May the Fourth Be With You: Why Star Wars, Superheroes, and Fantasy Matter to Youth Empowerment
By Jessica Higgins, Communications Coordinator
May 4, 2017
Image Credit: George Spigot's Blog
Happy Star Wars Day! Those of you who aren’t big nerds might be wondering, “What is Star Wars Day? And why is Colorado Youth Matter talking about Star Wars in a blog?” To the first question, May the Fourth is Star Wars Day because apparently Star Wars fans like puns: May the Fourth be with you (it’s followed by May the Fifth, or “Revenge of the Fifth”). And to the second question: it’s no secret that mass media influences youth. It can empower them, and it can equally disempower them. There’s been plenty written on this subject already, and there will inevitably be plenty more. But in honor of Star Wars Day, I wanted to examine the influence cult television shows and movies have on youth sexual health and empowerment. So for this week’s blog, CYM is going to get a little bit nerdy, and it starts with an article I stumbled upon several months back.
As soon as it popped up in my news feed, it immediately sparked my interest as both a feminist and a nerd. Titled, “Did Inadequate Women’s Healthcare Destroy Star Wars’ Old Republic?”, the article brilliantly unveils a massive plot hole in Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith. For those of you who were wise enough to avoid the Banshee fodder that were the Star Wars prequels, the basic conflict is this: Anakin, in love with a beautiful woman named Padme (who defies all current scientific knowledge on aging), is at first elated to discover that Padme is pregnant. But because of an ill-timed Jedi vision, Anakin comes to believe that Padme is destined to die in childbirth, leading him down a twisted path to do anything to keep her alive – including turning to the dark side. And, as George Lucas thought no one would see coming (but everyone saw coming), Anakin’s turn to the dark side is what actually leads to Padme’s death in the end when she dies of a broken heart (yes, really) during childbirth.
For a long time I thought little of these plot points except that they were contrived. Then I read the article from Vice, and it blew my mind more than the Death Star blew up Alderaan. The author points out that Padme never visits an OB/GYN or gets any kind of reproductive health care, and that matters of the uterus seem completely bewildering and mysterious in the Star Wars universe. This is especially absurd considering that in Star Wars, technology has advanced to the point that limbs are easily replaced with cybernetic prosthetics, and bacta tanks can repair terrible wounds – but a girl can’t get a freaking ultrasound? Come on. That’s even less believable than people being able to move things with their minds – or is it?
This is where the Vice article gets absolutely devastating. The author writes:
“The giant OB/GYN plot hole isn't really about the Star Wars universe having inadequate reproductive health care, it's about Lucas lazily relying on a blanket of ignorance surrounding the entire phenomenon of childbirth… Reproductive health and childbirth is a crutch, and Lucas gets away with it because his audience accepts that these things are mysterious and cannot be intervened with the way that that the loss of limbs can be remedied with robot prosthetics, or the way Luke can be rescued from near-death on Hoth by being submerged in a bacta tank. Having babies is worse than being mauled by a wampa ice creature or being chopped up by lightsabers and falling into a river of lava. Lucas can write a world like that, and worse, the audience will accept it.”
In other words, Lucas gets away with this gaping plot hole because our culture accepts that reproductive healthcare is somehow more mysterious and unknowable than other types of medical care – like, say, replacing a hand with a robotic prosthetic limb. Even long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away, women’s bodies are sources of deep uncertainty, awe, and mystery.
But the thing is, reproductive health care isn’t a mystery, childbirth isn’t some mystical process science can’t grasp, and we shouldn’t just accept that it makes sense for the Old Republic to fall because Padme didn’t have access to an OB/GYN. But we do; Star Wars fans were more upset about Jar Jar Binks than about this gaping, massively stupid plot hole – and, in fact, were more upset with the author of this Vice article for criticizing the object of their devotion than examining how Star Wars contributes to harmful stereotypes and ideas.
Movies like Star Wars capture our imagination partly because they allow us to step into new, fantastical worlds. What’s troubling, though, is that these worlds so often reflect the most harmful ideas and stereotypes of our culture – and it isn’t just Star Wars. Not by a long shot. Game of Thrones, for example, has been notoriously bad about how they’ve handled issues surrounding sexual assault, putting embarrassingly little thought into how they portray rape. The superhero genre is also guilty of relying on sexist ideas: in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Black Widow tearfully confesses that she feels like a “monster” because she is unable to have children. And it isn’t just issues surrounding the representation of women: where are our LGBTQ superheroes, Jedi, and dragon riders? Captain America and Bucky Barnes have more sexual tension than most of the relationships in the Marvel-verse, yet apparently it’s completely unthinkable that Cap could be bisexual. Finn and Poe Dammaron from Star Wars: The Force Awakens have a lot of chemistry – to the point that the actors played some of their scenes as romantic – but their relationship will most likely end in queer baiting. And why are these characters, the embodiment of strength and bravery, almost always white?
The point of this incredibly nerdy rant isn’t just that Hollywood writers tend to be homophobic, racist, and sexist (or at least that they embrace those ideas in their writing and casting); the point is also that as consumers of media, we must band together to demand more from the stories we love; to hold show and movie creators accountable; and to question the very nature of these fantastical worlds and why we find them so attractive. We suspend our disbelief to accept that a world with dragons and magic can exist; why, then, would it be so unbelievable to see a world free of systemic oppression? I’ve had multiple conversations and arguments with people who argue that it “wouldn’t make sense” for the casts of these shows and movies to be more diverse because “it wouldn’t be realistic” – but isn’t the point and the beauty of these worlds that they allow us to suspend our understanding of reality?
The fantasy, sci-fi, and superhero genres allow us to explore incredible worlds, but if those incredible worlds are dominated by ideologies that privilege white, cisgender, straight, and otherwise privileged people, then the message is that those privileged groups are somehow more deserving of having access to, and often ruling over, the worlds of our dreams. And that tells young people that even in dreams and fantasies, they can’t escape systemic oppression. The Star Wars OB/GYN plot hole reinforces to young girls that their bodies are mysterious and unknowable, and that as a result pain (or even death) are the burdens they must bear when navigating medical care; Game of Thrones reinforces that sexual violence is a simple reality that cannot be criticized or changed; and with the exception of a few gems in the fantasy, sci-fi, and superhero genres, the implicit message is too often that some groups are more deserving of power than others.
Imagination is what drives social justice; it allows us to dream up a better world, one that’s worth fighting for. And that’s why as nerds, we need to demand that the realms of superheroes, Jedi, and magic do more to portray diverse casts and more equal worlds. Because if young people never get to see themselves as the hero in a fictional world, how are they supposed to navigate the real one?