UCL’s Star Wars Class #9: The Female Core of Star Wars: Shmi, Padme, Leia & Rey

The female characters in Star Wars have always been the subject of discussion and sometimes controversy. Whether it was Leia’s ‘metal bikini slave outfit’ or Padme’s ‘death by losing the will to live’, there are plenty of fans and outsiders willing to defend very strong views on these. Was Leia’s costume a fall back into female oppression? Was Padme’s fate a depiction of gendered weakness? I will argue here is that the Star Wars Hexalogy tells a story of liberation of the feminine by the female in a very profound way.

Rey: A Scavenger

At the time I am writing this we know very little about Rey, except that she figures quite centrally in the marketing of The Force Awakens.  Part of the little that we know however is that this young woman, who is very much searching for who she is, is nevertheless fierce as a warrior, yet innocent. This is a combination she shares with Leia, with Padme and also with Shmi.

There is little we can say about Rey at the moment other than that she seems set to continue a storyline that goes all the way back to Shmi Skywalker. It is a critical element of the Hexalogy and it will be the focus of these notes.

Leia: Balanced, strong and Free

The last dialogue we hear of Leia in the Original Trilogy is with Han Solo. Han is a very insecure character here, although the Death Star has just been destroyed making the mission a success what weighs on his heart is the question what his place is life now is. With Leia? Or on the sidelines? When you watch Leia’s facial expressions you see a huge amount of warmth, a tremendous amount of confidence and balance. Leia has arrived in a very good place by the end of Return of the Jedi.

Many writers viewed Leia’s development as retrograde, interpreting her ‘softening’ as the character being moved back from a more independent and stronger stance towards a more dependent and ‘stereotypically female’ gendered role. I think this is not just a gross misreading of what actually happens, but it is actually revealing the misogyny in the viewer that the criticism projects into the film.

In the Battle of Endor Leia is every bit as much a warrior as she is during A New Hope, she is every bit as strong, as determined and as forceful as before. But indeed she has been developing new and different qualities as we see her transform through Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. However those qualities are add-ons and not substitutes for the qualities she already owned. Nowhere in Return of the Jedi is there a suggestion she no longer is a fierce warrior, while there is plenty to remind us that she still is.

In her enslaved state chained at the feet of Jabba the Hutt, Leia liberates herself while using the tools of her suppression to rid herself of the slaver that put her there. Leia frees herself, as she did in A New Hope and as she did in Empire Strikes Back . In A New Hope there was this extremely bold toughness that defied any notion of fear when facing Vader (unlike Vader’s own minions who were trembling), that encouraged her to confront Tarkin with nothing but scorn and offense, while seeking Han’s ambrace of the Rebel’s cause by nearly bullying him into it. In Empire Strikes Back she learns that holding back sometimes achieves more and her treatment of Lando is more merciful, fortunately, than it would have been during A New Hope. Our view of ESB is often focussed on Luke’s training and learning experience, but Leia’s in in no way less dramatic nor less important. One fruit this bears during Return of the Jedi is her ability to connect with the Ewoks, in particular with Wicket. Something that will prove crucial for the outcome of the Battle of Endor after the Ewoks have responded to Leia’s compassionate and friendly advances by welcoming them as part of their tribe. Leia has learned not just how to bond different people together, but she appears more nurturing and more compassionately caring than before.

Leia’s inner imbalance

Leia starts out as a ‘princess’ wearing ‘hair buns’ and ‘dresses’. Hence in her first depictions she is adorned with all the stereotypical female regalia. Unlike Katniss Everdeen of the Hunger Games trilogy, Leia is never depicted as being ‘dressed up’ to emphasize her femininity or as being asked to play a ‘female’ role. Nowhere in A New Hope (nor in later Star Wars) will you come across a statement that describes her feminine appearance as being in conflict with her martial behaviour. Nowhere is her sex an issue. However her role as ‘princess’, especially in the pointed way Han uses that word, and her dress and hairstyle they appear very superficial. Leia clearly is female but the hallmarks of that femininity seem almost only there for the outside world. The first time we see her in A New Hope she ends up killing a Storm Trooper … it are the Storm Troopers that ‘set for stun’. The first time she faces Vader, she is utterly fearless and courageously confrontational but her people skills are appalling really, irrespective of whether a friendly word would have had any effect on Vader or Tarkin.

The Leia of A New Hope is adorned with the visual and stereotypical tributes of a woman but they are almost completely exterior. As a human being she seems imbalanced, not capable of much warmth or compassion. When Luke sees her holo-projection for the first time he exclaims that ‘she is beautiful’. He interprets her as being in trouble and in need of help. In his mind Leia’s exterior has evoked a ‘damsel in distress’ impression. His response shows all the male prejudices about the female, though not from mal-intent, but merely as unquestioned assumptions. Little does he know that his ‘rescue-operation’ would have turned into an unmitigated disaster were it not for Leia’s capable exercise of taking the rescue into her own hands.

Part of Han and Luke’s inability to properly connect with Leia during A New Hope and part of Empire Strikes Back is exactly because they see her primarily as female, with the associated stereotypes, yet are incapable of equating that with the personality they find in front of them. Between Leia and Han this starts to change during their bickering while on the run for Vader’s forces, between Leia and Luke this changes, after Luke’s defeat and limb loss on Bespin, Leia is the one that comforts him. This is not Leia slipping into a stereotypical role, this is Leia discovering something in her own character that she thought she had lost, or had no use for, in the harsh fight against the Empire. Empire closes on an affectionate note between the two.

Leia takes up new titles

There is a crucial dialogue in Return of the Jedi between Luke and Leia. I guess most people view this as a key scene because Luke reveals to Leia what he found out about Darth Vader’s parenthood. But it is remarkable to see that the manner in which this happens tells a much more subtle story.

We know what Luke wants to say: he wants to tell her about his father being also her father. Yet that is not how he starts out. He begins by asking about their mother and we hear that Leia has ‘force impression’-like memories of her while Luke has none. His question suddenly reveals that Leia (which was of course obvious) also has an identity as a ‘daughter’. A gendered role with all its complexities and issues. A role that so far played no role in the story but whose explicit recognition restores something deep inside Leia. She is carrying something inside of her that deeply connects her to the female line of Star Wars, the memories of her mother are a reflection of the femininity that has been passed on to her. A femininity that has slowly been coming to the surface of her character in Empire strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Now it is spoken out aloud.

Interestingly Luke does not use this part of the dialogue to connect to Leia by stating they share a mother. Instead the conversation focusses on his lineage from Darth Vader as father and son. Though Padme was not a visible part of the Original Trilogy the implication here nevertheless seems evident: Something has passed from father to son just like something has passed from mother to daughter. When Luke finally is ready to acknowledge that they are sharing these burdens he does not do so by saying to Leia, ‘he is your father too’. Rather he acknowledges it by calling her his sister. Another title is bestowed upon Leia’s character by this scene, that of ‘sister’. It is another gendered role which, in our daily lives, comes with all kinds of complexities and issues (as do the roles of son and brother of course). All of this is set in the softness and dark blue coolness of night. It is a moment of reflection for both characters, not enflamed in uncontrollable emotion but in open acceptance.

Where did this come from?

Leia’s arc ends with her being a completed character who has not only accepted the kindness, compassion and love that her character is truly capable of, but who has found a way of doing so without the need to give up on all those character traits that made her the fierce warrior we met in the opening sequences of A New Hope. If anything, she has grown into a more competent human being as a result. The fact that some critics could only see that as a ‘loss’ and as a diminishing role shows just how gender-biased their perceptions of Leia’s character really were. There is no fundamental conflict between being a caring and compassionate woman and being a fierce and skilled warrior except in the mind of some viewers.

But why was Leia so unbalanced at the start of the Original Trilogy? Had she had a tough childhood on Alderaan? Was it the pain of never having known her mother? The torment of the strife and civil war during her youth? A traditional psychological explanation might seek to explore such avenues. But within Star Wars we are dealing with myth and the state of our characters reflects something of the state of the world. Leia’s world in A New Hope is dominated by males. It is the era of The Empire where female officers are not to be seen. The most feminine character we meet, Beru Lars, is stuck on a Planet that is the one farthest away from the bright centre of the Universe. Femininity is conspicuously absent in forms other than, for example, dancers is club’s like Jabba’s.

How did this happen? The in my view crucial scene to understand what has happened is the last scene in the Prequel Trilogy in which we see large numbers of females.

No matter where you stop that 45 second sequence of Padme’s funeral from Revenge of the Sith, the number of females in the image ranges from just a few to the majority. Interestingly the one character most people presume to be male that gets a ‘centre of frame’ shot is Jar Jar. Yet Jar Jar Binks not only shares many of ‘feminine qualities’ such as being caring, innocent and loyal, not only is he actually Padme’s successor in the Senate but as an amphibian the connection to being gender-fluid is also an interesting one. But more importantly the sequence clearly emphasizes the queen who succeeds Padme, her little sister, her handmaidens and plenty of females in the background. As a result of this being seemingly above the ‘Hollywood norm’ of 17% females in a crowd the whole scene gets a distinctly feminine ‘feel’.

To me the message seems clear: Padme’s death and funeral are not merely the death and funeral of a particular character. What is being carried to the grave here is femininity in the Galaxy. All those qualities that we associate with this word, whether it are connotations of beauty, fertility, caring, compassion or nurturing … they are all lost to the Galaxy in that final sequence of Revenge of the Sith. With Padme also the beauty of the Naboo’s design, the green lushness of its fields and forests, the compassion of the Republic, etc, it all comes crashing down and has fallen apart. It will not return in this way until we are on that Sanctuary Moon of Endor. All that remains of it is an impression in the soul of a very small girl: Leia, Padme’s daughter … the only one who carries that memory.

Padme: Rebel in a disrupted Universe

Padme Amidala’s character goes through an arc which has been equally criticized as Leia’s in the press. Many see Padme as a strong warrior like character in The Phantom Menace and feel that by the time Revenge of the Sith has ended she has died as a weak character who could not even be bothered to live for the sake of her children. However that is, in my view, taking an overly ‘psychological’ or ‘moralistic’ view of her rather than understanding and appreciating her mythological depiction.

Padme does not die simply because she has given up. Her Death is much closer in spirit to the waning of the light of the Elves in Lord of the Rings under the evil influence of Sauron’s presence. When we view her role in the deleted scenes of Revenge of the Sith where she, Bail, Mon Mothma and other Senators discuss the emergence of a Rebel Alliance, it is clear that she is not ‘weak’ or ‘powerless’ nor someone who has ‘given up’. But what she sees around her is terrifying. Not just because it is her confidante and advisor Palpatine who seems to be at the heart of the rot in the Republic, also her ‘rebel’ friends do not realize that what they are preparing for is another war.

What Padme witnesses is how the binding life-force of the galaxy, things like ‘trust’, ‘compassion’ and ‘caring’ are giving way to the brute politics of power, greed and violence. It is not a simple matter of males v.s. females as we see this nascent Rebel Alliance is discussed in a gender-parity committee. As I said previously, this is not about sex. But here is Padme literally and figuratively pregnant with the Galaxy’s future. But her present is a world that is increasingly hostile against this future, it is a world where violence and the corruption by power have taken over. The Jedi have become, as Bariss Offee warned a few months earlier, an army of Darkness so far removed from the light it once held so dear. Yet even those forces that conspire to fight this darkness have themselves become instruments of exactly that. Bariss commits an act of terror to wake-up her fellow Jedi, the Senate plots Rebellion and, as only Padme seems to realize, civil war. Even the Jedi, and even Anakin, are consumed by thoughts that seem to point to violence as the answer to all problems.

Padme know it is not, she knows it is the cause of most of the problems. She complains that the war is a result of a failure to listen yet that only invites scorn and even suspicion. She is unable to halt the Republic’s fateful march into destruction, a catastrophe that wipes out all that is precious to life except in a few small pockets … on Tatooine, on Alderaan and in Padme’s womb.

With Padme’s death, an irreplaceable loss for the Galaxy and the Republic, an era comes to an end. Padme’s death signifies the death not just of a person but of a whole class of traits, virtues and capacities that we regularly equate with the feminine. Her death is not a ‘plot hole’ but a dark abyss from which there is almost no hope of recovery. Balance cannot be restored to the Galaxy merely by destroying the Sith, somehow what Padme passes on to her daughter must come to flourish before balance becomes conceivable again.

Shmi: Balanced, strong and yet oppressed

Padme’s death drives Anakin over the edge. Especially his strong sense of guilt for her death is what compounds his already strong sense of guilt over the death of his mother. Shmi Skywalker is a remarkable character. Not only does she form the root of the entire Skywalker narrative, as there was no father, but she also embodies all those qualities and virtues that Padme struggles to uphold and maintain, all those that Leia struggles to recapture for herself without giving up her fighting spirit. Shmi is not a warrior, her warmness, kindness, nurturing spirit is not tainted by the stain of violence and guilt. Yet she is not free! Shmi’s life is a life under siege in which the only thing she might consider ‘her own’, her son Anakin’ is not only also enslaved by Watto but also swept away to the Jedi Temple by fate.

When you watch Anakin’s farewell scene as a parent you cannot avoid to notice the almost super-human strength in Shmi. It is not an inhuman strength, she is not forcing Anakin to do anything. But it shows resilience in doing what she knows is the right sacrifice to make that requires great mental and emotional strength and balance. Every bit of the way she is nurturing and fostering Anakin, a role that Padme takes on herself for her people. Yet Padme is a child of her time who feels the need to somehow combine this part of her with the warrior-role she feels she needs to take on as well.

For Padme the mantle of power as queen comes with the need to disguise. She cannot rule and serve at the same time, she cannot show kindness and nurture with one hand, yet carry the sword with another. Only at the end can she unmask herself as someone in this difficult dilemma. In her relationship with Anakin she also takes the initiative in trying to achieve that difficult balance. She is confined not by gender-roles as much as by tensions between her private feelings and her professional responsibilities. Yet she is ‘free’ to a significant extent to explore the boundaries and walk the fine lines. Not Shmi.

Shmi is a slave. And like Luke first sees Leia as helpless and in need of rescue, so does little Ani think his mom needs him to come back to save her. Again, without any bad intentions but it is just the way he sees it. He fails to recognise Shmi is, despite being enslaved, able to influence her own fate. When he finds her again, Shmi is free and loved. She did that, off screen, we only hear part of the story. Married and freed … well sometimes the path to freedom does not lead through the forests of violence and war but across the lakes of love. It was a liberation that Shmi was capable of, she was not a warrior but she was resilient, hopeful and had a deeply loving heart. Yet she lives in a Galaxy where good things don’t necessarily last. When Anakin finds her, she is just seconds from death. She loses her life but remains, in her own words, complete.

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Shmi to Leia: full circle

Six films later Leia can look at her world, with as much confidence and love as Shmi once did. She has the same degree of knowing what is right, of knowing what sacrifice means while at the same time valuing and appreciating life over power. The Hexalogy seems to have returned to its starting point as far as the fate of femininity is concerned in the Galaxy, but with one crucial difference. Where unfortunately Shmi’s path to freedom ended in the harsh reality of death in an unforgiving universe, Leia has liberated herself in the process, a process in which she helmed that much larger liberation movement for the entire Galaxy. She has done so building and growing to balance from that spark that was passed on to her through the darkness of the end of Revenge of the Sith. Leia is complete too, like Shmi, … but free.

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