[Opinion] Women and Mothers in Star Wars

I have a problem with the depiction of women in Star Wars. Don’t get me wrong, I love Star Wars, and I love what it’s done for the advancement of women’s roles as lead heroines and character roles in media of all kinds, but I still have a problem with how women and motherhood are portrayed in it. For 40 years now, women and girls have been taught about the awesomeness that is Princess Leia, how she kicked ass, took names, and is a rolemodel to all of us about the power of women, rawr. However, for those same 40 years, women and the notion of motherhood have gotten some treatment that I’m not even going to call ‘problematical’, because that’s far too polite for what’s happened. I’m gonna just outright call it some serious bullshit. Let’s run down the list of the various women in Star Wars and how they’ve been treated, how moms in the stories have been written or portrayed, and we’ll go from there. I’m going to go in RL chronological publication/release, because that’s easiest for me to wrap my brain around.

The first non-Leia female character of any note is Aunt Beru. A plain-looking older woman, she’s left to be the caring but ineffectual mother-figure to Luke. She has no goals aside from family harmony, and the only action she takes is to remind Uncle Owen not to be so hard on Luke. She also winds up being cannon fodder. Her portrayal in Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith is simply to set up her role as Luke’s not-mom and even then, she doesn’t have an active role in that. This is the last time a major mother-figure is present in the series until the 90s when the Expanded Universe finally starts answering the question of whether Han and Leia got it on.

The next significant female character in Star Wars is Mon Mothma, the leader of the Rebel Alliance. We go two whole movies between important female characters other than our singular heroine. Mon gets one scene where she acts as figurehead who gives a speech about how critical the situation is for the Alliance, openly shows sorrow about the loss of the Bothans, and then turns the meeting over to the menfolk to describe the actual battle plan. Leia, at least, could reasonably run a tactical meeting and give orders to the military and have her words respected and orders carried out (see: the pre-battle meeting on Hoth in Empire Strikes Back). Mon Mothma served to legitimize the Alliance’s actual government as a white-clad counterpoint to the black-clad Emperor, but she didn’t actually do anything. She was in deleted scenes in Revenge of the Sith that would have had her and Bail Organa starting up the Alliance, but deleted scenes don’t count as canon, even if they’re in the novelization. She’s trotted back out in the more recent Rebels and Rogue One and also the recent canon novels, but her role is still limited to the fairly passive political speechmaker. The only time I actually loved her character as doing something is the trick she played on a political opponent in one of Chuck Wendig’s Aftermath novels in order to forestall a vote, because that’s where she actually shows some grit and a bit of the ‘fire in the belly’ you need to lead the good guys. Of course, she was also injured in a previous entry in that novel trilogy, but that gives her some actual story of her own, rather than supporting someone else’s story.

That’s pretty much it for women in the original trilogy aside from our Princess. Let’s talk about Leia. At Star Wars Celebration Orlando, I was quite thrilled to see so many women cosplaying as every variant of Leia you can imagine, both canonical and not, and also noted with amusement how the guys who sardonically cosplayed as Slave Leia showed far less skin than the women did. The too-soon passing of Carrie Fisher last year of course cast a sorrow over the event but it let us as fans discuss her struggles and her willingness to give life the finger. She once liked a tweet I sent to my friend James Arnold Taylor she was tagged in that called her a firecracker, and you can be damned sure I have screenshots of that. But her character Leia wasn’t perfect. In-character, she had the widest variety of roles in the entire series. She was Senator, Rebel spy, Princess, fiery, sarcastic, take-charge, undiplomatic (‘walking carpet!’), clever, tactical, caring, brave, romantic. However, you have to think about how she was written in out-of-character terms. You have to think why George Lucas famously told her once that there’s no underwear in space so she couldn’t wear a bra in A New Hope and thus everyone saw the bouncing boobs in the blockade runner sequence when she was being marched to Darth Vader. You also have to consider the simple fact that a Leia who just lost her entire planet and known family is the one who comforts Luke on the loss of Ben Kenobi, how her massive grief was ignored in the face of the hero’s grief in losing a mentor. Yeah, in-character, she’s being a kind and generous soul, but good goddamn, no one even thought to ask her how she was doing? Hey, Leia, your parents and all of your friends and the place you grew up just got blown up, you okay? We don’t even get a brief private moment of her by herself showing a hint of grief. She watches Alderaan go up and then next we see her all calm and feisty and stretched out in a sexy pose for Luke to be stunned by. In fact, the rest of the movie pretty much ignores Alderaan other than General Rieekan saying they heard about it and feared the worst, and the script has Leia brushing it away because the Mission Was More Important ™. The Expanded Universe delves into this somewhat, but still in most of the past 40 years, no one really dug into the character to talk about this until recently. It’s like an elephant in the room.

You also have to think about Slave Leia and the huge problems it has caused for the advancement of women’s roles in media. Most of the people (men) I know who are Leia fans don’t care about the Leia who was the best shot with a blaster in the entire series. They ignore the crafty Boussh-disguised Leia who marches into Jabba’s Palace and has the brass to activate a thermal detonator if he doesn’t negotiate with her. They blot out the Slave Leia who took action to kill Jabba the Hutt with the very chain he was using to keep her captive. They only care about the scantily-clad Leia who’s lying there passively with the collar on her neck or best yet, unwillingly pulled back by Jabba on more than one occasion. Before you raise a finger or open your mouth to go ‘not all men’, because I’m so not here for that bull either, go back and read where I said ‘most I know’. If I don’t know you, you’re not included in the data I used to form this opinion.

Now, until The Force Awakens, our on-camera Leia was a young woman who was only just starting out in a relationship, so motherhood was not a thing, nor was ‘motherhood while holding down a massive day job’ either. General Leia in TFA was a godsend. This Leia gave power to us older women who are not shaped like fashion models. We had our leader, our idol who could be both mother and warrior, who could juggle the day job of leading the only significant resistance to the First Order, and yet still have a family. Right? Not so much. It’s important that we have even this much of a Leia who’s had a life, but there’s so much more that could have been done with her. She was a relatively passive character in this movie and her lack of agency is actually one of the biggest problems I have with family dynamics in all of Star Wars, which is how mothers seriously get next to no air time as fathers do and their importance to the story.

In The Force Awakens, Leia as Kylo Ren’s mother is hardly mentioned versus the whole major plot point of Han going after him was because Han was his father. Her role as General and her staying behind was so taken for granted, they never even bothered to question her staying behind. In fact, they barely acknowledged that she was his mother for all the emotions she portrayed in discussing their son or during the scene where she and Han talk about how Han needs to go find their son because he’ll listen to his father. It’s like she abdicated any role in her son’s life, and that’s just damned weird. I don’t know any mother in the same situation who wouldn’t at least question whether she should hare off to save her kid or stay behind and take care of her important responsibilities. Even the Leia portrayed in Claudia Gray’s excellent Bloodline novel shows Leia’s inner struggles and acknowledges her as a mother in a time before everything goes to hell in a handbasket with the rise of the First Order.

Thing is, Star Wars addressed this question years ago in the now-Legends Tales of the Jedi comic series back in the 90s. In fact, that series turned the whole fridging trope on its ear by having the husband killed and thus spurring his reluctant wife into becoming a Jedi and taking care of their daughter. Nomi Sunrider was such an accomplished Jedi Knight, she eventually wound up becoming the overall leader or Grand Master of the Jedi Order in her lifetime. However, her daughter felt neglected and eventually went to find her own Master for training, ironically Nomi’s former lover (and eventual repentant Sith Lord) Ulic Qel-Droma. The comic series portrayed her as a mother early in her story, then forgot that bit as she dealt with her growing feelings for and the fall of Qel-Droma, then returned to it as her daughter grew up. Here was a leading woman who was struggling to balance personal life and professional life, and it was awesome seeing this sort of three-dimensional character, especially since this character wasn’t perfect and made bad decisions like a normal human being.

Since the 90s, we really haven’t seen too much by way of motherhood amongst the ladies of the Star Wars universe. Leia eventually had three kids by Han in the EU content (none of which is canon anymore), and she also became a Jedi Master too, a fate that isn’t likely to happen now, sadly due to Carrie Fisher’s passing and the fact that The Force Awakens took her character into a completely different direction. Most of the main characters had families at one point or other in the EU content, which is all now just Legends status as things are diverging from the reworked canon at this point. However, let’s stick to the current canon for most of the rest of this, else that will be a rabbit hole that will make this article far longer than is necessary.

Going back to the prequels, the next mother figure we find is Anakin’s own mother, Shmi Skywalker. One might say she’s the ultimate mother because Anakin was apparently an immaculate conception. However, her story was nothing more than to be a vehicle to explain Anakin’s fall to the dark side. She birthed and raised him, but after she gave him the wisdom that he had to make his own choice to go with Qui-Gon or not, she had no purpose in the story. The only character development she got afterwards was when Watto told Anakin that Cliegg Lars had bought her contract, emancipated her, and then married her. Her next presence in the story was to be discovered and to die after the tearful reunion with her grown son. She had no agency.

Our next example of a significant woman in the series is of course Padme Amidala, Queen and then Senator of Naboo, eventual mother of Luke and Leia. She was as active and scrappy a Queen and Senator as her daughter Leia would be, but her role as a mother is unknown to the galaxy at large for a generation, as the fallen Anakin (and the rest of the galaxy) is led to believe she died before the children were born, and no one except Obi-Wan Kenobi, Yoda, and Bail Organa knew that the children they witnessed being born were Skywalker’s. It’s ironic to note that all three were dead before Luke and Leia ever found out who their mother was. However, here’s the part where Padme is served with serious injustice. After all of her leadership and her feistiness in the prequels, she is pronounced medically sound but dies of a broken heart. Anakin’s Force-choke on Mustafar had no long-term medical effects because the damned droid on Polis Massa said she was otherwise all right. There’s a quite inventive fan theory out there that Padme’s death was actually caused by Darth Sidious, but it’s not canonical. It’s a shame because it makes a hell of a lot more sense and treats the character better.

There were plenty of female characters in Clone Wars, some taken from the prequels, others original creations. Unlike the massively male-dominated casts of the original series, the prequels were positively diverse. However, until the CGI cartoon, most of the female characters in the movies, including Jedi Knights and their apprentices, were confined to mostly non-speaking roles. Dave Filoni and crew busted down a lot of doors with the creation of characters like Ahsoka Tano and giving an actual story and agency to characters such as Barriss Offee and Asajj Ventress. Both characters walked the line between light side and dark side and made their own choices and had actual development that drove some powerful stories, such as Ventress’ fate in the Christie Golden-penned novel Dark Disciple. Ahsoka Tano has been a tour de force of how a female character can stand on her own despite two very powerful and well-respected male characters right there and also be the one who can decide to walk away from the Jedi Order when the Order is no longer what she believed in or could in all self-honesty be a part of. In many ways, she could see the faults of the Jedi Order better than her master or her other mentors and was strong enough to find another suitable path. Her return in Rebels has continued her story of making her own way in the galaxy while fighting against the Empire.

In Clone Wars, you also get to see more of Padme being an actual useful character outside of her forbidden marriage to Anakin Skywalker, with her own goals and desires beyond simply being a wife. We get to meet Duchess Satine Kryze, a leader who was trying to reform the Mandalorians into a more peaceful society, although she too falls into the trap of being fridged in order to drive a male character’s story. When they introduced her as the woman Obi-Wan Kenobi loved enough to leave the Jedi Order for, I knew then, even more than because of the ill-fated notion of ‘peaceful Mandalorians’, that she was going to die, and in a fashion that would hurt Kenobi the most.

Moving on to Rebels, we have two main heroic female characters, Hera Syndulla and Sabine Wren. Hera seems to be the female character in all of Star Wars who embodies the most well-rounded female archetype. She is the den mother of her Rebel cell, but she’s also often given far less credit than she should in terms of the fact that it is she, not Jedi Kanan Jarrus, who is the true leader of the group. She’s the one who was organizing their missions, she’s the one who was their liaison with the Rebel Alliance, she’s the glue that holds this crew together. Hera manages to be the most three-dimensional character in the whole series and she and Chopper are currently the only ones we know for sure who will survive this upcoming fourth season because she’s mentioned as ‘General Syndulla’ on the PA at Yavin, Chopper is visible in a couple of shots on the base, and the Ghost is in a few shots in the battle over Scarif.

However, even her family gets in on this ‘motherhood gets the shaft’ notion. There were episodes devoted to Hera’s sometimes fractious relationship with her father, noted Twi’lek freedom fighter Cham Syndulla. Their relationship is based on the tragic fate of Hera’s mother, Cham’s wife. Said mother doesn’t even have a name. She’s depicted in art in their old home on Ryloth, she’s such an integral part of the family dynamic due to her death, but if Lucasfilm saw fit to give her a name, they never bothered to tell us. There’s a whole real-life ‘say her name’ campaign out there for current civil unrest that probably would have a few words with the writers about this if they were aware of it.

Now what about Sabine Wren? When the series was first introduced, I really didn’t like Sabine’s character. Oh, I liked her art style and her sassiness, but I didn’t like how she was written at first. Early on in the series, she was written as the hyper-competent potential girlfriend who is far more adept at this being a rebel thing than the obvious protagonist, Ezra Bridger. The whole ‘colorful much more competent female character playing second banana to the less-competent but chosen one male protagonist’ thing is so boring and trite. We saw it with Wyldstyle in The Lego Movie, we also saw it in the form of Hermione Granger in Harry Potter. There are so many more examples of this happening in all kinds of media, but we don’t have all day.

Fortunately, they’ve moved away from this cringe-y puppy love attraction Ezra had for Sabine damned fast and they’ve slowly evolved Sabine into her own role on the team. I will note with amusement that there was an episode in the first season of the series that Hera and Sabine are stranded on a planet with hostile critters in it and none of their conversations were about the men in their lives. The Bechdel Test was passed with a whole swath of flying colors. Sabine is also one of the few characters in all of Star Wars whose mother Countess Ursa is specifically mentioned as being alive and was also featured in a couple episodes that, gasp horror!, also featured some pretty amazing character development for Sabine herself. We find out some serious backstory about why Sabine walked away from her family and more about her skills designing weapons that had been used against her own people.

While Rebels isn’t yet over, one story during this same time shows another example of a mother whose role in a story is to be cannon fodder and an excuse for another character’s development. Rogue One does the same thing to Jyn Erso’s mother Lyra, conveniently getting her out of the way so that the main thrust of Jyn’s motivations were due to her estrangement with her father, Galen Erso, who was the creator of the flaw in the first Death Star. Lyra Erso was better fleshed out in James Luceno’s Catalyst, and her role was remarkably similar to that of Aunt Beru in A New Hope, only with her own science career that she conveniently set aside for the most part to be babysitter to both husband and child. In the movie, however, Lyra simply packs young Jyn off and instead of going with her to safety and actually protecting her child as was previously agreed-upon by the couple, she turns back in order to attempt to murder Imperial Orrin Krennic despite the fact there was a lovely squad of highly trained Death Troopers right there. It ranks up there in the top ten list of most senseless deaths in 40 years of Star Wars, especially since it was just for a plot device. Lyra surviving to have a hand in her daughter’s upbringing would have derailed Lucasfilm’s intentions for the character of Jyn

Let’s talk Jyn Erso too, not as mother, but as agent of her own fate. Well, actually, she wasn’t and rarely ever was during her entire life. Trained as a guerilla fighter by family friend Saw Gerrera after the death of her mother and her father supposedly returning to work for the Empire, she goes through life almost passively, reacting to what’s around her rather than being an active force for change. She has clear and obvious skills, such as the scene on Jedha with her batons (a skill she never uses again through the rest of the movie), but other than that one time she gave the ‘rebellions are built on hope’ speech, she pretty much rides the wave of whatever’s going on around her. I honestly wasn’t a fan of Felicity Jones’ character, because the Jyn Erso we saw had no actual agency and it showed. I wouldn’t say she phoned it in, but she had no real fire in her belly like Cassian Andor had, or Baze and Chirrut Îmwe. Hell, I liked K-2SO far more than her. Thing is, it’s okay for female characters to not be likable. Dolores Umbridge is a horrid woman in the Harry Potter books, but she’s a fantastic character and has easily-identified likes and dislikes and motivations. Jyn Erso is not a fantastic character, and I personally cannot ever recommend her as a rolemodel for young girls despite the adorable child cosplaying her at Celebration who gave little copies of the Rebel plans to every Leia cosplayer she came across. Jyn had hope and was defaulting into completing the reckless but completely necessary plot device of getting a copy of the Death Star plans, but she wasn’t all that effective in communicating this hope or motivation aside from one or two scenes. I honestly don’t mind that the entire Rogue One team died on Scarif, or that they’re never mentioned again in any new canon that might supplement the backstory during the original trilogy era.

Moving on to new canon, we have to consider the novels and materials that have come out ever since Lucasfilm upended the canon apple cart and started over. Despite guys whinging on about how Rogue One was ‘yet another SJW PC trashfest’ because of the female lead, we should consider just how many of the featured roles in the movie were women. We had Jyn, Lyra for a few minutes, and Mon Mothma. Oh, it was cool seeing female pilots (and older ones too!), and women in the background doing important things other than manning an Ion Cannon like in Empire Strikes Back, but comparatively, that movie was a whole bunch of dudes doing stuff all over the place, a lot of fan service, and a couple of roles for women that had actual dialogue and some place in moving the story.

Women get better roles in the novels, that’s for sure. Two of my favorites are Grand Admiral Rae Sloane, a lady of color who serves the Empire that not even Palpatine himself truly served, and Norra Wexley, a Rebel pilot who fought at Endor and was mother to The Force Awakens‘ Temmin ‘Snap’ Wexley. If you want to fill out your representational bingo card, the Wendig Aftermath novels also mentioned Wexley’s sister Esmelle (who had a wife), and a gay former Imperial loyalty officer named Sinjir Velus Rath and his lover Condir. However, back to the featured ladies. Rae Sloane is a force of nature. She firmly believes in the Empire and will do anything to ensure that it rises again and will be better than the Empire she saw crumble into dust after Endor. She rose up through the ranks after being introduced in the first post-Legends canonical novel, John Jackson Miller’s A New Dawn, coincidentally featuring the first meeting of Hera Syndulla and Kanan Jarrus. She was also responsible for some of the key plays that would eventually lead into the rise of the First Order in the new movies. She was a well-rounded character who seriously needs to be in the future Star Wars movies, particularly given their woeful representation of people of color.

Norra Wexley, on the other hand, is a mother in the style of Nomi Sunrider, but one who isn’t a Jedi, she isn’t an important-ranked personage. She’s a mother who will fight for her son and her friends, doing her best to ensure her team survives their latest mission. She suffers the loss of her husband twice, but still has her own agency. She doesn’t just ride the waves around her to somehow wind up where she needs to be like Jyn Erso did in Rogue One. She doesn’t even necessarily believe in hope, but she’s a working mom who has everyday struggles with her rambunctious son who owns a reworked battle droid. She forms a tentative relationship with old trilogy character Wedge Antilles, but that’s most definitely not the key driving force of her life. Her son is what’s most important to her of all things, and I personally find the Norra/Temmin dynamic to be the most natural family dynamic in all things Star Wars.

Turning away from new canon for a little bit, it should be noted there are other representations of women and motherhood in the Star Wars video games, most notably the BioWare suite of Star Wars Old Republic-era stuff. BioWare has always done an excellent job in representation in their games, and they write Star Wars material that allows the women to be their own agents to more extent than the movies do so far. While it doesn’t come out until the advent of Star Wars: the Old Republic, the MMO launched in 2011, the Shan dynasty of Force-users is based arose from the Bastila Shan character from the previous single-player Knights of the Old Republic, who had formed a relationship with Revan and had a child before he was captured by the Sith Emperor players will face in the MMO three hundred in-character years later. The mother/child dynamic works in the form of current Jedi Grand Master Satele Shan and her son Theron. It says something that the family name is Shan despite the presence of surname-less Revan as the father of the dynasty, and Republic Special Forces Commander Jace Malcom as the father of Theron. In fact, Theron’s surname and the revelation who his mother is was part of a brief instance where you meet him and players can choose a dialogue option that asks pretty much if he and Satele are related. The family dynamic is also strained a bit, but to be honest, there’s always some kind of family drama going on with many families in real life, so I didn’t find it very strange, only how it turned out that Satele chose not to tell Jace he had a son, and she also chose to stick with the Jedi Order and fostered her son out rather than raise him herself. It caused problems that were unnecessary, but it also shows a different way of doing things. It was similar to Nomi Sunrider’s neglect of her daughter Vima, but was formed more due to the modern thinking that Jedi aren’t supposed to have families. After all, no one cared that Jedi had families or said they were forbidden until Attack of the Clones.

Later expansions of the game bring in another family, the rulers of the Eternal Empire of Zakuul. The important relationship here (besides learning that Emperor Valkorion is the same Sith Emperor who captured Revan 300 years ago in KOTOR) is the one between his wife (?!?) Senya Tirall and her children Thexan, Arcann, and Vaylin. Senya wasn’t a passive wife. She was a highly trained skilled leader of the elite Knights of Zakuul and also taught her children how to fight and use their Force abilities. She acted to try and save her children from the monster that her husband was despite her love for the man he was with her in private. She was driven to do whatever was necessary to try and rescue Vaylin in particular, and it’s only up to a player’s choices whether she manages to survive and save Arcann and bring him back to the light side.

Going back to actual canon (note: SWTOR is still the only major Legends property still ongoing, with Lucasfilm not saying one way or the other if they’re proper canon), I’m going to conclude by considering the upcoming movies, particularly The Last Jedi and the as-yet-untitled Episode IX. Han Solo is dead. General Leia’s scenes had to be rewritten to account for the death of Carrie Fisher, and Lucasfilm has already said she will not be in Episode IX despite her family granting permission for her likeness to be used. None of our three new lead characters (Rey, Finn, and Poe) have known parentage yet. Finn’s is a mystery due to the First Order taking children away from their parents when they were babies, so his mother gets no consideration in the story (to be fair, neither does his father, speculate away who his parents are, with Calrissian or a grandchild of Windu being the leading contenders).

Rey is of course the biggest mystery that can’t have as simple a resolution as being either the daughter of Han and Leia, or Luke and some mystery woman who had better not be Mara goddamned Mary Sue Jade (sorry, Master Zahn, I didn’t like her, and she also got shafted by your followers in the EU novel-writing series in terms of motherhood and having her own story not driven by the men in her life). She could be related to Kenobi in some fashion, but why Anakin Skywalker’s lightsaber called to her is going to be either the biggest revelation or disappointment in the new movie. As a female character, Rey is everything that Jyn Erso was not. While both women are demonstrably competent, Rey is far more active in her story than Jyn ever was. Rey went through a hard life, dreaming of something better, while Jyn didn’t acquire hope until she talked to her dying father and he gave her the cause to find his Death Star plans so the Rebellion could make it go boom. Rey as she currently stands is the one I’d point little girls to as a proper rolemodel, someone who can be competent without being second banana to her male co-leads. She has the sass of Princess Leia, the ability to quickly form a plan to get through a scrape like Hera Syndulla, and also her very own spirit to keep her going in the face of adversity.

Until we see the next movie, where they might just overturn the apple cart (the official teaser poster certainly caused massive speculation on the net), we just have to wait and see if any more ladies in Star Wars get their proper time in the limelight as well-rounded and three-dimensional characters. If any are said to be mothers, please don’t let them die as an excuse to further a male character’s motivations. I don’t care how easy it will be to have Leia die and have it be a reason for Kylo Ren to do something, I’d rather they didn’t commit some serious injustice to both Leia and Carrie Fisher by doing that. Our lady doesn’t deserve that fate.

So there you have it, my thoughts on how Star Wars has done some pretty rough things to women and mothers in their stories over the years to give their male characters pre-eminence. I recognize what Star Wars was created for originally. George Lucas said it himself on stage at Celebration, the saga was and should always be written for 12-year-olds, but what he really meant was for the boys. To this day, despite all the heartwarming stories of things like the 501st costuming group making a set of armor for a young bullied girl, women and young girls are still being told by boys and men that Star Wars isn’t for girls.

To anyone who reads this who honestly believes that, I will do what Carrie Fisher would have done: give you the finger.

May the Force be with the rest of you.