Is Star Wars Sexist?

Leia

Is Star Wars sexist? Yes, it is.

I love the Star Wars movies, I think they’re amazing, I will watch them with my kids someday. But they are definitely sexist.

Perhaps you disagree. You might bring up Princess Leia, and argue that she’s a strong female character (which is true), and make other arguments, and then I’d counterargue, and it would turn into a big messy debate that solves nothing.

If only there was a simple, functional litmus test for deciding whether a movie is sexist or not.

Turns out, there is. It’s called the Bechdel Test.

The Bechdel Test: A movie passes the test if it meets the following criteria.
1. It contains two or more women who are named characters (i.e. not just extras)…
2. …who, at some point in the movie, talk to each other…
3. …about something other than a man.

In the entire original Star Wars trilogy – over six hours of film – there is not a single scene which passes the test.

Now try the Reverse Bechdel Test, looking for scenes with major male characters talking about non-female things. It’s easy. Pick almost any scene in the trilogy. Just off the top of my head:

  • The “Luke, I am your father” scene
  • The Obi-Wan vs. Vader duel
  • Han bragging about the Kessel Run
  • The “I find your lack of faith disturbing” scene
  • The “I am a Jedi, like my father” scene

To be clear: I’m not saying that Star Wars is anti-woman, or that George Lucas is a misogynist pig.

What I’m saying is that Star Wars has a massive, systemic, blatant bias toward men and against women, and that this same sexism is so universal in our society that few people even notice it.

The problem isn’t hatred. It’s blindness. If a movie is mostly about women, it’s a “women’s movie”; if a movie is mostly about men, it’s a “movie.”

And Star Wars is hardly alone. Other movies that fail the Bechdel Test include:

  • The entire Lord of the Rings trilogy
  • The Avengers
  • The Spider-Man movies
  • Blade Runner
  • The Godfather

If you’re curious, there’s even a website that classifies movies: BechdelTest.com. Yes, the site exists to make a point, so it’s likely somewhat biased too, but it’s very enlightening to browse there a bit. An enormous number of films fail. And even the ones that “pass” (like the Matrix movies and The Phantom Menace) often do so only on a technicality, or because of a single scene.

In fact, for you Trekkies out there, try this experiment. Can you think of a single episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation that passes the Bechdel Test? I can’t – and although a few probably do exist, I’d wager the ratio is something like 100:1, against. (Deep Space Nine and Voyager fare a little better on account of Kira and Dax, Janeway and B’Elanna.)

Granted, there are a few cases where a movie could fail the Bechdel Test and not be sexist. If your film takes place exclusively on the battlefields of the Civil War, there won’t be a lot of ladies. That’s simple history, and that’s legit. You could come up with other “acceptable failures” too. But such exemptions are rare.

So the next time somebody tells you that sexism is dead, or that feminism is obsolete, try doing a Bechdel experiment of your own on the next movie or show you watch, or book you read.

Or better yet: ask yourself, if you were directing a movie (or writing a book), would your own work pass the test? When I examine my own most recent novel, it isn’t easy to find such a scene. I spent a few minutes looking just now, and came up empty. Even if I do find one eventually, the scarcity is telling.

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6 responses to “Is Star Wars Sexist?

  1. I think even Alison Bechdel wouldn’t claim that the test is a litmus test for sexism in movies (it would be very easy to make a movie that passed the test but was sexist as hell, for example), but I think it’s still a very important thing to think about, because the test (and how many movies fail it) just show how male-oriented the vast majority of movies are. And as you say, the most striking thing is really how many movies that do pass squeak by because of one (often very short) conversation.

    I’ve written about this twice on my blog, by the way:
    http://u-town.com/collins/?p=1313
    http://u-town.com/collins/?p=3055

  2. TNG passes that test 1000 times over. Between Troi, Crusher, Guinan, Ensign Ro and a million guest stars they’re home free. Troi may not have been an Action Woman, but she was the ship’s counselor – that involves a lot of conversations that are not about boys. You should probably have picked a show you remembered a little better – your TNG memories are clearly fuzzy at best. Come on.

    • Of course TNG has a handful of prominent female characters, and of course there are some scenes that pass the Bechdel Test. The point is that the woman-to-woman non-male talks are vastly outnumbered by the man-to-man non-female talks. Count up the number of onscreen Troi counseling sessions, and subtract the ones that are with men or about men. I think the remaining number will be pretty low.

  3. The whole trilogy is a war, of good against evil. Thats why there aren’t any women.

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