After an eye-catching debut in Star Wars: The Force Awakens—although perhaps we should credit that to the chrome armor—Gwendoline Christie’s Phasma gets some much-requested spotlight in this year’s Star Wars: The Last Jedi. But even as audiences thrill to the sight of her taking on Finn (John Boyega) face-to-face, it underscores a long-standing problem with the franchise as a whole: Star Wars hasn’t really known what to do with the idea of women being evil.
To be fair, Star Wars historically has a problem with women in general, although it’s clearly something the current Lucasfilm administration is trying to deal with. (This year’s Star Wars: Forces of Destiny animated series and toy line was intended, in part, as an attempt to spotlight the female characters of the franchise and right the ship in terms of gender diversity, as well as shore up young female fans, traditionally the sweet spot for parent company Disney.)
Certainly, the new movies have put their best foot forward in this aim, with The Force Awakens, Rogue One and The Last Jedi all centering around female heroes and, perhaps coincidentally, significantly upping how integral Princess Leia is to the core mythology of the series.
(Even Rogue One, in which Carrie Fisher doesn’t actually appear, ends with Leia as the central figure who, the audience knows from seeing the original movie, will actually complete the mission to deliver the Death Star plans.)
The same level of attention hasn’t been paid to the villains of the property, however. Indeed, Phasma is only the second villainous woman to appear in the entire movie series. Zam Wesell was the first, and don’t be embarrassed if you don’t remember the name; she was a minor character in 2002’s Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones who appeared for less than 10 minutes before dying. Phasma also represents only the third female villain in the entire official canon of the franchise. (The other is Asajj Ventress, from the animated Star Wars: The Clone Wars series, for the curious out there.)
To make matters arguably worse, filmmakers have been upfront in admitting that Phasma wasn’t originally intended to be a woman; the role was written for a man, with the gender switch happening just weeks before filming. The reason, according to interviews, was “to push the boundaries for female roles, both evil and benevolent, toward a more realistic depiction of women.” (You know, like all those many realistic women in armor that completely obscures their gender out here in the real world.)
If nothing else, it’s a noble aim, albeit one that’s undercut by Phasma having little to do in the actual movie beyond loom ominously in the background of scenes and then give up information to the Resistance when the plot demands it. The Last Jedi, then, marks a slight improvement for the franchise as a whole—not only is there a female villain, but she gets to actually do things—but the situation is still embarrassingly far from where Lucasfilm wants to be.
For a sign of what that eventual destination could look like, audiences need to turn away from the movies and TV shows, and look to the spinoff material. The officially canonical novels and comic books have gifted Star Wars with complex, villainous female leads that far outstrip anything seen onscreen. Rae Sloan of the Aftermath series of novels or Chelli Lona Aphra from Marvel’s Darth Vader and Doctor Aphra series of comic books are examples of fully realized, interesting women who exist within the Star Wars framework and are permitted to be morally ambiguous and complicated in ways that the movies haven’t quite figured out yet.
It’s rare to point to ancillary merchandise as the future of a multi-million dollar franchise, but if a galaxy far, far away wants to remain relevant in today’s climate, Star Wars needs to take a leaf from these projects and work out how to give the audience the chance to see women who can achieve anything other than saving the day alongside their male co-stars before the entire series feels like it’s stuck existing a long time ago.