Star Wars movies contain hidden misogynist elements which allow the ‘male gaze’ to ‘diminish the power of female characters’, feminist academics have claimed.
In a new study published in the journal Fashion and Textiles, two researchers presented the results of their analysis of the costumes worn by the characters Princess Leia and Padmé, who was Princess of Theed before later being crowned Queen of Naboo.
At first glance, these two characters might look like emblems of female empowerment because, well, they have a great deal of power.
But if you use a feminist-inspired ‘code’ to pick apart the movie, you may notice something very different indeed.
Princess Leia (played by Carrie Fisher) shown wearing a very modest robe during a powerful moment (Photo by Lucasfilm/ Fox/ Kobal/ REX/ Shutterstock)Mary C. King and Jessica L. Ridgway from the Jim Moran School of Entrepreneurship at Florida State University devised a way of analysing the movie to reveal the hidden messages lurking within it.
King, the lead author of the study, said: ‘For years, Star Wars has been praised in popular media for its portrayal of strong and independent female characters, but it has also received criticism for how Padmé’s and Leia’s positions of power fade as their relationships evolve.
‘We argue that this shift from women in power to subjects of the male characters’ affections is evident in costume and hairstyle changes throughout the films.’
The two academics used a variety of measures to assess the films, which were turned into ‘codes’.
They watched the original trilogy and its prequels several times, using the code to score the characters’ level of power related to the extent to which they were objectified.
They looked at, for instance, the state of each woman’s relationships with other characters, how much flesh they exposed hairstyles which were ‘observed in terms of masculine or feminine (heteronormative definitions) and also for the perceived harshness (style severity, tight or slicked back) and softness (waves, curls) of the style’.
What they found was that Leia and Padme often appeared covered up when they are performing roles which require power such as fulfilling their royal duties, leading military campaigns or engaging in politics.
When the characters were shown in scenes relating to romantic relationships, they change into skimpier clothes.
During power moments, hair is worn up or in tight rigid styles, whilst it is styled in more relaxed ways during amorous scenes.
Leia is forced to wear a very revealing bikini by captor Jabba the Hutt (Photo: Lucasfilm/ Fox/ Kobal/ REX/ Shutterstock)‘It was observed that as both women progressed in their romantic relationships, their perceived power decreased, and an increase of objectification through greater skin exposure occurred,’ the researchers wrote.
The most vivid link between power and female costumes comes when Princess Leia is kidnapped and enslaved by Jabba the Hutt.
‘In what appears to be the most blatant example of objectification and the male gaze in the Star Wars films, Leia appears in a gold metal bikini in Episode VI,’ the academics wrote.
‘The bikini’s top covers Leia’s breasts with metal plating in the front and back serving as the bikini bottom. A long, burgundy colored loin cloth hangs from each plate. Her hair is styled in a long braid that drapes over one of her breasts. Most of Leia’s skin is visible in this costume.
‘Commonly referred to as the Slave Leia costume, her attire depicts her as a slave, devoid of any power.’
‘Her role at this point is merely to provide viewing pleasure for her captor, demonstrated by her captor earlier enjoying a dance from another scantily clad female slave while licking his lips, and by him eventually licking Leia. Leia is forced into a situation where she is an erotic being for her captor, intended to be physically admired without any sense of her persona.
‘It is a stark reminder that the woman is valued for her physical body rather than her personality traits.’
This outfit is known as Leia’s ‘slave bikini’ (Photo: Lucasfilm/ Fox/ Kobal/ REX/ Shutterstock)Mary C. King called for more to be done to make sure Star Wars and other films do not objectify women.
‘We are seeing frequent discussions on gender inequality across society, including in the media. In film, women are frequently objectified both through their roles and their costumes,’ she said.
‘Yet, films also have the opportunity to send a message that a woman does not need to reveal or change physical aspects of her body, or have her position of power diminished, in order to be appealing to other characters or to a viewing audience. Given the Star Wars films’ large audience – 69% of adults in the United States have seen the films, according to a YouGov poll – it seems important to investigate their portrayal of women.’
The researchers now want to subject other films to analysis using similar ‘codes’.