Celebrations erupted from a galaxy far, far away all the way to our own this week as the producers of the highly anticipated (or possibly dreaded) Star Wars: Episode VII announced the cast list for the forthcoming film.
However, while most fans and casual moviegoers alike are pleased that the classic trio of Carrie Fisher, Mark Hamill and Harrison Ford will reprise their iconic roles of Princess Leia, Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, respectively, the new cast elicited more mixed reactions.
Though the talent of the actors joining George Lucas' enduring mythos is undeniable, Episode VII director J.J. Abrams of recent Star Trek infamy has received criticism for the film's predominantly Caucasian, male cast. Daisy Ridley, rumored to be playing the daughter of Leia and Solo, is the only other female to join the saga beside Fisher, though Abrams maintains that one more female principal has yet to be cast.
Star Wars is just one forthcoming blockbuster to join a list of movies in the making or soon to be released in which women feature far less prominently than men. There has been much discussion recently about how many films in the coming summer blockbuster season do not pass the Bechdel test, which asks whether there are two women in a film who talk to each other about something other than a man.
However, though I too would like to see a greater number of women represented in the Star Wars: Episode VII cast, it is interesting to note that at least half the Star Wars saga does, in fact, pass the Bechdel test. And even the three films that don't do feature at least one multi-faceted, well-developed female character.
(Because recent debate has focused on live-action cinema, I refer only to the six live-action feature films and exclude The Clone Wars movie and television show, though they feature a number of powerful female characters as well.)
The Original Trilogy
The original trilogy, also known as Episodes IV-VI, made between 1977 and 1983, is definitely a boys' club. Luke Skywalker and Han Solo are two dashing guys who rescue Princess Leia, depicted as a classic damsel in distress for about two-thirds of the film. And as if they're not enough, Skywalker and Solo are also joined by two male robots (though perhaps arguably R2-D2 is genderless), a male Jedi Knight, a male Wookiee and a bunch of male villains that include Moff Tarkin and, of course, Darth Vader. As Leia is the only female character to accompany Skywalker and Solo on their adventures, these films fail the Bechdel test.
Nevertheless, Leia is no mere sidekick. Although she spends much of Episode IV in need of rescue, she is hardly helpless. The reason she needs rescuing is because of her bravery in being "custodian of the stolen plans that can save her people and restore freedom to the galaxy." She has the wits to send the plans off her ship as it is captured, the "balls" to stand up to Vader as soon as she meets him face to face, and the guts to sacrifice her life to protect the rebellion's secrets. And even though the men get her out of her prison cell, she's the one giving orders to make sure they finish the job they started.
She also happens to be one of the leaders of the Rebel Alliance, a role we see play out across all three original films. She's in charge of the evacuation from Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back, and demonstrates her courage yet again as she stays behind to make sure the rest of her friends get the chance to leave. By the end of the movie, Yoda declares her the last hope for the alliance, a position that Luke Skywalker reaffirms in Return of the Jedi.
Speaking of Jedi, we see Leia be totally badass here. Yes, George Lucas does put her in a skimpy outfit for a while, but she spends the beginning and end of the film as a warrior who sets out to rescue her male lover and take on the whole Galactic Empire on Endor.
Return of the Jedi also features another prominent female character. Though she does not interact with Princess Leia directly, Mon Mothma is pivotal in the Star Wars universe. She is the former galactic senator who created and leads the Rebel Alliance. Indeed, she does not spend a lot of time on screen, but the time she does spend lends her role with quiet dignity and determination, qualities we hope to see in all strong, capable leaders.
The Prequel Trilogy
Yes, passing a kidney stone is preferable to watching the terrible Episodes I-III of 1999-2005, but one good thing these "films" have going for them are many more examples of strong female characters who, this time, pass the Bechdel test.
First, there is Padmé Amidala. She is elected queen of an entire society at age 14. That's an accomplishment for anyone at any age, let alone someone so young. After her two terms are up she moves on to serve her people in the Galactic Senate, and throughout the trilogy she is portrayed as an intelligent, compassionate, strong (both physically and figuratively), loving and able leader. In fact, she is the key player to oppose the Military Creation Act in Episode II, leading a group of male and female senators. She also plots to rescue Obi-Wan Kenobi from imprisonment. Granted she is reduced to more of a prop status in Episode III as she cries for her falling husband Anakin, but there were scenes filmed in which she plotted the beginnings of the rebellion with Mon Mothma and several other female characters, thus passing the Bechdel test. (She helps Episode II pass it by talking to the new Queen of Naboo about the political situation in the galactic capital.)
In Episode I, Amidala also interacts with another female character that hasn't gotten much attention in the Star Wars-female-character debate: Shmi Skywalker. Shmi, mother to Anakin, is not a Jedi or a blaster-toatin' heroine like Amidala, but she's depicted as a compassionate woman with a bravery of a different kind: She lets her young son leave her side to have a better life even as she must remain a slave. She knows she will never see him again, but her love for him outweighs her own desires for him to remain close. Moreover, she's portrayed as intelligent and sensible. She discusses slavery, the Republic and Tatooine's society with Amidala and others.
Aside from these two principal characters, the prequel trilogy is also littered with images of other strong women. Episode I features female starfighter pilots for the first time. Scenes of the Jedi Council in all three movies reveal several female Jedi leaders including Yaddle, a female member of whatever species Master Yoda belongs to. We also see female Jedi draw lightsabers and fight the evil Droid Armies in the Clone Wars of Episodes II and III. Granted, it would have been much better to see these women speak and take on roles as principals. Nevertheless, their images as equals in the story are still powerful.
Despite the aforementioned principal female characters, it is undeniable that there are far fewer women than men portrayed in the Star Wars cinematic universe. However, based on the saga's strides so far I am hopeful that Episodes VII-IX will expand female roles to be better balanced with male ones. Though three women out of a cast of 12 principals is not an outstanding proportion for Episode VII, the film will undoubtedly feature far more actors than have already been announced. Also like many films of its kind, it will likely feature one or two characters with minor roles in this film whose roles will be expanded in the sequels and/or planned spinoffs. Thus, Abrams still has plenty of opportunity to open Star Wars to everyone.
May the Force be with us all.
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