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Women and Star Wars

After finishing my previous Princess Leia Read pile post, it got me thinking again about an issue with my favorite movie franchise that many other professional pundits and unprofessional internet cranks have commented on over the years. That is the topic of Women and Star Wars.  Now this isn’t a post about whether women like Star Wars or not.  Actually, I believe that Star Wars has such universal appeal that that it doesn’t matter if you are old or young, male or female etc. chances are most people are fans of it to some degree.

In fact, there are a ton of women in my own life that enjoy Star Wars and look forward to watching the movies if they are on. In fact, I can probably say there are more women out there that like Star Wars in some shape or form more than the taste of beer, which I feel is personally somewhat of a minority. A very awesome minority, but a minority none the less.

In any case, The problem with Women and Star Wars isn’t so much that women don’t like Star Wars, it’s that up until a Episode 7, there were so few strong female characters in the movies for women to identify with. I’ve seen the arguments made on line that the movies when you come right down to it are sexist, propped up by the prevailing theory called the Bechdel test.

For those of you that came in late, the Bechdel test of fiction says that for a work of fiction to have a strong female component, it has to do the following:

  1. It has to have at least two women in it
  2. who talk to each other
  3. about something besides a man

With those rules in mind, you can see that the classic original trilogy fails miserably, as really there’s only one woman, Princess Leia. And sure, she’s a feisty uber strong female leader, but she’s still the only one. In fact, it’s often times joked at that when Leia finally is in a scene with another female i.e. Mon Mothma in ROTJ, that it’s somewhat awkward for no other reason than the sheer lack of any other females in any other scene…period.

The Original Trilogy is still my favorite movies of all time despite having only Princess Leia and I’ll stick by the fact that those movies are balanced so perfectly in terms of characters and their interactions with each other that adding a female just to add one would probably be the same as taking a dump in someone’s chicken soup. But the expanded universe did add the character of Mara Jade to the collective Original Trilogy cast of heroes, and it in fact showed that there was room for one more character to the collective mix.

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Then again Mara Jade plays a role that wasn’t really established until Han and Leia officially became a power couple at the end of ROTJ ending the previously established love triangle with the admission that Luke and Leia are siblings.

This change in direction allowed for the story to naturally give Luke a female foil to play off of in the absence of Leia. Whether this passes the Bechdel Test in that Mara and Leia would eventually interact and talk about things other than Luke/Han is beyond me, but even with the original trilogy, steps were being taken to try and bridge that sex gap in the story as to make it more appealing to both men and women alike.

In the terms of the rest of Star Wars, The prequel trilogy doesn’t do much better as there really is only one female character in Padme, but it’s been argued that it does pass the Bechdel Test because there are scenes with Padme talking to her Handmaiden and they don’t involve talking about a man. However most of those arguments are just for shits and giggles given that these scenes are pretty brief and one just involves the handmaiden dying after an explosion at the beginning of Attack of the Clones..so talking about a man is the last thing on anyone’s mind at that point.

Speaking of Padme, I’m going to take this opportunity to post this awesome picture of her in the “snow bunny” outfit made popular in post prequel Clone Wars style expanded universe. Yeah, I know this doesn’t help the argument of sexism in Star Wars, but I just really like the outfit. It’s very Flash Gordon to me, and I’ve always said Star Wars is at its best when it’s trying to be Flash Gordon. But I digress…

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In any case, it’s not as if it would be difficult to add more female characters to the pre Force Awakens Star Wars universe. The Clone Wars animated show actually includes a very strong showing of female characters including adding a prominent female Jedi in Ahsoka. In fact, because she plays the part of the audience cipher (i.e. the one the audience learns and grows with), she’s actually the most important single character in the entire TV show. And since she does get to interact with all kinds of female characters such as Padme, other Jedi, female bounty hunters etc., the show does pass the Bechdel Test in my opinion.

Consequently, it looks like the same could be said for the  Star Wars: Rebels TV show, as 2 of the 6 main characters are females with Hera Syndulla and Sabine Wren, who played extremely important roles as the “mom” and “sister” of the symbolic rebel family made up of the crew of the Ghost.  But even more than that, with Hera’s strides over the length of the series in becoming an important Rebel general, and Sabine’s coming of age as an clan leader among the Mandalorians, they definitely “interacted” and “discussed things other than the male characters” and then some, making me feel this show also passed Bechdel Test as well.

I mean sure some may argue about the love affair between Hera and Kanan Jarrus, but that was just a mutual relationship. Hera definitely didn’t define her worth to the Rebellion based on Kanan, just like Kanan didn’t define his worth. They were just in love with each other.

The Star Wars Anthology movies Rogue One and Solo, sort of fall flat on the Bechdel test, as despite both movies having great female characters like Jyn Erso and Qi’ra, they are pretty much the only female characters in the movies and more importantly they don’t really interact with any other females. Sure, again, they are fiercely independent, strong willed and all that, but Qi’ra  does a lot of what she does in the movie because of her love for Han (a man) and Jyn does a lot of what she does in the move because of her love for her dead father (a man). So in that regard, the original trilogy actually does a better job with Leia, as although there’s a man in her picture as well, her motivations are pretty much her own outside that relationship.

Then you have the new Star Wars sequels aka Episodes 7 through 9, and you’d think these movies were a shoe in for passing the Bechdel Test. I mean, c’mon the main character is Rey played by Daisy Ridley. That has to bode well when you make the main character a female, right? Plus you have Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia and Kelly Marie Tran as Rose Tico, as well as Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo and even Captain Phasma, although you never really see her face. Those are important meaty female roles, right? And there are several of them? Gotta pass that test, right?

Well, despite the wonderful arguments I can make that these movies are giving us fantastically strong female characters we can all love and women can identify with and root for, these movies do honestly fail the Bechdel Test. Again, my 4 year old daughter idolizes Rey in the same way that I used to idolize Luke Skywalker, and that’s wonderful for the franchise, but these movies are still somewhat falling short. And where it’s falling short is in the area of the female characters interacting with each other. I mean, in the first two movies, Rey doesn’t really interact with anyone else female, with the exception of Leia briefly at the end of Force Awakens (which is somewhat tainted as the conversation is for the most part about Luke and Han, who are both men). She also has a brief interaction with Leia at the end of Last Jedi, which could have passed the test as they talk about the future of the Rebel Alliance, if they didn’t also talk about Luke for a chunk of it.

For as much as a kerfuffle was made by some Star Wars fans about Rose Tico (which I never understood), she actually only interacts with Finn and in fact nearly sacrifices her life for a man, so she sort of fails the Bechdel Test. I mean don’t get me wrong, I like the character in terms of both her personality, energy,  and her role as an audience cypher, helping bring the audience into the story by having everyday person they can relate to. But yeah…the closest she gets to the Bechdel Test is the fact she’s wanting revenge on the First Order due to the death of her sister, but that’s short of a stretch.

In fact, the closest we get to Bechdel Test moment is some of the brief interactions Leia has with Vice Admiral Holdo in regards to  her decision to stay with the rebel flag ship an ultimately crash it into the First Order Command ship. Those are serious conversations about the fate of hundreds of people that have nothing to do with their relationship with a man, although I will say it sort of starts with them talking about how much they like Poe Dameron. However, like the conversation between Leia and Rey in this same movie, its somewhat brief so I’m not sure if it substantially moves the needle.

Now, I’m not saying that anyone should just add female or male characters just for the sake of adding them to pass some test. For one thing that’s just pandering and audiences can usually see through that. In order to work, the female needs to fill in a part of the story that others are not already filling. And that can sometimes be really tough, especially in the Star Wars universe when historically a lot of the power players have already been established as men based on its roots.

That’s why I thought it was just a huge step in the right direction to make the main Jedi in the new movies, a woman, because it claims an important part of the Star Wars story for the females right from the start. And although the new movies have taken steps to bring us into more of a balance, like with the introduction of Rey, really only the cartoon series’ Clone Wars and Rebels actually passed the Bechel Test (I’m sure the new cartoon Star Wars: Resistance does the same…I just haven’t gotten around to watching it yet). That could be surprising to some fans, and I hope I shed some light on that.

In the end, I don’t know if this post had a real point. Originally, I thought of it as an admission to my female friends out there that one my favorite movies of all time is pretty sexist and that I was bothered by that a bit. But in the end, this became more of a reasonable examination of the steps the franchise has taken to combat those claims, and the work still left to do.

As a white male, I wholeheartedly admit that a lot of the stuff I like was almost tailor made for me by Hollywood over the years, and as a result, there are others that felt left out of that tent, whether they ultimately ended up liking it too or not. Like with comics, I think that’s sad when people are left out, and I want to try to be inclusive. So I think we have to focus sometimes on that a little bit more than we have in the past and be even more creative when looking at the types of characters we have and how we can incorporate those that didn’t get a fair shake before.

Again it warms my heart to see my son running around with his lightsaber being Luke while my daughter runs around with her lightsaber being Rey. Here’s hoping in the years to come with Star Wars, we can continue to grow and expand the types of characters for our kids to play as.

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7 Comments »

  1. I actually, weirdly, can’t stand Rogue One. I feel like it tried WAY too hard with Jyn Erso and I believe you can take Jyn out of the movie completely and still have the movie function just fine. It would take a bit of creativity, but she was really quite insubstantial. The part that bothered me the most is that if you actually watch it closely – a male saves her or does something for her every single time. Every. Single. Time. She never really holds her own. I digress. That angry post is on my blog to read if you’re ever interested.

    I do like this post and I adore Rey, adore her, but agreed that we need to see some more female friendships. That’s one of the reasons I liked Rebels so much.

    Like

  2. Excellent analysis! Thanks for taking the time to write and analysis the different female characters in various “Star Wars” stories. I do agree with you that Star Wars has that “Flash Gordon” vibe that inspired the original franchise and if stories stray too far they don’t “feel” like Star Wars anymore. I know this isn’t a superhero franchise (with lots of women in attractive costumes) but wow, I do love that artwork of Padme in her snow costume!

    To me, Star Wars has always been about a Shakespeare opera in outer space. It can revolved around a family’s bloodline (like the Skywalkers) or surrogate families (e.g. the clone brothers in “Clone Wars” or the “Rebels” crew) but focusing on family makes all of the characters believable, allowing the audience to connect with them on an emotional level even if we’re visiting a galaxy long ago and far away.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks so much! I agree. Family relationships make the drama so much more relatable in Star Wars. That’s what I thought was missing in the prequels. Nobody seemed to like each other very much even when they were supposed to friends or lovers

      Like

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