In 1972, John Lennon wrote a song called “Woman is the N****r of the World”. In my opinion, no song title has ever been truer. In more recent times there has been a change in the mentality; one that has taken far too long to have been readily accepted by society, specifically in Star Wars fandom. That it’s okay to be female and like Star Wars! I say “readily accepted” because unfortunately there are still too many who think that there is no issue when it comes to women and fandom. Coincidentally enough, these are the same folks who have not had to deal with being subjected to gatekeeping.
Women have been given a pretty raw deal since history can recall, despite the fact that in many cultures the female mythological figure is considered life-giving nurturers. The female king-slayer has been relegated to fiction and fantasy.
This raw deal has not been lost on legendary Japanese film director Kenji Mizoguchi, who grew up in a middle-class family until his father attempted to sell raincoats to Japanese soldiers during the Russo-Japanese War. Unfortunately for Kenji’s family, the war ended too quickly for his father to make any money, and as a result their family fell into poverty. Kenji witnessed his father’s brutal beatings of his mother and sister (which drilled into him resentment towards his father that would never leave him), until he was sent to live with his uncle, while his sister was sent to become a Geisha.
This ultimately had a significant impact on Kenji, understandably so, to the point where woman’s suffrage was a common theme in many of his films; Life of Oharu (1952), Ugestsu (1953) and Sansho the Bailiff (1954) specifically. All of these films centered around a time in Japan when women were basically second class citizens; slaves. They were expected to make sacrifices to ensure the men in their lives could achieve their goals.
In Ugetsu, the husband, Genjuro (Masayuki Mori) who is a pottery maker, returns home to his wife, Miyagi (Kinuyo Tanaka) with generous portion of money he made that day selling his pottery. Living a meager life up to this point, greed overcomes Genjuro, the next morning he sets out to the town market to offer his creations to a larger audience, at the consternation of his wife who is happy with their life the way it is. Miyagi repeatedly reminds her husband that money isn’t what she needs; all she needs is her husband and their young son. He ignores her pleas for him to remain home and departs with his friend and neighbor Tobei (Eitaro Ozawa) who has his own dreams of becoming a samurai. We see here clearly the male dreams and ego taking priority, being dictated to the female. The same themes in the novel Catalyst occurs when Galen Erso is contracted to help the Empire design the superlaser for the Death Star, resulting in uprooting his wife, Lyra, and daughter, Jyn, in the process.
The on-screen time between male and female characters is a microcosm of Japanese society at this time. By the end of the film much time has passed, Genjuro returns home only to discover his wife has passed on and his son is now in the care of the village chief. He sees the error of his ways takes over care for his son and vows never to let greed corrupt his mind again. The moral of the story is that if he’d listen to his wife Miyagi, and had been satisfied with family life as it was, and not let money dictate his decision, his life would be very different. It could be argued that he tried and failed to improve his family’s well-being, but at what cost?
Sansho the Bailiff saw the moral town governor ousted from the village by a corrupt feudal lord. The mother Tamaki (also played by Kinuyo Tanaka), is forced to relocate with her two children, son; Zushio, and daughter; Anju. Eventually the mother is sold into prostitution and the children are forced into slavery. Even though both children are instilled with their father’s teachings that everyone deserves to be happy and treated with humanity, as Zushio grows into a teenager he loses that philosophy to time and becomes a slaver himself. All the while Anju maintained her father’s life lessons.
Without giving away any details, Zushio and Anju escape the slave camp and reunite with their mother who is now decrepit and blind. In both films, Mizoguchi has the wives/mothers either keeping up the home life while the husband goes off on a grand journey in which he marries another woman, or turning to prostitution to stay alive. Obviously neither choice is preferable.
The path is drawn — from male-centric feudal times in Japan and elsewhere — where women were treated as subservient members of society, to the present day, when much progress has been made, but there’s still a long way to go for women to stand on equal ground. As a society, we no longer have use for a great woman behind a great man; instead great women and men can stand side-by-side. This includes Star Wars fangirls.
Mizoguchi was one of the first Japanese directors to really put the camera on the shoulders of the female characters. He knew that women have a point-of-view as well, and that view was turning to rebelling against oppression. That is why it’s so vital to have strong female lead characters in Star Wars like Leia Organa, Padme Amidala, Rey, Ahsoka Tano, and Jyn Erso. And it’s not only great to have female Star Wars fans, but it’s great to actually have another voice in the community. It can only be a good thing to have multiple viewpoints in the storytelling; it’ll make Star Wars a well-rounded galaxy, and who doesn’t want that?
It’s 2017. Let’s move forward.