Star Wars has a problem.
If you have spent any time in the Star Wars fandom online, you will find that the franchise and its fans have a lot of issues.
Whether it’s “fans” running Star Wars actors off social media, people attacking John Boyega for speaking up about racism and inequality, or the constant toxic environment that women face within the community — there is a deep-seated issue that needs to be addressed.
But what happens when that toxicity gets unintentionally translated into the very mediums that are consumed by fans?
The content that we consume should never be a scapegoat for our actions. How many times have people used violent video games as the justification for violent actions, despite the fact that this is a myth. There is no evidence linking the two. With that being said, that doesn’t excuse the fact that fiction does not exist within a vacuum.
Shouldn't creators be more mindful of the perceptions that they create, when there is still limited positive representation for marginalized groups in their content? Perhaps the intent of their story choices were not malicious, but sometimes intent is not as powerful as its impact.
The Star Wars: Bounty Hunters graphic novels promised a dark and gritty approach to the Galaxy’s most infamous bounty hunters. The series brought together a team-up between Ethan Sacks and Paolo Villanelli (the artist also behind Darth Vader: Dark Visions, which we will get into later) and began in March 2020. The first three issues were met with mostly positive reviews before Marvel’s Bounty Hunters #4 to the series on a dark turn towards graphic depictions of violence against not one — but two — women.
T’onga is introduced as a refreshing change in the typical character construction within Star Wars.
She is a queer, woman of color, seeking vengeance for her brother who was allegedly killed by the bounty hunter Beilert Valance. Typically male characters are driven by the loss of a female relation, a trope that is particularly prevalent in comic books.
However, her character does not survive the recent issue. As a cliffhanger, Boba Fett shows up and shoots T’onga, before assuming a grotesquely proud stance as he looms over her bleeding body.
Death happens. No one is arguing against the realities of life and death in the Star Wars universe; where war, mass planetary destruction, and bounty hunters are prevalent, but it’s the way in which this narrative is delivered.
Why choose to introduce a queer woman of color, if the plan was to kill her? Why give queer fans a glimmer of representation, only to unceremoniously kill her for a shocking final panel? Were the creators entirely unaware of the potential impact of that decision?
Not to mention, the character design for T’onga was eerily similar to that of Rose Tico, a woman of color whose screen time was conveniently reduced between her introduction in The Last Jedi and her seventy-six second appearance in The Rise of Skywalker, following months of targeted harassment against the actress and fans of the character.
We also learn that Cadeliah’s pregnant mother, Krynthia, was nearly murdered at the hands of her child’s father, because he worried that he would lose his inheritance by fathering a child outside of his family’s customs. This tragic backstory is not only told, but shown to readers in graphic and horrifying detail.
Despite being rescued, Krynthia dies in childbirth. A fate all too familiar within the Star Wars universe.
If you are unfamiliar with fandom colloquialisms, allow me to introduce you to the concept of Women in Refrigerators (WiR). In 1999, comic creator Gail Simone coined the phrase after Green Lantern Issue #54 revealed that Green Lantern’s girlfriend had been murdered and stuffed into his refrigerator.
This plot device is seen again and again throughout pop culture.
Following the uproar over the female deaths in Bounty Hunters, a familiar counterpoint was brought up by those who saw no issue with the graphic violence towards women. This is not a new counterpoint to the WiR argument — in fact, editor John Bartol wrote an insightful rebuke entitled, “Dead Men Defrosting.” He goes into detail about how male characters are often given poignant and meaningful deaths, but also allowed the opportunity to return to their full heroic selves — whereas female characters are rarely given similar treatment.
Now to address another problematic Star Wars comic book — Darth Vader: Dark Visions #3. The issue was centered around a character who was — quite literally — a Darth Vader fangirl, who fantasized about becoming his love interest. It perverted female fan narratives by turning her into a twisted stalker.
It would be difficult to read this comic and not see it as an example of how the creators view fangirls. They have created an unnamed female character with wide “crazy” eyes, who is obsessed with fantasizing about a villain.
It was painfully apparent that the comic was written by men, not just because of how she was portrayed, but it was evident in how grandiose and laughable her fantasies about Darth Vader were. She envisions him as a prince-like figure, which further trivializes the reasons why female fans are drawn towards villains in the first place.
Which was perhaps a misstep for the franchise, considering a large portion of their base are women who like characters like Darth Vader and Kylo Ren. There was room to embrace the female fantasy, but instead they chose to go down a route that ostracized their female fan base. Data suggests that female fans make up the largest portion of moviegoers and they are a vocal and creative core that keeps fandom alive with artwork, cosplay, and fanfic. So why choose to demonize the idea of a “fangirl”?
Ultimately, the woman enters Darth Vader’s chambers and is mercilessly murdered by him while she marvels at seeing him unmasked. To further add insult to injury, Darth Vader refers to her corpse as “garbage” as he leaves the room.
Darth Vader is far from innocent — he has murdered untold numbers of women, children, and men alike — but it’s the intentional undermining of female fantasy, when female representation is already limited, which spoke volumes.
There is no reason to believe that any of the creators are intentionally creating content to hurt female fans. It is easy to be blind to issues that do not directly affect you. The demographics of the comic book industry is largely skewed towards male creators. In 2018, only 16.3% of Marvel’s comic book credits belonged to women. When female creators are in the minority, it is important for the male creators to stand up against these types of microaggressions, whether racial or gender-based, and help foster inclusive fan environments with the content that is produced.
Following the fallout of Dark Visions, fans hoped that Star Wars and Marvel would listen to the backlash and avoid playing into these same tropes, but with the release of Bounty Hunters it is clear that they have not learned yet.
To their credit, Star Wars has made efforts to increase diversity and representation in not only their characters, but in their creative teams. But progress is not stagnant, there should always be steady momentum to do better and grow from mistakes moving forward.
These erroneous choices underscore the need for bringing more women to the table and for the women already established in the franchise to send the elevator back down.