The Force Is Female: Star Wars and Female Characters

From Princess Leia to Rey, this Explorations course for first-year students looks at the portrayal of key female characters in the Star Wars saga.
Group photo of students, some in "Star Wars" costumes.

Instructor Chris Panella (pictured in the "SOLO" t-shirt) and his students.

In the very first Star Wars film, A New Hope, only 15% of screen time contained at least one female character. Star Wars then evolved into an epic space-opera franchise spanning multiple movies, television shows, video games, comics, novels, and more as the 5th highest-grossing media franchise. Over time, strong women have established their place in the story.

Throughout the saga, there are many female characters, but the course focused on five: Princess Leia, one of the great leaders of the Rebellion Alliance; Queen Padmé, mother of Luke Skywalker and Leia; Ahsoka, a hero of the Clone Wars; Jyn, leader of the Rogue One squad; and Rey, the Force-sensitive protagonist of the most recent trilogy. These characters have been at the forefront of the push to better represent women in the franchise.

The Fall 2019 Explorations course, The Force is Female: Star Wars and Female Characters, taught by Chris Panella, showcases the depths of these characters. The class analyzes the representation of women and how it has evolved since the first film was released forty-two years ago. Students learned to code the media for traditionally masculine and feminine characteristics and connect the characters to how Star Wars has changed. Outside of the franchise, the class discusses the film industry, recent calls for better representation of women both in front of and behind the camera, and the ways in which women have been overlooked in film history.

Panella is a junior majoring in both Film & Media Studies and English. He has been a fan of the saga since he was a child, having grown up after the prequels were released and The Clone Wars television show began airing. His favorite part of The Clone Wars was Ahsoka Tano, Anakin Skywalker's apprentice. "I really identified with Ahsoka and began to realize that the layers beneath her character — and all of the female characters in the saga — went much deeper than one might assume," Panella said. "Since The Force Awakens was released, I've really focused on the female characters in the films and the various roles they fulfill. The Explorations course was born from those more recent portrayals."

The discussion-based course also features many activities to explore the saga. Besides occasional lightsaber fights and costume parties, the class recently had Professor Jennifer Burton from the Tufts Department of Theatre, Dance & Performance Studies attend class for a special discussion of her career in film and her teaching at Tufts. A screening and discussion of Solo: A Star Wars Story involved students comparing the character Qi'Ra to the other female characters they have studied throughout the course. The course concludes with personal reflection papers and a group research project.

By the end of the semester, Panella would like students to recognize the fullness of all characters in Star Wars just as he realized the three-dimensionality of Ahsoka when he was younger. "I hope students understand the complexities of film and that those complexities can be studied and read in various ways," he explains. "Analyzing media is an excellent skill. I think this doesn't just apply to film."

Aside from teaching an Explorations course, Chris Panella serves on the Experimental College Board, which selects our Visiting Lecturer courses each semester, plans campus events, and develops new initiatives for the Tufts community.

About the Author

Kaycee Feldman is a first-year student planning to earn a double major in Astrophysics and Film & Media Studies. Hailing from the small town of Doylestown, Pennsylvania, just outside of Philadelphia, she is highly interested in both the arts and sciences and how they can overlap. When not writing for the ExCollege, she can instead be found writing science fiction and horror stories that she intends to convert into screenplays.