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Sexist double standards in the land of "Star Wars" 

Wednesday, Feb 2 2011

Tabitha Totah, a Lucasfilm employee who managed Star Wars memorabilia events around the world, was about to leave for Chile in February 2009 when she was called into her supervisor's office at the company's Presidio complex.

"I was told that I had a reputation for sleeping around," Totah recalls. "I told my supervisor, 'I'm not comfortable with this; I want to speak with human resources.'"

Instead, she was told not to mention the matter to anyone.

She suspected the rumor came from a colleague, modelmaker Don Bies, who incidentally had been one of the original operators of the Star Wars android R2-D2. She asked him if he was the source of the rumors, but he denied it.

When Totah returned to San Francisco from Chile, she got another call from her supervisor, this time to tell her she was being fired for disobeying an instruction not to ask about the rumors.

Totah hired prominent S.F. attorney Angela Alioto to sue for sex discrimination. In a deposition, Bies acknowledged he'd reported on Totah's supposed reputation to Howard Roffman, president of Lucasfilm's toy licensing operation.

"It was a bit of a joke, you know, that — among the crew — that she was, in quotes, loose, unquote," Bies said.

Ultimately U.S. District Judge Maxine Chesney determined that Totah had failed to prove she'd been discriminated against. She had signed an at-will contract, which allowed Lucasfilm to fire her.

But whether Totah had a legal case against Lucasfilm isn't as interesting as another issue: The Star Wars maker seems to operate under an otherworldly double standard when deciding whether to weigh in on perceptions surrounding employees' sex lives.

Roffman isn't just any old toy salesman. He's worked for George Lucas since 1980. But he also has a sideline as a photographer whose work has the potential to cast Lucasfilm in a light at least as bad as Totah's rumored reputation. Roffman has produced 15 books with titles such as The Perfect Boy and Loving Brian, depicting naked boys in erotic poses.

"Brian was more sexually open than almost anyone I'd ever known, yet still a complete sexual novice," Roffman wrote in a blurb for Loving Brian on his website. "He longed for experience. In that longing I sensed an opportunity for both of us."

Roffman, who declined to be interviewed for this column, wouldn't be the first person in the media seeking to profit by sexually exploiting young people. Controversy over MTV's new sexually explicit teen soap, Skins, is testament to that. And there's no evidence that Roffman's apparent sexual obsession with boys has affected his work overseeing global licensing of children's toys. But it does seem clear that in the land of Anakin Skywalker, a senior executive is permitted a sideline making youth-centered porn, yet a female staffer can be fired after co-workers speculate about her private sex life.

As odd as the Lucasfilm corporate culture may sound, it's easy to imagine a not-too-far-off future where this kind of double standard becomes common. Everyone grows up learning some version of women's role in society. But in some parts of the country, it can be rare to meet overtly gay people. In a common trajectory, a person moves to a more modern-thinking place such as San Francisco, makes gay friends, and decides, without much cognitive dissonance, to discard antigay prejudice. But patriarchal attitudes toward women can be ingrained and hard to shake. At the sci-fi-fanboy-populated universe at Lucasfilm's Letterman Digital Arts Center, they still seem to hold some sway.

Totah began working at Lucasfilm in 2004, coordinating Wal-Mart toy marketing events around The Revenge of the Sith. Later, she was put in charge of overseeing museum and other exhibits in countries such as Portugal, England, Belgium, and Chile.

During a months-long European Star Wars memorabilia tour, co-workers began gossiping that Totah may have had drinks with a Portuguese toy license-holder. Next, according to depositions from several employees, the rumor spread that she tended to drink too much, was allegedly promiscuous, and thus "not a good representative of Lucasfilm on the road," Roffman said in a deposition.

Totah vehemently denies the accusations, and says nobody ever asked her directly about them. Notwithstanding, after Bies informed Roffman of the rumors, Totah's superiors began fretting by phone about what to do with her.

Alioto says she'll appeal the judge's ruling. In the meantime, Totah has separately sued Bies for defamation. Bies' attorneys say this is a specious effort to end-run the decision. A Lucasfilm spokesman told us Totah's claims have no merit.

George Lucas has famously located himself and his company hundreds of miles from Hollywood. Totah believes the distance has fomented an isolated corporate culture. The sci-fi-fanboy values cultivated at Skywalker Ranch and Lucasfilm's Presidio complex may seem as remote from modern sensibilities as the sands of Tatooine.

"Seventy-five percent of the entertainment world's population would be terminated if they were not supposed to have a reputation for sleeping around," Totah says.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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