May is sort of a weird month for me in terms of being a fan of nerdy things in general and of space operas specifically.
See, in spite of loving adventure stories set in space, in spite of Star Trek: TNG, Firefly, Mass Effect, and the more recent iterations of Captain Marvel being among my all time favorite pop culture properties, I never got in to Star Wars.
Every May the 4th, I sigh and shrug and apologize for missing whatever reference I inevitably miss and try to explain why I never got in to a thing that, on paper, has the hallmarks of my favorite things.
There's not a simple answer to this question. Usually, my response is some version of "I missed the boat." Star Wars is, in my experience, sort of a difficult thing to get into as an adult in a world where it's existed for 40 years. I was ten or eleven when The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, and I saw it in the theater. It, understandably, didn't get me hyped about the series as a whole. I didn't watch the original trilogy until my early twenties, and when I did finally make it through all three, my general reaction was along the lines of, "That was okay, I guess."
No one ever really accepts my "didn't get into it at the right time" explanation. Which is fair, I guess. There are some problems with it. I mean, it's not like I didn't have the opportunity to watch the originals as a kid--my parents are fans; some of my friends have been fans their whole lives. If I had asked, I could have seen them. And I obviously knew of them, so I would have been able to ask.
But I never did. I've been thinking lately about why, and I think the answer is actually pretty simple.
I've been hungry for stories for as long as I can remember. And not just stories, but stories that would pull me out of reality. I wanted space adventures, or to travel through time, or to live in a world with magic. So I sought out fantastical stories. There were plenty among children's media, and I had the good fortune of growing up around voracious readers and librarians in an overall pretty bookish community. It was great. Except for one thing that I kept noticing.
There weren't a lot of girls in these stories. I mean, there were some exceptions.
But the pattern for the stories I found was pretty much the same across the board: the main hero was a boy. Sometimes he lead a team. Pretty much always, the other members of that team were also boys, with the exception of one girl.
There's a name for this phenomenon. It's called the Smurfette Principle. And it's everywhere.
I didn't know anything about tropes when I was a kid. And I didn't know anything about how media are made that might have explained why I saw so few women and girls. (And I didn't know that I'd be living in a world that, almost 20 years later, would see a major network passing on a pilot because it skewed "too female.") All I knew was that I wanted to see stories that starred girls. And I was tired of the stuff that I liked that starred women and girls being dismissed as being badly made or too girly.
So I started being more selective. If a book or a movie didn't have a girl on the cover, or if the back copy didn't mention a girl by name (meaning not just in terms of her relationship to a boy--his sister or his crush), I put it back on the shelf.
This drastically changed the types of stories that I interacted with. I piked up fewer adventures, fewer fantasies, fewer space operas. I read a lot of historical fiction--the Dear America and Royal Diaries series made up a hefty chunk of my reading after this period because they were all about girls and (mostly) written by women. I kept going with some series--Harry Potter didn't really meet my criteria, but I started reading it before I made my changes, so I kept on (and thank goodness I did, because I need a hero like Minerva McGonagall in my life), and though many of the Animorphs books had boys as narrators, there were still two girls in the main cast.
I guess the reason why I never asked about Star Wars was because I already knew the score as far as women characters. Though I recognize now that the character of Leia has more going on than a damsel in distress narrative, at the time, the image that defined Leia for me was this one:
Whenever I mention to someone this period in my life where I steered clear of stories about boys as much as I could, someone inevitably points out all of the cool things I missed. And, yeah, there's a lot of neat stuff that I didn't see because I was looking for things that starred girls. But, ultimately, the "look what you missed" sentiment misses the point.
It seems odd that I would actively avoid stories about boys because, even if we're not consciously thinking about it, we know that stories about boys are everywhere. They're the vast majority of the stories that get told--particularly when we're talking about genre fiction (sci fi, fantasy, action/adventure, etc. etc.). The idea of avoid stories about boys and men strikes as odd because it's practically impossible.
But do we think it's weird if boys don't want to read or watch stuff that's about girls? Do we ask what boys who didn't read Dear America books missed out on?
I guess my ultimate point is that someone shouldn't miss out on "cool stuff" because they're looking for a character that's like them. And also that maybe content makers could stand to be more aware of the messages that they're sending to their potential audience. Leia may be more than a metal bikini, but that's all that I saw. It might not be the only reason that I'm not enthusiastic about Star Wars now, but it's definitely part of it.
Also, would it have killed them to add some more women? It's a whole galaxy.