Today, the community-driven campaign of Star Wars Representation Matters, run under the hashtag #SWRepMatters on Twitter, is focusing on the representation of women in that galaxy far far away. For me, this conversation is difficult to divorce from romance, because it is in romance that Star Wars has failed me as a woman the most.
Since we’re going to get into a bit of the reeds with some negativity here, let’s start with a positive.
I like Satine Kryze. No, I love her. I adore her. She is my second favorite character in all of Star Wars. And that’s a big deal because I was ready to reject her entirely.
You see, I find there is a particular trend with characters I relate to in various serial stories. Be it Leonard McCoy emotions, Odo’s task-oriented demeanor, J’onn J’onzz’s gentle loneliness, or H.M. Murdock’s… Murdockness, they all suffer from it. At a certain point, the writers seemed to decide that the character wasn’t interesting enough with their established traits, desires, and dreams. That their story wasn’t worth telling without a love interest.
The McCoy-centric Star Trek novels revolve around McCoy reconnecting with his ex-wife or finding a new love interest. In Deep Space Nine, Odo’s dilemma about choosing between his people and his own moral code is undercut and thrown out the window to make his decision all about Kira. The movie originally planned to bridge the gap between Justice League and Justice League Unlimited – Crisis on Two Earths – shuttled J’onn onto his own side love story barely connected to the plot. Then in Unlimited, he was shuttled off the show for good so he could journey about and find his connection with humanity, which of course meant he was found with a wife in the series finale. The only Murdock-centric episodes of The A-Team were Murdock getting a girl.
And here it was happening again with Obi-Wan in The Clone Wars. Obi-Wan and his dedication to the Jedi Code had painted him into the prime stick-in the-mud role that I had been granted since elementary school. In the first season of The Clone Wars, he’s more a supporting character to the Ahsoka-Anakin show, “tsk”ing away at their antics so that we truly know those kooky kids are up to something. Then, at long last, Obi-Wan finally gets a story centered on his emotions and his internal life, and of course it’s another blasted romance.
At this point, you have noticed something. This is supposed to be a post for the #SWRepMatters day for women, and here I am griping about men. You’re right, and do you know why? My hang-up with each of these men is that the shows all gave them core traits to their personality and their worldviews that I deeply relate to. But then the shows decide that none of those internal lives are worth exploring outside the context of a romance. But at least it’s clear that they actually have those internal lives and those other, core traits.
In contrast, the internal lives of women and their primary core traits are rarely allowed to be anything but romance.
Not until Ahsoka Tano was a leading lady allowed an arc in Star Wars outside of falling in love. Leia had a strong personality and a clear moral compass, but while Luke was struggling with his destiny and Han was working through his knot of insecurities, Leia fell in love. From A New Hope to Return of the Jedi, that is the change granted her character. Rewatch The Empire Strikes Back again, watch how they establish her as a leader on Hoth and then completely take all that authority away from her so she can follow Han’s lead for the rest of the movie. Padmé gets off marginally better because she at least maintains her agency and authority in Attack of the Clones, but her internal journey is still to fall in love.
And it’s not isolated to these two characters. Even Ahsoka had a love interest dumped on her out of nowhere. Steela would later die to give that same love interest a sad. Poor Val is on screen to say, “romance is good, actually” and then die for a man who will barely think of her for the rest of the film. Rose clearly has to have latent jealousy towards Rey because of Finn. Hera… Hera actually has the one good romance in the entire damn franchise because actual respect and exploration is given to both her and Kanan outside of their romance. But it’s still one more leading female character that we can’t have exist without a romantic relationship. Even Sabine is viewed through the lens of Ezra’s crush for the entire first season of Rebels.
Before you drop mention of Phasma, Sloane, Talzin, Qi’ra, Pryce, the Seventh Sister, etc… guess what they all have in common? Villainy. Now, I do very much love Sloane and Qi’ra as much as I love all the heroines listed above, but the fact still remains: the lack of romantic emotions or the willingness to reject romantic emotions is tied to villainy. To selfishness. To inhumanity. To cruelty. Consider Ventress, whose arc towards good may have begun with her desire for sisterhood, but that which which tipped her over to the Light was a blasted romance. Which she died for.
There is some intersectionality that needs to be acknowledged here, especially when it comes to race. As a white woman, I have plenty of representation in media as a love interest. (Yay.) Women of color do not. That is also essential representation. I’m not here to say that all romance is bad, and Star Wars should be devoid of it entirely. I’m just here to point out that for me, Star Wars is a cacophony adding to the message I’ve heard howled at me my whole life.
You are not whole.
You are broken.
You are immature.
You are not acceptable on your own.
You have one job in this lousy world, and if you don’t do it, you are selfish and/or unworthy of affection.
It’s a passive and yet aggressive assumption on my life. Unprompted, my dreams and opinions are sliced out from under me, reframed in the context of romantic and sexual attraction.
Attending a STEM-centric college means I’m gunning for that MRS. degree. Not dating a Nice Guy means I’m clearly pining after a Bad Boy. If I have an opinion about a movie, it’s because I clearly think the actor is hot. When I find the right guy, I will be so eager to have sex. But don’t worry, because I’ll make someone a great wife someday. When that happens, I will cease to be invisible to the church and finally be referred to by “…wife of [insert husband here].” And that day surely is not far away because those friends who I thought were helping me with a thing because they believed in the thing were actually there because they were gonna get a shot at a date.
It gets worse when I push back on these assumptions, because then, oh boy oh boy, do folks really get up on my business. I mean, I was clearly assaulted at some point, or at the very least hurt by a past relationship. But don’t you worry, these folks know a guy, and we’ll be really cute together. No don’t ask them to stop, because I just need to get over something broken in me and then I can go be cute with that guy. Or that guy over there. Oh… oh wait, I really don’t want to talk about this and I’m laying down my boundary politely but firmly? Well in that case, I’m clearly repressed by religion and am now oppressing them by not wanting to talk about it.
Fun fact: that last one was dropped on me as I was writing this very essay.
And yes, I do have hurt in my past that prevents me from connecting with people, wounds from friendships. But, of course, the internal platonic lives of women don’t really matter. My job after all is to fall in love. I’m not mature until I have some sexual awakening. I’m not an adult until I’m married. I’m not worth crap to society, and my story isn’t worth telling unless I’m mashing mouths with someone.
As someone who is asexual and aromantic, that’s a hard message to live with.
You’ve likely heard of the other orientations, all defined by who they are attracted to. My orientation is defined by who I am not attracted to, which is any and everyone. I don’t experience sexual attraction or romantic emotions, and that can be so difficult to explain. It’s the absence of a response that everyone around you treats as natural. As more than natural. As a woman, this is treated as my core purpose in the world.
Star Wars author Justina Ireland sums this struggle up beautifully in her original novel Dread Nation (mild spoilers ahead). The protagonist, Jane, has been assuming for the entire novel that her companion Kate has eyes for Jane’s old flame. Jane’s point of view turns all of Kate’s corrections on the matter into embarrassed denials of affection. It’s one of many areas of friction between them. Then, in a moment of vulnerability and solidarity, as Jane tries to comfort Kate by saying that she could find a future in marriage, the truth comes out.
“I definitely don’t want to be someone’s wife. I don’t want a man.”
I shift uncomfortably next to her. “Is this your way of telling me you fancy women?” Not that I mind that. I’ve been distracted by a pretty face every now and again myself. But trying to imagine Katherine pledging herself to a life as a spinster doesn’t quite fit.
Katherine jumps to her feet and begins to pace. “No! I don’t fancy anyone. I’ve seen the way you look at Mr. Gideon and I’ve seen the way you look at Jackson. I’ve even seen the way you used to look at Merry Alfred when she was at Miss Preston’s. …But I don’t feel that way about anyone, Jane. I never have and I’m not sure I ever will.”
“Oh, well, there’s nothing wrong with that.”
“But that’s what makes it so hard. I don’t want to get married. I don’t want to chase after some man or set up housekeeping with another woman. I’m just not interested. I want to see the world! I want to write my own future.”
Kate’s dream is my dream, and it’s in the stories I got to see walked out by male character like Obi-Wan Kenobi. So it was always in their shoes that I placed myself.
Thus did Satine Kryze feel like another slap to the face. Another voice telling me that people like me have no place in a story. That to be acceptable to society, to have a future, to be a leading character, I must be romantic. In one fell swoop, Obi-Wan was yet another character taken from me, and of course it was done by a major female character who was introduced solely to be a love interest.
But then, something magnificent happened. Or rather, something didn’t happen, and it was magnificent.
Obi-Wan and Satine confess their feelings for each other. And then move on. It recedes as a primary trait from both their lives. Their humanity and goodness did not rely on romance being the end-all, be-all of their emotional journey. Rather their goodness was defined by their dedication to something higher than romance. Satine to her people. Obi-Wan to the Jedi.
From “Voyage of Temptation” on, Obi-Wan and Satine both get moments in the spotlight as whole people unto themselves. Their internal journeys are centered on their callings, and they remain loyal friends. They still find worth in each other outside the confines of romance.
Watching this play out with two characters I deeply relate to and respect, I feel a little less hollowed out. A little less unworthy. A little more whole.
It’s in stories like these that I suddenly feel seen.
Not as the half of some duo I was never meant for.
Not as selfish for wanting to be someone on my own terms.
But just me.
And that’s enough.
And my story is worth telling.