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

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.

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Noah Berlatsky is a contributing writer for The Atlantic. He edits the online comics-and-culture website The Hooded Utilitarian and is the author of the forthcoming book Wonder Woman: Bondage and Feminism in the Marston/Peter Comics, 1941-1948.

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