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Masculine Stories, Feminine Stories and Star Wars

In the last day or so I’ve seen an interesting argument pop up again in the Star Wars fandom, namely the idea that the Original trilogy was more ‘masculine’ whereas the Prequel trilogy was more ‘feminine’. I first saw this argument on a The Force Net board for the Prequels:

I’ve been holding the opinion for years that the Prequels are the more “feminine” trilogy while the OT is more “masculine” – not just in regard to representation, but involving their overall feel and character.

The OT was very much defined by Luke’s “father conflict” whereas the Prequels introduced the “mother” and they had a different focus and different sensibilties. The OT deals with Luke and how he has to confront his father in order to bring him back to the good side. The PT deals with Anakin and his challenge of letting go and coming to peace with the natural course of things and loss. It’s, in its basic state, more passive, less confrontational and more “feminine”. The PT also puts a strong focus on the need for diplomacy and trying to avoid war and violence at all costs whereas the OT portrays a period of time in which war and battles have become the only way of solving a conflict. – Force Net Member Samnz

Upon reading Samnz original post I thought there were some interesting insights there but I also disagreed here and there and felt some things required some defining and explaining.

The terms ‘masculine’ and ‘feminine’ are very abstract. There is no one easily recognizable type of masculinity, just like there is not one type of femininity. Gender is very much performative, by which is meant that as a society we have decided to recognize certain actions and forms of behaviour to be masculine or feminine. Naturally this leads to rather restrictive gender definitions and it’s something that is constantly addressed within gender movements such as feminism, since it often also comes with a judgement. This isn’t the space to go into a deep analysis of what gender is, but the idea of gender performativity is definitely interesting in this debate because storylines are very much a victim of the same gendering. Certain storylines are seen as being masculine and others as feminine because of how the main characters act and unfortunately this is often equated with the ideas of ‘active’ and ‘passive’, and even with ‘strong’ and ‘weak’.

The basic plot of the Original Trilogy can be summarized as follows: a young boy goes out into the world and finds glory, wisdom and eventually happiness along the way. Especially around the time the OT came out this was a storyline mainly reserved for male characters because it was a very active role, whereas female characters mainly functioned as passive love interests. This idea of the Hero’s Journey has been at the root of most legends, myths and modern stories, and as the title suggests it is seen as a masculine story. Although I’d argue that this is definitely a flaw, modern cinema has hardly improved upon this. Most of our lead super heroes are men, most of our main characters are (white) men and when a female character is given a main role it’s big news. However, just because a movie may be following a typically “masculine” storyline it does not mean that such a role can only be given to a male character and some brilliant films and novels have had women on a Hero’s journey. It is key to accept that in Star Wars women are always as capable as men and that, as such, the main characters only happen to be male.

Yes, the Original Trilogy fits right alongside everything that is marketed for boys. (Marketing is key in this, but I’ll get back to that below.) It has starships, it has war, it’s set in space and there’s a captive princess. But Lucas is a better story-teller than that. While promoting Strange Magic at the beginning of this year George Lucas got some flack for saying that Star Wars had been ‘designed for 12-year- old boys’ (Page Six). I understood this to mean that Lucas himself was aware of the origins of his story, understanding the traditional role that men were supposed to play in these kinds of narratives. If one really looks at the Original Trilogy, however, it is clear that Lucas subverted much of what was expected from such a traditional story. Not only does Leia run her own rescue operation and a Rebellion, but Luke Skywalker is not your traditional hero. 

In a post earlier this week I outlined what I thought were some of the reasons that people seem to dislike the character of Luke so. Although he is arguably the hero of the Original Trilogy he is no Iron Man. Rather than a cocky fighter, Luke is a young farmboy who doesn’t really know anything of the galaxy. He is sensitive and rash and has a whole lot of emotional growing up to do in the beginning of A New Hope. He is not a very typical Hollywood hero, in that sense, although his story traditionally would require one. The son-father conflict that Samnz refers to above is an example of how Lucas took a masculine theme and changed into something much less restricting. Usually the role of ’emotional saviour’ is reserved for women. They appeal to the villain’s emotional side, bring up memories, even put themselves in danger to bring them back. Not only does this cast women in a passive light, it also continuously suggests men are incapable of emotion. But this is exactly what Luke does in The Return of the Jedi, only without being any less of a man. Luke also manages to defeat the Emperor without fighting, but rather by calling upon his father’s emotions. Similarly, Leia can fall in love without then sacrificing her own storyline or development. So, although the Original Trilogy does have a traditional story, Lucas does not just adhere to the gender stereotypes that are associated with it but creates characters who function outside their traditional gender roles.

So how about the Prequels? In what sense could they be considered more “feminine”? As I said above, the idea of “femininity” is traditionally linked to emotion, to softness and to being passive. In his original post Samnz goes on to discuss the difference between the lovestories of the Original and Prequel Trilogy, highlighting the more emotional side of Anakin Skywalker’s character. For me, the way in which Anakin’s character is written was always one of the highlights of the Prequel Trilogy. He is a male character who is a hero in both traditional and unexpected ways. His story is very much about whether he can be with the one he loves, how he can combine his desire for a family with his career and about his feeling of not being good enough. This, sadly, sounds very much like your average female rom-com. However, in Anakin’s case this is combined with a sense of destiny awaiting, of physical prowess, of warfare and of male camaraderie. Anakin is a very complex character, one whose masculinity is never in question and who is yet allowed to express himself in ways which are traditionally gendered as female. Similarly, we have Padme Amidala, a woman who is struggling with whether she can be with the one she loves, whether she can combine a family with her career, and whether she is doing the right thing. However, alongside this she is also a strong political leader, capable with a blaster and determined. What I am trying to argue here is that the Prequel films, just like the Originals, allow for their characters to be complex, to have both “masculine” and “feminine” character traits and, therefore, be very human. 

With the Prequels Lucas made a trilogy that was a lot more expansive. There were more characters, the narrative stakes were high and the ending was going to have to be dark. The narrative he creates throughout that trilogy is very complex which also very much shows it as a product of its time. Throughout his two Star Wars trilogies George Lucas played with a lot of different storylines, some of which are traditionally seen as masculine and some of which are seen as feminine. The beauty of Star Wars is, however, that in these films those traditional definitions are technically absent. Anakin isn’t more feminine because he has emotions and Luke isn’t more masculine because he worries about his father. What the masses of Star Wars fans show is that these films touch something that is very human and shared by all genders and all races.

Marketing is what really drives the gender gap, suggesting certain things are for boys and others are for girls. The at times terrible marketing of Star Wars products has also often been discussed. This has very much affected how the genders see themselves and what we identify as male and feminine. However, I have seen women enjoy Transformers as much as I have seen men enjoy Titanic, even though I’m sure the producers for both banked on drawing the opposite crowd. Although geeks are often seen as largely male, the Star Wars fandom is pretty equal when it comes to gender. In the end it comes down to what kind of story a director is trying to tell in his films and in the case of Star Wars that is never a tale of strictly gendered behaviour patterns but rather a story about humans. With two of his main characters George Lucas has attempted to portray a masculinity that is not stereotypically tough, strong and void of emotion, but rather one that can encompass both strength and vulnerability, both aggressiveness and kindness. Those who refuse to see a similar character development in Han Solo, a man who starts out interested in only himself and ends up cuddling Ewoks and willing to let the woman he loves walk if that’ll make her happier, might need to watch Star Wars again. The same goes for those who can’t see the strength, determination and emotion that works together perfectly in Padme Amidala’s character.

Although one could identify stronger elements of traditionally masculine or traditionally feminine roles in either of the trilogies, there is no reason too. If you do so in order to explain why you prefer one over the other you might have to ask yourself why you link value with gender. What really matters in the end is that Star Wars is for all of us and that although it might be easy to define certain things alongside gender boundaries there is usually, especially in Star Wars, much more to it than that. The same thing comes back in Star Wars: The Clone Wars and Star Wars: Rebels. No matter what the gender of the character, they have a human story that can be inspiring to everyone. What we have seen of the Sequels and Rogue One so far it seems that Disney will be continuing that.

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6 thoughts on “Masculine Stories, Feminine Stories and Star Wars

  1. Yes, the commenter made that same comment at SWPAS but he was saying it in context to the observation that the Prequels attracted a larger teenage girl fanbase in 1999 onward and one of the reasons why it’s hated so much by mostly “fanboys” (think about Gamergate and the prejudice many girl comic book lovers have to put up with). I too was under the impression that the prequels were more “feminine” because of they’re look and feel. They’re much more visually appealing than the originals and art has always been associated with femininity. But you’re right about the way Star Wars has “uprooted” a lot of traditional gender roles and that’s why it’ll be remembered years from now more than “Iron Man”.

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  2. You know, this would support Paul McDonald’s theory that the closer the Prequel Trilogy reaches its conclusion and edge toward the Original Trilogy, the Saga’s female characters seemed to be pushed toward the background or killed off.

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