Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Star Wars, Gender, and the Bechdel Test

Over the past three weeks, I’ve taken a feminist look at the Star Wars trilogy, particularly at the films’ construction of Princess Leia. Now let’s take a step back and look at two questions central to gender construction in narrative.

First question, do the Star Wars films pass the Bechdel test? The test is a simple way to measure equal representation of gender in a narrative. It comprises three questions. Are there more than one female character? Are those female characters named? Do they speak to each other? If they do, do they talk about something other than a man? The test is not perfect. An otherwise sexist narrative could pass and an otherwise feminist narrative could fail. But it is a good litmus test for how well a narrative reflects the fact that women compose over half the human population, live lives, and have social relationships with other women.

So, does Star Wars pass? Short answer, no, with a but. Long answer yes, with an if.

Long answer first! Princess Leia dominates the narrative so much so that it is easy to forget that she is the films’ primary female character. Other than Leia, the films feature only two more women with speaking roles, Luke’s Aunt Beru, in Episode IV and Mon Mothma in Episode VI. Beru and Mothma are both supporting characters, and they never engage in conversation with other women. Among the protagonists, Leia is the sole woman among two men. Three if you count Lando, four if you count Chewie. And among the villains? Let’s just say there are too many dicks on the Death Star. Therefore, no,  Star Wars does not pass the Bechdel test, but….Leia is an incredibly awesome and well constructed female character with a massive role in the narrative. And the Star Wars trilogy is relatively light on main characters. The droids and aliens are mostly something for the humans, who get all the development, to play off of. And the films utilize the popular two guys and a girl dynamic seen in Harry Potter and countless fantasy/adventure narratives.[1] I keep trying to imagine ways the narrative could have featured more female characters, but I only end up turning some Imperial officers into women and it seems sort of pointless. The fact is, I love the story and characters as they are. I never want to imagine a different version, even if it does have more women. I guess that's just my fangirl weakness. [2] So I’ll accept Star Wars for the narrative and characters that I love and approach it as the best Bechdel fail ever.

Now for the short answer. Yes the Star Wars films do pass the Bechdel test, if we count the prequels. I agree with most original trilogy fans that the prequels suck, and I don’t watch them. But I do think the events they depict are canon to the narrative. The films didn’t suck because the general story arc and world building they came up with was bad,[3] but because they were essentially explanatory footnotes on screen. They wouldn’t have worked cinematically even if the dialogue sang like Pulp Fiction. But in the prequels, we get even more named female characters, and they talk to each other about things other than a man. Since I’m looking at the original trilogy only, I can’t say that the films pass the Bechdel test, but the story does.

Try to say this is not exactly what Leia's mom would look like.

Now for question two. Does Star Wars take place in a sexist world? This is a vital question to ask of fantasy narratives, but it is often overlooked. I never even considered it until my best friend and fellow feminist fangirl pointed it out to me. In reference to George R.R. Martins books, she complained, “You have dragons and snow zombies, but how unrealistic if women were to be treated as equals!”[4] Another feminist friend of mine summed it up nicely. “It’s funny, most popular fantasy novels are all set in alternate medieval societies or dystopian societies and they’re almost always patriarchal. Why is that? It’s a fantasy novel, you’re creating the world! I want to write a novel that has better messages than ‘this is inevitable.’” The fact that so many authors and creators assume that patriarchy and sexism be expected of humans in any environment is quite depressing. So I will insist on asking this question of all my favorite fantasy stories, even if the answer is usually yes.

Except, once again for Star Wars, it’s complicated. Short answer, no, with an if. Long answer, yes, with a but. Women in Star Wars don’t appear to face limitations on education, political, and military leadership. And most people in-verse don’t seem surprised to find women in power. But this happy answer only applies if we consider a world without sexism to be simply a world in which women have equal rights and access to opportunities. But we all know it’s not that simple. If a world is to be truly non-patriarchal, it has to be a world in which no one thinks to oppress women or harbors sexist thoughts.

The fact is, the Empire is all dudes, so I’m going to assume they don’t like women.[5] Jabba objectifies his female slaves (although objectification could still exist as an injustice applied to both men and women in a gender equal world). And in Episode IV, Han expresses his annoyance with Leia by saying “If we can avoid anymore female advice…”[6] So, based on the fact that some jerks[7] can do or say sexist things, we have to assume that at least some of the planets and societies in Star Wars were at one point arranged in a patriarchal gender hierarchy. These origins explain why some individuals and institutions are sexist, even as the larger society appears to have moved past it. It’s not perfect, but the latter fact alone is far better than what many fantasy narratives offer us. And considering that the original films were made in the late 70’s and early 80’s, even a mostly gender equal world is really impressive.

And so we conclude our Star Wars feminist fun! Next week, check in for a little holiday cheer.

[1]More specifically, the popular three characters dynamic. The gender ratio varies.

[2] OR, Wedge Antilles, though he is awesome, could have been an equally awesome woman and it wouldn’t have affected the plot at all!

[3] They actually really deepen the events and themes of the trilogy.

[4] I love me some Martin, don’t get me wrong. And, yes, I will cover his works.

[5] That, or EVERY woman in the galaxy sympathizes with the Rebellion.

[6] Don’t worry. Leia doesn’t let that comment slide.

[7] And people with a bad past and no mother figure. Sorry, but I can’t dislike Han.

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