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'Looking for Leia' film shines light on Star Wars fangirls

Annalise Ophelian talks about her crowdfunded documentary, which asks women inspired by Star Wars about their love for a galaxy far, far away.

When Carrie Fisher's Princess Leia first graced the screen in 1977's "Star Wars," many women and girls were excited to see a strong female character confronting ruthless villains like Grand Moff Tarkin and Darth Vader, shooting at Stormtroopers, smuggling stolen Death Star plans and organizing a revolution. 

Leia represented more than just a beloved Star Wars icon. She stood as an symbol of feminism and strength for many female fans longing for a sci-fi character they could finally relate to. 

Now an upcoming documentary, "Looking for Leia," wants to pay tribute to those millions of women and girls. 

"Female Star Wars fans include everything from film buffs, cultural critics, cosplayers, gamers, artists and authors. The film reaches beyond Princess Leia to discuss how female characters and fans have shaped and expanded the Star Wars universe, and how these stories speak to experiences of gender resilience and resistance," reads a description on the movie's website. 

Filmmaker Annalise Ophelian took to Kickstarter and raised over $25,000 for the film, which is still in production and doesn't yet have a release date. She talks to CNET about why Star Wars has inspired so many women around the world, and what inspired her project.

Q: How did the idea for making a documentary about female Star Wars fans come about?
Ophelian: I've been a Star Wars fan all my life. I saw the first film in 1977 when I was 4 years old. In 2015, I went to my first Star Wars Celebration in Anaheim [California]. It was not my first con by any means, but it was the first time I felt like I really belonged at a sci-fi/fantasy event. 

The "Looking for Leia" filmmaker is a big Star Wars fan herself. 

Annalise Ophelian

That weekend filled me with such a sense of belonging: I felt like I was able to show up fully and was surrounded by people who shared my reference points, and I was struck by how many women were there. Women on their own, who just really loved Star Wars, women in Leia senatorial robes or Jedi robes or dressed as Stormtroopers. 

I left that celebration and realized my own fandom was something I did in isolation -- that I wasn't connected to other women who loved Star Wars like I did, that I'd internalized this assumption I was an oddball for liking "guy" things.

So that started me on this query: Who are the girls and women in Star Wars fandom? Because I've been here since the beginning, and clearly I'm not alone. 

Why do you think it's important female fans get the recognition they deserve?
Ophelian: Women have always been a part of Star Wars fandom and broader sci-fi, fantasy and geek culture. When I say women it's crucial to point out that I'm talking about a hugely broad category of humans: women of color, queer women, women of trans experience, young girls and elders, women across borders and of different faiths. 

Invisibility has always been a hinge on which sexism and misogyny functions. The way it shows up in broader cultural systems is the same as how it shows up in geekdom. Women are rendered invisible, they aren't seen or acknowledged, they're devalued; their contributions or interests are seen as trivial or less serious than their male counterparts. 

So it's important to recognize, to render visible, female fans -- because this is one way we cultivate gender justice. Recognizing women in fandom is one step toward recognizing women as culture-makers and creators.

What's the main message you hope people take away from your film?
Ophelian: I'm captivated by this idea of who gets to tell the story, whose gaze and whose narrative is centered. Women are so rarely the storytellers, and I love the idea of telling the story of Star Wars fandom from broadly diverse women's perspectives. 

I'm hoping women who watch this film come away feeling centered and validated and seen, that they recognize themselves in the stories on screen and know that they aren't alone. And I'm hoping folks outside of Star Wars fandom come away with a deep respect for women's contributions to fandom, the complexities and intricacies we bring to this experience.

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