Star Wars III: The Curse of Pregnancy

I learned long ago to leave my feminist sensibilities at movie theater doors, particularly when the feature is an overly hyped and commercialized blockbuster. So when I agreed to my partner's request that we go see Star Wars, Episode III: The Revenge of the Sith last weekend, I didn't expect much in the way of enlightened female characters.

Escaping the 100-degree desert heat, I settled in for some air-conditioned entertainment. And I got it.

And then, despite my best efforts, I got bugged.

Not because of the stilted and often ridiculous dialogue, or because of the seemingly endless light saber fight scenes. But because the single female character in the film was nothing more than a weepy girl, distressed and overdressed.

Of course when I was 6 and watched the first Star Wars movie, things weren't much better. For a few minutes we had Luke Skywalker's aunt. Then we had Princess Leia, who first appears as a mini-hologram and then as a kidnapped victim awaiting rescue, the classic damsel in distress. Though Leia gets more substantive as the film goes on, she's still mostly a sex symbol. But that was the 1970s.

It's 2005. We're well into the 21st century. Hell, this is sci-fi. We're well into the future. Why did this film feel like the Dark Ages?

Padme reminded me of all those disconnected and discarded mothers and wives of 19th century literature. Hester Prynne, Madame Bovary, and Charlotte Perkins Gilman's famed (and unnamed) protagonist in "The Yellow Wallpaper."

These women were bored, isolated, and stuck in society's limited expectations of them and much of their purpose and meaning depended on their husbands or fathers. Trapped and insignificant, it seemed the only power they had was to take their own lives--which they often did.

Despite the futuristic age in which she lives, things aren't much brighter for Padme, whose pregnancy renders her oddly helpless. Though supposedly a member of the Galactic Senate, she does little more than sit listlessly in an oversized living room watching the passing hovercraft and the multiple sunsets, waiting for her belly to grow and for Anakin to come home. The only thing that changes are her outfits.

According to the story, Padme was a talented and educated girl from the planet of Naboo. She became an apprentice legislator by age 11 and by 14 was the planet's queen. A principled ruler, she fought illegal occupations and cleverly restored freedom to her planet. When her term as Queen ended, she remained active in public service and became an outspoken senator, championing peaceful solutions to the galactic wars.

So what happened? Why does Padme spend this movie sentenced to an idle life at home in tearful silence? Is this what pregnancy does to women?

I'm wondering because for the past year or two I've been thinking about having a kid myself. Now, added to my usual litany of questions--do I have the money, will I still have time to write, can my body handle it--I'm wondering if pregnancy itself will make me lonely and dull. Will I become like Padme, stuck on the sofa, isolated, brushing my hair for hours, waiting for my partner to come home from work?

In my effort to answer the "Should I have a baby?" question, I spend a lot of time looking for role models. I look for mothers who still make it to book club, stay up on current events and show up for the dinner party. I look for pregnant women who read more than just mothering magazines, who dance and go running and converse about things other than diapers and babysitters. In short, I look for mothers and mothers-to-be who are active, smart women who still make it to Galactic Senate meetings.

I find nothing of the sort in Padme.

Of course, this is Hollywood. I should know better. But something strange has happened in the midst of my baby deliberations. The prospect of motherhood has opened up in me a sense of optimism. True, the world is a mess; true, Hollywood blockbuster films do little to challenge our brains; true, female characters in sci-fi movies seemly sadly un-evolved. But that doesn't mean I can't hope for something else.

After all, isn't science fiction supposed to stretch the boundaries of what is and lead us to a world of what if? What if Padme, pregnant and all, had kicked cyborg ass, used her diplomatic brain, and stood up for Jedi power? Then what?

Okay, I'm tampering with the storyline. But beyond Star Wars, if female characters in 21st-century science fiction sagas were smart, well-rounded, and consistently active participants in the drama, maybe they'd give young girls, women and mothers-to-be a hopeful world to look forward to. Instead of a sorry one to look back upon.


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