After decades of perfect role models and girl-power action heroines, mainstream pop culture is finally moving on to a more nuanced age of celebrated female characters. Just take a look at Shonda Rhimes shows, The Hunger Games, and flawed superheroes like Jessica Jones. This year, one of the most exciting examples is Captain Phasma in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The original six movies gave us two iconic sci-fi heroines, Padme Amidala and Leia Organa. But like most Hollywood franchises, developed female side characters were thin on the ground—especially compared to the wealth of male roles like Boba Fett, Qui-Gon Jinn, Yoda, Jabba the Hutt, Chewie, and the droids.
Captain Phasma—a towering, armor-clad captain of the First Order—is a true rarity in Hollywood. She’s a female villain who is neither a femme fatale nor a foil for a female hero. Even her appearance is revolutionary: a metallic stormtrooper outfit that staunchly avoids the impractical “boob plate” armor favored by so many video game designers and comic book artists.
Even in supposedly gritty and realistic action movies, attractiveness often outweighs authenticity for female characters. One of the most egregious examples this year was Elizabeth Olsen’s turn as Scarlet Witch in Avengers: Age of Ultron, for which Joss Whedon told Olsen to keep her face calm during action sequences. Scarlet Witch is fueled by anger and grief throughout the movie, but her facial expressions were deemed too unattractive for slow-motion shots.
Captain Phasma circumvents the issue of looking pretty on camera, as well as another common problem faced by so-called “strong female characters”: the debate over whether she provides a positive role model for young girls. As a captain in the villainous First Order army, her role is comparable to a character like Darth Maul. She’s not a wholesome hero, but definitely a fun choice if you’re an 8-year-old kid playing Star Wars with your friends.
The Force Awakens still includes traditional heroines like Rey and Leia, but the presence of Phasma (and Lupita Nyong’o‘s alien character Maz Kanata) adds a satisfying new dimension to the Star Wars universe. We all need a bad role model, now and then.
A version of this story originally appeared in the Daily Dot on Dec. 1, 2015.
Photo via Star Wars