So This is How Liberty Dies: Racism and Sexism in Star Wars

Image: Comic-Con 2006 – Slave Leia statue” is copyright © 2006 and made available under Attribution 2.0 license. Thanks to Disney’s slow, but certain, progress, slave Leia will no longer be in any future official Star Wars merchandise production.

Kerri Yund contributed to this article.

Although the fictional universe of Star Wars is said to take place “A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away,” for nearly 40 years it has taken on an increasingly dominant place in culture right here on Earth. Since the release of Star Wars IV: A New Hope in 1977, the series has become the third highest grossing movie franchise of all time. The presale for the newest installment, Star Wars: The Force Awakens (set to release December 18th), is already breaking records. However, before embarking on this new journey of the genre-defining sci-fi series, it’s important to look at the issues of race and gender from earlier material, and where we can go from there.

The whole premise of Star Wars is the power of the Force: “The Force is what gives a Jedi his power. It’s an energy field created by all living things. It surrounds us and penetrates us. It binds the galaxy together,” says the wise, old, white Jedi man, Obi-Wan Kenobi.

So if the Force is supposed to be this great, unifying force, why do episodes 1-6 of Star Wars shamefully exclude people of color and women?

Let us direct your attention to the white-cis-male fantasy universe, with a few (ahem, three) black males on the sidelines who were either killed (R.I.P. Mace Windu) or fulfilled the classic black-best-friend trope (Lando Calrissian) or was the evil Darth Vader’s voice (James Earl Jones *praise hands*). Wait, were Asians, Latinos and all the other races extinct in this galaxy a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away? Did the white men colonize, marginalize, and oppress them to the point of extinction? That must be the explanation, right? Is this the white-cis-male fantasy those white supremacists dream of every night?

Oh wait, the Japanese survived—in the form of stereotypes and cultural features embodied by the Neimoidian aliens. The Neimoidians exhibit a combination of Japanese-style attire and their greed for money (a common stereotype of northeast Asians, including the Japanese). It is offensive and unacceptable that Lucas was lazy enough to draw from the stereotypes and cultures of these POC, whom he blatantly neglected to include in the actual universe.

Lucas relied on the heavy use of stereotypes to also create aliens like Watto, who embodied Jewish stereotypes of large-nosed and money-greedy (see: Jewish stereotypes in anti-semitic, Nazi propaganda), and the Sand People, who heavily resembled Middle Eastern stereotypes in their pale robes. The fact that they were named “Sand” People and portrayed as uncivilized and undeveloped reflects the Eurocentric view towards Middle Easterns today. This anti-Middle Eastern mentality is also heavily flaunted in one of the highest grossing movies of 2014, American Sniper, depicting the experiences of one white U.S. Navy Seal, Chris Kyle, mercilessly killing 160 “savage” Arabs and Muslims, just as how Anakin mercilessly killed an entire village of Sand People because he viewed them as “animals,” justifying his act of genocide with the anger of losing of his mother. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I don’t remember mass murder as one of the stages of grief. The murder of dozens of people of color by a white man was casually excused as a result of emotional and mental troubles, which is so eerily familiar to the media coverage of hate crimes against black Americans in the past year.

It’s bad enough that they were excluded from the universe. But perpetuating Japanese, Middle Eastern, and Jewish stereotypes and exploiting their culture for the creative inspiration of an alien to the predominantly white-cis-male universe is a dangerous parallel to how white people perceived and continue to perceive the Japanese. Furthermore, it reflects the general alienating attitude towards all people of color (see: why we should stop calling foreigners aliens and the use of “alien” in covering the Japanese internment in journalism).

Even when they do explicitly use a person of color in one of the more apparent and defining roles, they are masked or not given a strong, progressive character of color. Darth Vader was voiced by James Earl Jones, who is black, but the great cinematic unmasking of Vader revealed a white man. Jango Fett was played by Daniel Logan, a male of Maori descent, but was masked and then cloned as a medical experiment so he could form a military. Vader commanded this military of POC clones as the white ruling men in history usually do, literally dehumanizing people of color as the guinea pigs of experiments to advance their own health and society (see: Hitler’s race-biased medical experiments). The use of POC furthers white agendas in war, capitalizing on their manpower without recognizing their humanity (see: the use of Native Americans and African Americans in both sides of the American Revolutionary War, and the Vietnam War being “a white man’s war, a black man’s fight,” ).

And while I loved Lando Calrissian’s character, I could not help but feel that he was simply an accessory to Han’s storyline, fulfilling the black best friend movie trope that we so often see in blockbuster films. Lando simply served as the Lucius Best to his Mr. Incredible, the Bubba to his Forrest Gump, and the Chad to his Troy; all these characters were denied the same character development that was given to his white friend counterpart.

It’s not just that there should be more POC in Star Wars, there should also be a concurrent effort to give POC the character development and plot influence that they deserve. People of color and women should not be exclusively left to enhance the white man’s narrative. They should have their own unique narratives that are central to the plot, not accessories to the white-cis-male’s hero plot. Aren’t we sick of these vanilla plots already anyway?

The vanilla white-cis-male default rears its ugly head in the lack of gender diversity as well. The main Star Wars series consists of six movies: an original trilogy (episodes IV-VI) and a prequel trilogy (episodes I-III). Within these six movies there are only two main characters who are women—and both of them are white. All three movies of the original trilogy fail the Bechdel test, while two of the prequel trilogy pass (Episode II passes dubiously, with Padmé having conversations with her handmaidens).

The prequel trilogy features Padmé Amidala, and the original trilogy’s main woman is her daughter, Leia Organa. These two main female characters, though having great and varied strengths and personalities, are repeatedly overlooked, degraded or exploited by the narrative.  

While established in Episode I as a competent ruler and fighter, Padmé’s role is progressively reduced. Though she is featured during the climactic fight sequences of Episode II: Attack of the Clones, Padmé is wearing a skintight white suit, and is physically attacked by an alien beast, being scratched in a way that removes fabric to make it appear that she is wearing a sort of crop top. Many promotional images of the character feature her in this modified version of the outfit, not showing the wounds themselves. This sensationalizes the look of it, and sexualizes her for the audience. In contrast, none of her counterpart male character’s’ clothes are torn in such a way. Her attack is used as a convenient plot point to get Padmé to reveal some skin.

By Episode III: Revenge of the Sith, Padmé doesn’t wield the political authority she used to. She is largely at her home, with scenes of either Anakin (her husband) or Obi-Wan delivering news to her of their activities (the ones that drive the plot forward). This is oddly reminiscent of stereotypical and outdated gender roles, with Padmé as the doting wife.

She became an item, or an accessory, within the narrative: she is Anakin’s “something to lose” that motivates him to eventually turn to the dark side of the force. This dehumanizes her; defines her only in terms of what she means to him. At the end of the film, she dies because she “lost the will to live” after losing Anakin to the dark side. The woman who was introduced as a strong queen at the age of fourteen now exists completely in relation to her husband.

In the original trilogy, Leia Organa is a person who does not waver from her dedications, speaks her mind, and leads the rebellion against the empire.  While Leia is a leader, she also does field work, fighting in the trenches. Overall, she is a strong and complex character, especially for the sci-fi genre in 1977.

However, the narrative doesn’t allow Leia to linger on her own emotional arc or abilities. In some of the first moments the audience sees her character in Episode IV, her home planet is destroyed. This is almost never brought up again, and she is not allowed time to grieve, discuss it or try to find any kind of catharsis. At the end of the movie, she comforts Luke, someone she has barely known for a day, about the death of Obi-Wan, with no mention of her homeworld, people, and culture being lost. Though there was an attempt at resolution to this, in a 5-issue comic series about the loss of her planet earlier this year, as a woman her tragedies- and the tragedies of an entire planet– are deemed lesser.

Another crime against Leia is the narrative portrayal and cultural phenomenon surrounding events she was subjected to in Episode VI: Return of the Jedi. Nearly the first half of the film takes place in crime lord Jabba the Hutt’s Palace on the sand planet Tatooine. Leia tries to rescue Han Solo from the clutches of Jabba, and is instead imprisoned and made a sex slave, forced to wear what is now an iconic metal bikini and chain.

Whereas Leia does eventually kill Jabba with the very chain she is tied with, her suffering is not for her own character development, and actually contributes nothing to the overall story. In fact, until she kills Jabba, she is silenced, having no lines as she sits as a pretty thing at his side. Her voice and her agency were stripped from her, purposely. There is no mention of the trauma she must have suffered, and no one asks if she is okay. With no further mention of it, her violation adds nothing to the overall story; the stakes against Jabba the Hutt aren’t increased, as he already held Han captive and tried to kill Luke for amusement. So it is derived that the submission of Leia wasn’t done for the purpose of storytelling, but rather to take away a loud, stubborn woman’s agency, and make her attractive for the audience, for a perverse form of entertainment. It was for the fantasies of its heterosexual male fanbase.

And it achieved its job, having been perpetuated as such through the years. Among male fans, “Slave Leia” as she is called, is an icon. Sitcoms such as The Big Bang Theory and Friends make jokes about attractiveness and desirability of “Slave Leia.” Posters, dolls, action figures, shirts, even the cartoonish Pop dolls commercialize the image. And by even the title of the image and the merchandise, it shows what is so desirable about her in that moment: her non-consent and vulnerability. Our culture has made something erotic about the sexual submission of a woman. It is these kinds of ideals that perpetuate rape culture and the sensationalization of sexual non-consent in our society. It is about an imbalance of power, and taking away a woman’s voice and control over her own body and life.

Just this year, Disney has supposedly made the decision to discontinue any of their merchandise with the image of slave Leia. A small but important victory that took 32 years to achieve.

In addition, many of the side female characters serve the male characters, either narratively speaking or in a literal sense. Aunt Beru’s death at the beginning of Episode IV is part of what motivates Luke to leave Tatooine with Obi-Wan. Anakin’s mother Shmi dies in Episode II to further push him into moral turmoil- slaughtering every single one of the Sand People responsible for his mother’s death. And numerous other women are seen as sex slaves to the evil, sluggish Jabba the Hutt.

Time and time again, Star Wars uses the lives of women and people of color as narrative fodder, using their blood to further men’s stories. This isn’t unique to the Star Wars franchise alone, but it begs the question: how many more female and people of color characters have to die or suffer before their stories are told front and center?

We hope Star Wars can lead the way for sci-fi movies to be creative and original instead of using racial stereotypes and diminishing POC’s roles in the films, blatantly ignoring the historical contexts and implications of doing so. Let’s reconstruct Star Wars into the progressive, inclusive, and socially-conscious world that it can be, for if we cannot even imagine a fantasy universe like that, how can we see and fix the racial issues embedded in our own world? “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter,” says Yoda, and we definitely can and must do better.

With new leading characters Finn and Rey in The Force Awakens being a black man and a woman, promising things could be on the horizon. Will the tide turn? Will their stories be told?

And so we wait anxiously for December 18th, thinking : “Help us, episode VII, you’re our only hope!”

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