What can strike a social critic about the fantastic vistas of science fiction and fantasy is both how starkly different and how suspiciously similar they are to those of our own very real world. It’s been remarked upon in many ways that sci-fi and fantasy too often give us a world of magical whizbang, whether it’s in the form of dragons or spaceships, yet present the gamer or reader with a social world that is forced to be an analogue of their own.
This social world is the world of racial, gendered, class-based, and sexual relations; it remains all too rare that writers of SF/F dare to use the blank easel of their fantasy to imagine different relations of that particular sort. Star Wars, of course, proves to be an example of this.
Being both a fan of the Knights of the Old Republic series and a total dork I decided to peruse the bios of the various characters from the first game. As many who’ve played it might know, one regularly finds women in positions of power, authority, and strength throughout the game. Several of your companions on your main quest in this RPG are women of varying personality types shown to have equal capacities and skills to their male counterparts. Even some of the smaller, secondary characters stood out as strong women rather than window dressing. One such woman was Admiral Forn Dodonna which Wookiepedia glowingly described:
Admiral Dodonna was a very strong-willed woman. After all, she was one of the few female fleet commanders in recorded history. Despite her gender, she was respected by her officers, and they served with her faithfully. Dodonna was a very compassionate person, and cared for her entire fleet, showing concern for it and considering a retreat several times during the Battle of the Star Forge. Dodonna was also appreciative of those who helped her, and she was modest enough to accept help when offered. Dodonna awarded the crew of the Ebon Hawk with the Cross of Glory, and gave them credit for the battle’s outcome, not keeping any of the glory for herself.
Yet look again at that paragraph. “One of the few female fleet commanders in recorded history”? According to the citations this comes directly from the canonical Complete Star Wars Encyclopaedia. But how could this be? Let’s take stock of the dimensions of our problem for one moment here. The Republic as an entity- the political union in whose military Admiral Dodonna served- has been around for twenty thousand years. Real life humans haven’t been able to write for that long, yet the Republic has existed as a high civilisation with faster than light speed technology for twenty millennia. Think on this for a moment. Just as they are more advanced than us technologically, it stands to reason that in all of that time there might have been concomitant social advances as well. On top of this, the Republic was merely the beginning of intergalactic political union, advanced civilisations had existed for millennia prior to its founding.
What’s more, the Republic is hardly monolithic; it’s made up of countless species from literally millions of member worlds with highly diverse cultures. To again cite Wookiepedia:
“ The exact number of planets in the Republic fluctuated, ranging from three million worlds to just over a thousand, but in 21 BBY it was a little less than 1.3 million planets,”
“The Galactic Republic had a very diverse culture. Member worlds were able to maintain their own culture in accordance with local beliefs, customs, and traditions. There was a wide variety of different cultures within the Republic: from religious communities like the Jedi to hive-like communes.”
So, given all of this it seems quite reasonable, from a sociological perspective, to ask: how, in all of this time, with all of these trillions of people coming from every culture imaginable, did no one think it a good idea for the Republic military to not discriminate against women?
This is one example among a multitude one can find in SF/F of magical thinking that enables the writers and developers to create a world that is socially identical to ours. To be sure, we live in a society where women generals and admirals are altogether rare as a result of the longstanding patriarchy that has existed in many of Earth’s societies. Yet no halfway decent explanation is given of what the Republic’s story is here. Why should their gender arrangement be anything like ours? No answers appear forthcoming, one is left to conclude that it is ‘just the way things are.’
Fast forward a few more millennia in the galaxy’s history up to the events of the Star Wars films themselves and we find, of course, a world in which Leia Organa appeared, at times, to be the only woman. Padme Amidala was similarly situated in the prequels. Since I also grew up as a nerd I read a lot of the Star Wars expanded universe novels as well, and it can be said of them that many do a somewhat better job representing gender than the films do. Yet they too need to be critically examined. Let’s look at another admiral, one from those books (and one that I love, admittedly).
While she was a talented student and officer at the Imperial Academy, she was continually passed over for promotion due to her gender, though accounts by Imperial military officers said that she argued too much. To take out her frustrations toward the male-dominated military, she made herself a false computer identity. Under this alias, Daala was able to defeat many high-level officers, including some of her own instructors, in simulated battles. Many of her tactics were based upon ideas formed by former Galactic Republic commander Jan Dodonna. Her tactics were studied and implemented throughout the entire Imperial military, despite the fact that no one was aware of her true identity. Daala graduated from the Academy, but ended up a non-commissioned officer in the Imperial Army.
Note again the presence of unexplained and always-already extant systematic sexism. Clearly, Daala is situated as a character who beat the system, who heroically overcame the patriarchal establishment of the Imperial Army and beat them at their own game. She is there to be sympathised with, even cheered on in her efforts to defeat sexism. Yet the other side of the narrative is that this is all too familiar to real women in our world who have to combat stereotypes and degradation, working twice as hard to be seen as half as good. Why is this a problem in a diverse society with countless millennia of high civilisation? This is never explained. Once again, it merely exists.
The Empire, unlike the Republic that preceded it, was explicitly patriarchal rather than nominally so. There were actual laws and decrees restricting much of the power structure to men only. It was precisely this ideology that Daala fought on her way to becoming an admiral. This certainly adds to the aura of fascist evil that the Empire was supposed to represent yet what always bothered me was that an explicitly (and familiarly) patriarchal ideology had somehow sprung up out of nowhere. What social forces had gathered that made this form of patriarchy an inevitable development? One could argue that the soft patriarchy of the Republic lead to it but that too is unexplained and it remains turtles all the way down. The real answer is, of course, that this form of patriarchy was what the people writing Star Wars books knew and took for granted, even if they nominally disagreed with it. It was the only social organisation imaginable to them.
But the cost is a fantasy universe lacking in sociological verisimilitude. Given all of the conditions operating on the Republic, and then on the Empire, patriarchy seems to arise from nothing and against a whole host of social forces that would act as countervailing winds.
What makes Daala’s backstory even more infuriating is how she became an admiral:
Due to her talents, she soon gained the attention of Moff Wilhuff Tarkin. He investigated Daala’s hidden exploits at the Academy, hiring two black-market slicers who worked for several months to find the identity of the hidden strategist. He was pleasantly surprised to discover her true identity. At the time, Daala held the rank of corporal and had first been a computer clerk, then a member of the kitchen staff preparing food for Star Destroyers. When the Carida staff discovered her identity, they planned to reassign her to a meteorological station at the planet’s southern pole. However, Tarkin took her on as his protégé and mistress, using his influence to bypass the normal military hierarchy and promote her. Daala eventually received the rank of admiral…
Many quietly complained that Daala was sleeping her way to the top. When one of those remarks made its way back to Tarkin, he searched out the officer who had made it. He had the officer sealed inside an environmental suit and ejected him into the space over a planet as punishment. Tarkin had the suit’s radio left on so that others could hear the man over the course of 24 hours as his orbit decayed. The officer’s orbit decayed to the point where he finally entered the planet’s atmosphere and burned upon reentry. However, the allegations were in fact partly accurate, as Daala did have an affair with Tarkin.
A common trope that afflicts exceptional powerful women who are portrayed in worlds like this is precisely this Daddy’s Little Girl syndrome where the average reader/gamer is left to conclude that this woman got to where she was because she A) was the daughter of a powerful man or B) slept with a powerful man.
It is certainly true that among a welter of patriarchal resistance strategies that women may employ, taking advantage of one’s father’s station or even using one’s body are part of that toolkit. But their vast over-emphasis in male-dominated media represents a fixation on the part of men to ensure that these are the only ways women with power could ever be explained. As always and forever requiring the generosity and defence of a man. In the above example with Admiral Daala we find that Grand Moff Tarkin took it upon himself to violently execute a man who accused Daala of getting her station only through sexual favours, an act of brutality to be quite sure. Yet the ‘neutral’ author of the Wookiepedia entry agrees with the hapless officer by saying that the allegations “were in fact partly accurate.”
Over the course of the expanded universe series Daala demonstrates her competence and skill again and again, but is always marked by the stigma of being Tarkin’s mistress. An opportunity to do something unique with a woman character ends up reiterating a welter of sexist clichés that arise out of unexplained social relations.
To return to Admiral Dodonna, who at least seems to owe her station to none but herself, we find her in a world where women are in abundance. Bioware and Obsidian, in crafting the KotOR universe, show women in a variety of roles. Jedi, scholars, soldiers, corporate executives, mercenaries, random bad guys, politicians and administrators, Sith officers, and more. Thus it remains very much unexplained why patriarchy appears to pervade the upper tiers of social organisation in this world, and why the Star Wars Encyclopaedia saw no problem in saying that she was one of the few women commanders “in recorded history.”
This magical thinking hinders the portrayal of women in countless games, and it operates similarly on people of colour. After all, it might not have escaped your notice that even among these exceptional women, they remain unanimously women of pallor. Why is everyone white? Well, they just are. Why is everyone heterosexual? ‘Cause. Why is everyone cisgender? Ciswhatnow?
We simply always ‘happen’ to have a society in which the relations of ruling are all but identical to our own.
In Star Wars we find a decade’s worth of progress stretched out over twenty thousand years. A twenty millennia decade where technology excelled but society remained oddly stagnant. This is not to suggest, by way of the mythology of inevitable progress, that patriarchy could not endure for 20,000 years. But the issue is that no reason is given for it, hardly any at all in the copious materials written about the SW universe. It is presented as something that is always already there, something that is just natural and unquestionable in its universality. The rare exceptions, like the matriarchal Hapan, are set up precisely as male-nightmares in stark contrast to the familiar and safe world in which the rulers are men and there are only token women in positions of power. Such exceptions also serve to subtly suggest that if women ever became anything more than tokens that it would necessarily come at the expense of men and result in their oppression; the male nightmare writ large.
In all of this I still love Admiral Dodonna, of course. Admiral Daala is also a favourite villain of mine, one whose morality becomes deliciously complex as the EU books roll on. Ysanne Isard presents a more unalloyed villainy. And in the upcoming Old Republic MMO we have General Garza, an older woman clearly defined by her skill and who is set to play an interesting role in the evolving story of that game. One just wishes that writers and developers would let go of their attachment to our rather boring old distribution of power. We can tell empowering stories about women without using clichés about being the only woman to do so and so, emphasising the particularity of women’s situation rather than the limitless possibility accorded to sci-fi men. If we must romp through familiar gendered space, give us a reason worthy of your universe’s vastness in your universe’s own terms. Make it interesting and compelling, call attention to it and set it front and centre for your gamers and readers to mull over.
 It should be said that Isard’s history is a bit more complicated. Her own story goes as follows: “ Ysanne was incredibly ambitious, and, after flourishing and growing into an expert field agent, she began to plot her ascension behind his back. She did not take advantage of her father’s position, using her own talents—augmented by her vigor and ruthlessness when dealing with enemies of the Empire—to rise above her peers.” This distances her from the trope, yet Isard gained her not inconsiderable skill from her father’s tutelage and thus she does not entirely escape it.