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A new study explores the link between costumes, romance and power in Star Wars

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May 4, 2019, 12:01 PM EDT

Power dressing is something that can be considered in a variety of work or duty bound scenarios, whether you are on Earth or in a galaxy far, far away. Over the last 40 years, Star Wars has delivered a number of iconic costumes that emphasize the capabilities and rank of a character without having to utter a word. Costume design, after all, is its own visual language with its own storytelling function. New observations and theories are often uncovered when further detailed exploration is considered.

A recent academic study has revisited the original Star Wars trilogy and the prequels to examine how the romantic narrative impacts the power of Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) and Padmé Amidala (Natalie Portman) via clothes and hairstyling. The study, which appears in the open access journal Fashion and Textiles, argues that “as both women progressed in their romantic relationships, their perceived power decreased, and an increase of objectification through greater skin exposure occurred.”


Credit: Lucasfilm/Disney

Researchers Mary C. King and Jessica L. Ridgway both watched the original trilogy and prequels twice, noting the number of scenes both women appear in and how many costume changes occurred. Leia has nine costumes over 55 scenes, while Padmé has the bigger closet with 34 changes to her 63 scenes. They used predetermined codes relating to the position of power, relationship status, body definition, skin visibility, and hairstyle as part of the data collection process, with additional subcategories such as physical gestures and character age added to help verify their findings. Deleted scenes, the animated series, and the most recent installments were not included; the latter is because only this trilogy was incomplete when this study was conducted.

Using objectification theory (which explores the consequences that result from the sexualization of women) and the male gaze (women are presented with male pleasure as a dominating factor) as a foundation and guide “by observing changes in dress as romantic relationships are introduced and established” they go on to explain that the two methodologies are linked as “objectification theory argues that women will eventually see themselves through the perspective of the male gaze and treat themselves as objects.”

Star Wars

Credit: Getty

The authors explain that Star Wars is often held up as an example of strong women on film, but one particular criticism of the costumes by science fiction author Jeanne Cavelos highlights a potentially problematic area. In “Stop her, she’s got a gun! How the rebel princess and the virgin queen became marginalized and powerless in George Lucas’s fairy tale,” Cavelos states, “Never has a character been so undermined simply by wardrobe.” These comments feature in an essay collection about the Star Wars franchise debating issues ranging from political representations to whether these movies have dumbed down science fiction. Cavelos’ essay argues that the women of this universe are “fundamentally weak” including Leia and Padmé. This thesis and the costume comment specifically are relevant to the exploration of clothing, romance, and representations of power by King and Ridgway.

Costume design informs the audience not only who these characters are, but it also reinforces power dynamics at play. The authors note, “Women’s costumes have a history of emphasizing particular stereotypes of the roles they are portraying,” citing a study about the difference between how revealing male and female costumes are in superhero movies. With Leia and Padmé, the slave bikini and Padmé’s perfectly ripped jumpsuit in Episode II — which transforms it from a one-piece into a crop top and pants — are referenced as part of the decrease in power. When they are introduced in A New Hope and The Phantom Menace (Leia is a princess, Padmé a queen) their costumes reflect these titles, but there is a shift when a love interest is introduced to softer colors and more fitted garments. Hair also factors in, as the tightly wound styles become looser.

Padme Attack of the Clones

Credit: Lucasfilm/Disney

It is an interesting study with some observations I hadn’t previously considered, even if the gold bikini is an obvious case of objectification theory and the male gaze. Leia's military attire is credited — including my Forest Moon of Endor poncho favorite — although the discussion here centers on the lack of formal titles when addressing Leia. I do think there is merit to the overall argument, but Leia's role in this battle is downplayed. 

The researchers themselves mention limitations and areas for future research, which includes the relatively small scope offered by only reviewing the theatrical versions of these six movies. Furthermore, they note the recent trilogy should be examined using the same criteria in the future, as not only is Leia present, but Rey (Daisy Ridley) has a very different trajectory.

I also think close textual analysis, while important in what it reveals, is also limited. A study such as this one, examines the wider impact visual representations have, without examining the broader context. The actual costume designer's (John Mollo, Aggie Guerard Rodgers, Trisha Biggar) influences and references are not considered, nor are other films from the period or which films provided inspiration. This would, of course, involve a different kind of data collection and methodology, but it suggests this is an area that requires further coverage.

A franchise such as Star Wars is going to have a huge impact on other films — they also note that 53 percent of the Star Wars audience is male — which is why studies like this can be helpful, even if they make you feel defensive about beloved characters (as I did when I saw the initial headline).   

In the conclusion, the authors address this, “Although characters such as Padmé and Leia are lauded for being strong, there is still evidence that the characters fall prey to the same statistics pointed out with gender inequality in film. With gender inequality being a frequent topic of discussion in today’s society, it is important to ensure that strong women and objectified women are not confused as being the same.” Hopefully, the shift is already happening as conversations like this continue to be had.

Celebrating Leia and Padmé isn't an issue, but certain aspects can be viewed through a critical eye, including the iconic costumes.    

The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.

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