Star Wars has a complicated relationship with its female characters and female fans. In so many ways, Star Wars has worked to dismantle stereotypes, both with the introduction of Princess Leia in the 1970s and more recently with the characters of Rey and Jyn Erso. The Star Wars expanded universe, too, introduced a number of wonderful female characters, including Mara Jade and Rae Sloane. In fact, Star Wars may do a better job of highlighting female characters than some of its other science fiction counterparts, including Star Trek. Having great female characters does not mean that there can’t be problems involving how women are portrayed. However, it is possible to be a fan of something – or even to love something – and also hold it accountable.
This list is not moments of where terrible things happen to women in Star Wars, and it is not a critique of the evils of the Empire or the sexist practices of Jabba the Hutt. Instead, this list is a series of moments when Star Wars producers, designers, actors, or creators made choices that perpetuated stereotypes, inappropriate behavior, or nasty attitudes about women. This includes female characters being objectified or sexualized within Star Wars, or female actors or fans facing sexist double-standards.
If your gut instinct is to dismiss this list as an over-reaction or an attempt to find controversy where there isn’t any, understand that this list exists in a larger conversation about how gender exists in Star Wars. There are good things and bad things about gender in Star Wars and acknowledging the bad things does not negate the good things or vice versa. However, by noting the problems and issues of the past, Star Wars can also plan for the future, where both male and female characters are treated as complex and compelling heroes and villains. Here are the 15 Worst Moments For Women In Star Wars:
15. Han Solo Kidnaps Princess Leia… And it’s romantic?
In The Courtship of Princess Leia, a Star Wars novel that is now classified as “Legends”, Princess Leia considers marrying the Prince Isoldor of the Hapes Consortium as part of a diplomatic deal to help the Rebel Alliance against the Galactic Empire. Leia is a princess, and so by entering into this arranged marriage, she could work to defeat the Empire. Han, upset at the idea that Leia would marry someone else, decides that the best course of action is to kidnap Leia. In fact, Han uses the Gun of Command to control Leia’s mind and force her to come with him to Dathomir. This is nonconsensual and uncomfortable, but the story does not address Han’s behavior. In fact, over the course of the misadventure, Han and Leia finally agree to get married.
This isn’t the only time that Han’s persistence results in questionable behavior. In The Empire Strikes Back, Han relentlessly pursues Leia, and kisses her even when she has told him to stop touching her. Star Wars has a hero who refuses to take no for an answer from his romantic partner, and they choose to normalize his behavior rather than addressing it.
14. Leia Comforts Luke After Her Homeworld and Family Were Destroyed
Princess Leia is a wonderful and complex female character who defies many of the tropes that people associate with princesses and damsels in distress. However, sometimes Leia’s character plays into stereotypical roles that are often classified as “feminine”. One example of this is in A New Hope (1977). After escaping the Death Star, Luke is upset, having just watched his mentor, Obi-Wan Kenobi, die at the hands of Darth Vader. Leia puts a blanket around Luke’s shoulders and comforts him.
It goes without saying that Luke is the main character of A New Hope and the story centers on his journey. However, in this moment, Leia is less of a person and more of a plot device. She exists to illustrate that Luke is upset, and so she is reduced to a caregiver and comforter, rather than exploring her own story (and loss). After all, the Death Star just destroyed Leia’s homeworld, along with her (adoptive) parents and presumably many other loved ones. The Star Wars movies never explore Leia’s emotional depth and loss of Alderaan.
13. Captain Phasma’s Creation and Role in TFA
There are some positive things to be said about Captain Phasma. The armor, for instance, that Gwendoline Christie puts on in The Force Awakens (2016) is not sexualized or even gender specific. Given that armor exists to protect individuals in combat and not to make them look sexually appealing, it was definitely a good thing that Christie’s female stormtrooper wore what stormtroopers wear.
This could be in part because Captain Phasma was originally going to be a male character, and the film’s creators decided to make the role female after fans expressed unease at the lack of female characters in The Force Awakens. Maz Kanata and Captain Phasma were added to make a slightly more balanced cast. However, when looking back on the film, Captain Phasma’s contribution was disappointing. She was given very little screen time as the first female villain in a Star Wars film, and the limited time that she had on screen was disappointing. If she had been removed from the film, very little would have changed. Hopefully Christie will have more to do in the upcoming Star Wars films.
12. Padmé’s Wound Used to Sexualize Her Outfit
Padmé Amidala is a queen, a diplomat, and a senator. However, in Attack of the Clones, her outfits become increasingly revealing. The most ridiculous situation that is used to sexualize Padmé is at the arena on Geonosis. The nexu slashes into Padmé’s back, injuring her. The cloth that was covering her midriff comes completely off during this sequence, revealing her bare waist. Despite her cry of pain, no blood gets on her pristine white outfit. Instead, the wound seems to only be a ploy to show more skin.
If Padmé wearing revealing clothing made sense for developing her character or furthering the plot, then there would be no problem. But on the contrary, her revealing outfit in this case seems to defy any logic beyond trying to undress Natalie Portman. It’s difficult to imagine that a similar fate would befall Anakin Skywalker or Obi-Wan Kenobi, whose clothes remain on for the entirety of the battle. But despite Padmé being an intelligent politician and a quick shot with a blaster, the film makers still felt that it was necessary to objectify her sexually.
11. The Obsession Around Carrie Fisher’s Weight
Before, during, and after The Force Awakens, tabloids and the media were obsessed with Carrie Fisher’s weight. Even after her death, magazines speculated about whether or not her weight (or weight loss) had played a role in her death. The emphasis and attention given to Carrie Fisher’s weight was to a much greater extent than it was for her co-stars. It became a regular part of her press tour, and while she met it with humor, she made it clear that there was an added standard because of her gender.
Fisher revealed that studio executives required her to lose weight in order for her to return as Princess Leia in The Force Awakens, but she also revealed that this was not the first time that she had been required to lose weight. In fact, after being cast in Star Wars, the teenage Fisher was also told that she needed to lose weight if she wanted to keep the part.
10. Padmé’s Dwindling Role
Padmé’s introduction in The Phantom Menace offered an exciting new female character. The young queen shared many similarities with Princess Leia: she was brave, she was a gifted orator and talented politician, she was ready to fight for a cause she believed in. However, despite this promise, over the course of the prequel trilogy, Padmé’s role diminished and became one-dimensional. Padmé’s role was ultimately to represent what Anakin feared losing enough to fall to the Dark side. She became a prop for his desire in Attack of the Clones and, in that process, became a more sexualized character. In Revenge of the Sith, Padmé played an even smaller role. She is the mother of Anakin’s children, and her (inevitable) death exists as the final push for Anakin to become Darth Vader.
Padmé feels like a missed opportunity to introduce audiences to a complex and new female character. Instead, she quickly becomes sidelined and her purpose within the plot becomes reduced to how her loss will make a man, Anakin, feel.
9. Anakin Skywalker is a Creep
Anakin Skywalker is not good at respecting people’s boundaries, specifically Padmé’s. He tells Obi-Wan Kenobi that he doesn’t think Padmé likes the way that he looks at her; in another scene, she tells him as much, saying, “Please don’t look at me like that. It makes me feel uncomfortable.” He confides to Jar Jar Binks that he has thought about her every day since they parted, and the way that he talks about her seems obsessively. Even though he is tasked with protecting her, he instead uses multiple opportunities to make romantic advances on her, ignoring when Padmé tells him to stop. Padmé eventually reciprocates his interest, which seems like an inappropriate reward to Anakin’s unnerving behavior in Attack of the Clones. This sends an uncomfortable message: ignore a woman’s boundaries and she will eventually accept your advances.
Some Star Wars fans find Anakin’s behavior so uncomfortable that they have theorized that Anakin used the Force to control Padmé. This would be an incredibly dark additional layer, but there is no canonical proof that he is forcing her to marry him.
8. Female Pilots Cut from Return of the Jedi
Originally, there were three female pilots who were going to appear in Return of the Jedi (1983), flying star ships for the Rebel Alliance at the Battle of Endor. Photos of these pilots resurfaced recently (appearing on the Blu-ray special features of Return of the Jedi), but no female pilots made it into the final film. Instead, two of these pilots were cut from the film entirely: one was an older woman piloting an A-Wing, the other was an X-Wing pilot played by the French actress Vivienne Chandler. The third and final pilot was an A-Wing pilot in a green suit. However, in post-production, a man’s voice was used to dub the actress’s line, and the character that she portrays was made “male” after the fact.
It is unknown why the female pilots were cut from the film, but some have speculated that there were concerns that women shown in combat (especially being killed in combat) would be seen as inappropriate… the solution, apparently, was to get rid of the women entirely.
7. Shmi Skywalker’s “Freedom” and Fate
Shmi Skywalker is a slave on Tatooine who is left behind when Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi take her son, Anakin Skywalker, to train him as a Jedi. When Anakin returns to Tatooine, he discovers that Shmi was bought by Cliegg Lars (the father of “Uncle Owen”). It’s a little unnerving that the script explains that Cliegg bought Shmi and then married her; while it is stated that he “freed” her, it’s hard to know how much of a choice she had in the matter. If marriage was her only option to escape slavery, it would hardly be concensual. The plot glosses over these details, because Shmi’s re-introduction exists only so that she can be killed.
The term “fridging” or “stuffed into a fridge” is a common trope within media where a female character is killed so that a male character can feel anguish and grow as a character. The character who is killed (or in other cases, experiences other torture or trauma) is secondary to the anguish that another character feels about their loss. In the process, the person experiencing the violence is not the focal point, but instead becomes an accessory. The term is a reference to Alexandra Dewitt, a girlfriend of Green Lantern/Kyle Rayner, being killed and stuffed into a fridge. In the case of Alexandra, her death is used only to move the plot (and Rayner’s character development) forward. In the case of Shmi, she dies so that Anakin can feel pain. Shmi’s character development is not important or central.
6. Princess Leia’s Wardrobe
While Princess Leia is a strong female character, some of the creative choices for her wardrobe are cause for concern. For instance, while filming A New Hope, Carrie Fisher was told by George Lucas that she couldn’t wear a bra under her outfit because “there was no underwear in space.” Mysteriously, none of Fisher’s male co-stars were instructed to avoid underwear for space authenticity.
The “slave Leia” outfit in Return of the Jedi also caused some controversy. Many female fans were disappointed that Leia traded in her robe for a bikini (which Fisher described as “an iron bikini… [that] supermodels will eventually wear in the seventh ring of hell“. Costume designer Aggie Guerard Rodgers described filming, saying, “Most of the crew are men, and they really enjoyed being on the set.” Once again, it’s difficult to imagine slave Han Solo dressed in a skimpy outfit.
It is worth noting that there is disagreement among fans over whether or not sexualizing Princess Leia as a slave in Jabba’s Palace is ultimately objectifying; some fans see it as empowering, especially since Leia eventually kills her captor that has forced her to wear a dehumanizing costume.
5. Where is Padmé’s Doctor?
Recently, a humorous rant on Twitter discussed how ridiculous Padmé Amidala’s death sequence was.
like no one knows that she's having twins until she has them
— sarah jeong (@sarahjeong) December 27, 2016
Sarah Jeong’s tweets about Revenge of the Sith are funny, but it’s true that everyone was surprised that Padmé had twins (and later, in Return of the Jedi, Darth Vader was surprised that Luke had a sister). How can Star Wars have advanced medical technology, like bacta tanks, but not ultrasounds? It’s equally disturbing that Padmé’s doctors seem perfectly content with the explanation that Padmé simply “lost the will to live.”
But perhaps the problem isn’t the doctors, but the story. Just like Shmi Skywalker before her, Padmé Amidala exists only to cause loss for Anakin. Her death is necessitated by the plot to make him feel anguish and grief, and her only purpose, especially in Revenge of the Sith is to die. The laziness of the story is that the script does not even bother to provide a reason; Padmé needs to die for Anakin to become Vader, and so, she dies.
The hashtag #WheresRey trended on Twitter after many Star Wars fans were disappointed by the lack of Rey in The Force Awakens merchandise. The campaign was so vocal that it caught the attention of J. J. Abrams, the director of The Force Awakens. Abrams spoke out against this, saying:
It seems preposterous and wrong that the main character of the movie is not well-represented in what is clearly a huge piece of the ‘Star Wars’ world, in terms of merchandising.
Abrams also said that he started “making phone calls” after learning that Rey was not included in the Star Wars Monopoly game. Perhaps his help paid off: Rey was featured in the second wave of Star Wars merchandise, including being added to the Star Wars Monopoly game. It makes sense that toy producers would be quick remedy this mistake since the campaign illustrated that there was definitely a demand. However, even now a large number of Star Wars merchandise and toys are still marketed towards boys, ignoring the interest that girls could also have in the galaxy far, far away.
3. The Lack of Women Speaking Roles
Arguably the most worst part of representing women in Star Wars is when they aren’t represented at all. Other than Princess Leia, there are three other women with speaking roles in the original trilogy. The first, Luke’s Aunt Beru, dies very early in A New Hope. The second is an unnamed Rebel operative on Hoth who has a single line in The Empire Strikes Back. The third and final female character is Mon Mothma, who gives instructions to the Rebel forces before the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi. None of the original Star Wars movies pass the Bechdel Test (a popular “test” for movies in which two named female characters speak to each other about something other than a man) because there is never a scene where two female characters speak to each other.
It is true that Star Wars is trying to give larger roles to female characters. Rey and Maz’s conversation and Lyra Erso and Jyn Erso’s conversation would make both The Force Awakens and Rogue One eligible for passing the “Bechdel Test”. However, Rogue One was noticeably lacking on female extras, including at the Rebel Base on Yavin 4 and the final battle at Scarif. Hopefully more women can appear in future Star Wars films.
2. Especially Women of Color
Women of color are even more underrepresented in the Star Wars universe. The only actresses of color who appear in the original trilogy are sex slaves aliens in Jabba’s Palace, including Oola, a green Twi’lek who is killed by a rancor. In the prequel trilogy, women of color appear as aliens on the Jedi Council, but are not major characters. The woman of color with the most lines in the prequel trilogy is Queen Jamillia, who serves as Queen of Naboo after Padmé.
The Force Awakens features Lupita Nyong’o as Maz Kanata, which is the largest role that a woman of color has played to date in any Star Wars film. However, this continues a long trend of women of color playing aliens and not being visible in science fiction (a problem in and beyond Star Wars). Recently, Sharon Duncan-Brewster played Senator Pamlo in Rogue One, the largest speaking role given to a woman of color who was not an alien.
The new Star Wars expanded universe has created interesting characters who are women of color. Representation can be powerful inspiration for children and can also encourage empathy and understanding, and so hopefully, characters like Sana Starros or Rae Sloane make their way to the big screen.
1. Sexism From Star Wars Fans
J. J. Abrams, in trying to promote The Force Awakens, described Star Wars as always being a “boys’ club”. While he was trying to draw a contrast and emphasize Rey’s role in the new trilogy, Abrams actually toted a common misconception: that Star Wars fans are male or even typically male. Many women are fans of Star Wars, and over the years they have had to assert themselves in fan circles and deal with sexism within the Star Wars community. On the whole, the Star Wars community is tolerant and open to anyone, but there are individual fans who hold sexism double standards, both for female fans and female characters.
This is most recently illustrated in the fans who bemoan Rey as a Mary Sue: how does she stand a chance against Kylo Ren, how does she use the Force so easily, how is she such a good pilot, how does she speak Shyriiwook? Rey has faced incredibly more scrutiny than her male counterparts, namely Luke and Anakin Skywalker. In all cases, Luke, Anakin, and Rey are capable of Force abilities that belie their training – after all, Luke is able to shoot the final blast into the Death Star without a targeting computer at the end of A New Hope, and no one batted an eye. Rey’s parentage and early years are unknown, and they may explain her heightened abilities. Or they might not, and that would also be completely okay.
What are some other ways that Star Wars represents women – either in good or bad ways?
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