A Brief, Feminist History Of The Heroines Of “Star Wars”
As a child of the prequels’ run, I grew up playing Star Wars with my best friend, testing our knowledge of the universe with official booklet quizzes and running around her house with plastic lightsabers. When Abrams mentioned that the Star Wars of old was more of a “boys’ thing,” there was some backlash, but he clarified his statements with an apt Tweet: “…I meant to say that so many have perceived SW as a boys’ club & it ain’t.”
I agree: it ain’t. But Abrams’ run with Rey changed the game: for the first time in the movie-verse, a young woman wasn’t a love interest or a leading lady, but the lead. Rey is our hero. In comparing the women of the Star Wars movies alongside the eras they came out in, I started to notice a trend – the reflection of the feminist zeitgeist in which each trilogy was released, in the form of the franchise’s heroines: Leia, Padmé, and Rey.
A New Hope (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), & Return of the Jedi (1983)
When interviewed about her role as Leia in 1983, actress Carrie Fisher told Rolling Stone: “The only way they knew to make the character strong was to make her angry.”
Like Fisher said, Leia is just always mad. She’s constantly blowing steam out of her ears while she talks to Han Solo, reinforcing the idea of a nagging woman and her passive mate. This same interview has Princess labeled as “a feminist from the fourth dimension” alongside a picture of her playing with a beach ball in the infamous (sex) slave bikini.
During the feminist “sex wars” of the ‘80s, I don’t think this is what either side was reppin’. Largely divided between being anti-porn and sex-positive, feminists of the time were trying to restructure how to reclaim sex as something more than for male consumption. Considering the implied depravity of Leia’s situation, the world’s worst bikini does not for the character of Leia and everything for the male fantasy.
It isn’t Leia herself, but the things happening to her that are the problem. Let’s take her attempted rescue of Han — a dream comes true in Leia’s Zelda-to-Sheik transformation, but the victory of her infiltration is short lived as she’s forced into a metal bikini and chained to Jabba, a sex offender in the form of a Jim Henson puppet. Leia manages to strangle that creep, but she wouldn’t have been able to escape without a leg-up from her brother, who arrives in the knick of time, all brooding and very, very manly.
The Phantom Menace (1999), Attack of the Clones (2002), & Revenge of the Sith (2005)
The stereotypical feminists of the 1990s and early 2000s were, if not riot grrrls, then bookish intellectuals. Disappointingly, Padmé is not a riot grrrl, but she carries political influence throughout her storyline — starting the trilogy as a queen, Padmé then joins the Galactic Senate as a representative of Naboo. I don’t have any insightful quotes about Natalie Portman’s reaction to her character, because Portman recalls her experience with Star Wars rather negatively, alleging that the prequel trilogy ruined her career for years. Can I just say: 1) How dare she?; and 2) She’s probably right.
If you manage to blink past the bored tears from the nine hours of pod-racing in Phantom Menace, you can see Padmé as a really competent and cool 14-year-old. She’s headstrong to a fault, but she’s also well-spoken, educated, and able to break down years of bad blood to unite with her Gungan neighbors to protect her planet.
Following the first film, there are flickers of that young queen, but Padmé’s storyline begins to turn away from her political prowess and turn instead towards her secret affair with boring bad boy Anakin Skywalker.
Third-wave feminism aims to abolish gender roles, and for a while, it seems like Padmé could invert what’s expected of her. She’s a negotiator, holds her own in the pit (not of the mosh variety, but more gladiator-leaning with alien monsters), and doesn’t fear honesty.
But then, Padmé becomes pregnant, and her womanly woes overcome her; she literally dies of a broken heart after giving birth to her twins, Luke and Leia. We always knew that Padmé had to die between the events of Revenge of the Sith and A New Hope, but I always thought it would be in a blaze of glory. Although her abusive husband gets redeemed and glorified when he dies as Darth Vader, Padmé’s legacy as a diplomat seems to end in the prequels.
You could read this as some intentional, heavy-feminist writing of the toxic effects of society’s expectations on each gender, but, you know: it’s not.
The Force Awakens (2015)
Two hours into our new trilogy, Rey seems uninterested in flirting with boys, and yet wholly interested in flirting with the Force. She’s a heavy-hitter with a knowledge of machines from years she’s spent scavenging ship parts for rations, but Rey’s lonely past hasn’t made her frigid or removed; instead, she is compassionate, honest, and altruistic.
Like both Leia and Padmé before her, Rey does get into damsel-in-distress situations, but despite her companion Finn’s chivalrous attempts to save her, she’s also the one getting out of them. In a particularly telling scene, Finn grabs Rey’s hand twice, eager to bring her to safety. But Rey wriggles her hand out of his grip, shouting at him, “I know how to run! I don’t need you to hold my hand!”
Refreshingly, this attitude prevails through The Force Awakens: Rey’s narrative is her own, and although she’s cooperative, she’s willing to tell men no. Every time Rey declined the ushering of the male characters, I wanted to write a love letter to Daisy Ridley. Thank you! I love you! Do it again!
Although the aforementioned “boys’ club” is being split down the seams, I want to take a step back and look at the bigger picture: if you look at Leia, Padmé, and Rey, don’t they all kind of look similar? Diversity among the male cast is prevalent in TFA, but the women of Star Wars remain mostly white and very scattered.
I’m no longer a spring chicken but old and twenty-four, so I saw TFA on the following Saturday at 11:30 a.m., with all of the suburban kids and senior citizens. The last time I saw Star Wars in theaters, I spent the whole time feeling claustrophobic among a room of hot-blooded nerds. This time, the audience felt fresher: I saw three generations of one family sharing a row together, dads with their daughters, and two girls in footed pajamas (am I missing a trend?).
Star Wars wouldn’t be on it’s third trilogy if the fanbase wasn’t so oppressively passionate, but it’s fans like these that keep pushing the franchise further. Love what you love, but don’t be afraid to ask the important questions. For The Force Awakens, that question came from every girl who’s watched Star Wars and asked, “Why can’t girls use lightsabers, too?”
Hale Goetz is a 20-something suburbanite, candy connoisseur and sci-fi enthusiast. You can tweet her at @HaleGoetz.