Culture.

  • Mon, 14, Sep, 2015 - 5:00:AM

Why Star Wars needs Gwendoline Christie

Image: Gage Skidmore / Wikimedia Commons

A long time ago (as in 1983) in a galaxy far, far away (more precisely, a soundstage in California), a princess donned a gold bikini while chained to a giant alien slug, only to be rescued later by a dashing Jedi knight.

Sound familiar? Unless you have – quite literally – been living under a rock and/or just emerged from decades of cryogenic hibernation, you’ve likely at least heard of Star Wars, and you’ve probably seen the famous scene in Return of the Jedi where Princess Leia is captured by the evil Jabba the Hutt and made to wear that ridiculous bikini.

Yes, it’s an incredibly sexist (and unnecessary) moment in an otherwise iconic film franchise. The problem? Almost everyone knows about it, and given the popularity of Star Wars among children, it certainly hasn’t done any good in terms of advancing equality or portraying healthy depictions of gender. In fact, despite the fact Princess Leia kills Jabba and is one of the few characters to stand up to Darth Vader, the first image that comes to mind for many people when they think of her (besides her cinnamon bun hairstyle) is her in a bikini.

It’s time for a change, for a heroine to rise up and show us that women are far more than just their bodies. And to that end, there is a great disturbance in the Force (no pun intended).

To say the casting of Gwendoline Christie (best known for playing Brienne of Tarth in the “Game of Thrones” TV series) as the villainous Captain Phasma in the upcoming The Force Awakens is a breath of fresh air would be an understatement. After all, this is Star Wars, one of the most beloved pop culture phenomena of all time (and certainly the most popular science fiction series ever seen on screen). It’s also, unfortunately, one of the most sexist: besides the aforementioned depiction of an enslaved Princess Leia (and her role as a damsel in distress in the original Star Wars released in 1977), there are only three female speaking roles in the entire original trilogy (episodes IV-VI).

Let me repeat: in a trilogy of films that has grossed billions of dollars both in theatres and through merchandise sales – and featuring dozens, if not hundreds, of male speaking roles – only three women have an on-screen voice.

The prequel trilogy (episodes I-III, released between 1999 and 2005) wasn’t much better. Natalie Portman’s character Padme Amidala was often tough and courageous, but she also – unfortunately – was frequently made to wear unnecessarily skimpy and/or impractical attire in inappropriate situations. Oh, and she literally died after she thought Anakin Skywalker no longer loved her. The only other notable female character – Anakin’s mother, Shmi – also dies. The lone female villain – a bounty hunter named Zam Wesell – is killed in a nightclub, because that setting apparently made the most sense to series creator George Lucas.

Such a poor track record is why Christie’s role is so encouraging. In trailers for The Force Awakens and promotional images, she’s clad entirely in a suit of menacing-looking chrome armour and a helmet, blaster in hand. In fact, if we didn’t know the character was being played by Christie, we wouldn’t even be able to tell that Phasma is a woman. The message: her gender is secondary to her combat abilities and role as a threat to Han Solo & Co.

Christie herself has said she finds the role empowering. “I just found it exciting that underneath that armour is a woman, and I find that more relevant than ever,” she said at San Diego Comic-Con in July.

It is exciting indeed. In an age of hyper-sexualisation and oft-rigid depictions of gender in mainstream Hollywood films (that may be changing on TV, but rigidity remains firmly entrenched in major blockbusters – see Scarlett Johansson’s Black Widow in any of the Marvel films for proof of this), it’s great to see a female character where the most important thing about her is not her looks.

Granted, there are still haters out there. The blog Reaxxion (created by none other than well-known misogynist Roosh V) claims the casting of Christie’s character “reeks of a political agenda.” Somehow, it seems doubtful they would make the same argument if she was wearing something more revealing than a suit of armour (side note: form-fitting female armour is highly impractical and potentially deadly, as explained here).

But encouraging signs for how the character could shift the conversation about how we view gender and depictions of women in film already abound. On the official Star Wars Facebook page, a commenter said it was “really hard to tell” that Christie was wearing female armour. A moderator’s response: “It’s armour. On a woman. It doesn’t have to look feminine.”

Even better, Christie isn’t the only woman who’ll be starring when The Force Awakens hits Kiwi cinemas on December 17. Daisy Ridley will star as the protagonist Rey, and Lupita Nyong’o will also have a major role as a pirate named Maz Kanata.

OK, so I’m not thrilled that she’ll be fighting against Luke Skywalker (one of my favourite film characters of all time) and on the side of the First Order (successor to the evil Empire in the original trilogy), but I can’t help but cheer for Christie and Captain Phasma. It’s a big step forward for how women are portrayed on screen, and with many experts predicting The Force Awakens might become the highest-grossing film ever, the number of people who could be positively impacted is massive. What a film to take out that particular title. A major Hollywood blockbuster in which women were finally shown as being just as capable as men.

But perhaps the surest sign we’ll know the character has made a difference in shattering barriers is this: when we see little boys and girls roughhousing on playgrounds pretending they’re Captain Phasma.

May the Force be with them.

TAGGED IN

  • Star Wars /
  • Film /
  • Princess Leia /
  • Darth Vader /
  • Heroines /
  • Gwendoline Christie /
  • Captain Phasma /
  • Game of Thrones /
  • The Force Awakens /
  • Science Fiction /
  • Movies /
  • Gender /
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