Space Bitches, Witches, and Kick-Ass Princesses: Star Wars and Popular Feminism

Regular readers may remember my call for testimonials from other Star Wars fans, in which I asked ‘is Star Wars a boys’ club?’. The result of this research is now available as ‘Space Bitches, Witches, and Kick-Ass Princesses: Star Wars and Popular Feminism’, a chapter in a new edited collection.

You can read the chapter in full at this link, where it is available courtesy of the Utrecht University Open Access fund.

Read an excerpt of the chapter below:

Over the past few years, the Star Wars franchise has been widely praised for its feminism—especially since its acquisition by Disney in 2012. New heroes like Jyn Erso and Rey are hailed as feminist triumphs not just for Star Wars, but for mainstream entertainment more broadly. New characters aimed at a new generation of fans, like Rebels’s pink-clad fighter-cum-artist, Sabine Wren, and new novels devoted to existing characters like Leia Organa and Ahsoka Tano (from the animated series The Clone Wars),[1]are often cited by mainstream news outlets as part of a growing commitment to female characters, and to feminism by association. Likewise, thanks partly to its alliance with Disney’s princess powerhouse, the marketing force of Star Wars can now be felt as strongly in female-targeted sectors (make-up, fashion, dolls) as it is outside of them.[2]Does all of this mean, as one reviewer put it, that starting with The Force Awakens, Star Wars “finally awakens to a feminist world”?[3]Such assertions have certainly rubbed some long-time fans the wrong way—after all, women have made up a significant and vocal portion of the Star Wars fanbase from the beginning.[4]Moreover, one source’s assessment of what constitutes a “feminist world” (and of who is responsible for building it) is often fundamentally different from another’s.

As one fan commented, “I’m sure that people went ‘Wow!’ when they saw the first female Jedi in the prequels. The fanfic of the 1970s had women Jedi all the time and women smugglers. Nothing new there for the older fans.”[5]Will Brooker has also argued that the original female fans made the franchise their own through grassroots community-building, crafting, and fanfiction.[6]In other words, their fandom is built on free engagement with the storyworld, and many do not feel a strong need to be validated or greeted as consumers of licensed merchandise.[7]Fan activity, of course, is not an official part of the franchise, and the kinds of stories that are sanctioned as canonical can certainly have a significant impact on a storyworld’s feminist potential. While Leia’s example is a powerful one, and although there are certainly more female role models in the franchise now than there were in 1977, can we call these official Star Wars products—the films, the franchise itself—feminist?

Design © 2016 by Hayley Gilmore.

Broadly speaking, feminists believe in and advocate social and political gender equality, but as Mary Hawkesworth points out, feminism is “a collective noun,” with many interpretations and aims.[8]As this statement indicates, what it means to experience Star Wars as a female fan, and what it means for Star Wars to be feminist, are questions too big for this chapter. The topic of Star Wars and feminist discourse could fill volumes—and indeed, several academic journals and books have already devoted attention to the subject. Rather than trying to condense a rich discussion of feminism in Star Wars into just a handful of pages, then, I offer a few examples from very different corners of the Star Wars storyworld. They illustrate some of the diverse “interpretations and aims” of feminist discourse that are created by the complex interplay between fans and the multi-authored, media-industrial franchise that is Star Wars. First I will look at discourses of feminism and the representation of women in Star Wars, paying special attention to the stories outside of the films. Then I will explore the way the storyworld’s non-narrative paratexts—toys, clothes, and merchandising—impact its engagement with feminist discourse. Finally, I will look at some of the ways in which fans and storytellers have politicized Star Wars, and what this may tell us about the future of the franchise. These examples will also provide a brief but informative glimpse at the history of Star Wars’s engagement with feminist discourse, and the wealth of material still to be explored. One thing is certain: Star Wars is not just for boys, nor has it ever been. But the question of whether Star Wars is feminist has been controversial throughout its forty-year history.

Read the rest of the chapter here, in the Open Access version of Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling, eds. Sean Guynes and Dan Hassler-Forest (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2017), pp. 225-240.


[1]Claudia Gray, Bloodline (London: Random House, 2016); E. K. Johnston, Ahsoka (Glendale, CA: Disney Book Group, 2016).

[2]Lisa Richwine, “Disney’s ‘Star Wars’ Marketing Force Reaches for Female Fans,” Reuters, December 15, 2015, http://uk.reuters.com/article/us-film-starwars-women-analysis-idUKKBN0TX1J720151215.

[3]Michael Roddy, “Star Wars: The Force Finally Awakens to a Feminist World,” DNA India and Reuters, December 16, 2015, http://www.dnaindia.com/entertainment/report-star-wars-the-force-finally-awakens-to-a-feminist-world-2156317.

[4]As one famous Star Wars fanzine essay asks, “If there are men in media fandom, they’re certainly very quiet. To turn about a feminist phrase then, why is half the human race so poorly represented in Star Wars and other media fandoms?” Pat Nussman, “Where the Boys Are,” in Alderaan: The Star Wars Letterzine, vol. 15 (Toledo, OH: Kzinti Press, 1981), 2.

[5]Tish Wells, private e-mail correspondence, November 14, 2016.

[6]See Will Brooker, Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans (Bloomsbury Publishing, 2002), 199–220.

[7]Jonathan Gray, Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (NYU Press, 2010), 17.

[8]Mary E. Hawkesworth, Globalization and Feminist Activism (Oxford: Rowman & Littlefield, 2006), 25.

Store Wars: 40 Years of Star Wars Merchandise

fullsizeoutput_13b3Earlier this month I paid a visit to the Museum of the 20th Century in Hoorn. Seven years living in the Netherlands wasn’t enough to get me there, but my current research on Star Wars marketing—and the opportunity to gawk at some retro toys—finally made the trip worth my while. From 19 November 2016 through 29 October 2017, the museum is hosting a special exhibition called ‘Store Wars: 40 Years of Merchandise’, focused specifically on the Star Wars franchise.

In a number of different ways, the Museum of the 20th Century feels like a place out of time—making it especially fitting, I suppose, to host merchandise from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. It’s built in a former prison, which itself is located at the edge of a peninsula on the far side of town. I arrived in Hoorn on a Sunday, when Dutch villages tend to be at their emptiest, and was also one of the first people into the museum when it opened at noon. The Star Wars exhibition was clearly the main attraction, advertised on numerous posters and banners in the walk up to the museum, and it was the first exhibit immediately visible once you made it past the ticket office. Ever the contrarian, however, I decided to take a look at the permanent exhibit upstairs before taking the more obvious route.

The museum has an imposing silhouette.
The museum has an imposing silhouette.

Essentially, the first section Museum of the 20th Century consists of a series of cordoned-off living and bedroom spaces, each decorated in the style of a different decade. Comically, most of the visitors to the museum seemed to have lived in similar spaces themselves, and much of the conversation I overheard involved one person pointing out a particular object of childhood nostalgia to another person. This portion of the museum gave way to an entire indoor village, with shop windows displaying retro products, and finally to ‘communications technology’, ‘toys’, and ‘home electronics’ sections that simply display a range of products next to each other, in chronological order.  Here I discovered some particularly horrifying devices that my own childhood in the ’90s didn’t include (1980s: did you actually ever use the electric meat-carving knife?). Overall it was a strange experience, in some ways out of time, but also very much defined by a present-day outlook on the recent past.

On the top floor of the museum I also stumbled across the first room of the Star Wars exhibition, devoted to all the franchise’s collaborations with the LEGO company. In large glass cases the museum had set up assembled versions of seemingly every single Star Wars LEGO set released since 1999. In the centre of the room were several full tubs of generic LEGO that visitors could use to make their own museum pieces. The room’s only other occupants—two children, a boy and a girl—raced each other from exhibit to exhibit to name all of the characters, ships, and locations from the Star Wars universe. Although I happen to be an amateur LEGO Star Wars collector myself, I was more interested in the older toys and merchandise, so I made my way downstairs to check out the exhibition proper.

‘Store Wars’ filled two large rooms in the museum, both decorated with life-size models clearly made by the locals, and illuminated by a dazzling, colour-shifting array of strobe lights that made me feel like I actually was back in the ’80s. Over the speakers, Star Wars theme music, lines from the films, and the audio from various advertising campaigns played continuously but unobtrusively—just enough to get me into the spirit of the exhibition. The first room was largely dominated by a low case full of the complete line of (unboxed!) Kenner action figures, originally sold between 1978 and 1985. The rest of the room was devoted to the original trilogy, and its first memorabilia. In addition to the Kenner figures, the walls were lined with some of the other early merchandise, including soap cakes, model X-Wings, and a few great examples of early Dutch-language boxes and advertising. Just off this room was a homemade replica of the Millennium Falcon bridge, with video from various Star Wars flight simulator games playing through the viewscreens.

The second room followed Star Wars merchandising into the late 1980s, and through the release of the prequel trilogy at the turn of the millennium. Highlights included Darth Vader roller skates, Chewbacca high-tops, and a few famous signatures. There were also a number of life-size figures that demanded a selfie or two—some because they were so iconic, others because they fell a bit short of the mark. Towards the end of the room I took the opportunity to see how I measured up, literally, to some of the major characters in the films, using a Star Wars height chart pasted on the wall, and the very end of the exhibition featured a children’s play area with a selection of Star Wars costumes and props to try on. Overall the exhibition had a good mix of things to look at, but also things to interact with, making it a brief but entertaining experience for the child in everyone.

There was very little from the two most recent Star Wars films (understandable given when this exhibition must have been planned and set up), but the cinema adjacent to the museum was advertising Rogue One premiere screenings, and it seemed like members of the Dutch branch of the 501st Legion—an international fan organisation—were going to be in attendance. The Dutch 501st was also present for the ‘Store Wars’ exhibition’s grand opening. The exhibition also seemed to pitch itself to male Star Wars fans. Most of the children’s costumes at the end of the exhibition were of male-coded characters, and the child’s bedroom exhibition that was part of the second room was labelled ‘A boy’s room from around 1980’. Like the franchise itself, though, it certainly wasn’t gender exclusive: while I was there I saw men and women, boys and girls pass through in equal numbers.

My only real complaint was in the gift shop, which had a range of Star Wars merchandise (mostly LEGO), but very little for the visitor on a budget. I would happily have bought some postcards, a magnet, patch, or pin, but the €40 BB-8 bomber jacket, though fabulous, was a bit above my current means. Ironic for an exhibition on a franchise that literally had a product in every market and price range, but perhaps understandable for a small museum in Hoorn.

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I would have bought this bumper sticker in a heartbeat

The verdict? ‘Store Wars: 40 Years of Merchandise’ is definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in the area. It may be small, but it was clearly assembled with love, and is packed to the rafters with Star Wars memorabilia. Be sure to bring a native along for the ride, though—all the plaques are in Dutch!