The Darker Side: Gender and Torture in Star Wars

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Spring 2015


The torture scenes in Star Wars often feature male dominance over women or the comic torture of droids. In medieval literature one finds similar scenes of torture. Medieval torture could be comic in some instances if the violence was over-the-top or the victim seemed to deserve it. In Marie de France’s Bisclavret, the wife tortures her husband about his lycanthropy, only to be tortured herself and have her nose ripped off by her werewolf husband as punishment for her betrayal. The punishment she receives is exaggerated, and as a character she does not provoke much pity as Marie presents her. In Return of the Jedi, one finds another female torturer in Jabba’s Palace, the droid EV-9D9. The torture EV-9D9 inflicts on other droids is comedic, since droids can almost always be put back together, like C-3PO in The Empire Strikes Back. At the same time, however, Star Wars presents droids as a peasant underclass—adding a serious note to these torture scenes. EV-9D9’s female gender and the similarity of her name to “Eve” also imply some serious sexism. The importance of scenes in which Princess Leia is tortured, then, cannot be understated. Leia recalls various tortured female characters presented sympathetically in medieval literature, female characters such as Fenice in Chrétien de Troyes Cligès. Like Fenice, Leia refuses to reveal knowledge the male torturer seeks (the location of the Rebel Base). Nevertheless, Leia is more active than Fenice, speaking out against her male captors repeatedly. In this way, Leia more closely resembles the famous St. Cecilia as presented in Chaucer’s “Second Nun’s Tale.” In her scenes on the Death Star with Tarkin, in particular, Leia is presented like a prototypical female Christian martyr. Indeed, Leia’s stoicism when faced with the destruction of her planet contrasts with Luke’s emotional reaction to the death of Obi-Wan, a character he’s only known for about an hour of screen time. We also see Leia’s stoicism when Han is frozen in carbonite and Chewbacca is emotionally compromised. When Han is tortured in Cloud City and repeatedly screams, Leia’s silence during her own torture (which we do not see) is highlighted by contrast. Finally, Leia takes her most active role in opposing torture by strangling her sadistic captor, Jabba the Hutt, to death. The various ways in which Leia endures torture demonstrate how important medieval notions of torture are to Star Wars.

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