Using the Force: How Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaches us to stop fearing women in combat

Let’s forget about Luke Skywalker. You and I both know that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is not really about him at all. For once, a man gets to be little more than a convenient plot device in a movie. I know I’m supposed to care about Luke, but my childhood hero was his sister, not him.

The Force Awakens is really a movie about why we should stop fearing strong women, and women in combat in particular. The Force Awakens is, of course, the classic tale of good versus evil, and struggle for who will dominate the galaxy. The Force may be strong on each side, but the Resistance has something the First Order doesn’t: equality. Ultimately, The Force Awakens is a morality tale on the importance of gender equality in achieving organizational success.

Women’s presence in the First Order occurs on a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it basis, not unlike the Supercut of all the Non-Leia Female Dialogue in the original trilogy.  In The Force Awakens, the First Order loses because they can’t be bothered by women. At minimum, they haven’t thought much about recruiting women to their faction. Look carefully, and you’ll spot few women in the First Order’s ranks. Captain Phasma is the most obvious, but she doesn’t get to do much other than hold a gun and play tough. Phasma’s even a problem, because she gives in to Finn with no second thought. She might get a little more to do in the next film, but since she didn’t really do her job well at all in The Force Awakens, it’s likely that Kylo Ren has other plans for her. Beyond Phasma, if you pay close attention you might notice several women hidden amongst the rank-and-file desk clerks in the control room on the StarKiller Base (one female Storm Trooper even tells Kylo Ren there’s a problem in the prisoner area). That’s it.

Finn’s own behavior illustrates the First Order’s clear cultural bias of classifying women as a subordinate, protected group. When he meets Rey, his first impulse is to “rescue” her from the fight she’s in, and his second impulse is to grab her hand and guide her, shielding her from the First Order’s attack. Finn assumes Rey needs protection, and never quite lets go of this belief at least as long as he’s conscious. If you cut the lines “Are you okay?”, I’m pretty sure Finn would have basically no speaking part left. Finn is so preoccupied with his inculcated sense of men-as-superior-beings that he doesn’t even get to witness Rey’s final stand, in part because he believed she needed protection.

Finn’s protective instincts towards Rey demonstrate the results of growing up in a culture that views women as second-class citizens. Although he wants to extract himself from this culture for his own reasons, he never quite breaks the habit. While there are female Storm Troopers, Captain Phasma is even an anomaly – the exception, not the rule.

It’s clear that the First Order is a culture that thrives on both assimilation and masculinity within the ranks. When most members in the organization wear the same body armor and helmets, it’s easy to ignore women’s presence at all. It’s okay to have a woman in a leadership role like Captain Phasma because regulations keep her gender in line. Women’s presence is permissible, but in order to serve in combat they must cover their gender identity altogether. Consequently, Finn doesn’t think about the fact that a woman might be able to fend for herself because he doesn’t ever see women in combat as women, but only as Storm Troopers. Erasing women’s gender identities under helmets might seem like a great way to create a post-gender binary culture, but not so much.

Storm Trooper uniforms make gender assimilation possible, but that makes things better for men, not women. Women can be Storm Troopers because they can be hidden: it’s possible to forget (or never know) which Storm Trooper is female, which means their presence doesn’t jeopardize male domination. Even the more visible female presence in the StarKiller Base command center is non-threatening because the women there always take orders given directly by men.

From top to bottom, the First Order’s women are there to do the men’s bidding, from Supreme Leader Snoke to General Hux and Kylo Ren. In the First Order, men – and these men in particular – make the decisions and drive the action.  It’s the ultimate boys’ club, in which Captain Phasma can be tolerated because she’s not really necessary and thus doesn’t disrupt the balance in their force.

In contrast, women are key to the Resistance’s success from start to finish. Women participate as women: there are no indications that anyone fears someone’s gender will hamper a mission. All participants are valued. Working as a whole, in the Resistance, the feminine and the masculine balance and team together to achieve success. (Not so in the First Order, where everything is about masculinity and the only remotely feminine thing about the First Order’s leadership is the length of Kylo Ren’s hair.)

From the beginning, it’s clear that General Leia Organa is in charge, leading a “mission to restore peace and justice to the galaxy”. While that could be an anomaly, once we arrive at the Resistance you can’t help but notice women everywhere. It’s Kylo Ren’s worst nightmare, given that he lives in a world dominated by male power. In the Resistance, women plan and execute missions, present around the drawing board, in the fighter planes, and on the ground. To the Resistance, women are essential, from General Leia Organa on down.

The Resistance has a lot to teach the U.S. military, which has been trying to fit women into a heavily male-focused organization since World War 2. Since 1948, women have been legally permitted to serve in all military branches, but only now are all gender-based combat restrictions being eliminated. In the process, the latest political commentary has turned to the question of drafting women. All of this seems to frighten many Americans, who assume women aren’t strong enough to perform in combat, or find it inappropriate based on traditional gender roles. While no one wants a draft (we haven’t had one since the late 1970s), even the spectre of making women register for Selective Service is enough to send hardened politicians wailing in the streets to bemoan the fate of the nation’s women.

It’s enough to make Leia’s and Rey’s eyes roll. Star Wars may take place light years away from here, but we could learn a lot from the gender culture in the Resistance.

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One thought on “Using the Force: How Star Wars: The Force Awakens teaches us to stop fearing women in combat

  1. Pingback: To Learn the Trick* – Smart Women Write

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