Space opera is a fascinating sub-genre of speculative fiction—part science fiction, part Western, and all action. Star Wars is undoubtedly the most famous example of the space opera—rightly so, as it’s fantastic. I’m unabashedly critical of movies, but every time I get to the last thirty minutes of Empire all I can think is, “This is so good.” I’ll give credit to Lucas; I don’t think he wrote Star Wars exclusively for guys. However, anyone who’s ever watched the movies (especially the original trilogy) is struck by how Princess Leia is apparently the only woman in the universe.
Being a woman certainly doesn’t stop me from identifying with Luke Skywalker. He’s a human being, after all, and so am I. But what bothers me is how every female character in Star Wars is incredibly two-dimensional, with the notable exception of Princess Leia. Congratulations Carrie Fisher, you had the unenviable task of carrying the weight of your entire gender on your shoulders and you succeeded admirably.
In my opinion, the really stunning moment of the trailer for the new adaptation was the revelation that the new trilogy is going to focus on a female protagonist: Rey. In honour of this overdue leap forward, let’s take a look at the past women of Star Wars.
It’s never a good sign when the first significant female figure in the series is killed twenty minutes into the first movie and is never mentioned again. Beru and Owen Lars exist to tie Luke Skywalker to Tatooine, and the plot necessitates that they die in order for Luke to relinquish his hold on his old life and start his adventure.
Beru exists as a loving bridge between her husband and her adopted son Luke, who have fundamentally different ideas about what Luke’s future should hold. She is also the one who first points out that Luke “has too much of his father in him,” thus starting a trend throughout all the original films of people remarking that Luke resembles his father. Of course, the horror of that statement is only really revealed in Empire where we learn exactly who it is that Luke resembles so much. Beru exists as a plot device—her death is the tragedy that spurs the hero forward. In that light, it makes thematic sense that not a lot of time is spent establishing her character. Beru does show up in the prequel films as well, but no new information is really given about who she is as a person. Of course, as we’ll see later when we get to Shmi Skywalker, if you don’t establish a character complexly, the audience is not very emotionally invested in their death. This works to the advantage in A New Hope, since it is a light-hearted film, but backfires in Attack of the Clones.
I decided to include Mon Mothma mostly because she is one of the only women to have ever appeared in the original Star Wars films, and also because she plays such a monumental role in the Expanded Universe. I’m not going to explore the Expanded Universe in this blog post—it exists outside of the canon for most fans—but it’s important to realize that Mon Mothma is essentially the leader of the rebellion, even in the original films. She has also been the subject of many jokes since she is “the only other woman in the universe” besides Leia. If you haven’t yet checked out the Family Guy parodies of the classic Star Wars films, I highly encourage you to do so, if only because that joke gains especial poignancy when you realize that Angela, Peter’s boss in the cartoon, parodies Mon Mothma and that Angela is voiced by Carrie Fisher herself. Interestingly, in addition to being the only other woman in the universe, Mon Mothma, much like Leia in the first film, is shown almost entirely in white, continuing the trend of female political figures attired in spotless white.
The Slave Girls on Tatooine
Sexual violence is downplayed in Star Wars—with good reason. The sort of trauma that results from rape doesn’t really fit into the Star Wars feel of everything being alright at the end of the day. After all, we never see Luke grieve for his slain relatives ever again and Leia does not even mention Alderaan after the first movie. Leia’s torture in A New Hope is non-sexual (we are even more thankful for this when we realize that Darth Vader, the interrogator, is her father).
However, though it is never explicitly spoken of, there is an undertone of sexual violence in Star Wars. Nowhere is this more apparent than in Jabba’s palace in Return of the Jedi. Slaves are seen dancing for the entertainment of Jabba’s court. In a famous scene, Jabba tries to draw a Twi’lek dancing girl towards him by her neck chain. When she resists his advances, he cuts the chain and throws her down to feed the Rancor. After she is captured, Leia is forced into the famous bikini-outfit, which certainly carries an implication of objectification and potential sexual assault. Jabba licks or kisses her in an off-camera moment (again, he draws her to him by her chains).
-Contributed by Lara Thompson
Illustrated by Gwen Wolinsk