Talking about sexism in old Star Wars vs new Star Wars is no simple task. Mostly because you risk becoming an “SJW” just for raising some fairly innocent questions. Questions like, where have all the Alliance/New Republic female high-ranking officers gone? Or, why if we have women in power, their character arcs are so rarely connected to their status? And Force forbid you ask something intersectional, like “Is there any sense at all in Twi’lek females portrayal?”.
That’s because most fans’ view of the problem is that if the most prominent males of this universe were not ashamed to date female politicians, there is nothing for feminists to worry about. That view of female empowerment is a bit flawed. But sadly it’s still very common amongst Star Wars fans.
I tackled this issue before, when I did my piece on Star Wars: The Old Republic and its problems. The situation here is much akin to that in the Game of Thrones series. We have plenty of Badass™ female characters; plenty of Strong Women™ or women in authoritative positions. But sadly, we have little to no well-written female characters, that is, truly empowered female characters. Or at least really independent female characters.
Female characters in the old Star Wars canon are rarely allowed to exist as persons and as rarely allowed real character development. Women are tools, props for men’s stories. I doubt many creators back then even considered personal aspects when working on them.
So let’s see if new Star Wars improved in this aspect.
Character Assassinations: Moving From Films to Novels
One has many reasons to not consider the Star Wars films a pinnacle of feminist cinema. Actually, both the gender relations and the portrayal of the female characters are a tad outdated there. But one also has to acknowledge that even episode III!Padmé had a distinct character arc—and an arc that was not entirely about her relationship with Anakin. (That’s even if we don’t count the director’s cut where she is an Alliance’s progenitor.)
But what if one considers, for example, Revenge of the Sith to be shallow and barely watchable? Well, being one of those people myself, I went to the novelization. Is it not praised as one of the best Star Wars books ever? (Actually reading odes to this book made me cringe and laugh simultaneously.)
Well, guess what I found in the novelization? Some pretty awful sexist scripting of Padmé. Forgive me for the long quote; it is necessary for understanding the depths of the problem. I should confess, I remembered it almost verbatim for ten years, that’s how traumatic it was. You can find this on pages 160-161.
This is Padmé Amidala:
She is an astonishingly accomplished young woman, who in her short life has been already the youngest-ever elected Queen of her planet, a daring partisan guerrilla, and a measured, articulate, and persuasive voice of reason in the Republic Senate.
But she is, at this moment, none of these things.
She can still play at them—she pretends to be a Senator, she still wields the moral authority of a former Queen, and she is not shy about using her reputation for fierce physical courage to her advantage in political debate—but her inmost reality, the most fundamental, unbreakable core of her being, is something entirely different.
She is Anakin Skywalker’s wife.
Yet wife is a word too weak to carry the truth of her; wife is such a small word, such a common word, a word that can come from a downturned mouth with so many petty, unpleasant echoes. For Padmé Amidala, saying I am Anakin Skywalker’s wife is saying neither more nor less than I am alive.
Her life before Anakin belonged to someone else, some lesser being to be pitied, some poor impoverished spirit who could never suspect how profoundly life should be lived.
I had enough mercy to remove that part about her life starting with the moment she saw the mature man’s passion in Anakin, but you get the idea. And you thought the film version of Padmé was epitome of sexist scripting!
And this is not film-only disease, sadly.
I can’t say that Bastila from the Knights of the Old Republic game was much of a character. She was written and devised as a Bond girl-esque love interest for the main hero and a sexy tease for the male gamers. Still, she was a Faux Action Girl at the very least, and a legitimate Action Girl at best.
Surely, Meetra Surik was as interesting a character as any; when it was confirmed that female!Exile is canon, many female fans felt understandably happy. Because that meant—at last!—they had a female character that was not in any way an addendum to a male one, a female character with a complex character arc of her own. Last but not least that meant we (female fans) now had a story that was driven by female relationships, as both primary figures, Meetra Surik and Kreya, were female.
Then Revan came into existence. The book that reduced Bastila to Revan’s passive and complacent cohabitant, and Meetra to a naive looser. Both women’s role was entirely subservient to that of Revan’s, and offensively so. Whether it was Bastila whose love ‘saved him from the Dark Side’ and who was left behind pregnant with his child, or Meetra, whose role was just to be killed and help Revan endure his 300 years imprisonment.
Or let’s take Satele Shan, the Jedi Grandmaster, the hero of several wars between the Jedi and the Sith. The tragic figure who outlived her time and went on to propose somewhat controversial teachings that were meant to reconcile the Jedi and the Sith ideas. What’s her book’s (and comics’) arc?
Well, she was a bad mother and a bad girlfriend who put her religious and social duties before familial ones. That’s bad, folks. Let’s all shame her together until she learns how to overcome it and try to be a good mother to her 30 years old sonion. (Insert long eyeroll here.)
Did New Star Wars Improve It?
As far as I know, yes, they did. Despite Ray being quite a good character and a role model, her portrayal in the movie still lacked depth. She was more of an action flick heroine than a traumatized kid from a bad planet.
The novelization of The Force Awakens expanded on her inner life, her doubts and hopes. Instead of making her one dimensional or switching the focus to other protagonists, the film novelization carefully studied her character. Just as it did for all other film heroes, in fact, provoding us with their inner monologues and reasoning behind certain decisions as well. The kids anthology book Before The Awakening did even more for her story and has provided both intriguing hints to her history and some truly heartbreaking backstory.
Even Phasma fared better in the novelization than in the movie itself. Plus, she’s getting her own stand alone novel in the Journey to Star Wars: The Last Jedi series, coming in just a few weeks.
We Talk Much Of Gender Equality: My Problems With The Alliance
As you may know, most new Star Wars content is situated in period between 20 years prior to the battle of Yavin and 30 years after. That allows us to make some interesting observations about old Star Wars vs new Star Wars attitudes towards gender equality. You’d probably be surprised, but the old canon had much to say about it! This exact verb, “to say,” is the bane of this theme in the old canon, though.
I propose a simple mental game. Try to remember a single prominent non-Jedi female high-ranking Alliance/New Republic military/intelligence officer. You failed? So did I. Then try to remember a similar ranking and prominent figure, but on the Empire’s side… yep. Lots of them, starting with Ysanne Isard and Admiral Daala.
Which is frankly annoying. Not because female villains are bad, but because lots of characters in the books and the comics ranted about the Empire being thoroughly chauvinist. The Alliance/New Republic was supposedly so progressive that they let women have free access to the military.
Not that there were no female Alliance/New Republic characters. There were female pilots and lots of them. But they were all background figures. None of them ever got promoted to anything more than a team leader. Most of them actually married and left the service. And most of them are clad in latex (described as “she looked like she was naked and just painted her body (insert color)”.
Well, not that the Imperial women fared better…
They’ve got some prominent female leaders, that’s true. The problem is, those females are pictured as thoroughly incompent, hysterical, and in constant need of a male voice of reason. It was like a faux action girl, only that the informed attribute was not action-ness, but Acute Political Mind.
And of course, both fall victim to the Never a Self-Made Woman trope. Ysanne is her daddy’s little villain and Palpatine’s lover. Admiral Daala’s success is due to her relationship with Tarkin.
Ysanne is so hysterical and emotionally unstable, in fact, that she manages to lose a war against a single squadron. A war in which she was very much in a strong position, I might add. And that despite all her male colleagues trying to put reason into her head! Actually, all her (male) officers despise her for being so hysterical.
One may ask, how could she manage to climb so high in the first place… (see “Palpatine’s lover”.)
Natasi Daala fares just a tiiiiiiiny bit better when it comes to hysterics. Namely, they couldn’t decide whether she should be a hysterical woman or an ice queen, which makes her character fluctuate quite a bit. Also, her only desire in her whole life was to be united with her school love and be a good wife to him. Too bad they killed him, so she went on to be a Galactic head of state (until a sensible male replaced her via coup d’etat).
Did the New Star Wars Improve It?
Yes. First of all they dropped the facade of a male chauvinist Empire; it was thoroughly unfounded idea, based only on real-world perceptions of the authors. In the Star Wars universe the systematic oppression of women is not based on… well, actually, anything but the authors’ desire to evoke certain real-life parallels.
Palpatine based Imperial ideology on the Sith ideology, and the latter, while certainly racist, held nothing against women. Actually, the gender of a Sith Lord didn’t matter, only their power did.
Additionally, Palpatine’s native culture—the Nabooan—were racist, but never sexist. They were more than okay with female politicians and military leaders, but they were certainly not okay with those filthy Gungans.So, depicting the Empire as racist and classist while not sexist is actually more logical than the old canon’s version of it.
And of course now we have many great female figures in the new Star Wars. Some of them are even high-ranking Alliance officers. Besides General Leia, Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo is prominent enough to feature in Vanity Fair; personally I really look forward to knowing more about her.
There are some pretty excellent Imperial aligned female characters as well. One of the most beloved characters of the new canon comic books and the first New Canon original character to get a solo comic book run (Doctor Aphra) not only worked for Vader, she’s also queer and Asian. How’s that for intersectional diversity?
Overall Situation: Females As Plot Device
But what was the most annoying when it came to the old Star Wars depiction of women was how they were handled story-wise. A narrative may be completely in agreement with patriarchal values, but the female character can still be interesting in her own right, have her own character arc, and even her own storyline. One of the perfect examples is Rebecca and Ulrica from Ivanhoe. Being perfectly in line with quite unfeminist views of the time, both still have their own arcs. What’s more, both don’t exist just to serve male characters’ stories (if anything I’d argue it’s the other way round).
So, it’s quite possible I wouldn’t be so pissed off if they had just adhered to Traditional Values™ and created loads of wives-and-mothers who occasionally kick asses, but otherwise are happy to stay in the kitchen.
Not that it wouldn’t make me sad; it’s just that I can tolerate movie!Padmé, despite her patriarchy brain, but not book!Padmé. The main difference between the two is that movie!Padmé still has interests, beliefs, and life beyond being ‘Anakin’s wife’. Heck, her entire conflict with Anakin is based on her choice to adhere to those interests and beliefs instead of those more in line with being Anakin’s wife!
And sadly, that doesn’t mean wife-and-mother thing only. I just can’t instantly remember a single female character that has her own life in Star Wars Legends. Even those famed for being Badass™ and Action Girl-y™ have little to no purpose story-wise other than to serve male characters’ progress.
Mara Jade is more than famous for being one such a strong woman. But does that strong woman exist in isolation of her interaction with Palpatine or Luke? Even her death is nothing more that being fridged to mark her nephew’s fall into darkness. In the same vein, that nephew’s twin sister is constantly used as a character in someone other’s story rather than having her own.
Leia, who was an awesome role model for many girls (despite all the problems with her scripting), managed not to be a protagonist in her own story so many times it’s hard to name exact number. Even when she was a central character, which is a rare feat, she was doomed to stay passive and just react to male characters’ actions. This case was made even more blatant in the Russian version, where the book about Leia not having any choice was named ‘Princess Leia’s Choice’. Go figure.
And of course all these women suffer from Sansa syndrome, that is, their entire personality changing accordingly to plot needs and depending upon which male character they interact with. One of the most blatant cases of this (and of storyline highjacking) was Jarael, a female deuteragonist of the Knights of the Old Republic comic. She was given a very interesting backstory with carefully seeded conflicts… only for whole her backstory to be revealed as a part of the antagonist’s motivation and relevant to his, not her, character arc!
In fact, any time a hope is born that Jarael would at last have a story arc of her own it is revealed to be actually about one of the males around her. Even her old rivalry with Chantique is, in the end, not hers to deal with!
Did New Star Wars Improve It?
More than anything. Reading new Star Wars books and comics is as refreshing as a glass of lemonade in a hot afternoon. Even when there are two protagonists, male and female, and those two are in love—think Lost Stars, for example—both are given full and complex stories. Those stories may be related, but they don’t overshadow one another, and both characters exist in their own right, not as a tool or a prop for someone else.
Despite this piece being long enough, it doesn’t cover all aspects of sexism in the old Star Wars. It doesn’t, for example, cover the problem of alien females being used as sexual objects of human (read: white) male character, for example. It doesn’t cover the objectivation and over-the-top sexualisation of females in visual media. Or, for that matter, the very disturbing romance plots and subplots that too often resemble Stockholm syndrome more than real love and devotion.
This problem lies deep. Is it time-dependent? Is it audience-induced? I don’t really know. What I do know, however, is that Disney has been doing its best to improve on this matter in the New Canon Extended Universe. And I hope it won’t fail.