By guest contributor Chris Wermeskerch
For many fans, after Disney’s new round of Star Wars films was launched, discussions were raised about the new slate of films and whether or not they had feminist biases. The point of this essay is to seriously examine, well, does Rogue One carry feminist overtones? More particularly in this case, does it contain ecofeminist themes?
The reason for this particularity is multi-faceted. It is hard to judge whether or not any piece of media has feminist overtones because that criterion is far too large. Featuring a woman as the leading character does not a feminist story make. Does the film promote equality in every intersection of life, from gender, sex, economic status, and race? Does it grapple with non-male experiences in the world? From the outset, the lack of a monolithic feminism binds the author’s hands into making a choice of which kind of feminism, including its tool and definitions, will the author use to study a particular text? Or, which lens will the author view the media through? For example, a womanist inquiry into Black Panther could yield incredible results, mining the film for commentary on race, class, gender, and power through the lens of Clenora Hudson-Weems or Pearl Cleage. Therefore, I will examine the film through an ecofeminist lens because the film, and series writ large, has quietly developed ecological commentaries on humanity’s relationship to nature, each other, and to sapiosentient life forms. From the Ewoks to the symbiotic relationship of the Gungans and the Naboo, Star Wars has had an interesting relationship with and commentary on ecology. The question of nature’s relationship with science comes to a head in Rogue One. (For the sake of this discussion, ancillary material has been brought in from Rebel Rising, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story comic, Guardians of the Whills, Catalyst: A Rogue One Story, and the Rogue One Visual Guide.)
First, a few clarification in terms. As a definition of ecofeminism, I find the one formulated by Greta Gaard and Patrick D. Murphy’s to be the most helpful. “Ecofeminism is the practical movement arising out of the struggles of women to sustain themselves, their families, and their communities. These struggles are waged against the “maldevelopment” and environmental degradation caused by patriarchal societies, multinational corporations, and global capitalism.” (Ecofeminist Literary Criticism: Theory, Interpretation, and Pedagogy, p 2) The editors cite Starhawk, who notes that while the oppression of women and the exploitation of the earth are well-known, the two paralleled concepts are also tied up inextricably with issues of race, gender, class, and sex. This means that to fully engage in an ecofeminist critique of anything is to acknowledge all of the above, and address issues of “class exploitation, racism, colonialism, and neocolonialism (Starhawk, Power, Authority, and Mystery: Ecofeminism and Earth-Based Spirituality” collected in Reweaving the World: The Emergence of Ecofeminism. Ed. Irene Diamond and Gloria Feman Orenstein, pp 73-86).
This essay takes place in an ongoing conversation about ecofeminism as a literary critique that has been taking place since the 90’s (Gaard and Murphy, Ecofeminist Literary Criticism, 5). Ecofeminism takes into account a physical relationship with “the other”; nature is not something “else”, beyond us, rather, we are a part of nature, thus blurring the dilineration between us and “the other”. Gaard and Murphy say that it is not entirely helpful to judge how ecofeminist a text is, but discover what new layers are uncovered when viewing the text through an ecofeminist lens. The lens of ecofeminism also helps us look into the ways that the text draws comparisons between characters, human and alien and droid, mechanical and natural, between humans and animals and between humans and the natural world. There are two pressing issues in this essay: as a white-cisgendered man, I may miss nuances to the film that either empower or hamper the fight for equality at every level. To this, I offer my sincere desire for change. As ecofeminism is also good for men, I may tend to highlight ways in which men can learn from the ecofeminist language. My aim in this is to prevent my own overreach, speaking from my experience. Secondly, I may highlight aspects in this essay that are only incidentally included in the film. Regardless, fiction is formative, for good or for ill, so even accidental parts that encourage a better relationship to nature should be expanded upon, at least in theory. At the end of the essay, as it must, the ecofeminist questions will give way to turn from theory to practice.
So, what does an ecofeminist reading highlight in Rogue One? First, it highlights the relationship between the colonial Empire and nature. Every Imperial controlled planet, at some point in the film, is introduced as being exploited by the Empire or is shown as a victim of the Empire’s exploitation. This is shown through either exploitation, vast destruction, or the breakdown in human relationships. Wobani, the prison planet in which Jyn Erso is being held, has been exploited for years under the Empire. Because of the planet’s resources, the Empire used their “prisoners” to extract the minerals as punishment, material that would go back into the Imperial Navy. Imperial controlled Jedha City and Imperial science base Scarif were both destroyed by the Death Star when the Imperial control started to slip. Even the Ring of Kafrene is affected by Imperialism, when Cassian Andor shoots an accomplice to escape Imperial control. The overwhelming pressure of fascism and the overreach of power breaks down human relationships, rendering them victim to the violent culture of oppression.
On the other side of the war, the female led Alliance has a peaceful relationship with Yavin, moving in and establishing a secret base, seemingly working with the environment rather than against it. While technology is set up inside the base, plant life flourishes in and around the temple. The natural jungle is used to the Rebels’ advantage, rather than viewed as a hindrance. The Rebels, a democratic power, live in peace with the forest rather than try and fight it. To note, though: that women run the Alliance and live peacably with nature may not be a result of the filmmakers’ choice. The canon has already established Mon Mothma as the head of the Alliance, so their hands were tied. But the film does show a stark contrast between the relationship of imperialism and democracies with nature, partially as a result of the competing ideologies of power.
Secondly, and relatedly, the movie’s men and women engage with power differently. The men of the Imperial Navy wrestle for control with one another, hoping to seize it from the other. Krennic and Tarkin’s relationship is not one of co-dependence, but of rivalry and violence. Krennic forcibly controls Galen, tying his hands into working on the Death Star. The film portrays fascism’s relationship to power as extremely negative and violent. Rather than sharing power, the men of the Imperial Navy fight, scheme, and undermine each other to be the sole owner of that power. They vie for command of the “planet killer”, each wanting to be the one to command the greatest power that the Empire has ever known. In the end, this fight for power and control creates more victims than winners: Jedha and Scarif are destroyed when they become liabilities to the Imperial project while Krennic is killed in his bid for power.
On the other hand, Mon Mothma leads the rebellion diplomatically, putting the thought of violence to a vote. Another woman, Senator Pamlo, dissents from any violence, and her voice is not dismissed by leadership. When Jyn rebels against the Alliance, going to Scarif on her own, she does so as a free agent, which brings to mind female nuclear protesters. These protests were not uniquely American. French feminist Francoise D’ubonne, an early ecofeminist practitioner, noted that the women were not concerned with power for themselves, but were concerned instead for “the other”. (Barbara T. Gates, The Root of Ecofeminism: Ecofeminisme, 17, collected in ELC, citing Francoise D’Eubonne’s La Femminisme ou la mort) These women, all around the world, protested the militarization of nuclear power and against the damage nuclear power can ravage on the natural world. The largest protest against nuclear power was waged by women in 1961, where 50,000 women marched against the growing use of nuclear power. Jyn brings these women to mind (even if she cannot represent each and every one of this multi-ethnic and multi-facted movement) in fighting the planet killer out of not just concern for herself, but concern for the galaxy.
Finally, it draws a connection between women and the natural world. It is Lyra who shows the first signs of hesitations about working with the kyber crystals. Her hesitations come from both her reverence to the Jedi and her connection to the world borne out of her career as an explorer. Lyra’s time as an explorer puts her in a unique position to protect the natural world. Her travels to different systems give her the expertise to label certain worlds as “Legacy” worlds, free from exploitation. In her travels, she becomes uniquely attuned to the natural world and the life imbued within it. She is uniquely attuned to the vibrancy and life of the world, something that lab-rats Krennic and Galen miss out on. Lyra’s warnings about the kyber crystals ring true as the crystals give the men trouble.
Jyn is the only rebel, Alliance or Partisan, who rescues someone during the showdown in Jedha City, as the rest are busy shooting at each other. The novelization points out that this girl was later destroyed when the Death Star fired upon the planet. This is analogous to Rose and the fathiers on Canto Bight. Even with the expectation that the fathiers would be re-penned later, both suggest any freedom is worth fighting for. These stories, taken together, highlight women’s sense of connection to the world and maintaining and building connections with each other.
It is important to note that even “heroic” men in these stories have a problematic relationship with technology, as Galen’s work is used as a planet killer and Cassian had to forcibly override K-2SO’s programming to create a connection between the two. For the sake of porgology, we would be remiss to not mention the one most prominent species: Bor Gullet. Unfortunately, men also have a problematic relationship with nature: Saw Gerrera uses Bor Gullet to neutralize and force himself into Bodhi Rook’s mind. Whatever the natural use of Bor Gullet’s abilities are, they are turned into a weapon in the hands of overly paranoid Saw.
Unfortunately, to talk about any ecofeminist reading of Rogue One must note its failure to address much intersectionality. The film itself features five prominent women: Jyn and Lyra Erso, Senator Pamlo, and Chancellor Mon Mothma, and Jyn’s cellmate on Wobani (not named in the film). A spy’s sister is mentioned, and a young girl is saved from fighting in Jedha City. Women make up a small percentage of the background characters. In this, only two women were women of color. The Visual Guide and Rebel Rising attempt to fill some of these gaps, but this does not account for the deficiency in the film itself. Men of many different races are represented, of course. Because of this, the film is under-resourced to handle intersections of race. The film also does not deal heavily in class differences, something relatively unheard of before The Last Jedi. Without dealing with issues of class or race, the film’s lack of intersectionality hampers any intersectional ecofeminist message that it may have aimed for.
Theory is never meant to stay in our heads. Neither is fiction, as its formative elements aim to change the way that we think and the way that we act. So, in response to the three points ahead: how does an ecofeminist reading of Rogue One change our minds or actions? First, it changes the way we view the relationship between imperialism/colonialism and nature. The film posits that seeking power over nature and over each other can only bring harm upon ourselves and upon our environment. We may be personally challenged in that it forces us to consider our relationship with technology and power, forcing us to consider the way we use power. Whom does it benefit? Do we use it for our own good or for the good of others? Second, it asks us to review the connection women have with nature, in any sense in which that relationship is maintained, as a corrective to our over-reliance on technology. It also asks us to investigate the ways our relationship with technology has made us domineering toward nature rather than allowing ourselves to be seen as a part of it.
So, it is hard to say that Rogue One is a completely successful ecofeminist enterprise. In some ways, the film has ecofeminist themes and concerns, but only deals with them on a surface level, leaving secondary material to pick up the pieces. While it is imperfect, we are still challenged to reconsider the way we use our power, if we have it, and our relationship with nature, “the other”.