Light sabres, Tie Fighters and Jabba the Hutt – it’s all a bit phallocentric (willy orientated). Yup, the Star Wars films are just one of many Hollywood franchises that promote patriarchy and under-represent women. And the reason for this isn’t just that Hollywood is full of sexist men with limited imaginations but it’s also because George Lucas based the plot of the original trilogy on one of the most enduringly sexist story structures – the Hero’s Quest.
This story structure was explored and popularised by the mythologist Joseph Campbell in the mid 1900s. In brief, the quest is as follows: a young, male hero is called to action, he leaves home, learns new skills from (usually male) mentors, begins his quest, faces trials, proves his heroism, overcomes the dark father figure and eventually triumphs. Women tend to be tokenised as nasty seductresses in need of vanquishing or pretty trophies in need of saving. Campbell examined cultures around the world and throughout history and argued that this structure kept repeating itself hence the title of his book The Hero With A Thousand Faces – yup, 1000s of male heroes doing their phallocentric thing (probably with swords or giant laser sticks). Campbell adds in a bit of Jung, Freud and fairytale analysis – suggesting that these characters are manifestations of our psyche (as if we all have lots of little libidinous armed men running around our heads). He deigned the Hero’s Quest an archetypal story structure and called it a monomyth – a monolithic mythic structure because
he’s it’s such a big deal.
George Lucas, good friends with Joseph Campbell, based the first three Star Wars films on this structure – Luke is the hero, Yoda is his mentor, his call to action is the death of his foster parents, he rescues a princess, he fights a lot and there’s even the dark father figure who is both vanquished and made peace with. Of course, the twist was that the princess turned out to be the hero’s sister, so instead of the girl Luke got a bit of fame (and a metallic right hand).
However, one thing both Lucas and Campbell appear to forget to do is contextualise the Hero’s Quest. Rather than just assume it is some universal manifestation of the human subconscious in story form what if it’s such a pervasive story because it’s constantly used to justify the patriarchal conventions that many societies depend on. So many societies are run by and for men and it seems quite natural that this phallocentric (it’s a great word) bent appears in their stories, novels, movies and TV programmes. As is ever the case if we want to understand the human condition – and in this case it’s the recurrence of masculinist story structures – we need to contextualise it.
But there may be hope. Watching the trailer for the next Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, reveals characters of colour and female characters having lead roles (as well as being able to use The Force). Maybe the all-white boys club is finally coming to an end and the patriarchy is going the way of Darth Vader and the Old Republic. Of course, there will always be those who want to grab their
phalli light sabres and defend oppressive traditions but it’s time the next generation taught them a lesson. The lesson being that it’s not the princess who needs saving it’s the hero – saving from the clutches of an oppressive, violent and creatively dull (so dull it rewrites the same story over and over again, 1000 faces…more like 1000 yawns) patriarchal system.