'Star Wars' Needs a New Approach to Gender—Not Just More Women

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Science fiction has a history of asking big questions about masculinity and femininity. It's time for Star Wars to take a few pointers from its genre.

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20th Century Fox

As Disney gears up for the new Star Wars films, fans are looking forward to that galaxy a long time ago and far, far away. A galaxy with strange alien races and fantastic new planets, with adventure and glorious spaceships and mystic warriors. A galaxy with the glaringly improbable gender distribution of roughly 1000+ men for every one woman.

That one woman is, of course, an intergalactic princess who wields a mean blaster. Still, as Laura Hudson pointed out last week, while Princess Leia may be a kick-ass icon, she's got precious few sisters in the Star Wars universe. Sure, there's a rebel commander here and Natalie Portman over there, but in general you can see why Luke ends up accidentally crushing on his sister. (Poor kid—there just aren't that many other options available.)

Why aren't there more women in Star Wars? Why is Leia out there all (or mostly) alone? Hudson argues that this man-surplus is entirely arbitrary—and therefore easily reversible.

I'm not so sure, though. To me, Star Wars's lack of women seems linked to a deliberate lack of interest in women. The film franchise is designed to be a series of male genre pictures, and for proof, all you need to do is look at the innovative, non-traditional approaches to gender other sci-fi works have taken—which Star Wars and other Hollywood films avoid.

First, though, I want to acknowledge the force of Hudson's argument. In some sense, as she says, the dearth of women in Star Wars is arbitrary. There's no diegetic or contextual reason for it. If Star Wars were the Western that it in many ways imitates, then of course you wouldn't necessarily expect there to be lots of female gunfighters, because gender roles back in the time period when Westerns are often set restricted what women could do. But Star Wars isn't a Western; it's a science-fiction story, which means anything goes. As Hudson says, "Science fiction in particular has always offered a vision of the world not myopically limited by the world as it exists, but liberated by the power of imagination." The creators of Star Wars could have used those powers of imagination to create a world with lots of important female characters. Instead, they chose to create a world in which women barely exist.

Since Star Wars isn't forced by its plot, then, to erase women, it seems like it should be easy enough to include them instead. As evidence, Hudson points to the Star Wars expanded universe novels, which she says include many strong female characters and which could serve as a blueprint for a less lopsided demography in the upcoming films.

Certainly, if Star Wars can pick up some solid women characters from the expanded series, that would be all to the good. But I'm still not convinced that doing so would get to the root of Star Wars' gender imbalance—or, as Hudson says, to Hollywood's.

Because, after all, the lack of women in Star Wars is not arbitrary. Star Wars is a genre picture—and the genre is, broadly, boys' adventure. The series is devoted to battles, adventure, politics, more adventure, and more battles. Girls certainly can—and certainly do!—like all of those things. But the fact remains that the genre has historically been focused on boys. Which means that it has been a lot more concerned with providing points of identification for guys than with points of identification for girls. It's not an accident that it's Leia rather than Han who ends up in the swimsuit and chains, right? (Even though she remains, even in chains, badass.)

Genre and gender, then, are tied up together. Sci-fi imagines different worlds—but those different worlds are governed in no small part by particular narrative expectations. The galaxy isn't as far away, nor as teeming with possibilities as it looks.

While Star Wars' particular brand of sci-fi may have limited resources imagining gender, though, the same is not true for all sci-fi. On the contrary, in prose, if not in Hollywood film, the history of sci-fi over the past 50 years has in no small part been the history of exploring gender.

Certainly, some folks still write space opera and adventure sci-fi (like the Star Wars expanded universe). But since the 1970s at least, many major and popular authors have turned to focusing not just on new technologies and distant places, but also on new societies and even new bodies. Way back in 1969, Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness imagined a planet where the human-descended inhabitants had only one sex; it is only during the monthly mating time that they take on gender identities and sexual urges. In Octavia Butler's Xenogenesis trilogy (1987-2000), a post-apocalyptic Earth is invaded by aliens with three genders. There are males, there are females, and there are ooloi, a sex of genetic mixers and manipulators, who are able to mate with, and thereby reengineer, human men and women. More recently, Brian K. Vaughn and Pia Guerra's comic book series Y: The Last Man imagined a world in which a plague had wiped out all males on earth except one.

Y, as you might imagine, has a large number of major female characters in the narrative. That is perhaps less important, though, than the fact that Y, Left Hand of Darkness, and Xenogenesis all imagine new ways to think about men and women and the relationship between them. Rather than simply putting girls in boys' adventure narratives (as might ultimately be the case if Star Wars simply adds more female characters), Le Guin, Butler, and Vaughn and Guerra question how (or whether) the boy fits into the narrative, and what happens to masculinity and femininity if you unravel gender and genre together.

The issue, then, I'd argue, is not simply that Star Wars does not have all that many female characters in it. The issue is that Star Wars is, compared to other contemporary sci-fi narratives, incredibly timid in its approach to gender. For that matter, Hollywood sci-fi has mostly avoided the matter entirely. It's not an accident that big cinema's go-to experimental sci-fi creator is Philip K. Dick. Dick is one of my favorite writers in any genre or time period ever. But exploring possibilities or permutations of gender is simply not one of his main areas of interest.

You could certainly argue, I suppose, that the public wants space opera and not gender exploration—Han Solo shooting storm troopers rather than tentacle brain intercourse with aliens. To me, though, looking around, it doesn't seem especially clear that violence sells better than sex. Le Guin and Butler are quite famous and successful. Y: The Last Man was a very popular comic. For that matter, Kirk/Spock slash fiction, which retools Star Trek space adventure as homosexual romance for women, is a successful (albeit semi-underground) phenomenon. And if you don't think fangirls would pay money to see androgynous guys get hot and heavy in a screen adaptation of The Left Hand of Darkness... well, you need to go watch some Torchwood.

There seems reason to believe, then, that sci-fi film's lack of creativity when it comes to gender is more about its own preconceptions than about some inevitable logic of the market. And those preconceptions are often circular: Sci-fi is for guys because guys like sci-fi because sci-fi is for guys. To break that cycle, I think you need not just casting changes, but a broader conception of science-fiction. Adding more female characters to Star Wars would certainly be great, and I'm all for it. But I'm also for different kinds of stories. If you want a future in which women and gender are treated differently, then ultimately I think you have to take a page from Le Guin and Butler, and start imagining differently.

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Noah Berlatsky is a correspondent for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of a forthcoming book on the original Wonder Woman comics.

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