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Star Wars films broken down by women's speaking roles is revealing and depressing

Contributed by
Jun 1, 2018

Women love Star Wars. Women have always loved Star Wars. A whole generation of girls came of age as geeks thanks to Princess Leia. It would be downright foolish of anyone to pretend that the immense cultural influence Star Wars has had on our entertainment landscape could have happened without the fandom of women. Now that we're in a new age of Star Wars, and a whole new generation of girls get to experience that first flush of sci-fi passion, the cycle has begun anew. Only now, the girls who grew up with the original films are finding their critical gaze falls more harshly on things they love.

Dr. Rebecca Harrison, a professor of film and television studies at the University of Glasgow, spent 48 hours editing down nine Star Wars films (Solo was not screening at the time) to include just the lines spoken by female characters. The most female-dominant film in the series was The Last Jedi, with 43%, while the weakest-showing came in with A New Hope at a mere 15%. She noted that the three films made under the Disney banner did pass the Bechdel-Wallace Test (but only barely). While she didn't gender creatures like porgs, she did emphasize how most of the Star Wars universe is already heavily gendered and in favor of maleness, especially with droids. Even films where women were front and center couldn’t scrape it past the 50% point. As the prequels go on, the women are given less screen time, despite the fact that Padme Amidala becomes a key character in the narrative. Harrison's next project will be to calculate the speaking roles of black women in the series, which she admits will lead to "a depressingly low stat."

The practice of editing popular films to show the vast disparities in gender and racial representation is nothing new. The Every Single Word series on Tumblr and YouTube, created by Welcome to Night Vale star Dylan Marron, featured video edits of popular films and franchises, focusing on all the lines spoken by people of color. The series mostly covers awards favorites and critical darlings, but it was the Harry Potter video that caught the most attention. As noted by Marron, out of 1207 minutes of run-time, across eight movies, only 6 minutes and 40 seconds of dialogue is spoken by people of color (and infamously, the character of Lavender Brown, previously portrayed by a black girl, became white once she had a heavier involvement in the plot). The sliver of representation in the films covered also highlighted how actors of color are given little to do beyond stereotypical roles, like maid or slave or sassy best friend.

What projects like Harrison and Marron's do is force audiences to confront something that many of them — or, at least, the white male ones — either weren't aware of or didn't see as that big a problem: that representation on the big screen has come a long way, but it still has far to go. These studies also ask the obvious questions, like why are the heroes more likely to be male and white than anything else? Even in Star Wars, a universe populated with the most incredible array of aliens and droids, the humans are typically the same demographic we see across the board in science fiction. Isn't it all horribly unimaginative to create a planet where women are less visible than robots, and even they're coded as masculine?

Harrison digs into the nuances of female representation in Star Wars. Certain women get to be front and center, like Leia and Rogue One's Jyn Erso, but often they're placed as reaction shots for men speaking or driving the action. Padme is the one who suffers most, being, as Harrison writes, "quite often just kind of 'there'." Ideas of gender neutrality are discussed by Harrison as well, such as whether the Mynocks could be considered gender neutral since they're parasites who reproduce by splitting in two. That even including porgs in the edits can't get a single one of them past 50% speaks volumes to the notion of maleness as the default gender across the board.

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It doesn’t seem all that surprising that the top three Star Wars films by women’s representation are the three most recent movies made since the Disney acquisition. Misogynists can't get enough of telling us what an SJW travesty it is to see women clogging up the screen in their favorite franchise, even when, as Harrison notes, the results still aren't ideal. Jyn Erso is the undeniable star of Rogue One, but she's usually the only woman on-screen and is surrounded by men. Women don’t have many conversations with one another in these movies, which is a notable side-effect of having your female lead be the only one of her kind in the story. The Last Jedi made incredible strides thanks to the expansion of Rey's role, more involvement from Leia and the introductions of Rose Tico and Vice-Admiral Holdo. Irate fanboys may call it a feminist conspiracy, but bringing in more women is just good business, not to mention a vast improvement for storytelling purposes.

Tests and studies like this are not intended as a sweeping indictment of the films themselves. Noting how paltry female representation is in A New Hope is not a slam on the character of Leia or the ways she frequently subverts notions of the princess in distress. These sorts of experiments, similarly to the Bechdel-Wallace Test, are designed to start conversations and note how deeply ingrained these patterns are in the most powerful entertainment force on the planet. It’s taken until now for the Star Wars franchise to come close to gender parity, but even then, it’s mostly white women who are getting that shine.

For many of us, Star Wars holds so much power and influence over the way we consider and consume geek culture. It remains one of the most beloved franchises on the planet, and chances are Disney will keep making new movies for the foreseeable future. Dr. Harrison's work, and that of similar projects, is a helpful reminder that it matters when we see ourselves in the media we love.