Among the leads of Star Wars: The Last Jedi is the knowledge-seeking Jedi-in-training Rey (Daisy Ridley), the latest in a long line of strong female protagonists for the series. And this doesn’t just include characters like Princess Leia (the late Carrie Fisher), who took the “distress” out of “damsel” by aiding and abetting her own rescue.
Women have been controlling their own destiny in the Star Wars universe ever since screenwriter Leigh Brackett penned an early draft of The Empire Strikes Back. Indeed, the popular Star Wars Rebels TV series—currently airing its fourth and final season on Disney XD—was co-created by a woman, Carrie Beck, who also serves as a writer.
Behind the scenes, women comprise half of Lucasfilm’s executive team—nine out of 18 people—a parity uncommon in most industries. And most important of all, Lucasfilm’s president and overseer of a galaxy far, far away, is a woman: Kathleen Kennedy.
“Star Wars isn’t ready to hire a female filmmaker to helm one of the big films that carries the franchise to the next story port.”
Yet we still have to ask: When will Star Wars movie have a female at the helm? Not one woman has taken a seat in a Star Wars director’s chair, and this includes not only the films but also the TV series and video games. The Last Jedi, which picked up an out-of-this-world sum at the box office this weekend, was directed by Rian Johnson; Ron Howard follows suit with with May 2018’s Solo: A Star Wars Story (Phil Lord and Chris Miller were in charge before dropping out).
Dr. Bonnie Morris, visiting lecturer in gender and women’s studies at UC Berkeley and author of Girl Reel and Women’s History for Beginners, has a theory as to why a woman hasn’t broken the Force barrier.
“The Star Wars franchise…is about space cops and a kind of Wild West—only in a galaxy far, far away—building on very traditional masculine genres,” Morris tells Playboy.
She explains that back in the 19th century, female writers were limited to telling stories about “family life, animals and babies,” and if they took on masculine topics, “they ran the risk of being demonized.” As Morris points out, this Victorian-era attitude still prevails.
Studios tend to default to male directors, perhaps because they have always done so. “It’s simply been a cautious practice to avoid deviating from the norm,” Morris continues. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
Horror director Dorothy Booraem notes that men with limited directorial credits are more likely than women to be given the benefit of the doubt of helming a larger-budget film. And indeed, Kennedy said in late 2016 that she has “every intention” of hiring a woman to direct a Star Wars movie, but that she doesn’t want to hire a woman with “essentially no experience”.
Whether Kennedy’s quotes suggest a double standard is subject to debate. Consider the career trajectory of Rogue One director Gareth Edwards, who made 2010’s Monsters for $500,000 before he was handed the keys to 2014’s Godzilla (budget: $160 million). His next film was the 2016 Felicity Jones-starring Star Wars standalone, with its $200 million production budget.
Meanwhile, Patty Jenkins had her breakthrough film with 2003’s inexpensive, Oscar-winning Monster but didn’t get to direct another film until this summer’s Wonder Woman, spending the 14-year interim directing TV.
When studios give women opportunities to direct big-budget genre films, it’s typically because they’re telling “women’s tales.” This is true of Jenkins handling DC Comics’ iconic female superhero, or Catherine Hardwicke helming the romance-heavy vampire tale Twilight. In 2018, Ava DuVernay will debut A Wrinkle in Time, featuring young girl Meg (14-year-old actress Storm Reid) in the lead role.
Keep in mind that men have directed chick flicks aplenty, with Titanic and The English Patient on that list. Really, the situation can be summed up by the fact that a man (Mark Waters) directed Mean Girls. Enough said.
Even film-festival hits like Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker and Mary Harron’s American Psycho remain outliers when one considers that of the top 250 highest-grossing films of 2016, only seven percent of those directors were female. And of the 1,000 highest-grossing movies between 2007 and 2016, a mere four percent were directed by women.
Hollywood appears to sit on the precipice of change, due to heightened awareness recently about the lack of opportunity for female directors, although the fact that the Golden Globes did not nominate any women for best director this year underscores that change won’t come easy.
With any hope, the recognizably foul stench won’t linger for much longer, given the relative progress that the film franchise has already made.
“[The first Star Wars] was criticized at the time for not being inclusive enough, and I think it really had an impact on George [Lucas],“ J.W. Rinzler, former executive editor for Lucasfilm’s book division and author of The Making of Star Wars, tells Playboy. "He was very responsive to that, and eventually there was [African-American actor] Billy Dee Williams in Empire. George wants to do what’s right, and he always really tried to do what’s right, and hopefully that legacy will continue.”
Booraem expects to see a female director of a Star Wars film in the next three years—although she predicts something of a baby step. ”[Lucasfilm/Disney is] probably going to hire a female director to helm a one-off single film, probably the backstory of a legacy female character or a more kid-focused film about some of the animated or non-human characters in the franchise, like porgs,“ she says to Playboy. ”Star Wars isn’t ready to hire a female filmmaker to helm one of the big films that carries the franchise to the next story port.“
Erin Hill, a media professor who has worked for Lionsgate and other production companies, as well as the author of Never Done: A History of Women’s Work in Media Production, points out that a Star Wars film would be an ideal launching pad for an untested female director, given Lucasfilm’s apparent filmmaking-by-committee process that involves numerous people helping ensure the projects’ success.
“If there were one Star Wars prequel coming out for the first time in 20 years, it would be very precious to everybody, and there would be a lot of fighting over who should be at the helm, and fanboys would take umbrage,” Hill tells Playboy. “Now there are 18 million Star Wars movies coming out [Laughs], so they should take a chance on somebody.”