by Catriona Mills

Lessons in Gender That I Learned From Watching The Star Wars Prequels

Posted 14 April 2009 in by Catriona

1. Women are essentially interchangeable. You can argue, I suppose, that it’s a terribly clever idea to draw attention away from your central woman by surrounding her with other women who are essentially interchangeable with one another. But, really, that’s just playing on the idea that one woman is, after all, very like another.

Since the main point of the interchangeable bodyguards is to draw the fire of potential assassins, it can also be argued that women are essentially disposable—probably because they are, after all, interchangeable.

2. Women really shouldn’t be Jedi. In fact, I suspect that there must be some odd equal-opportunity entrance requirements for the Academy, else women wouldn’t be allowed to be Jedi. If, thanks to this entirely unfair process of selection, women do become Jedi, they’ll turn out to be terribly bad at it. To take an entirely hypothetical example, a female Jedi might find herself cut down from behind by assassins before she can even turn around, where male Jedi would be able, in the same circumstances, to both turn and draw their weapons.

Yep: entirely hypothetical example.

3. Women are completely obsessed with fashion. Women are so obsessed with fashion, in fact, that it completely takes the place of comfort for them. They might sleep in a nightgown with seed pearls draped across the arms. Or they might choose to spend an evening lounging comfortably in front of a roaring fire in a skin-tight leather corset.

Let’s face it: who hasn’t done that at some point or another?

And, really, there’s no point dressing women sensibly. If, perchance, you do put a woman in a nice, practical (if skin-tight) combat outfit, she’s only going to get the midriff torn off by a sabre-toothed tiger.

Women are like that.

4. Women are terribly poor judges of characters. Even women who are supposed to be accomplished and intelligent can live intimately with another person and never, ever suspect that person of turning to the Dark Side.

Of course, this is convenient for both the other person in the relationship and for the narrative.

5. There is little noticeable difference between a teenage girl and a grown woman. The advantage of this is that a teenage girl can easily be the head of state for an entire planet. The disadvantage is that she won’t really learn from any mistakes she might make at that point.

Another way of putting this, I suppose, is to say that if you haven’t become a queen by the time you’re sixteen, you may as well abandon all ambition—and become a female Jedi.

6. Women are more than a little fragile. Perhaps, in retrospect, this is why they they need to wear corsets even when they’re lounging in front of fires? To stop bits of them from falling off?

The fragility of women is holistic in nature: should they be force-choked by their whinging, psychotic husbands, for example, they will then inevitably die in childbirth, despite the absence of any real biological connection between the trachea and the uterus.

(This is why women should always have doors opened for them: in case they accidentally catch their finger in the hinge and one of their legs falls off. You can’t take any chances with women.)

7. Probably because of their essential fragility, women’s back stories are easily ret-conned. After all, women are essentially interchangeable and disposable, so it should come as no surprise that the disposability extends beyond death.

Especially if the ret-conning helps prevent people from assuming that, just perhaps, not all women are corset-obsessed morons.

Share your thoughts [15]

1

Tim wrote at Apr 14, 01:23 PM

To play Sith’s advocate, most of your examples apply primarily or exclusively to Padmé Amidala. She doesn’t necessarily teach us any more about femininity than Anakin does about masculinity.

1. Leaders have used doubles throughout history. This is a comment about politics, about the hierarchical structures that give one person’s life more perceived value than others, or about the sometimes unpleasant necessities of realpolitik before it’s a comment about gender.

Also, in this instance women aren’t interchangeable. We’re expected to be relieved (while a bit saddened) that Cordé dies in episode II in Padmé‘s place. Neither of Padmé‘s doubles are supposed to have the same political skills or the personal relationship with Anakin on which the story hangs.

2. We only see a few of the Jedi in order 66. Out of hundreds or thousands, many female Jedi fought back, and many male Jedi were killed before they could fight back.

3. Padmé‘s fashion is obviously wrapped up in her social roles as queen and senator; she moves among her planet’s and her galaxy’s sociopolitical elite. And as you note, when the situation calls for it and time permits, she changes to a more practical combat outfit.

4. On this, well, yes, but everyone in the prequels is a poor judge of character. And although she is deceived by Palpatine, she is one of the first to suspect Count Dooku.

5. As a head of state and a member of the galactic elite, she probably has access to top-notch health care and beauty treatments. And/or the human population of Naboo (or at least its female members) reaches maturity more quickly but ages more slowly than the baseline.

6. Padmé leads an assault on Theed Palace during the Trade Federation’s occupation without concern for her own safety, and she fights like everyone else in the Battle of Geonosis.

7. I’m not quite sure what you mean here.

2

Drew wrote at Apr 14, 09:15 PM

Lesson(s) That I Learned From Watching The Star Wars Prequels: Don’t watch them. Ever again. Never, ever, ever.

3

Catriona wrote at Apr 14, 10:22 PM

Yes, but Tim, if almost all my examples “apply primarily or exclusively to Padmé Amidala,” that’s because there really aren’t any other women in the prequels. And that’s another problem.

(Yes, there’s Anakin’s mother in the first film, but I have serious reservations about her treatment, as well—and I think her ultimate mistreatment was cheap, unnecessary, and pretty representative of how both women and people from other cultures were treated in these films. I mean, to answer the question “What would prompt our hero to take that step to the Dark Side?” with “I know! Let’s have a woman ravished by (gasp!) foreigners!” is unbelievably Victorian.)

1. Yes, this comment is more about politics than it is about gender. But I maintain that this plays on the idea of interchangeability and disturbs me when combined with the other aspects of gender in the films. None of the other politicians in the films use doubles: just Padmé. And even before she would conceivably need doubles (the threats on her life start when she’s a councillor, not when she’s the elected monarch of a backwater planet), she has interchangeable bodyguards/maid servants following her around.

I know there’s a practical reason for that, too. But it does play on the idea that people won’t notice if one woman is exchanged for another.

Am I deliberately ramping up the gender aspect here to suit the focus of the post? Yes.

Would I write a journal article making this argument? No.

Did it frustrate me when I watched the films? Oh, yes.

2. “Out of hundreds or thousands, many female Jedi fought back, and many male Jedi were killed before they could fight back.”

Do we know this? Or is this a plausible extrapolation?

Either way, I find the way in which it is presented on screen unsatisfactory. I’d far rather there were no female Jedi at all, than that the one female Jedi we see proves to be rubbish at her job.

(I have no idea where I heard this, but my understanding is that she was a late addition, and was a make-up artist or costumier on the film whom Lucas shoved into costume? Something like that. So I assume her inability to turn around and fight has to do with her not being a stunt person. And that’s fair enough, from a practical standpoint. I can’t remember now whether the argument for her inclusion was “We need another Jedi scene” or “Damn. There aren’t any girl Jedi! Find me a woman!”)

3. Yes, Padmé‘s fashion sense is mediated through her social and political position. That doesn’t explain the two choices I noticed above: the corset for lounging in front of a fire (when she is isolated from society because of the death threats) and the ridiculous nightgown with the strands of pearls running down her arms (when she is asleep with her husband—and heavily pregnant, if I remember correctly).

And, yes: she wears a sensible outfit. But it’s also torn into a far less sensible outfit during the battle, which is beyond absurd—it was already skin tight.

(There’s also a rather sensible outfit at the end of Revenge of the Sith, when she’s force-choked by Anakin. But it unfortunately includes skin-coloured trousers, so I spent the entire scene thinking, “Wow, that’s one seriously short tunic! But she wouldn’t be able to sit down in that! And she’s at full term—wow, that must be uncomfortable when she sits on cold chairs. Or, wait: is she wearing pants? No, she can’t be.” The films created that state of mind in me!)

4. She’s deceived by Palpatine, by Anakin, even by Jar-Jar Binks, since I never understood why she gave him the degree of power that she did—except that it was narratively expedient, in order the screw everything up again.

But, you’re right. No one can judge character in these films, not even the Jedi. I drove me nuts that Obi-Wan never stopped Anakin when Anakin was whinging, “But why can’t we just make people behave right?” by saying “Because that’s fascist, you irritating teenager! Now shut up and levitate those rocks. Levitate them!”

5. I didn’t even mean the fact that she doesn’t age: that didn’t particularly bother me, not when films and television tell me that thirty year olds are good choices to play fifteen year olds. Nor did the age disparity between her and Anakin bother me: I know it bothered some people, but we’re paranoid about that these days—I’ll give the films credit enough to say I didn’t see that relationship as sexualised at all in the first film.

No, I was just annoyed that apparently she was this whizz-bang politician in the first film and then by the second seems barely competent at times. And when there are so few roles for mature women in these films, I’m not going to be thrilled that they play one such role as a teenage prodigy instead.

6. Yes, she does. And then she dies in childbirth. It’s so damn Victorian melodrama that it still makes me angry.

7. I mean the fact that I still fervently and whole-heartedly believe that when Leia talks about her mother in Return of the Jedi, she’s talking about Padmé. Why would Bail Organa’s wife be sad all the time? The implication is strong in that scene that Luke was parked with paternal relatives while Padmé went with Leia to the safety of Alderaan, where she died young.

What’s wrong with that storyline? It still has the idea that the discovery of Vader’s true nature was a serious blow to Padmé and shortened her lifespan, if you really need to add that angle.

Instead, she just drops dead for no apparent reason, and it’s so frustrating and stupid and mid nineteenth century that I wasn’t even particularly sad about it.

So when I say women’s stories are easily ret-conned because women are disposable, I mean the assumption that no one would notice if they dropped the significance of that scene from Jedi.

4

Catriona wrote at Apr 14, 10:23 PM

Drew, I concur.

5

Drew wrote at Apr 14, 11:13 PM

What I find so fascinating about this is the way these films exist in the general consciousness of fandom and non-fandom alike. Lucas turned out three good films with an action storyline, the plots were weak in places and nothing he did was groundbreaking but they still mananaged to be enjoyable and capture attention and devotion. Then he churned out three films that are utterly crap in all possible ways except for the special effects. But somehow these latter films have gathered as much hype and attention as the original three.

I feel that George had one good idea but he pushed it way beyond his capacity for dealing with that idea. Many stories have been told whereby the audience is given the ending at the very beginning, but it takes a talented storyteller to then maintain our interest along the way so that we want to get to the end point that we are already aware of. Simply put George doesn’t seem to have that skill, and personally I cared so little about the story in the end that I have never watched more than 20 mins of the final installment.

6

Heather wrote at Apr 14, 11:27 PM

The only way to watch those prequels is while listening to RIFFTRAX! (I think this might be in order sometime soon Catriona!)

You should look for the article I once saw that was contrasting Anakin committing genocide in that weird oedipal rage-y way with the similar scene in Lawrence of Arabia where Lawrence slaughters all of the Turkish soldiers after he has been raped by them. I can’t remember the crux of the argument but I remember thinking ‘hmmmmm, that’s interesting’.

Right…back to work! :)

7

Catriona wrote at Apr 14, 11:28 PM

That, frankly, was one of the things that drove me mad about these films (apart from the fact that I’m a big fan of the original three): we knew what was going to happen and, in fact, already had a default sympathetic response to Vader from the end of Jedi.

But could we sympathise with the revolting, complaining, psychotic proto-fascist he was in the first two prequels? Oh, definitely not.

And yet, we should have. We should have been fascinated by the inevitable rise of Darth Vader.

Oh, well. Some people just aren’t, as you say, good storytellers.

8

Catriona wrote at Apr 14, 11:35 PM

No, Heather! You can’t stop there! I need some kind of link to or bibliographic reference for that article!

There’s a fascinating point of difference between Lawrence slaughtering Turkish soldiers after he has been raped by them and Anakin slaughtering Tusken Raiders after his mother has been raped by them.

I’m starting an advertising campaign. “Women: a convenient way of inspiring action in men—and cheap to feed!”

9

Drew wrote at Apr 15, 12:00 AM

lol, “Lord Kitchener Needs Your Women!”

10

Catriona wrote at Apr 15, 12:03 AM

Lord Kitchener Needs Your Women was what they called Braveheart for release on the foreign market, wasn’t it?

;)

11

Tim wrote at Apr 15, 01:18 AM

> 1. … I mean, to answer the question “What would prompt our hero to take that step to the Dark Side?” with “I know! Let’s have a woman ravished by (gasp!) foreigners!” is unbelievably Victorian.

Yes, though I think that section more directly references the (American) Western genre.

> the threats on her life start when she’s a councillor, not when she’s the elected monarch of a backwater planet

The Trade Federation is, at the very least, trying to capture her to force her government to surrender. Once they decide to kill the Jedi envoys, they’re past scrupling about Padmé‘s life.

> 2. … Do we know this? Or is this a plausible extrapolation?

One critic’s plausible extrapolation may be another critic’s unwarranted call to extratextual sources, but there is no such thing as pure textual analysis.

> I have no idea where I heard this, but my understanding is that she was a late addition, and was a make-up artist or costumier on the film whom Lucas shoved into costume?

Aayla Secura (the female Twi’lek Jedi) was a late addition to the script for Episode II. The character first appeared in one of the comic books; Lucas saw a cover picture and decided to put her in the movie. She was played by Amy Allen, who was a production assistant at ILM.

3. Yeah, the corset was a bit much. I didn’t think the nightgown was particularly excessive, though.

> 7. I mean the fact that I still fervently and whole-heartedly believe that when Leia talks about her mother in Return of the Jedi, she’s talking about Padmé.

Now who’s drawing in facts from outside the prequel texts? ;)

> 5. … No, I was just annoyed that apparently she was this whizz-bang politician in the first film and then by the second seems barely competent at times.
>
> 6. Yes, she does. And then she dies in childbirth.

Yes. I’m tempted to say this is a failure of storytelling/characterisation that becomes a problematic gender depiction, rather than the other way round. Padmé starts out as a strong character — politically involved, bold, active; a believer in negotiation where possible but ready to take aggressive action when negotiation fails — but she weakens as the prequels progress, particularly in Episode III, and not, I’d say, in a way that follows plausibly from her initial characterisation or the movement of the plot.

> Oh, well. Some people just aren’t, as you say, good storytellers.

Maybe some people start out as good storytellers but become victims of their successes.

12

Catriona wrote at Apr 15, 01:37 AM

1. You’re right—I was thinking as I wrote it (and as I looked a little more at Tusken Raiders—while I was trying to work out how to spell “Tusken”—on Wikipedia) that that whole sequence with Shmi and the Raiders was very reminiscent of the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century narratives about white women captured by Native Americans. The fact that to me it just smacked of (for example) the xenophobia behind Dracula is more indicative of my own biases and reading background than it is of the text, which is poor academic practice.

Yes, the Trade Federation have no scruples about Padmé‘s life, but she’s not using the doubles as protection from threats against her life there. The blockade by the Trade Federation comes as a real surprise. So why the identical maids? What purpose do they serve there?

2. Okay, yes. But have I missed a source somewhere? Or is this your personal extrapolation?

And, as far as the female Jedi goes, my vaguely remembered fact was mostly correct. (Yay, me!) So there’s perhaps a practical reason for her not being as responsive as the male Jedi. But it still annoys me, because it stands out so much. Had she been one of several female Jedi, it wouldn’t have been so obvious.

3. The nightgown itself isn’t excessive. But those pearls would have made it terribly difficult to get a good night’s sleep. It was just so impractical—and if you can’t just be comfortable when you’re in bed, when can you be?

The costumes strike me as daft, because Leia was by and large in sensible and plausible clothes—and yet they still managed to feed a thousand thousand fanboy fantasies by sticking her in a gold bikini. Padmé is the other way around: it’s a relief when she finally wears something sensible, not a vicarious thrill when she wears something daft and over the top.

5 and 6. I wholeheartedly concur. Apart from the fact that Natalie Portman’s monotonous delivery when Padmé was in full queen makeup drove me bonkers, she was a far more interesting character in the first film—she was a weaker character in the second, and she was just daft in the third.

7. I’m allowed to extrapolate from outside the prequels when I’m talking about how the character was a ret-con! Aren’t I? Either way, that’s what annoyed me most: to weaken this character further, they actually wrote against the only reference to her in the original films.

13

Tim wrote at Apr 15, 05:16 AM

> Yes, the Trade Federation have no scruples about Padmé‘s life, but she’s not using the doubles as protection from threats against her life there. The blockade by the Trade Federation comes as a real surprise. So why the identical maids? What purpose do they serve there?

Because she’s already involved in a world where threats to her person are likely.

(Incidentally, though this is pure speculation, maybe Palpatine uses doubles to cover up the fact that he keeps ducking out to appear as Lord Sidious. Unless he does that while he’s in the bathroom or something.)

> 2. Okay, yes. But have I missed a source somewhere? Or is this your personal extrapolation?

In the Extended Universe material, between one and two hundred Jedi survived Order 66. Shaak Ti is perhaps the most famous female survivor; she’s on the Council in the films, and offscreen she’s in the fighting at the battle of the Jedi Temple, including a duel with Anakin. The Temple’s chief librarian, Jocasta Nu, who we see in the films, also fights Vader in the Temple but is killed by him (again, offscreen).

> 7. I’m allowed to extrapolate from outside the prequels when I’m talking about how the character was a ret-con! Aren’t I?

Yes, but that’s not a lesson learned only from the prequels, then. ;)

14

Catriona wrote at Apr 15, 05:35 AM

> “Because she’s already involved in a world where threats to her person are likely.”

But is she? Yes, broadly speaking, in that she’s a politician. But Naboo doesn’t seem to be a country prone to violent internal uprisings—although, I suppose, Padmé‘s predecessor was forced to abdicate, wasn’t he?

All right, I suppose it’s possible that even there the double are designed to protect her.

But my concerns about this would never have arisen if they had, in fact, fleshed out the workings of Naboo a little more in the first film, instead of presenting it as little more vital and dynamic than a painted backdrop.

And if they’d shown Palpatine using doubles while he was dashing around being Darth Sidious, that would have enabled a much more intriguing approach to what is currently a fairly superficial engagement with appearance and reality.

I wonder sometimes if the vast quantity of Extended Universe material isn’t just indicative of the popularity of Star Wars, but is also indicative of the fact there here is a concept in which people can see something rich and full of potential, but they just need to keep digging and refining and reworking so that all these disparate and contradictory pieces can be made to work together.

Because there is potential in the material. But it’s just so frustrating. And not even the gender issues alone. I barely touched on the race-relations issues. And the characterisation! I’d feel so much more sympathy for Vader, for example, if there’d been a little more development between “I fear my secret wife will die in childbirth” and “Why, of course I shall slaughter children. I’d be happy to!”

(I still maintain that my last comment is just fine, since the ret-conning itself occurred in the prequels. But, just quietly, I see your point there. I dispute it, but I see it.)

15

Tim wrote at Apr 15, 01:46 PM

> I wonder sometimes if the vast quantity of Extended Universe material isn’t just indicative of the popularity of Star Wars, but is also indicative of the fact there here is a concept in which people can see something rich and full of potential, but they just need to keep digging and refining and reworking so that all these disparate and contradictory pieces can be made to work together.

Most of the Extended Universe material doesn’t really do that, though. ;)

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