A few weeks ago I made a pithy comment about how the first episode of The Mandalorian only had one speaking role for a woman. It was just an observation. The show’s opening scene had several unnamed aliens. Couldn’t one or two of those roles been given to a woman?
Well. A segment of the Star Wars fanbase was not happy with my faint criticism. I got, I’ve learned, onto a list of people to troll, and received a number of nasty comments from people whose feelings I really seem have hurt. Kat Tenbarge of Business Insider wrote a story about the negative response from Star Wars fans and quoted me: ‘The Mandalorian’ is taking heat for its portrayal of women. Now, feminist critics are facing waves of online harassment.
First, I really do like the show. It might have done a tiny bit better in its casting early on, but it’s made up for it by featuring the first women to every direct a Star Wars show or movie, Deborah Chow. Upcoming episodes have women featured in major roles. There are a hundred other shows I’d pick to highlight gender inequality before this one. So: faint criticism effectively rescinded.
As a general rule, unless you’re making a scene where the sex of the characters is relevant—a WWII movie will probably have you casting mostly male actors; a movie about a woman’s softball team, mostly female actors—your background actors should be roughly 50/50. I’m not even asking you to rewrite characters. Just look around when you’re shooting and if you notice you’ve hired only men, maybe wonder how that happened.
But let’s talk about Star Wars and feminism. Where the comments I got were coherent, a few said something along the lines of, “Why can’t something just be for entertainment and not political? Why does everything have to have gender stuff mixed in?”*
Well, because all art is political and gender is a fact of our lives from birth. The people who tend not to think class struggles are part of our history tend to be the ones on top. People who don’t see racism tend to be white. It’s men who don’t think about gender much. If you’re part of the group that rarely gets disadvantaged by the fact of who you are, it’s easy not to notice this stuff.
Star Wars has always been political. George Lucas, a man who wasn’t required to serve in Vietnam, wrote a movie during the height of the conflict in which a small rebel force fights off a highly mechanized military-industrial regime. Star Wars is ultimately a story about pacifism and love winning out over hatred and violence. Political.
Who’s the first named character in Star Wars. Princess Leia, a woman, in a prominent leadership position in the rebellion. In Return of the Jedi, another woman, Mon Mothma, gives the major military briefing. Women are leaders in Star Wars and it’s no big deal. Political.
Yet there are, by my count, only six women who get speaking roles in the entire trilogy.† Take the final “trench run” sequence in Star Wars. The scene features over a dozen pilots. All of them are played by men. When they were casting the X-Wing pilots, did they intentionally cast only men because at that time (in our world) women weren’t allowed to fly combat missions? Or did they just not think about it?
If Lucas and friends had cast a few women as X-Wing pilots, it would have sent a few messages:
- In-universe: The rebels are the good guys, and they hire the best pilots available, including women, unlike the Empire whose personnel at all levels are only men.
- In the real world: If you’re a girl in 1977 watching this movie, you can see women flying out to blow up the Death Star and imagine that you might be able to grow up and be a pilot, too.
Instead, we get Leia, who starts the movie as a tough, scrappy fighter with a blaster, sidelined in the final act. Her job is to sit around and look worried while the men go off and complete the mission. (The pattern repeats in Jedi: she’s strangling Jabba in act one, sitting around on Endor’s moon in act three.)
Star Wars is set in a made-up universe. If gender inequality exists there, it’s either on purpose, or because the creator’ biases meant they didn’t notice it. Either way, that’s political. It’s probably true both that Lucas wanted to show women in the rebellion but also that he didn’t notice he’d only cast a handful of them and didn’t give them anything to say.
But let’s be honest here. I can make all the arguments I want about how all art is political, but that’s not the real issue. You can try to persuade someone that a border wall isn’t an effective way to stop illegal immigration into the US from Mexico, but the real problem isn’t the wall, it’s that they don’t actually think everyone should have open access to the American dream. The problem isn’t that these people have never thought of Star Wars as political, it’s that they don’t actually believe that gender inequality is a problem. They want movies where the men swing around the laser swords and the women look pretty and get out of the way during the climax.
All of which to say, if someone’s a bad person, a few sound arguments probably won’t change that. Yet of the thousands of works of art I’ve enjoyed in my life, if I had to pick just one that says that no one’s beyond redemption, it’d be Star Wars.
* I’m paraphrasing, most were: “stfu SJW” something something. A funny part of it was how like a week later I’d get, “Stop talking about Mandalorian,” and, though I didn’t respond, I thought, “I did stop talking about it. I made one tweet about it over a week ago.” If they’d just let it go, I wouldn’t be typing all this out and there probably wouldn’t have been a Business Insider article about it all.
† Princess Leia and Aunt Beru in Star Wars, “other officer” in the Hoth base in The Empire Strikes Back,‡ Sy Snootles, Oola, and Mon Mothma in Jedi.
‡ I’m aware she has a name in Wookiepedia. Brigitte Kahn is credited among several others as simply “Other Officers” in the actual movie. Star Wars is one of the few areas where I’m a strict constructionist. So much of the supplementary stuff is so silly, I just stick to what’s actually in the script, though I do call the tiny bear things in Jedi “Ewoks” just for convenience.