A Feminist Take on the Whole Star Wars Saga

Review Essay by
Gail Binkly

Series installments by series chronology,
with date issued / date polished & reissued:

  1. The Phantom Menace         1999
  2. Attack of the Clones           2002
  3. Revenge of the Sith           2005
  4. Star Wars                         1977 / 1997
  5. The Empire Strikes Back     1980 / 1997
  6. Return of the Jedi              1983 / 1997


July 2005


We assume here that you have seen
all or most of the Star Wars films.
Warning: plot spoilers follow.

Call me the Feminist Movie Critic, I guess, but ever since viewing Revenge of the Sith, I've been troubled by how easily our popular culture seems to revert to creaky stereotypes despite all the talk there has been in the past few decades about new roles for women.

If you hate space opera and don't follow pop culture, you may not know that Revenge of the Sith is the final installment in a six-part film epic by director George Lucas. Although it's third in the chronology of the story, it's the final movie of the saga to be released (sort of like the way the Beatles' last recording was actually "Abbey Road", although "Let It Be" was released later).

Anyway, Revenge recounts how Anakin Skywalker, father of Luke Skywalker (the hero of the original Star Wars trilogy, now known as Episodes IV-VI) turns from an idealistic and passionate Jedi knight into the malevolent Darth Vader, Luke's nemesis. Although the plot has major holes and there is far more action than acting, Revenge of the Sith is a lively, imaginative film with some stunning visuals. Lucas uses his special effects mastery to bring a plethora of exotic visions to life. There are amazing futuristic spacecraft, dazzling otherworldly landscapes, and aliens of every sort, from insectoid creatures to a galloping basilisk.

Yet, at its heart, the entire Star Wars saga is — dare I use this dated term? — pretty sexist.

The first movie, released back in 1977 (when Women's Lib was at its height) is, of course, a reworking of the classic King Arthur legend. Luke is a young Arthur, pure of heart and noble of purpose. His best friend is Han Solo (Sir Lancelot). Princess Leia (Guineviere) completes the love triangle, and you've also got Obi-wan Kenobi (Merlin, the wise wizard figure) and the evil Vader as Mordred. (But in a twist on the classic Oedipal conflict, instead of being Luke's son, as Mordred is Arthur's son, Vader is his father.)

Lucas took care back then to make Princess Leia more than a helpless, wilting female. She's depicted as smart and sassy, and it didn't seem to matter that her rescue was the focus of the tale. But as the trilogy continued, Leia seemed to be shunted into a more traditionally feminine role. Sure, she talked tough and wielded weapons, but she was never in charge of anything, never flying a ship, always taking a back seat to Luke and Han Solo.

In Return of the Jedi, she attempted to rescue Han from the hands of the loathsome Jabba the Hutt, but wound up being captured and in need of rescue herself. In a particularly kinky note, she was dressed in a bikini and chained at Jabba's side, apparently some kind of sex toy — although he wasn't even of a humanoid species, so it's hard to understand why he would find her attractive.

Still, Princess Leia was at least a critical figure in the original Star Wars trilogy.

In the three "prequel" films (Episodes I-III), there isn't a single woman like her. Episode I, The Phantom Menace (a truly awful movie) dealt with the travails of the young Anakin. Attack of the Clones (II) showed his developing love affair with Padmé Amidala, former Queen of Naboo and now a member of the Galactic Senate.

You might think that because she's smart and politically involved, Padmé would be a strong character, but she isn't. She really exists only to provide a reason for Anakin to turn bad. And what a reason it is [spoiler warning here!] — she dies in childbirth. In this futuristic high-tech galaxy buzzing with spacecraft and light sabers, a young healthy woman dies in childbirth. No one can save her, because she isn't dying of any specific cause, only a broken heart.

It's the most ancient cliché in the movie / storytelling textbook. Beautiful young woman dies tragically, prompting Our Hero to hate the world. (We saw it in The Road Warrior, Death Wish, Braveheart, ad infinitum.)

But that's it: that's Padmé's role. And the role of the only other strong female character in the prequel films, Anakin's mother, is likewise to die and further warp Anakin's nature.

Look at the list of supporting characters in Revenge of the Sith: Yoda, Obi-Wan Kenobi, Supreme Chancellor Palpatine, Count Dooku, General Grievous, C-3PO, R2-D2, Chewbacca, Mace Windu, Senator Bail Organa ... They're all male, even the robots.

Where are the women in this galaxy?

Look, I'm not saying that every movie has to offer up an Affirmative Action cast — this many females, this many blacks, this many Orientals. Some films naturally have homogenous casts. If you're making a World War II movie, it will tend to be about men. A "chick flick" is mostly about women.

So why does it matter if the Star Wars saga is so overwhelmingly male? I guess because it occupies such a large place in our modern mythology. In an era when video games offer endless images of scantily clad, wasp-waisted, big-breasted females, it would be nice to have something in the space-fantasy genre that isn't so backward-thinking.

The world of science fiction has always been the bailiwick of adolescent males. In Revenge of the Sith and the other Star Wars movies, George Lucas has done nothing to change that.


© 2005 Gail Binkly

Originally appeared in
Four Corners Free Press, July 2005


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