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.

Disability and the Victorians

Scouts at the Guild of the Brave Poor Things. © Brave and Poor Ltd

When we think of ‘the Victorians’, we’re actually often thinking of a very specific group of people.

This is a usually a representational issue. White, upper-class, able-bodied people are the ones we see in most photographs of ‘the Victorians’ (though not all). These are ‘the Victorians’ most often depicted on-screen, or written about in neo-Victorian fiction.

If these are the ‘typical’ Victorians in our view, what was it like to be an atypical Victorian?

In posterity, the Victorians are not known for their kindness towards those who were ‘different’. Freak shows and asylums spring readily to mind—and these were also a part of the equation. The historical reality is (as always) more complicated, however. Looking at the daily lives of the disabled in the Victorian era, Historic England has the following to say:

In 1848 a religious advice pamphlet observed: “Some boys laugh at poor cripples when they see them in the street. Sometimes we meet a man with only one eye, or one arm, or one leg, or who has a humpback. How ought we to feel when we see them? We ought to pity them.”

The writer had a sting in the tail for the jeering boys. While cripples might be made “bright and beautiful” by God on judgement day, wicked able-bodied children who laughed at them could be “burned in a fire that will never be put out”. These were the ambivalent Victorian attitudes towards disability—a combination of fear, pity, discomfort and an idea of divine judgement.

This is not, on the whole, a positive perspective.

In practice the situation was a bit more optimistic. The Victorian era was, after all, the birth of the British welfare state:

There were charitable bodies for the blind, the ‘deaf and dumb’, ‘lunatics’, ‘idiots’, ‘epileptics’ and ‘the deformed’. They offered education (Association for the Oral Instruction of the Dumb), work (Liverpool Workshops and Home Teaching Society for the Blind), hospital treatment (National Hospital for the Paralysed and Epileptic) and many other services.

 

Making hay to at the back of the Worcester College for the Blind, courtesy of New College Worcester Archives.

Some societies even turned to their own Victorian propaganda machines:

Many disabled people simply lived their lives purposefully in their communities. In 1894 the first branch of the Guild of the Brave Poor Things (motto: ‘Happy in My Lot’) was formed as a self-help group for people with physical disabilities. They described themselves as a group to “make life sweet for the blind and crippled folk of all ages”.

Conveying a sense of pride and solidarity, they used popular military imagery of the period to create positive feelings about their disabilities, referring to themselves as “a great army of suffering ones”. Their annual report in 1902 described how they “go out daily into a battle-field, where pain is the enemy to be met and overcome”.

If you’re interested in reading more about disability in the Victorian age, The Victorian Web has several resources and reviews on the topic.

Medical Illustration and the Ethics of Representation

84A little over a week ago I attended an conference on the ‘Promises of Monsters’, which explored various manifestations of monsters and the monstrous in contemporary culture. One of the plenary papers, delivered by Professor Margrit Shildrick, raised several key questions about the ethics of representing the monstrous visually. What, she asked, is at stake when we visualise something – or someone – in an academic discourse? Do we have the right to comment on ‘monstrous’ bodies by virtue of our scientific approach, or does this actually render our relationship to the monstrous even more problematic?

These questions reminded me of a 2014 Slate article by Rebecca Onion called ‘History, or Just Horror?’ Reviewing the Wellcome Library’s book The Sick Rose: Disease and the Art of Medical Illustration, Onion weighs the ethics of displaying vintage medical images of ‘monstrous’ bodies (none of which I’ve reproduced here) in the digital age:

As historical medical images go digital, scholars and archivists are being forced to weigh the benefits of disseminating the undoubtedly important and interesting record of the evolution of medical practice with concerns that the images will be misused and misunderstood. Making the images available will almost certainly lead to some tone-deaf uses, lacking empathy and regard at best – exploiting the shock value of a disfigured face or body at worst. On the other hand, digitization of the kinds of images that were once available only to researchers with the means to travel to archives can do a lot of good. Such visibility can raise awareness about past wrongs, facilitate connections between historians and the families of former patients, even provide us with a new way to think about our own mortality.

What is our responsibility to the people in these images? Onion discusses a particular case in which these archived photographs found another, less historically-minded function:

Some photographs from the Project Façade archive ended up used in the design of the genetic mutants (‘splicers’) that players of the videogame BioShock must battle. One of the patients in the photographs, Henry Lumley, a pilot trainee, was injured on the day of his graduation from flying school and lived with his injury for a year before being admitted to Gillies’ care. Lumley died of postoperative complications, at age 26. (Here’s his page on the Project Façade website. And here’s an image of the BioShock character in question.) Lumley and his fellow patients are now forced to wander about in virtual space, made into monsters for the entertainment of gamers.

14f36705d99c356a607fb3a89176e222Is this morally objectionable? Should we only use such images for educational purposes? In the rest of the article, Onion demonstrates how the situation is more complicated than that. In the end, she concludes that what we really need to cultivate in response to these images is reflection – something for which there is increasingly little time in our internet culture:

[A] vanitas requires space for contemplation – a space the Web seems ill prepared to offer. Susan Sontag’s final book, Regarding the Pain of Others (2003), was written as the Web was in the process of scattering photographs to the four winds. Sontag wrote that photographs of suffering could be a ‘memento mori’ and serve as a still point around which to contemplate mortality. But she wondered how this might work – or fail to work – in ‘a modern society,’ where ‘space reserved for being serious is hard to come by.’ If she thought that about art galleries, books, and television, one wonders what she might have made of Pinterest.

These types of responses are comparable to those Shildrick suggests we must cultivate as researchers of the monstrous. To come to terms with the monster, ethically speaking, we must continually question our own parameters of identity. Otherwise we risk mistakenly identifying ourselves in these figures, overwriting their identity in the process. Or worse – identifying them as alien, absolutely different, and impossible to live alongside. We shouldn’t turn away from images of the monstrous, but we must also be wary of becoming desensitised to these images, or sentimentalising them.

halloween+skull+vintage+image+graphicsfairy3

Onion’s final thoughts on the matter are similar. In the last paragraph of her article, she writes:

Perhaps the answer might be image or video files that contain within them a trigger that activates a program blocking the rest of the Web. Just for a minute, or two, you’d be forced to look, see, and feel, without distraction. Like a visitor sitting at a patient’s bedside, you’d bide a while with a fellow human, a witness to our collective frailty.