exclaimed. “While there is a new understanding that women too buy tickets, I don’t think a significant shift will occur until an enlightened woman team also directs and rewrites the characters.”

That team does now include Kathleen Kennedy, who will take over as president of Lucasfilm, with Lucas heading towards partial retirement, and has already started vetting the writing team for the new Star Wars films.

That makes female sci-fi filmmakers such as Letia Clouston ecstatic.

“As a fangirl filmmaker, I’m excited that the Star Wars mythology will move forward under the guidance of Kathleen Kennedy,” said Clouston, who directs a sci-fi web series called Broken Toy, and is developing a feature film sci-fi script called Port. “The great thing is, our current generation of filmmakers has grown up with the love of Star Wars, and now there are more female filmmakers working out there who can bring that love to the screen. While part of our fanboy/girl culture is being cynical with all things corporate, we’re the first to champion someone who stays true to the stories we love.”

David Bushman, television curator at the Paley Center for Media pointed out that fanboys today love strong female characters and “would applaud the inclusion of such characters in the upcoming Star Wars films.”

“From the male perspective — or at least this male’s perspective — Princess Leia was a very creditable character for her time — not perfect, but certainly defiant, assertive, and strong — and I would argue that the Amidala we see in Phantom Menace, before she is subsumed by Anakin [Skywalker], is equally admirable — a smart, capable leader,” he said. “Further, in Cartoon Network’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars, Lucas presented us with the character of Ahsoka Tano, rebellious, assertive, and extremely competent, though, again, imperfect. Star Wars lore — and here I am referring to the pre-film canon — is filled with strong female characters, giving further hope to the notion that Lucas will continue to populate these films with assertive, meaningful females.”

Clouston also sided with Bushman’s take on Princess Leia. She voiced faith in the sci-fi genre itself when it comes to fierce, smart, forward-thinking representation of women. The future — sci-fi’s bread and butter — is ripe for continued change.

“Sci-fi has had a long history of strong female characters. Yes, Princess Leia was in a gold bikini, but she was also the one who single-handedly killed Jabba,” Clouston said. “When you take into account movies and TV shows like Terminator, Aliens, Battlestar Galactica, and even video games like Metroid, you can see sci-fi has consistently promoted the strength of women more than any other genre. Any filmmaker aware of that will make Star Wars successful. I have no doubt the franchise is in good hands and the fangirl in me can’t stop smiling.”

For more film news

Read more:
Who should direct new ‘Star Wars’ movie? Christopher Nolan? Joss Whedon? J.J. Abrams?
Mark Hamill weighs in on the future of ‘Star Wars’ — EXCLUSIVE
Will ‘Star Wars’ memorabilia go up in value? Collectors, auction houses sound off
‘Star Wars’ reaction: Abrams, Favreau, Nolfi, and Rodriguez weigh in — EXCLUSIVE
Disney buying Lucasfilm, prepping new ‘Star Wars’ movies for 2015 and beyond — VIDEO


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