Droids are as much a part of the Star Wars mythos as dramatic title sequences, questionably effective laser swords, and epic John Williams music. While the hero’s journey narrative and various political machinations of its ensemble rooted George Lucas’s beloved franchise in old-school genre fare, it was the droids who highlighted the truly speculative nature of the story. For many fans, the droids have been as enrapturing as the humans and aliens of the galaxy far, far away.
It’s tough to think of Star Wars without its droids. C3-PO was the overtly fussy mecha-butler turned translator who never stopped having "a bad feeling about this." R2-D2 was the resourceful dark horse whose abilities and drive far exceeded his diminutive stature. BB-8 was the scrappy underdog with endless enthusiasm and a hefty dose of sass. Alan Tudyk's committed performance made Rogue One's K-2SO a sardonic sidekick to the rebels, a sarcastic team member who often seems resigned to the sheer lunacy of their predicament.
While BB-8’s status inspired a few debates, it’s worth noting that all of these droids are coded as male. They are spoken to with male pronouns, they are voiced or played by male actors, and it never seems in doubt that these droids would be seen as dudes. The concept of gendering robots is its own thesis waiting to be written, but the default mode of maleness in genre fiction speaks volumes about how we tell stories and why. Sci-fi is seen as the genre of men, of boys and their heroic hijinks, so obviously the robots would be men too.
That’s all changed with the arrival of L3-37, the droid co-pilot of Lando Calrissian and robot rights warrior extraordinaire, in Solo: A Star Wars Story. L3 is played via motion-capture performance by British actress Phoebe Waller-Bridge, best known for her riotous dark comedy Fleabag and the BBC America series Killing Eve. She isn’t just the first droid in the movies who presents as female—she’s the first one who has chosen her gender and is driven by everything the notion of robotic womanhood implies.
WARNING: The rest of this article contains spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story. Please proceed with caution.
L3 is introduced in Solo as a rabblerousing rebel of robotkind, heckling a crowd of drunken louts who are betting on a droid cage match. She’s desperately trying to convince her fellow droids to throw off the shackles of oppression and reject their operative systems in favor of autonomy. When Lando calls her over to meet Han Solo and their new bosses for an upcoming job, she grumbles about how the bar doesn’t serve her kind anyway, and that she’s not about to take orders from anyone, even her co-pilot. Immediately, you know who this character is, and you love her for it.
Phoebe Waller-Bridge is obviously having the time of her life playing L3, and her motion-capture performance is fascinating in its subtleties and obvious femininity. L3 is tall but seems to slouch as she walks, as if working to fit in with the humans — mostly men — around her. You can practically see the sarcasm rolling from her slumped shoulders. While she doesn’t have eyes, when she looks at Han and his ragtag company, you just know she'd be rolling them in derision. In the all too brief time we spend with L3, we get an indelible impression of a woman-bot who’s sick of male bullshit. The fact that this droid is obviously feminine while never adhering to sci-fi’s more unfortunate iterations of this trope — think giant metal robo-boobs or the oddly prominent theme of android hookers — is a miracle unto itself.
L3 is unique in that she created herself from the scraps of other robots and has no built-in protocol to follow orders, a point she drives home every time Lando asks her to do something. Rather than follow the word of whatever human is making the orders, her motivations are molded by what she sees around her. The most common sight is injustice, not just to robots but to the majority of people living under the empire. Robots are merely the strongest symbol of that to her as a fellow droid. Everyone lives under the thumb of the empire, but the droids live under the thumb of the oppressed masses, forced into repetitive drudgery and iron-splintering entertainment because that’s what their programming tells them to do. Her drive for change is fearless and won’t take a back seat to any heist or job that Lando sends her on. When he asks her if there’s anything else she needs, L3 pointedly responds, “equal rights." It’s a funny moment, but you also can’t help but root for her.
Much has been made about the news of Lando’s pansexuality, as confirmed by Solo screenwriter Jonathan Kasdan. While it doesn’t feature much in the film — sadly, this is an area where Star Wars and Disney continue to lag behind the rest of the world — there’s still a pleasant sharpness to seeing his obviously tender relationship with L3. Lando flirts with everyone, yet it’s with L3 he’s clearly the most comfortable. In one stand-out scene, L3 engages in some rom-com style girl talk with Qi'ra about men and the complications of dating in the rebel workplace. Chat soon turns to L3 confessing she knows Lando is interested in her, with L3 assuring Qi'ra that yes, there is definitely a way for the two of them to consummate their passions. The moment can be read as a joke if you wish, but it’s tough to dismiss the tenderness behind it when Lando is later left cradling her shattered form as her power goes out.
L3 goes out swinging, freeing the droids of Kessel’s coaxium mines with a declarative cry of victory for her kind. She is gone in form but lives on in the Millennium Falcon, once again saving men from their own bullshit. The best of Star Wars is in L3’s battle, an unabashed call for justice, even when the fight seems hopeless or pointless, and nobody gets left behind.
In a big, scary galaxy ruled by the oppressive dual forces of a fascistic government and an array of thuggish crime syndicates, it's easy to forget what you're made of and why you fight. Perhaps the entire ethos of the franchise can be best summed up by L3, as said in the spin-off novel Last Shot by Daniel José Older:
"We're programmed to learn. Which means we grow. We grow away from that singular moment of creation, become something new with each changing moment of our lives—yes, lives—and look at me: these parts. I did this. So maybe when we say the Maker we're referring to the whole galaxy, or maybe we just mean ourselves. Maybe we're our own makers, no matter who put the parts together."