Why BB-8’s Gender Matters in ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’
It started out as a sort of interesting bit of trivia for Star Wars fans: the adorable new droid first introduced in last year’s teaser for The Force Awakens is actually a girl. BB-8 has already become one of the upcoming film’s most popular characters, and while gendering a robot seems a little silly, it was neat to know that in addition to having Daisy Ridley playing a leading role in the next phase of the Star Wars saga, something as small and seemingly irrelevant as the gender of a droid was being given more nuanced consideration. And that’s when things got complicated.
Depending on who you ask, BB-8 is a boy or it’s a girl. No one behind the scenes on The Force Awakens can seem to agree. I first learned of BB-8's gender from an anonymous animator who was one of the first to bring the new droid to life. He told me BB-8 is a she, and while that didn’t seem like a huge deal at the time, it was kind of cool.
Suddenly the gender of BB-8 is the source of arguments on Twitter and in message boards. In an interview with Wired, director J.J. Abrams refers to BB-8 as a “he,” while Neal Scanlan, the head of the creature shop at Lucasfilm, seems a bit more confused in his talk with EW:
I’m still not sure, dare I say, whether BB-8 is male or female. BB-8 was female in our eyes. And then she became male. And that’s all part of the evolution, not only visually, but in the way they move, how they hold themselves.
Meanwhile, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, along with members of the production team, referred to BB-8 as a “she,” while members of the design crew have called the droid a “he” (hat tip to iO9 for rounding up all these conflicting reports).
So which is it? And why does it matter so much? In a superficial sense, gendering a droid is arbitrary, but it does matter in a much larger sense. C-3PO and R2-D2 have always been classified as male, and if you can have male droids in the Star Wars universe, surely you can also have female droids. And why not? Changing the gender of a few supporting characters from male to female is an easy way to increase diversity in your film, whether it’s a random background character or, in this instance, a robot.
We’ve entered a new era of Star Wars, in which the two leading protagonists are a person of color and a woman, and one of the most intriguing antagonists (Captain Phasma) also happens to be a woman. In a galaxy far, far away, the possibilities for diversity are limitless and immune to our boring, earthbound reality, where Straight White Man is the default setting for the majority of characters.
BB-8's gender matters because it’s indicative of bigger problems at Disney, whose acquisition of Lucasfilm brought about this exciting new phase of the Star Wars saga. Over the past year, Disney (also the parent company of Marvel Studios) has come under fire for its failure to adequately include Black Widow in its officially-licensed Avengers merchandise, as if having women represented on screen should be enough to satisfy female fans; as if those same female fans — many of whom are young — would have no interest in owning a Black Widow action figure. Instead, the company didn’t even include the character in a playset depicting one of her biggest moments in Age of Ultron.
Even after Mark Ruffalo, one of the franchise’s own stars, criticized Disney for failing to offer Black Widow merchandise, the studio continued to neglect this portion of its audience, sending some serious mixed signals in the process.
And Disney still hasn’t learned its lesson. A new Star Wars: The Force Awakens exclusive action figure pack for Target features Finn, Chewbacca, a nameless First Order Stormtrooper, a nameless Stormtrooper Officer, Poe Dameron and Kylo Ren — but no Rey, even though she’s one of the main characters and has been prominently featured in teasers, trailers, TV spots and posters. We’ve been given a young female hero, a role model for little girls and a symbol of increasing improvements in diversity (however incremental) in blockbuster films, and yet she’s not included in this set:
Yes, you can buy a Rey action figure — a few options have been available since Force Friday — but the availability and prominence of Ridley’s character in contrast to her male counterparts is blatantly imbalanced in favor of the men.
I don’t want to seem like I’m looking a gift horse in the mouth or whatever because I am grateful for the on-screen prominence of characters like Rey, Black Widow and Gamora. But it’s ridiculous to think that female fans should just accept a female character’s valuable presence on screen as a concession — when you have the ability to do more, you should. Disney should be selling more merchandise featuring these characters if they’re so important to their franchises (and they are). It’s sexist to assume that girls — or even boys! — wouldn’t want to play with female action figures. These ideas are downright antiquated by now.
Furthermore, it’s this sort of thinking at Disney that turns the superficial irrelevance of BB-8's gender into something that is suddenly very, very important. The company continuously refuses to cater to female fans in its merchandising, essentially signaling that women are important to these stories, but that these stories still largely belong to men. Even worse, the backwards logic that women are important on-screen but not off gives the impression that are value is entirely fiction.
Yes, the gender of a droid probably shouldn’t matter much or even at all, but Disney and Lucasfilm have an opportunity to take this thing that seems fairly unimportant and subtly transform it into something that resonates with a core part of their audience, that holds positive connotations for millions of kids, regardless of gender. It not only shows that something as silly as a droid was given more thoughtful consideration, but that women — like their male Star Wars counterparts — are represented more broadly in a universe with such diverse lifeforms. How many female aliens have we seen in Star Wars over the years, anyway? I can name approximately three or four, including Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata in The Force Awakens.
Why does it matter so much? Here’s your mic drop: If C-3PO and R2-D2 (as well as pretty much all of the characters in this guide to the supporting creatures and droids in The Force Awakens) are classified as male, you can’t exactly say that BB-8's gender doesn’t matter. If George Lucas were to suddenly announce that R2-D2 is actually female, or if J.J. Abrams decided to recast C-3PO with a female actor, there would be outrage. And then your argument that a droid’s gender doesn’t matter would be rendered meaningless.
It does mean something. It means something to this female Star Wars fan, and I know I’m not alone. If the gender of a robot is so silly and arbitrary, then it should be easy enough to just classify it as a girl. Why not? You know, if it doesn’t really matter to you anyway.