Scholarship on rebellion and insurgency provides a clear answer: first.
Opening with “Rogue One” both accurately situates women in the Rebel Alliance by reflecting their key roles and hidden centrality, and realistically frames the rebellion as a logistical and intelligence-centric conflict, rather than a combat-based one.
“Rogue One” demonstrates what insurgency is actually about
Most rebellions aren’t decided by engagements on the battlefield, though combat victories certainly help. They are grueling tests of endurance that usually last several years, if not decades, and often cost thousands of civilian lives. How rebels resolve logistical and information-based challenges — such as how to safely recruit, analyze threats, locate safe havens, expend scarce resources and identify viable targets — makes all the difference in their survival.
Star Wars is fundamentally a saga based around these issues. It is built on the consequences of moments, such as the Rebel Alliance stealing the Death Star’s technical plans, Obi-Wan Kenobi hiring Han Solo, Princess Leia’s escape from prison, Luke Skywalker undergoing political education, the Millennium Falcon’s breakdown after Hoth, and rebel commandos mobilizing supportive civilian communities on Endor. Setting the entire Star Wars saga in light of these types of struggles, rather than framing it around combat engagements, accurately highlights the core hurdles and tense moments the Alliance, like any insurgency, faces throughout.
Watching “Rogue One” first forces viewers to see insurgency for what it is: often improvised, behind-the-scenes, sometimes ill-fated choices based on hard-won information and resources.
Having good intelligence is the decisive factor in the Rebel Alliance’s success. The main struggles in “Rogue One” and “A New Hope” are about obtaining, protecting and transmitting mission-critical information, not firing blasters. To this end, the single most significant event in the entire rebellion occurs in “Rogue One”: Jyn’s transfer of the Death Star’s schematics to the rebels during the Battle of Scarif. This moment, of course, is preceded by the crucial revelation from Galen Erso (Jyn’s kidnapped, weapons-designer father) about a previously unidentified intelligence gap — the existence of a vulnerability built into the Death Star. This snippet of intel becomes a “known unknown,” that is, a piece of information that the Alliance consequently knows to explore and exploit. Without these moves, the Empire would have decisively defeated the Alliance at the end of “A New Hope.”
The Princess Leia phenomenon: How female militants create organizational resilience
Without “Rogue One” at the top of your watching order, it would be easy to overlook the centrality of the female intelligence agents — Jyn and Leia — to how the Rebel Alliance functions as a militant organization. The early presence of women in “Rogue One” — including in elite roles, such as Sens. Tynnra Pamlo and Mon Mothma — implies that the rebellion has organizational characteristics that facilitate women’s broader involvement. Not only does this data allow the informed watcher to credibly imagine more rebel women off-screen, it also gives us clues about the Alliance’s ideology and chances of success.
My research, for example, has demonstrated that women operating in high-status, high-skill, high-risk intelligence and logistical roles often sustain rebellion. Infantrymen fighting on Hoth? Replaceable. Loyal intelligence agents with good cover, a nose for critical information and advanced combat abilities? They require intensive investment, one that many rebellions have made in women.
Highlighting characters such as Jyn and Leia by watching “Rogue One” first also emphasizes the importance of agency and political choice in rebellion, as opposed to centering Luke Skywalker’s destiny-based mobilization. Jyn is a reluctant recruit to the Rebel Alliance made more willing by her experiences of the Empire’s politics and repressive tactics.
Leia, by contrast, comes to the Rebel Alliance primarily via her family’s politics. She is immersed in galactic intrigue as an imperial senator, makes a clear choice to resist the Empire and subsequently uses her position as cover to aid the Alliance. In this way, Star Wars hews close to research that notes how women’s pathways into and through insurgent organizations are often more varied than men’s, though their motivations are usually quite comparable.
Leia, for example, moves in and out of political, intelligence, military command and Special Forces roles. She was also a prisoner of war and a survivor of sexual enslavement. As with many other militant women, her trajectory to the rank of general is not based on vertical promotion but rather a number of lateral skips across task-based subdivisions of the Alliance that give her a unique skill base and ability to command.
This representation is especially noteworthy given the Star Wars movies’ problems, especially in the first six films, when it comes to gender (and also with race). Watching “Rogue One” as the entry into Machete Order doesn’t resolve these issues, but it does reframe the saga around Jyn, Leia and, later, Rey.
Viewed through the right lens, Star Wars is one of the most loyal representations of women’s militancy in popular culture.
Reinterpreting Star Wars and rebellion
Journalists and scholars of rebellion tend to spend their time interviewing combatants (the X-wing pilots), elites (the Admiral Ackbars) and the publicized heroes (the Luke Skywalkers and Han Solos) of rebel organizations. In doing so, they tend to treat militant women as aberrations rather than as fixtures whose roles are often hidden from outside observers. “Rogue One” brilliantly teaches viewers (and academics) up front that the rebellion is built upon unsung and often imperfect heroes — the Jyns (and the Cassians) — who sustain rebellion despite the little credit they get. It also forwards a more accurate, gender-balanced view of rebellion by centering the behind-the-scenes but high-risk, high-status, skilled roles that women often assume.
Sarah E. Parkinson is the Aronson assistant professor of political science and international studies at Johns Hopkins University.