How female Star Wars fans reclaimed their territory

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Female Star Wars fans have been around since the Seventies, so why have they struggled to find a place in their chosen universe? Ahead of the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Kate Solomon meets the female side of the Force.

At the foot of the stairs, a three-foot high Princess Leia is trying to control a crawling Yoda whose large-eared green head keeps falling off. Their mother, Padmé, is distracted: Admiral Ackbar is walking past, squid-headed as usual, but wearing a Hawaiian shirt instead of his standard white tunic. “It’s a trap!” shouts Padmé, referring to the starship commander’s most famous line. The small Leia and Yoda tumble over and Yoda, in a move that’s very out of character for a wise Jedi master, bursts into tears.

I’m at Star Wars Celebration, where, over four days, around 70,000 die-hard Star Wars fans will pack into the Orange County Convention Center in Orlando, Florida. There are as many Leias as there are Lukes. And that’s important.

Kylo Ren is in front of me trying to take a selfie. He’s struggling; an iPhone is harder in gloved hands than a lightsaber. I don’t stay to watch; a gaggle of Rebel Alliance troops sweeps me up as they half-run to the exhibition centre’s grand staircase. I start counting all the Leias I can see and give up after 30: that’s more than 60 tightly wound buns and who knows how many hair grips. Everyone’s grinning, as though this is perfectly normal for a Thursday afternoon. In fact, my eyes barely widen as Jar Jar Binks congratulates two Stormtroopers who’ve just married at a ceremony presided over by General Leia. This is a major convention, where real life stops existing and a 40-year-old space opera becomes everything. And I’m here to speak to the women who inhabit this universe.

Bethany, a 20-year-old respiratory health student who’s travelled 2,500 miles from San Diego, spent more than six months on her costume. She’s dressed as a Mandalorian, a race mostly seen in The Clone Wars and Rebels spin-off television series. Bethany is in full battle dress and has to lower herself gingerly, like a pregnant action figure, when we sit to chat. Her armour doesn’t have many joints and it looks logistically challenging.

Cosplaying, as it is known, is about embodying the character you’ve chosen as much as it is looking like them. The outfits are rarely shop-bought. They’re made painstakingly and at great expense over the course of a year or more. Most of the women I speak to say having a safe space to dress this way is one of the reasons they come to cons like this.

“About a year ago my brother said, ‘Why don’t we start building our own costumes?’ We designed them, and in December we started,” says Bethany. But they’re a work in progress, and Bethany goes into vast detail about the colours they’ll add and the modifications they’ll make. “It’ll be a while before they’re done!” she grins, happy at the prospect.

Newcomer Rey is a popular cosplay choice for younger women

Yet for much of the film franchise’s life, the Star Wars fan of popular imagination has been – unfairly – a man. Even in 2010, Katie Goldman made headlines when her mother wrote a column detailing the bullying Katie suffered for using a Star Wars water bottle at school. The two most recent films, 2015’s The Force Awakens and last year’s Rogue One, featured well-rounded female leads in Daisy Ridley’s desert scavenger Rey and Felicity Jones’ Jyn, a former child soldier and criminal-turned-hero.

But Rey and Jyn didn’t go down well with all of the Star Wars community and, predictably, depressingly, there were cries the series had been “ruined”. Men’s rights groups called for boycotts and internet spaces became hostile (as a reaction, some fans started “the Jedi Pledge”: anyone signing agreed “to ensure everyone feels safe proclaiming that they are a Star Wars fan in any setting”). Even Rey, the new hope for female leads in the Star Wars universe, was excluded from much of the first wave of merchandising for The Force Awakens, leading frustrated shoppers to start a #wheresrey tag on social media. Toy manufacturers did listen, and various plastic Reys have flown off the shelves ever since.

Women, though, were instrumental in shaping the early Star Wars fandom. Several of the first zines, self-published in the late Seventies, were edited and written by women, including the very first one, Skywalker, put together by Bev Clark, a corporate communications professional based on the west coast of America.

The first Star Wars conventions sprang up after the world-dominating first film was released in 1977. They were largely fan-run, and focused heavily on these fanzines and homemade merchandise. (Search and you’ll find grainy pictures featuring plenty of women as well as men.) But their DIY nature was their undoing. The volume of unlicensed merchandise meant the film’s creators wouldn’t allow the actors to attend and the conventions stayed relatively small.

Throughout the Eighties, papers and newsletters discussed the growing segregation among fans. Male fans were visible, legitimate somehow, and female fans were relegated to women-focused groups and meet-ups. It’s only recently the balance has begun to shift back.

“Just try to put me in a gold bikini, I dare you!”

Dressed to impress

To see Star Wars Celebration in 2017, you’d never have known Star Wars conventions were the underdog. It takes 15 minutes to walk across the floor and everyone is in meticulously handcrafted costumes, so accurate and professional-looking it’s almost impossible to tell who is a sanctioned photo-op character and who’s a ticket-holding member of the public.

The toilets are thick with hairspray and grease paint in every colour. Standing in line between a virginal Princess Leia and Captain Phasma, the terrifyingly shiny female Stormtrooper, I start to feel a bit like I’ve turned up to Own Clothes Day in full school uniform. I’m not sure I even brushed my hair this morning, let alone spent hours painting my entire body blue.

“The level of detail in the costumes here is like nothing I’ve ever seen before,” says veteran convention-goer Kerry. “You go to cons and there are some people who are really good and some people who kinda threw something together. But here the amount of accurate and highly detailed costumes is… daunting.”

I meet people who have travelled from Japan, Brazil, Peru and Chile on a sci-fi pilgrimage. Many of them are laden with camp chairs and sleeping bags. They spent the night on the concrete pavement, queuing for the major panels to catch a glimpse of Harrison Ford or, amazingly for the fans, Star Wars’ creator George Lucas, a man who seems to have created the prototype for the Strong Independent Female Lead almost by accident.

Because for many of the women at Celebration, there’s one major reason for their all-encompassing love of Star Wars: Leia. Vast numbers of women have come dressed as their favourite ass-kicking princess. There are pre-school Leias stumbling over their robes and at least one elderly Leia. There are flowing white dresses paired with cinnamon-bun hair around every corner. “I love Disney but I was never a princess,” stage host Amanda Wirtz says. “When I saw Leia I was like, that’s who I wanna be!”

“I like that she’s a princess but she’s not prissy or dainty,” says Kerry, who dressed as Leia the day before. “She carries a gun and she makes hard choices and she fights back when she needs to, but she’s still very compassionate. She’s not just this princess who needs to be rescued all the time, she’s a strong woman who’s still making the hard decisions but not losing her femininity.”

“What can I say? I didn’t get the memo…”

A documentary, Looking For Leia, will be released next year, and it focuses on talking to female fans about their love for Alderaan’s favourite royal. Director Annalise Ophelian has been filming at this Celebration. “The perception of male dominance in fandom is, I think, accurate, and a reflection of how sexism functions in the world,” she told technology-focused publication The Verge. “I think women’s fandom is in many ways a reflection of how women have always navigated that sexism.”

Leia’s legacy is everywhere at Celebration too, not least at the Jedi Training Academy (more of a stage surrounded by parents) where I watch young girls pick up lightsabers taller than they are, and, one by one, thrust and parry with legendary villain Darth Vader. One tiny girl lands a hefty blow to Vader’s stomach, showing there’s been serious interruption in the dark side of the Force. 

Considering when the first film came out, it seems pretty radical Leia was ever allowed to be so ballsy, although she’s not exactly the iron-clad feminist icon we’d like her to be. She’s sassy, but also starts out begging for help and then gets super into an emotionally unavailable man (although many of us have been guilty of this). George Lucas did then have a giant slug chain her up in a gold bikini (in Return Of The Jedi, Leia was captured and forced into ‘sexy’ clothing by oozing space gangster Jabba the Hutt), but at least he let Leia kill Jabba herself. Mentioning Slave Leia at Celebration prompts a similar reaction to mentioning widely hated character Jar Jar Binks. A few women do brave the event’s air-con in metallic bikinis, but then it’s much more fun to enjoy your sexuality when it’s not the only option.

Fans have also started to give the outfit a new name, Huttslayer, celebrating Leia’s victory over her captor. There are a few sexy Darth Vaders too: so, whatever floats your TIE fighter. It’s also impossible to extricate Leia from the late Carrie Fisher. That the two were so alike is half the reason Fisher was cast. “I’m not a method actor,” she once said. “I play what I am. It’s a character not too far from myself, except I don’t have laser guns.” She famously had a ball at conventions and this is the first Celebration since she passed away in December 2016. Her absence was keenly felt: Mark Hamill’s tribute to his co-star was one of the most watched livestreams of the weekend and there were moving speeches by George Lucas and Fisher’s daughter, Billie Lourd. Soundtrack composer John Williams even came out and conducted an orchestral rendition of Leia’s Theme.

But female influence is growing in the Star Wars universe, on-screen and off. Kathleen Kennedy is president of Lucasfilm, the production company behind the franchise. She wears a tailored grey suit with a Star Wars T-shirt as she talks about dedication to female characters.

“Developing Leia from a princess into a general was an extraordinary experience,” she said of the newer films. Other panellists take care to shout out women on the writing and animation teams. As the gender balance behind the films becomes more even, so too has the balance on-screen. It trickles down further: the more women involved, the more comfortable female fans are to let their Star Wars flag fly.

“I used to have to fashion my own dresses out of branded bed sheets,” Star Wars fashion blogger Kirsty Glasgow says. “Now there are multiple companies catering to me.” 

An incarnation of Padmé Amidala

Of course, Leia is not the only Star Wars heroine being represented on the show floor. Newcomer Rey is a popular choice for younger women. “It was really neat to see a female character that kinda looked like me and was strong,” 29-year-old Adriana, an architect from Sacramento, explains. Adriana only got into Star Wars a couple of years ago, when her friends dragged her to see the seventh official instalment. “She just spoke to me. I feel like to me she’s what Leia was to an older generation.”

There are certainly a lot of tiny Reys doing the rounds, pint-sized, three-bunned heroes with their scavenger staffs bobbing through the crowds. “One of my favourite scenes in The Force Awakens was when Finn went to help Rey and she looked at him like ‘what are you doing? I’m good’,” Bethany says. It reminds me of struggling to accept that Leia could be so rude to the two handsome men who were trying to rescue her. For today’s young fans, handsome men are tolerated, not needed.

All the women of Star Wars Celebration radiate positivity. Real life may involve studying or admin jobs but here they are warriors, generals, leaders, utterly at home in their uncomfortable uniforms and embodying their values. 

When the First Order strikes again, I know who I want on my side.