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Why strong female Star Wars role models matter

Commentary: For May the Fourth, CNET's Bonnie Burton explains why we should keep demanding that women like Princess Leia, Rey and Ahsoka Tano populate our Star Wars world.

Leia always had a clever comeback or witty remark ready for haters, tyrants and scruffy-looking nerf herders.

Princess Leia has been my role model since I first laid eyes on her as a little girl in 1977. She pushed her "rescuers" aside, grabbed a blaster and shot at Stormtroopers. Even when her home planet was destroyed by Tarkin or she was forced by a slimy drug lord to wear a drafty metal bikini, she still got her own brand of justice in the end.

She was no damsel in distress, side chick or femme fatale.

To this day, whenever I find myself in tricky situations -- like being harassed by online trolls -- I ask myself, "What would Leia do?" Leading a rebellion against the Empire, sass-talking Tarkin and standing up to Darth Vader doesn't take just courage. It takes a lot of moxie, and that's what makes me want to be like Leia, whether I'm about to give a rude stranger a piece of my mind or get up the guts to head to a party where I don't know a soul.

Of course, Leia isn't the only stand-up-and-take-notice female character in a galaxy far, far away. Star Wars also has Rey, Mon Mothma, Padmé Amidala, Jocasta, Aayla Secura, Duchess Satine, Barriss Offee and Ahsoka Tano.

"Ahsoka Tano started a movement," actress Ashley Eckstein, of "Star Wars Rebels," told CNET.


And yes, female villains like Zam Wesell, Asajj Ventress, Aurra Sing and even Mama the Hutt are the kind of women who never back down from a fight, even when they're outnumbered and out-lightsabered. We need them in the Star Wars saga as much as our heroines. Female characters need to be diverse, complicated and conflicted the way real humans are for us to care about their choices and fates.

Actress Anna Graves, who's voiced such "Star Wars" characters as Satine, Sugi, Senator Meena Tills, Admiral Zasha Ranken and Princess Leia in various animated series and games, also thinks fictional females offer much more than just entertainment.

"Fictional characters have the ability to make the impossible seem possible," Graves said. "And for young women who lack strong female role models in their life, it's important to see a girl or woman in a situation where their character is problem-solving, fighting for good and can survive situations that are difficult. All young women need female heroes to look up to and female villains that can teach them what they shouldn't be."

Actress Ashley Eckstein, who voiced Ahsoka Tano in the animated series "The Clone Wars" and "Star Wars Rebels," and also created the geek girl fashion company Her Universe, also believes in the positive power of female Star Wars characters. Eckstein's role as Tano was crucial for us female Star Wars fans because we finally got to see an in-depth story of a girl becoming a Jedi.

"Back in 2008 when she was first introduced to the world, her presence was groundbreaking," Eckstein said. "Not only was it shocking that Anakin Skywalker had a Padawan, but it was even more shocking that his Padawan was a 14-year-old girl. She resonated with so many female fans of all ages because she represented equality."

Eckstein calls Ahsoka the "eyes of the audience," since viewers got to experience The Clone Wars from her point of view.

Rey is the beginning of the next wave of female characters to have an impact on the next generation of Star Wars fans.


She was relatable because she wasn't perfect. "She failed at missions, she was vulnerable and she had doubts," Eckstein said. "She became Anakin's Padawan because she was the best Padawan for the job, not because of her gender. Ahsoka threw the gender stereotypes out the window."

Tano wasn't the only young female character to give us a girl's point of view of what life is like inside the Star Wars Universe. In "The Force Awakens," we see the struggles and triumphs of Rey, a young woman who is trying to find her place in a very harsh environment, and becomes a heroine in the process.

Though Princess Leia became a feisty role model for many female Star Wars fans, Star Wars always seemed more about Luke's story than hers. But Rey is a main character who holds her own in a major sci-fi movie and gives female fans hope that sci-fi blockbusters don't always have to be a boys club, when it comes not only to stars, but to writers and directors.

Here's hoping more memorable ladies will debut in upcoming Star Wars films -- like Jyn Erso in the upcoming "Rogue One" -- so geek girls like me have more fabulous females to emulate in this galaxy.