Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith

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The movie provided an opportunity to solicit responses on science fiction from my gang of male associates. It was striking how gendered those responses were, yet perhaps in ways specific to 2005.

Tamara Watkins

Star Wars' Melodrama, Sci-Fi and Man Culture

This reviewer gives Star Wars: Episode III two out of four Yodas. There are literary allusions, and lame dialogue. There is bad acting that’s very, very painful to watch. There are the visual and aesthetic delights we’ve come to expect from George Lucas’ Star Wars movies. The movie provided an opportunity to solicit responses on science fiction (sci-fi) from my gang of male associates. It was striking how gendered those responses were, yet perhaps in ways specific to 2005.

Gorgeousness and Melodrama

The story in Episode III picks up where it left off in Episode II, with an adult Anakin (Hayden Christensen) and Padme (Natalie Portman) in love and married. Anakin and Padme's star-crossed love affair is tragedy straight out of Sophocles: man loves woman; man impregnates woman; man fears for woman and their unborn child. Man then betrays his mentor in a misguided attempt to ensure his family's safety, only to destroy himself and his love in the process. Their orphaned twins are put up for adoption and raised separately. A tear-jerker? You bet. A central theme is that one will do anything for love, and that taking these measures can undo weak people. Yet the movie’s writing is sluggish and lacks emotional depth, in contrast to the sparkle and liveliness that the special effects and fight scenes provide. The script renders a potentially action packed and fast-paced movie into a slow-moving mess.

Religious and political tones to the plot make Episode III enjoyable to a viewer with a Christian history who sees its plot through her Bible goggles. Anakin is both Adam and Christ...if Christ gave in to temptation while dwelling in the wilderness. Through the eyes of New Testament theology, Anakin’s lovely Padme is Eve paying the wages of sin, death, for Anakin's inability to save her. Supreme Chancellor Palpatine is Satan, offering the tantalizing gift of knowledge to a desperate and seeking Anakin. The fall of the Republic is the fall of Man, thanks to Anakin's bite of the apple; the rise of the Empire is the rise of pain, death, darkness. The text can also be read to be a metaphor of another religious text, the George W. Bush presidency. Though the fall of the Republic and rise of the Empire was devised by Director George Lucas some three decades ago, several reviewers have noted that it still functions as a commentary on the Bush administration's political machinations and erosion of civil liberties.

It's hard to enjoy any scene with Hayden Christensen in it, so nearly the entire movie is unbearable. He’s less expressive than a piece of Amish furniture. The usually talented and capable Natalie Portman is equally unbearable and unable to cry on screen in a role that requires her to be convincingly sad. Her attempt to believably cry is the cinematic equivalent of nails on a chalkboard. Ewan McGregor, once again portraying Obi-wan Kenobi, is magnetic. He breathes life into each scene he's in--which is a wonderful, since he shares most scenes with the lifeless Christensen or Portman. Samuel L. Jackson reprises his role as a somewhat stiff Mace Windu. Ian McDiarmid's Palpatine is delightfully evil, even when his performance toes the line between capable and cartoonish.

Computer generated or simply drywall, the sets--like the costumes!--are absolutely gorgeous. Star Wars has always captured our attention and imagination by blending the futuristic with the medieval and Oriental. It's an amalgamation of what we know and what we don't know; it's perfect sci-fi. Special effects are amazing, too; but Lucas never fails in this department.

Sci-Fi Macho, Technology, and Colonialism

A majority of primary characters of Episode III are male, even important non-human characters like C-3PO, R2D2, Yoda, Chewbacca, and Greivous. Only Padme represents futuristic womanhood. Sci-fi is traditionally male-oriented, from Robert A. Heinlein's testosterone-filled novels to Star Trek's male-dominated power structure to Star War's male-ruled Empire. In an informal, unscientific poll, an overwhelming majority of my male associates stated that they enjoy sci-fi. Why is sci-fi so appealing to this group?

Several men interviewed listed its technology as their primary interest. Some rationalized that sci-fi's emphasis on technology makes science fiction a more "masculine" genre. One observed, "With all those machines [it is] definitely more masculine.… Machines have always had that masculine quality. Engines, grease, robots, gears. Not much about machines makes you really think women are into them. I know some [women] like that stuff but engineering is a male dominated field, isn't it?" While I have problems assigning gender to inanimate objects, I can see his point. I posit that gender help us filter the meaning of the technology, and that for men, technology is a way to see oneself and express culturally masculine impulses.

Another respondent discussed sci-fi technology's appeal to the tendencies of boys and men to want to dominate things outside themselves. "The technology provides a sort of fulfillment or satisfaction at having mastered the natural, physical world. [For] boys, it's more the feeling of power. For men, more the sense of having conquered nature. .... Boys like to think of dominating their environment; sci-fi provides a purer sense of this. The technological advances allow an individual to wield incredible amounts of power, or become more invincible." Could sci-fi be an outlet for their men's conqueror that they think feminism has attempted to silence?

Technology can be seen as strong, stable, and provides assistance and help to "weaker" entities; however, can also be cold, unfeeling, and can be used to dominate others. Technology is a prime representation of the contradictory characteristics our culture expects men to possess. Identifying with a major feature in the genre makes it more personal, but it also reinforces gender expectations and stereotypes. Using "masculine" words, concepts, and expectations to discuss technology brings additional cultural and historical baggage to the dialog. Domination, repression, and conquest are all "masculine" endeavors as well; and that is the very thing that technology is often used for, adding an automatic dimension of colonialism. Technology is used to dominate nature, to dominate others; it is the light-saber used to kill Younglings. It is the Empire, the wielder is a Sith.

Boys and men may fantasize about control, and remaining a sci-fi fan seems to be the easiest way to retain a child-like wonder of the world and a way of manipulating outside environments and entities without actually transgressing the parameters of politically correct and socially acceptable behavior. Sci-fi and technology don’t have to be negative and focused on the oppression of Others. A respondent commented, "As a boy, [sci-fi] was for escape from reality, where everyone wanted good, and individuals could wield great power over their surroundings." You don't have to be a Sith; you can be a Jedi. Technology can be used for good--it is the light-saber used to defend the Republic.

An appeal of sci-fi may be that it offers men living in an America increasingly affected by feminism (and anti-feminism) and a backlash against colonialism a way to explore their more "base" urges to dominate their environments. It is a way to fulfill the inculcated cultural expectations to dominate and explore while still living socially acceptable lives. They can experiment with "masculine" careers as captains, engineers, and astronauts without ever having to obtain the education or experience to literally do the job. Men and boys can fulfill cultural fantasies of being heroes by being Jedi, futuristic knights. They get to also fulfill the cultural expectation to be lotharios by fictionally experimenting sexually with a wide assortment of women without the risk of intergalactic gonorrhea.

Future Feminism, Gender, and Women in Power

Gender, gender-bending, and defiance of gender expectations are also present in sci-fi. When I asked about the presence of actual gender in sci-fi, a respondent replied, "Gender is only brought up in relationships, all of which are heterosexual, of course." If this is not an accurate statement about the genre in general, the insight it gives into the viewer himself is invaluable. The same respondent, minutes before making this statement, commented on the feeling of power and conquest boys and men find in sci-fi, yet he also sees an absence of actual gender in the genre. I wonder if this is because sci-fi gives mixed messages about gender “appropriateness” just as our culture gives mixed messages about the determinacy of gender and gender roles.

There is an increasing number of important and powerful female characters in sci-fi, which allows mainstream men to play with gender. One respondent familiar with a range of genres commented, "Sci-fi generally provides a utopian scene where most are no longer bent on exploiting each other, as in Westerns, Romance novels, et cetera. Women are addressed as 'sir' and 'mister,' for example. I think they could be redefined not as masculine, but as genderless. The masculine form was chosen just to fit old convention. I think sci-fi really tries to push that race/gender issues have been overcome." It pleases to the author to know men wouldn't be pulled to the genre by a culturally imbedded desire to dominate everything in their path. While fulfilling this urge may be one reason why the genre is appealing, it's only half of the equation.

Love of a genre of cinema isn't necessarily gender-specific. To narrow analysis of this topic to one gender is simply an exercise of trying to understand man culture better in the hope to facilitate cross-gender and cross-cultural dialog. At its best, contemporary sci-fi allows boys and men to see what living in a feminist near-utopia is like. Star Trek: Voyager’s Capt. Kathryn Janeway offers a glimpse of women in control of a starship who lead effectively and without overly grand displays of emotion. President Laura Roslin of the new version of Battlestar Galactica offers a vision of competent female leadership in the wake of not only the destruction of her planet but also a cancer diagnosis. Star Wars' Padme, although the victim of domestic violence which contributes to her death, is a political figure as well. Padme’s daughter, Leia, is a primary participant in the rebellion against the corrupt Empire.

Perhaps sci-fi’s confused combination of potentially destructive technology, conquest, and gender role expansion is the perfect metaphor for my generation in contemporary America. We want to be enlightened, to make the world a better place that is free of the constraints of unfair gender roles and expectations; yet unfortunately, capitalist Western culture often inspires us to dominate others we see as weak, and to destroy nature as we consume its resources.

The science fiction genre offers men now in their twenties a chance to see the fulfillment of what their mothers marched for in the 1960s and 70s; or it may be a chance to see a version of what their female associates long to see finally come to fruition. Men are just as capable as women of being feminists, and are just as capable of longing for a universe where power is equal. Perhaps together we can soon stop watching Star Wars movies and sci-fi for its “utopian scene” and start living it.

Tamara Watkins is an ESL instructor in the Washington, DC area.


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