Study: ‘Star Wars’ Costumes Weakened Female Characters

(CN) – The evolution of the wardrobes for female leads in the “Star Wars” movie franchise reflects the characters’ shifts from politically powerful positions to more passive, romantic roles, according to a study released Monday.

In this Oct. 5, 1978 photo, from left, actors Harrison Ford, Anthony Daniels, Carrie Fisher and Peter Mayhew take a break from filming a television special in Los Angeles to be telecast during the holidays. (AP Photo/George Brich).

The “Star Wars” film franchise is one of the largest of all time, raking in a combined worldwide box office gross of over $9.2 billion since the release of the first film in 1977. A YouGov poll found 69 percent of adults in the United States have seen the films.

Initially, the franchise received praise for featuring Carrie Fisher as Princess Leia Organa, a member of the Imperial Senate, and Natalie Portman as Padmé Amidala, queen of her planet Naboo. Both actresses played the characters as politically powerful figures and formidable fighters throughout the films.

The study, published Monday in the journal Fashion and Textiles, examined the changes in costumes for Padmé and Leia as their romantic relationships developed in Episodes I through VI – the prequels and original trilogy.

Researchers Mary C. King and Jessica L. Ridgway of Florida State University – who watched each of the six films twice and developed codes for various categories of images and sounds – say the costume changes took viewers’ focus away from the female characters’ positions of power and instead focused on their bodies.

“For years, Star Wars has been praised in popular media for its portrayal of strong and independent female characters, but it has also received criticism for how Padmé’s and Leia’s positions of power fade as their relationships evolve,” King said in a statement.

Padmé and Leia’s costumes and hairstyles diminished their power as they became the subjects of the male characters’ affections, a phenomenon in pop culture known as the male gaze.

“Objectification is obvious with costumes like Leia’s gold bikini or Padmé’s black leather corset dress,” King said. “There is a level of sexualization with these costumes that is distinct and clear.”

The authors, who used objectification theory in their analysis of the films, say when female characters are objectified by their costumes it results in women’s bodies being seen as existing only to please others.

They also suggested that since men are the primary viewing audience, according to the YouGov poll, “the male gaze may have more of an impact on the character development in order to make the female characters appealing to them.”

In Episode I, which hit theaters in 1999, Padmé holds substantial political power as Queen Amidala and is clothed in regal, elaborate dresses that reveal almost no skin and hide the shape of her figure. Her hair is either tightly wound or covered. According to the study, Queen Amidala’s costumes in the film – with their  imposing presence – were designed to remind viewers of her status as a respected, noble leader.

But as Padmé develops an onscreen romantic relationship in later episodes with Anakin Skywalker, played by actor Hayden Christensen, her costumes embrace an increased visibility of skin and body definition and softer hairstyles – markers of a loss of her power.

More revealing costumes and softer hairstyles also emerged for Leia as she fell from her position of authority in Episode IV, released in 1977 as “Star Wars.”

King said film studios and directors have an opportunity to tell their audience, especially young women, that female characters don’t need to relinquish power or reveal their bodies in order to be appealing to other characters or the audience.

The study did not consider the character development in other Star Wars stories, such as the animated series or the most recent film installments.

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