My relationship to Disney has always been a complicated one. As a critical thinker and feminist, its hard not to take issue with the way Disney portrays, brands and markets based on gender. The mainstream impulse has been to praise the recent inclusion of “strong” female characters with films such as Frozen, Brave, The Princess and the Frog and Tangled. I always appreciate the inclusion of women onscreen, especially in films directed at young audiences. However, its hard to simply sit back and say Disney is doing a great job at encouraging gender equality.
With Star Wars Rebels we are given two new female characters, Hera and Sabine. At this point we’ve been introduced to their characters in the form of clips, shorts, trailers and Del Rey literature. My initial and continued reaction to these characters is enthusiastic and optimistic. Both appear to be fully realized and involved members of the Ghost ensemble with plenty of agency. There is one detail to Sabine that I find problematic, her pink armor. I’ve reserved my opinions until I could fully explain why this detail bothers me. I’ve even tried defending the color when other fans complained about the inclusion of a pink clad Mandalorian. The more I think about it, the more it bothers me that the decision was made to use such a strong gender signifier for Sabine. Despite her capabilities and strong attributes, there is an insistence that she be marked as female. Gender signifiers aren’t always a bad thing, but the pink armor falls into a pattern utilized by Disney, in which men and women are consistently confined to their specific gender roles. There is an appearance and representation binary that Disney seems reluctant to cross. Their grossly successful marketing relies on marketing boy stuff to boys and girly stuff to girls. Boys are pirates, astronauts and cowboys with guns and ships. Girls are pretty princesses with dresses and shoes. I grew up with the princesses and I love all of them, I can enjoy the characters and their stories while still maintaining an awareness of what they perpetuate in terms of gender roles.
On my most recent trip to Disneyland, I was struck by the lack of Star Wars merchandise for women. Companies like Black Milk and Her Universe have made it abundantly clear that women like Star Wars and we will shell out big bucks for merchandise. In the Star Trader, Disneyland’s signature Star Wars merchandise store, there are plenty of clothing options for men and boys. The options for women were very limited and watered down. There aren’t too many women’s clothing options that aren’t drastically feminized or presumably made more approachable my the inclusions of humor. I wanted a legitimate, unwatered down, Star Wars shirt in my size and I was out of luck. I don’t want something pink, purple or yellow and I didn’t want a silly quote. I was even more disappointed when I found Star Wars toys specifically marketed towards girls. They were Padme and Leia dress up dolls. The sets included hairbrushes, jewelry and interchangeable outfits for the dolls. Each doll comes with a small picture frame with the respective characters’ love interest. Leia has a photo of Han and Padme has a photo of Anakin. This doll set actually offended me. Disney has all the opportunity in the world to market some amazing female characters to young women and these are the decisions they are making.
The ball has been dropped in terms of how women have been marketed to and represented within Disney’s Marvel concepts. The internet has been abuzz with dissatisfied female fans pointing out the marginalization of Guardians of the Galaxy’s Gamora and her absence in merchandise. These decisions can’t be taken lightly by female fans. What we are seeing is a pattern. And this pattern is why I’ve decided to voice concerns over Sabine’s pink armor. Star Wars has exhibited the potential for groundbreaking, strong female roles. The stories of Star Wars do not rely on gender binaries, both Star Wars Legends and the Clone Wars have taken advantage of this potential and featured female characters who have depth beyond their gender. Characters such as Barriss Offee, Ahsoka Tano, Luminara Unduli, Padme Namidala, and Satine Kryze are defined by their actions and intentions, not their statuses as women. I hope the same becomes true for Sabine and Hera. However, decisions made in terms of women characters and consumers have given me cause for concern. I have an expectation that has not yet been met. I hope Star Wars Rebels proves me wrong and Dave Filoni and his team continue to create multi-faceted female characters.