Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy was hand-picked by George Lucas to carry his legacy into the future. Having worked with Lucas, as well as other industry giants like Stephen Spielberg and her own husband Frank Marshall for decades on the franchises that fandom was built around, Kennedy was in his opinion the perfect choice when he opted to sell the company to Disney and leave it all behind.
Four years later, Kennedy has sheparded Lucasfilm to unprecedented success under the House of Mouse, with a $2 billion grossing film, a successful animated series, several books on the best seller list, top-selling comicbook series, and a revitalized toy and apparel market to the tune of $3 billion last year alone. With the Star Wars Story Group to hold things all together and an increased focus on diverse casts to better represent the world aound them, there's a lot for Kennedy to celebrate.
So when criticism from a select group of fans at having a second female lead in a row, as Felicity Jones stars as Jyn Erso in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story next month after Daisy Ridley starred as Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens started to hit, Kennedy paid it no mind.
"I have a responsibility to the company that I work with. I don't feel that I have a responsibility to cater in some way [to those particular fans]," Kennedy told the New York Times in an interview focused around Jones. "I would never just seize on saying, 'Well, this is a franchise that's appealed primarily to men for many, many years, and therefore I owe men something.'"
Indeed, the franchise's fandom has balanced out significantly on the gender line over the decades, with ReedPOP reporting their Star Wars Celebration conventions of the last several years have been attended by nearly perfect 50/50 splits of women to men. Felicity Jones, meanwhile, pointed out that just as women are expected to or desired by Hollywood to relate to male leads, she hopes the reverse can be done for Jyn.
"We wanted the audience to relate to Jyn as a person, whether you're a boy or a girl, a a man or a woman," Jones said in the same feature. "Like all of us, she's trying to work out what the hell to do."
Kennedy came under fire last week by fans on both sides of the argument when she talked about her committment to finding a female director for the Star Wars franchise in an upcoming film, but also expressed her desire to cultivate one from a pool of smaller features and TV, opining that there weren't many ready to handle a major tentpole on little experience. One subset of fandom criticized her for wanting a female director in the future at all, humming the familiar tune of "just choose the best person for the job, no mandate needed," while another group critized the Lucasfilm president for saying she wants a female director with experience who is "set up for success."
Regardless, women are gaining representation in the Star Wars franchise at a faster rate, something all involved admitted was a problem in the early films (there are literally two female characters in the entirety of the original film, Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope, and one is killed in the first act). Marvel Studios, also under Disney, for contrast, won't have a female character in a title role until 2018's Ant-Man and the Wasp, their nineteenth feature, and won't have a female solo lead until Captain Marvel the following year.
Likewise, characters of other races than caucasian have begun to get the spotlight in Star Wars more frequently. The Force Awakens featured a black male and hispanic male lead alongside the female main character, and Rogue One's diverse crew includes a man of Pakistani descent, a black lead, two East Asian leads, a hispanic man, all able to lend their points of view and represent their respective peoples alongside the white characters.
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Rogue One: A Star Wars Story hits US theaters December 16, 2016. Directed by Gareth Edwards, it's the first of the new standalone features from Lucasfilm and Disney, which take place outside the core "Skywalker Saga" of films noted by an Episode number. Rogue One tells the story of the small band of rebels that were tasked with stealing the plans to the first Death Star. The story spins directly off the opening crawl from the original Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope. In that crawl, it read: "Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire. During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet."