Believe it or not, there’s been a lot of buzz about BB-8’s gender recently. And that raises a question: Why does it matter?
Two Fridays ago, Anthony Breznican at EW got the inside scoop on BB-8 with Neal Scanlan, the head of the creature shop for The Force Awakens. One of the tidbits Scanlan revealed was that BB-8 was originally conceived as a female droid, but had recently been referred to as male.
“I’m still not sure, dare I say, whether BB-8 is male or female,” Scanlan says. “BB-8 was female in our eyes. And then he or she became male. And that’s all part of the evolution, not only visually, but in the way they move, how they hold themselves.”
Germain Lussier at io9 traced down the history of BB-8’s gender identity a little further; earlier, Carolyn Cox at The Mary Sue weighed in (before it was revealed that the droid was now referred to as male). Naturally, the Internet’s collective initial response was along the lines of: “Why do droids need gender anyway?” “How does BB-8 being female make sense?” “Why does it matter?”
And the quick rebuttals: “Why does no one ask why droids need gender when the droid is male?” “How does BB-8 being male make sense?” and “Yes, it does matter.”
Let’s dig a little deeper: Star Wars and sci-fi abound with female androids and robots. From the false Maria in Metropolis to the titular Stepford Wives to Rosie the Robot Maid from The Jetsons to Call from Alien: Resurrection, female humanoid robots have been a recurring trope in science fiction. These concepts have been exaggerated and inverted with the fembots of Austin Powers and Futurama and the Buffybot of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.
Female androids have often played into male fantasy: looking like a person without being a person, perfect and submissive and frequently sexualized. Several recent films — Her and Ex Machina spring to mind — have delved into this trope and turned it on its head in interesting ways, giving their female AI protagonists (whether or not they have physical form) agency their creators never intended them to have.
It’s not just fictional. In the real world, you’ll notice that many automated systems use feminine voices. There may be a scientific explanation for that: As a species, whether due to nature or nurture, we tend to be more receptive to women’s voices.
Within the world of Star Wars, there have been a handful of female droids appearing throughout the saga, and for the most part, they’ve been accepted by the audience without issue. We’ve got EV-9D9 running the droid workshop in Jabba’s Palace in Return of the Jedi; the protocol droid TC-14 aboard the Trade Federation ship in The Phantom Menace; and FLO in Dex’s Diner in Attack of the Clones. Also in AOTC, Senator Bail Organa was attended by the BD-3000 luxury droid, which was nicknamed the Bettybot by movie crew for its resemblance to an automated Bettie Page as per George Lucas’ direction. And in Legends, we have Guri, the 9-million-credit Human Replica Droid assassin/sexbot from Shadows of the Empire. All of those look female and/or have been given female voices.
Then we get some female astromechs: KT-10, from 1986’s Droids TV movie “The Great Heep”; R2-KT, first fan-created from the 501st Legion and R2 Builders, then appearing canonically in The Clone Wars; and QT-KT, from the D-Squad arc of The Clone Wars. And guess how we immediately know they’re female? They’re all pink and have cute names. As per our general culture, most things that are ascribed gender are assumed to be male as the default, and are only female once you add “female” characteristics. And so far, Star Wars has fallen into the cultural norm (or trap). Take a slice out of a yellow circle, and you’ve got Pac-Man. But it only becomes Ms. Pac-Man when you add full red lips, dark eyelashes, and a bow.
BB-8 is not an android, merely a rolling ball with a hemispherical head who talks in a droid language similar to R2-D2. Beebee-Ate is not even pink and does not “speak” in a pitch noticeably higher than that used by Artoo. Maybe the initial impetus for calling BB-8 female derives from the droid’s round shape — media portrayals tend to attribute curves to female figures and angles and lines to male figures.
Most importantly, BB-8 is a main character, not a background character. And this is why it matters.
We ascribe human norms like gender to nonhumans all the time, whether they are living beings like pets, which have a specific biological sex, or inanimate objects like teddy bears, modes of transportation and the voice that answers your questions on an iPhone. And that has been pushed into Star Wars: Han Solo refers to the Millennium Falcon as “her.” Threepio and Artoo are repeatedly identified as male by other characters.
It is clear that, in the Star Wars universe, higher-level droids can have gender, even those that don’t resemble sexed organisms. Trying to pretend that non-humanoid droids can’t have gender is silly, because they often do. More importantly, this only seems to become an issue for discussion when it is the female gender being ascribed. If Star Wars introduced an iconic new droid that was referred to as male, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.
Star Wars broke the mold in 1977 when it created a take-charge princess who was not just a damsel in distress but someone who could hold her own with the boys in being a hero in 1977. It kept pushing with the prequels and The Clone Wars with female political leaders and Jedi and villains. And because there are more female characters, they can fill different roles, rather than just having one female character having to encompass the entire female perspective in the story. With Rebels, we have Hera and Sabine, shaking up notions of gender role and occupation: one’s an ace pilot and leader; the other’s a teenage super-soldier and artist. So why not a female droid who is a main character? Especially one whose gender identity just is, and isn’t related to the plot? Star Wars, you had a chance here to keep the ball rolling, and you let it stop.
It would be interesting to know what drove the decision to change BB-8 from female to male. Was it made from a storyteller’s standpoint? Was it made from a marketing and licensing standpoint? Did the desire to appeal to girls and women in the toy aisle get outvoted by the desire to not lose the boy and men market in the toy section? Toy retailers labor under the delusion that boys would rather die than have a “girl” toy, while girls will be okay with a “boy” toy. Especially one as cute as that perennial favorite R2-D2.
Speaking of cuteness, in his interview at EW, Scanlan talks to BB-8’s charm: “I think he knows he’s cute. He knows that he can win people over.” But later Scanlan confirms that the droid has some secrets and that BB-8’s a “Swiss Army Knife that shouldn’t be trusted.”
Those things will still be true whether BB-8 is male or female.