Star Wars undermines female characters

The metal bikini worn by Carrie Fisher in Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi is an iconic piece of Hollywood history. It’s also obvious objectification. Fisher’s character, Princess Leia Organa, is literally a slave in the scene.

But that’s just part of how the Star Wars series uses costumes to sideline the power of its female characters as they become romantic interests to the male characters, say a pair of researchers at Florida State University in Tallahassee, US. Their analysis is published in journal Fashion and Textiles.

“Objectification is obvious with costumes like Leia’s gold bikini or Padmé’s black leather corset dress,” says co-author Mary C King. “There is a level of sexualisation with these costumes that is distinct and clear.

“What was most surprising for us is just how prevalent objectification is in Star Wars, even in the most subtle ways, such as bringing colour into a costume, or hairstyles becoming less severe once romance starts being introduced.”

In their study, King and her colleague track the costumes of Fisher and Natalie Portman, who plays Queen (later Senator) Padmé Amidala in episodes I, II and III, versus their romantic relationships and the films’ emphasis on their political power.

The researchers find that as the films focus more on the relationships, the female characters’ costumes become more revealing and more colourful, the shape of their bodies becomes more apparent, and their hairstyles become softer and more feminine.

They point out that the costumes do not necessarily have to change because the characters are entering into romantic roles, so the alterations represent the male gaze – valuing female characters as “erotic objects” to the audience (and in the plot) rather than as characters.

“As long as media continues to portray women in film as romantically and sexually appealing when they reveal more skin and diminish their power levels, they will continue to be objectified and viewed through the male gaze,” they write. 

They also note that although the films are marketed toward boys and men, a large proportion of both men and women in the US have seen the films.

“In film, women are frequently objectified both through their roles and their costumes,” King says.

“Yet, films also have the opportunity to send a message that a woman does not need to reveal or change physical aspects of her body, or have her position of power diminished, in order to be appealing to other characters or to a viewing audience.”

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