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[Guest Post] Ahsoka Tano: A Reader-Submitted Found Feminism

2012 March 14

Here’s a guest post reader Michael Pereira sent us which then generated a mini-discussion, so there’s also a little bit of BadRep Towers Q&A tacked on the end.

I’m a massive fan of Star Wars – from back when I was growing up watching old VHS tapes containing 1980s commercials (and that fizzy line that would go down the screen indicative of tape data decay), to the voluminous novels and graphic novels I read as an awkward teenager, through to the infamous new trilogy with all its flaws – and there definitely are many flaws. Even if we excuse the bad dialogue of 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, the ongoing debate about the canonicity of the Star Wars timeline, or even Jar Jar Binks, there are distinct flaws present in the first trilogy which make the films fare pretty badly in the politics of difference.

For a fantasy science fiction world with all kinds of alien species, the first Star Wars trilogy didn’t fare well in terms of embracing real-life social diversity. There were very few non-white or female characters, and when they were present as main characters, they weren’t exactly charitable representations. Leia is defined first by the fact she is female (gold bikini, anyone?), and (perhaps because there are so few women in the galaxy?) even her own brother is initially attracted to her. Although Leia had many heroic tendencies, the original trilogy would surely fail the Bechdel test since there are so few women visibly present in speaking roles. Don’t get me started on the lack of (human) ethnic diversity – put it this way, when the species of Mon Cala mari are better represented than human diversity, you know something’s wrong.

This aside, I’ve quite enjoyed a recent offering from the Star Wars cash empire: the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars (or TCW). The premise of the series is that it’s supposed to take place in the couple of years between Episodes II and III. The later novels and films have integrated a little bit more diversity into the series, even trying to retcon why there are so few women around in the Empire (it’s due to the Emperor’s sexist ideology).

TCW is set in the period where destined future villain Anakin Skywalker is now an established Jedi Knight and takes on an apprentice of his own. The moment of Found Feminism for me arrives with the five-foot-something appearance of his apprentice: the awesome Ahsoka Tano. Ahsoka (nicknamed ‘Snips’) is an unruly teenage Jedi whose aggression and flagrant disrespect for authority is markedly similar to Anakin’s.

After some reflection, I found myself liking Ahsoka more and more. She’s a swashbuckling Jedi risking her life on a regular basis with bravery and self-sacrifice, but sometimes she also shows a capacity for self-criticism and learning, and at no point do the other Jedi pass demeaning comment on her on the basis of her gender, nor is she defined as a character by any sense of sexuality. Most of the criticism she does receive comes as a result of her young age and brash manner. It’s refreshing to see a character like her represented in a less gendered way, and that the ways in which she is both awesome and flawed don’t come down to essentialist concepts of femininity or female sexuality. She isn’t depicted in a putative gendered manner – even when other Jedi such as Anakin or Mace Windu are exemplars of a archetypical masculinities, from ‘hunky hearthrob’ to ‘badass motherf*cka token black guy’, Ahsoka’s merits as a character come from her inner resolve, personal strength and her commitment to the Jedi Order and the Galactic Republic, and not her looks, what she wears or who she fancies.

Granted, I suspect most episodes of TCW fail to pass Bechdel, and there are few moments of female interaction which do not involve talking about men1 It’s hard to call TCW a ‘feminist’ show by most stretches, but it is refreshing that this action-packed show, which has little to do with romance, does not exclude women from roles of leadership and armed conflict.

BadRep Towers: Thinking about Star Wars continuity for a moment, Ahsoka obviously isn’t in the movies. Although LucasFilm isn’t exactly famous for continuity, what do you think will happen to her at the end of the series?

I think she’s going to die, but the question of her fate will probably be answered in the final (perhaps 5th?) season. The show builds up a positive and somewhat simplistic view of the Republic, partly because it’s a kid’s show, but there’s a sense of pathos for the older audience who know all the relationships between the clones and Jedi will break down – and that Palpatine is really the bad guy. Ahsoka’s death is prophesised between the episodes 3×09-13, but these episodes were very weird and hard to interpret.

BadRep Towers: We found some forum posts from parents saying how much their daughters admire Ahsoka – though there are a few questions about her costume being raised which we also thought were interesting – do you think her bare midriff is a less applaudable design decision, or does it fit well with her teenage tearaway identity?

This is one subject that I didn’t want to acknowledge because it’s so complicated – but it is a critical consideration if we’re looking at this as feminists. I just did a Google image search to remind myself of her different outfits, and I found some fanart, ‘sexy’ cosplay outfits, and a few actual pictures from the series. In a way, I think that reinforces the answer I was originally going to give to you. My view is this: the show is expressed through a male gaze in the sense that in a series about war, technology, weaponry and realpolitik, almost all of the people in positions of authority (clone commanders, Jedi generals, Palpatine, Dooku, Yoda etc) are men. To be honest, I don’t know how to interpret Ahsoka’s bare midriff. In one sense you might say that because it’s science fiction, all kinds of kooky outfits can exist to highlight non-human styles and costumes. You might also say that female Jedi tend to dress a little bit differently to male Jedi. On the other hand, when I did that Google search, under ‘related searches’ there’s ‘ahsoka tano pregnant’. I’ve also found some fairly sexualised fan pictures. So I think it’s fair to say that among a large number of (probably) male fans, her outfit has been interpreted as ‘sexually provocative’.

I think this is the kind of issue that people will have to interpret in their own way – just because she dresses in a certain way that some men definitely think is sexual, doesn’t mean there isn’t scope for alternative interpretations. However, I’m no sociologist, and I’m not a woman. I lean on the side that it’s a bit ‘male gaze’ since Padawans would officially wear something like what Obi-Wan did in Episode 1, and judging by some of the fanart out there of what is a fictional teenage girl.

BadRep Towers: Touching on something you said earlier about heroines being defined by sexuality or romantic roles – do you think Ahsoka’s relative lack of sexuality is actually, perhaps, an existing trope? I’m thinking of young female warriors such as Joan of Arc (what TVTropes calls the ‘Jeanne D’Archetype’, although they list Leia as an example, which might not fit your take on her!). I like Joan-type figures so I don’t see this as a bad thing, but I think it’s interesting that trends in TV and Hollywood are often so overbearing that a reaction against “defining women by their sexuality” is to remove sexuality wholesale. Would you put her down as a Jeanne D’Archetype?

The short answer is that I’m not quite sure how to think about this issue. There are so few female characters in significant roles in TCW – 3-10 characters represent the whole of the galaxy’s female gender. As you point out, Jeanne D’Archetype is defined in non-sexual terms, and Ahsoka fits this. She also has a rare force power that can see the future, so that and being part of a religious order kind of puts her strongly in this trope. But without doing a discourse/content analysis on 80 episodes of the show, there are a good few instances of other significant female characters portraying a sexual/romantic dimension. Padme’s is Anakin’s secret wife; Duchess Satine has a hinted romantic relationship with Obi Wan (but she isn’t defined by it) and there is a controversial banned clip of one episode where the dark Jedi Asajj Ventriss kisses a clone as she kills him.

I think it’s quite notable that Ahsoka is one of the most important female characters and is not defined by who she fancies. Of all the things I am currently watching and streaming, it’s probably the only instance.

  • Michael moderates and blogs at Noumenal Realm and tweets at @NoumenalRealm. Last year at a talk he gave, Michael was critiqued for perpetuating a ‘white and bourgeoisie elitism’ for his Kantian/Adorno-influenced views on art and culture. If it’s possible for a British Asian from a working class background to be accused of being a white dead German, he supposes its okay for him to be accused of being a feminist too. His favourite character in Star Wars is Palpatine.
  1. Examples of this include Ahsoka working with Jedi Apprentice Barriss Offee on a difficult mission where they are on their own without support, and an instance where Senator Amidala works with head of state Duchess Satine of Mandalore to solve a corruption scandal, each expressing their political values along the way. []
One Response leave one →
  1. Tammy permalink
    March 19, 2012

    To be a little bit blunt, I had high hopes that Ashoka would grant the female audience a most believable portrayal of a padawan progressively taking her place in the grander scheme of things, but the truth of the show is that she is a Mary Sue, typically uppity, at times outright disrespectful and chaotic towards her mentor, and since she most notoriously gets ‘everything right’ on the first go, as opposed to him, she’s just another power girl on a typical power girl trip. The lack of normality and true humility alongside the traits of becoming a jedi master turned me away from the show. Many fans dislike her attitude, and so do I. You can be a girl, you can have power, and you can act and it all out in a presentable way without disrupting every ongoing process around you, because all the heads keep turning. You don’t need all of the attention, all the time. Ashoka though, leaves little room for anything but.

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