Clarissa writer Dylan Jaggard questions how feminist Star Wars: The Force Awakens really is. Is all the fanfare about Rey justified? Or is there actually a long way to go before the franchise embraces feminism for reals?
When I was five years old, many many moons ago, I was taken to the pictures to see Star Wars: A New Hope. According to my mother, I asked questions all the way through and ruined it for those seated nearby. I inadvertently developed a lifelong habit of spoiling movies for other people by asking too many questions. From the start, my favourite aspect of the Star Wars franchise has been the Sith. I consider Palpatine to be Lucas’s most enduring creation. When Darth Vader tells a faceless General, “The Emperor is not so forgiving as I am,” in Return of the Jedi, we know that Palpatine, in person, is gonna be badass. And he doesn’t disappoint. Ian McDiarmid hams up The Emperor’s villainy nicely, just below the point of parody. I’m one of the few people who actually enjoyed the prequels, but only because of the Machiavellian machinations of Darth Sidious. But a major question that interests me is why are there no major female villains in any of the Star Wars movies? Not only are there no female Sith, but none of the high ranking officials in either The Empire or The First Order are female either. What gives?
There is a notable paucity of female characters in all three movies in the original trilogy, save for Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia. There is of course Luke’s Aunt Beru, but her and Uncle Owen end up as burnt offerings, their gruesome demise the reason Luke decides to leave Tatooine. With the exception of Rebel Alliance leader Mon Mothma, the majority of other women in the first three movies are dancers or slaves (or both). Leia is undoubtedly a strong female character. She doesn’t take any shit, she kills loads of nameless storm troopers with her proficient blaster skills, and she garrotes the repulsive Jabba the Hut using the chain he is holding her captive with. However, it is Luke, and not Leia, who is trained in the Jedi arts even though the Jedi are a dying breed, and despite the fact that Obi-Wan knows she is Luke’s sister and Anakin Skywalker’s daughter.
The prequels, Episodes I to III were poorly received for the most part. Everyone hated Jar Jar Binks. The kid who played Anakin as a child was incredibly annoying and Hayden Christensen was just dreadful. Padmé got to do some kick ass action stuff, which is probs where her daughter Leia gets it from. However, politically she was inept at best, and she appears to have died post childbirth of a broken heart after being abandoned by her man. Like, really????
The only other notable female character in the prequels was Anakin’s mother. She was a slave who met a gruesome end at the hands of Sand People, but not before handing her kid over to some weird religious cult. But hold on a minute, weren’t there a load of female Jedi in those movies? I mean there were, but I cannot recall any of them speaking, other than to say “Urgh!” when they were being slaughtered. The Jedi Council is dominated by the male members, and the female Jedi on the council appear to contribute nothing to debates or decisions.
Which brings us to The Force Awakens. Much has been made of Rey’s feminist credentials. She seemingly performs Luke Skywalker’s role in A New Hope. Living on an isolated desert planet and frustrated with her lot in life, she has much in common with Luke. However, Rey is much more independent and self-assured than Luke ever was, and takes feminist ass-kicking to a whole new level. Neither Leia nor Padmé got to beat the crap out of any baddies, and they certainly never got to wield a lightsaber. The problem with The Force Awakens, though, is there are moments when the film insists too much in pointing out its own feminist credentials. When Finn takes Rey’s hand when the First Order come looking for him, Rey is super insistent that this patriarchal gesture is an affront. It’s a device and not a very subtle one. We get it — she’s a strong independent woman!
Despite being full of feminism clichés, there has been a largely positive feminist response to Rey’s character. But much of that commentary has been unnecessarily grateful. For instance, comments in the vein of, “Thank you Star Wars! Now my daughter can grow up thinking she can be a Jedi instead of just a Disney Princess,” are deeply ironic considering the franchise owners.
As a character in her own right, kick-ass feminist though she is, Rey is kinda one-dimensional, especially when compared to the latest Sith apprentice, Kylo Ren. The estranged son of Leia and Han, Kylo is a complex and conflicted character. Desperate to be as bad-ass as his grandfather Darth Vader, he is full of doubt and self-loathing. Kylo Ren is also prone to temper tantrums and frequently expresses his frustration by whipping out his lightsaber and hitting inanimate objects with it. When he first removed his mask, would the impact not have been so much greater had it turned out that Kylo Ren was actually a woman? When I mentioned this thought to a feminist friend, her immediate reaction was, “They would never”. But why the fuck not?
Other than Rey, there are few other female characters of note in the Star Wars franchise. Naturally Carrie Fisher reprises her role as Leia, now a General with the Resistance. But her role is somewhat limited. She is confined to the Headquarters of the Rebellion and sees very little in the way of action. She gets to hug a lot of people and to look dead upset when Han is slain by their son Kylo Ren. Unfortunately Leia, in this movie at least, is defined by her relationships towards men; she is the mother, the sister, the wife, and her input in the story is negligible. Qua general, she is something of a damp squib. If you want your son to be saved that badly, why wait for your ex-husband instead of just doing it yourself? The other main female character is Maz Kanata, a CGI bar owner and smuggler, voiced by Oscar winning actress Lupita Nyong’o. Maz Kanata plays an important role, encouraging Rey when she is ready to give up hope, but the fact that the only black actress in the movie doesn’t appear on screen has, understandably, caused some consternation.
While there are female Sith in the Star Wars expanded universe, every single Dark Side character in the movie franchise has been male. Darth Sidious, Darth Maul, Count Dooku, Darth Vader, Kylo Ren, and Supreme Leader Snoke are men. I accept that given the rules of the Sith, in that there can only be two at a time because of the duplicitous nature of the Dark Side, there will be far less Sith than Jedi. Sidious and Vader were male in the original movies, but why couldn’t Darth Maul have been a woman? Ray Park’s voice was dubbed over by British actor Peter Serafinowicz (just as David Prowse’s voice was overdubbed by James Earl Jones) but why couldn’t a woman have voiced that part of Darth Maul? By this rationale, in The Force Awakens, why did Supreme Leader Snoke have to be male? The Empire and The First Order are definitely not equal opportunities employers. All the senior roles are given to men. It’s true that Captain Phasma is a woman, but her role is minor and she capitulates surprisingly easily. The only other female villain is a snitch who is on screen for less than a minute. Underlying all these issues is the deeper question at the heart of this article — why does Star Wars have such a problem with female characters and, more specifically, major female villains?
The George Lucas Star Wars movies were always thin on the ground when it came to female characters, even minor ones, the world he created a predominately male one. Disney has a chance to correct that. With the introduction of Rey, it goes some way to giving feminism a voice, even if that voice is somewhat one-dimensional and feels like it’s pandering to its audience. The roles of Leia and Maz Kanata are still problematic. The cinematic world as a whole has produced its share (though not fair share) of female villains — Eve Harrington, Nurse Ratched, Regina George, Margaret Thatcher— while science fiction as a genre has certainly produced some of note — The Borg Queen, The Alien Queen… err, that’s it really. And therein perhaps lies the problem. Science fiction is heavily weighted towards the male perspective. It may be that creating female hate figures is something that male writers baulk at, but it’s patronising and sexist. If men are allowed to ruthlessly pursue power, even if that means destroying entire planets, then why can’t women? Again, it may go back to clichéd views of women as naturally nurturing and passive, but it’s sexist. If Disney’s Star Wars wants to bring balance to the gender bias inherent in sci-fi, it needs to give us at least one major villainous female, ASAP.
ABOUT THE WRITER: Dylan Jaggard has a PhD in Philosophy and a crush on Khloé Kardashian. He writes about pop culture, music, politics, and philosophy. He recently gave a paper at the first academic #Kimposium at Brunel University (London, UK), a conference about all things Kardashian. He’s currently writing a book about Eagles of Death Metal, and is a guest contributor at Clarissa Explains Fuck All. Dylan has published essays on Nietzsche’s Aesthetics and Ethics, and flash fiction. He hates that people don’t know the difference between envy and jealousy.