Star Wars III: Interesting in Unexpected Ways, Yet Awful

Instead of writing a review, I'm reprinting below the abstract for a book chapter my husband and I are co-authoring (our first such venture). Enjoy.

Reading Femininity in Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith

Many critics and fans praise the Star Wars films for their liberalism, particularly as they put forward the Jedi as representatives of an idealized democracy against the evils of imperialism and dictatorship. Whether in terms of character (e.g. Luke vs. Darth Vader in the first film), spiritual path (e.g. Light vs. Dark Side of the Force) or religious orders (e.g. Jedi vs. Sith), the films abound with fodder for structural analysis that aligns the battle of Good vs. Evil with U.S. conceptions of liberal vs. conservative, relative to the films’ respective eras. This is certainly true of the most recent film, Revenge of the Sith (2005), where we clearly side with the Jedi, the Light Side of the Force, Obi-Wan Kenobi, rebel Senators Padmé Amidala and Bail Organa and the ideals of participatory democracy over the Sith, the Dark Side, Senator Palpatine, and those who follow him.

We always know who the bad guys are in Star Wars, even when they struggle. That we are clearly aligned as viewers with liberalism in the third episode of the six-film series is (over) determined by our knowledge that Anakin will fall and become Darth Vader, the supreme villain of the first film (fourth episode). There is an easy invocation of an extreme dictatorship in Revenge of the Sith that will leave all but the most neo-Nazi of viewers identifying with the Jedi. However, today’s conservatives may not recognize the potential send-up of the current U.S. government in Senator-cum-Supreme Chancellor Palpatine and his mindless followers in the Senate and instead find themselves in alliance with the strong “Coalition of the Willing” that is the Jedi Council. Similarly, liberal critique often emerges in reference to the binary in the two sides of the Force. If we superimpose the opposition of Eastern vs. Western religion, we can find traditional Christian perspectives losing out to a western fantasy version of Buddhism or paganism, but the Light Side is arguably rigid and conservative itself.

Furthermore, there are other facets of the films’ reliance on binary oppositions worthy of analysis. Certainly, the pairing of Light vs. Dark as signifiers of Good vs. Evil has strong racial connotations that complicate simple liberal readings. Western history is rife with examples of and lessons in white supremacist use of skin color as determinant of cultural destiny. The dominance of white actors in all major roles throughout the six Star Wars films well illustrates the series’ reliance on the racist opposition of whiteness and blackness. The overt tokenism of Billy Dee Williams’ Lando Calrisian and Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu and the travesty that is Jar Jar Binks only make the films’ racist structure more plain.

At first glance, there appears far less to say about gender in the Star Wars films than race, religion, or political structures. Episodes four through six offer Princess Leia as a “plucky” heroine, arguably a liberal feminist representation. Today’s pop feminist terms, such as Postfeminist and/or Girl Power, well suit Leia, retroactively. She is a young, white woman of privileged class, concerned with beauty and the attention of men; yet she has an independent spirit and take-charge attitude. She is understandably often named the successor to Barbarella and precursor to Ripley (of the Alien film series), Buffy, and Xena.

In the first two episodes (films four and five) of Star Wars, Padmé comes across as remarkably similar to Leia. That the twenty-two years between production of episodes six and four have brought about significant cultural change for women (among other minoritized groups) does not impact the more recent films, though one might argue that they do take place, chronologically speaking, at an earlier time. Regardless of explanation, the transition from Leia to Padmé—like that of Lando Calrisian to Mace Windu—primarily serves to highlight the films’ emphasis on tokenism-as-liberalism.

In Revenge of the Sith, however, we argue that something far more complex happens in terms of gender than in any of the previous films. Most significantly for encouraging this complexity, the women of the film are silenced. The two unnamed female Jedi Council members never speak throughout the film, and both are killed quickly and easily. Moreover, Senator Amidala falls from a role of strategic importance in films one and two to a catalyst for Anakin’s shift to the Dark Side in episode three. As Anakin—the film’s only truly dynamic character—struggles with making sense of clashing worldviews, political turmoil, and personal growth; Padmé is reduced for most of the film to passive object, the doomed vessel of the heroes of the future, waiting in her luxurious rooms in luxurious hairstyles for Anakin to return, gazing out her enormous windows as the world—and the film—passes her by.

We find little more to say about Padmé as a character, and it is not a feminist critique of Padmé that drives this chapter. Instead, we wish to study the result of this silencing of women in Revenge of the Sith. When men dominate all aspects of the film and women are reduced to silence and undignified deaths, gender issues may emerge in unexpected places. Most centrally, we will argue that the silencing of women, combined with forced decisions about character and story arcs that must bring closure between episodes three and four, results in a displacement of “hysterical” and “monstrous” femininity onto the Dark Side of the Force and those connected with it.

In this chapter, we will use various theories of the feminine to explore the relatively subtle trajectories of gender in Star Wars III: Revenge of the Sith. First, we will explore the links between the Dark Side and feminine essentialism. Only the Dark Side, we learn, can give/restore life; and those who embrace the Dark Side become irrational and destructive. We will reveal how these facets and others map onto cultural constructions of womanhood and the feminine. Second, we will consider the crafting of the Jedi through western misinterpretations/oversimplifications of Buddhism, resulting in a hypermasculine credo that eschews the feminine, including traits such as emotional connectedness and desire. Third, we will use Freudian conceptions of feminine identity (as inherently neurotic) in order to study the representation of Senator Palpatine and the Sith in the film. Of particular interest will be Freud’s conception of hysteria. Finally, we will consider Anakin’s character development via the concept of the “monstrous feminine,” paying particular attention to the scene that juxtaposes Padmé giving birth with the “Bride of Frankenstein”-like rebirth of Anakin as Darth Vader.

1 comment:

Stavner said...

I saw this movie with my mother and sister, in part to say goodbye to an important part of my childhood. If they had just cut out the dialogue, it would have been better.