Over the past week or so, a meme has emerged that suggests that the “Star Wars” franchise has, in some way, previously been unfriendly to women. Vulture published a video of lines spoken by female characters other than Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) in the first three films, a rather significant exclusion that doesn’t quite grapple with how closely the movies focus on their core cast.
And on “Good Morning America,” “The Force Awakens” director J.J. Abrams touted the fact that his movie has a female main character (Daisy Ridley) and declared that “‘Star Wars’ was always a boys’ thing and a movie that dads take their sons to, and though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping this could be a movie that mothers could take their daughters to as well … I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and seeing themselves in it and seeing that they’re capable of doing things that they never imagined possible.”
I’m absolutely all for a push to make the “Star Wars” franchise reflect the diversity of the huge galaxy it purports to explore. I was on a panel about “Star Wars” hosted by Reason, the libertarian magazine, last night, and one of the things Reason editor Peter Suderman, Washington Free Beacon executive editor (and Act Four columnist) Sonny Bunch and I discussed was the sheer size and variety of the universe George Lucas created. But there’s something a bit odd about a drive for “Star Wars” to fulfill its potential that ignores the female fans and female characters who have always been there and the very real ways in which “Star Wars” has historically been influenced by genres that are oriented toward women.
It’s not just that Princess Leia is one of the greatest female science fiction or fantasy characters of all time, whether she’s standing up to torture and genocide, brushing off the illusions of her rescuers so she can get down to business, falling in love or choking out a criminal overlord with the very chains he has used to enslave her. Until Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), the young Jedi who believes he’s alone in the universe, finds out that he has a sister, the “Star Wars” movies are structured at least in part like a romance novel.*
In between coordinating a major political and military movement, Leia, the worthy female character audiences are meant to identify with, spends a fair amount of her time trying to choose between two suitors for her hand. There’s Luke, the young seeker who is quick to adopt Leia’s political ideals — in part because they fulfill his craving for a special destiny — and Han Solo (Harrison Ford), a more mature, experienced operator, but one who’s more skeptical of the Rebellion that is Leia’s life’s work and that has cost her so much.
This is a durable storytelling model, one that has animated stories as revered as “Pride and Prejudice” and as derided as “Twilight.” It’s also a structure oriented toward the drama of emotions and domestic life. Sure, there’s an Empire to be defeated and Death Stars to be shot down. But even if the problems of three little people don’t amount to a hill of beans in this crazy galaxy, the original “Star Wars” movies consistently make time for Han to plant a smooch on Leia in the middle of an asteroid field or for him to tell Leia that he just wants her to be happy even if that means she’ll be with Luke rather than with him.
These are the elements of “Star Wars” that make it a human story and a grown-up one. It’s not just a film about funny robots and weird aliens, or a clash between an authoritarian Empire and a scrappy Rebellion, each defined by little more than their top-dog and underdog roles. We want Han, Luke, Leia and eventually Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) to be able to live in freedom and safety. And even if the Rebellion lacks a political program, Han and Luke’s growing investment in the movement, facilitated by Princess Leia, makes us see its value, if only as an agent of their personal growth.
The “Star Wars” prequels, sadly, lack the snappy screwball romance sensibility that animated the original trilogy. And Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman), the queen-turned-senator of Naboo who takes on the Leia role in those films, is a soggy substitute. But if the romance between her and Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen, saddled with deeply horrendous dialogue) doesn’t have the crackle that animated Leia’s relationships with Han and Luke, the prequels are still balanced between the public and private spheres.
It’s Anakin Skywalker’s concern for his mother, Shmi (Pernilla August), that leads him on his first step toward the dark side of the Force. His public obligations as a Jedi-in-training conflict with his private attachment to Padmé, and after they’re married, his anxieties about her pregnancy nudge Anakin closer toward forbidden exercises of his powers; he hopes to prevent her, and anyone else he loves, from ever dying. When Anakin and Padmé’s marriage fractures, it’s over political differences: Padmé believes that Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid), who has become Anakin’s mentor, is dangerous, while Anakin believes that he and Palpatine will rule more effectively than the democratic institutions Palpatine has abolished.
Taken together, the three prequels are the story of a republic’s fall. But once again, this political transition is animated and given emotional resonance through the story of a marriage. “Star Wars” hasn’t always executed its central realization successfully. But part of what makes the franchise notable, durable and mature is the way it acknowledges how political passions can play into characters’ private lives and the way it makes characters’ private and romantic lives meaningful expressions of galactic political conflicts.
By all means, I hope the new “Star Wars” movies continue to employ this insight and to give us great romantic relationships as well as great female characters (and characters of color). But Abrams and the other directors who contribute to the franchise really ought to acknowledge that if they do these things, they’re hardly the first “Star Wars” storytellers to do so. They don’t need to tell us that “Star Wars” is a great romance novel as well as a great space opera. We know.
*And this isn’t even to mention Dave Wolverton’s Expanded Universe novel “The Courtship of Princess Leia,” in which Han, worried that Leia is going to make a political marriage to a hunky prince who represents a consortium of fabulously wealthy planets, kidnaps her, tries (poorly) to cook her dinner and crashes the Millennium Falcon on a planet occupied by Force-sensitive witches. Spoiler: They get married.