The characters in the Star Wars Saga hardly ever show their bodies, mostly they keep them hidden under cloth and garment or armour. But when they are exposed it is never just for ‘showing off’ or to appeal to the corresponding male or female audiences. The bodies of Star Wars are just as much part of the visual story-telling as all other elements of the Saga.
It rarely happens that we see a character’s body in Star Wars. JuliWitte has discussed one famous instance where we do, the ‘Leia bikini scene’, in an earlier post so that is something I will not start off with but rather return to later. But it is interesting to first turn to the fact that several key characters go through ‘body transformations’ that are in sync with their paths through the Star Wars narrative.
Luke Skywalker’s garment changes as we progress from A New Hope via Empire Strikes Back to Return of the Jedi. The clothes he wears are never particularly revealing and we barely ever see skin except of his hands and face. The two only exceptions are in Empire Strikes Back. When we see him in the Bacta Tank after his unfortunate encounter with the Wampa nearly his full body is visible. While he is being trained by Yoda on Dagobah we also clearly see more of his physique. Both are transformative moments, or rather we see the physical impact of the transformative moments that preceded them. In the Wampa’s lair his cool and skill with the Force is tested prior to him receiving a vision of Obi Wan that sets him on his way to Yoda. The physical damage of this test is repaired in the bacta tanks. When he is trained by Yoda, with the Jedi Master on his back, we clearly see the physical aspect and effect of that training. None of these shots are aiming for the aesthetics of the body, but all focus on revealing the effort and fruit of training. But this training is a test rather than an actual transformation. And just like the bacta tank hid the physical aspects of the test in the Wampa lair, so Luke dresses up and puts his jacket back on before entering into Dagobah’s Cave. Through out Empire Strikes Back Luke is dressed in greyish colours that reveal a shift, though a minor one, from the almost white garments of A New Hope. The truly transformative moment comes in the final act of Empire Strikes Back. Facing Darth Vader is most definitely not a test and as a result the ‘damage’ that is done by that encounter cannot be undone by bacta tanks or dressing up. Luke loses his right hand in the duel with Vader and loses his innocence and naiveté when his parentage is disclosed to him. There is no cure for this, Luke changes and will forever remain damaged. The next time we see him, at the start of Return of the Jedi his cloth has turned black, his hand has been replaced by technology. This Luke is not longer the farm boy from Tatooine. The Luke who lived in a world where so much was impossible by convention, by obligation or by choice for comfort has lost part of himself but won a whole new destiny.
Sheev Palpatine also undergoes a body transformation in the Prequel Trilogy. We mostly see him in office and in formal dress revealing nothing but hands and face. Like Luke, Palpatine does not have a private life, does not have a partner and can’t ‘dress down’ anywhere. We never see Palpatine change into Darth Sidious in Attack of the Clones or The Phantom Menace. Now this is probably in part due to George Lucas not wanting to give that story-bit away for those who did not already know. But that cannot be the main reason, for basically everyone knew. Palpatine needs to hide his other identity and as the supreme chancellor his entire identity is formal. For Palpatine the final transformation into the Emperor is a damaging one. His own force-lightening rips him to pieces but not out of mistake or weakness but out of necessity. For the Emperor to ascend and take over legitimately the friendly and courteous Palpatine cannot be ‘left alive’. Although this was not exactly what Mace Windu meant when he faced Palpatine and Anakin, it is what needs to happen. After Palpatine’s physical transformation there is no way back, it is a transformation that represents a point of no return for Palpatine, that visualizes how deeply damaged he is and that now a new and icy ruthlessness can take hold.
The key symbol of ruthlessness in the Prequel Trilogy is General Grievous. By the time we see him in Revenge of the Sith the Kaleesh warrior has spent year experimenting with himself, substituting ever more prosthetics and bionic amendments in the place of real bones and organs. His home has turned into a storage facility of his own spare parts.
Grievous is not a ‘test’ version of Vader but rather he represents a degree of self-mutilation and mechanization that Anakin Skywalker will never descend into fully. Anakin always retains some of his naturalness, some of his vulnerability.
No doubt the most iconic body transformation of the Saga is that of Anakin Skywalker. Here to we first encounter several instances of interrupted transformations related to ‘tests’. His intervention on behalf of Sidious against Mace Windu does not yet irrevocably propel him into the form and shape of Darth Vader. Hence the ‘what have I done’ after the act. Even the atrocities he commits at the Jedi Temple an on Mustafar do not fully transform him, visualized by the waning of the ‘Sith eyes’ after the crimes he committed. The immolation drives him to the edge, this seems to be the point where Anakin Skywalker finally reaches the tipping point, but again the story holds back and shows, just before the helmet closes, how we are still seeing Anakin’s eyes return. Anakin is damaged, changed for sure, but he takes his true nature with him into the seclusion of the black suit and armour of Darth Vader. There it survives, out of reach, hidden even for the piercing sight of the Emperor. When Luke and Anakin Skywalker meet on Endor they are both damaged individuals, they both wear black, they are both hiding something bright on the inside of that darkness.
Vulnerability and Strength
The vulnerability of the natural world, of those who live in balance with their surroundings, is a recurring theme in Star Wars. The Ewoks are such a ‘natural people’ and during the Battle of Endor in Return of the Jedi this vulnerability is exemplified by the death of an Ewok and the subsequent wailing grief of its partner. The Ewoks ‘show fur’ as if to underline how in tune with their natural environment they are. But from their naturalness and vulnerability they draw great strength as evidenced by the decisive impact they have on the battle. Exactly the same is true for the Gungans in The Phantom Menace. They to are deeply connected to the world they live in, their technology feels and looks organic. And they to decisively influence the Battle raging on their world at the end of the film. Not surprisingly Gungans also show much more ‘skin’ than most other characters. Jar Jar even comments on how the suns on Tatooine are ‘murder to his skin’.
Also on Tatooine do we get examples of how living in touch with your surroundings makes one vulnerable, yet strong. Two other key deaths in the Star Wars saga take place in this context. Owen and Beru represent a native naturalness on Tatooine, the groundedness of a moisture farmer. And as JuliWitte discussed elsewhere, so does Shmi Skywalker. Like the Ewok casualties, so do Owen and Beru as well as Shmi pay with their lives for this vulnerability. Shmi was never afraid of this vulnerability and great strength came with that, even in the moment of her death. For Owen and Beru it is less clear as their deaths occur off screen.
Padme, Leia and Rey
This theme is weaved also in the way the bodies of Padme and Leia are used visually in the Star Wars narrative. When they are in formal attire and acting as Rebel leader or as Senator or Queen of Naboo, their dress is quite to extremely concealing. But when they need to show strength and put up a fight, their garments usually become much more revealing either by way of showing body shape or by actually revealing skin. The only scene in which we see a key character being strangled on screen … is when Leia is the almost nude perpetrator. She kills her abuser, Jabba the Hutt, turning her chains into a weapon in an outfit that would seem to have the purpose of making her vulnerable rather than strong. But Leia is, in a way, in touch with her world and like the Ewoks and Gungans, she draws strength from vulnerability. Her display of ‘skin’ is changed from a symbol of weakness and submission into a sign of strength and persistence. You can see it inher face long before she actually does it.
With Padme Amidala it is similar. As a senator or a queen her dresses and robes are exquisite and concealing but they give her very little power and influence. In the world of concealment and trickery Palpatine is unbeatable. She shows her strength for the first time when she addresses Jar Jar about the Gungan army and molds her plan for the liberation of Naboo. Palpatine warns her not to make herself vulnerable and he completely misjudges the situation. When Padme creates the alliance with Boss Nass she is out of her queen’s attire and wears the much more revealing handmaidens clothing. When she enters the fight in Naboo she wears tight-fitting clothes that accentuate her body. This is even stronger in the Geonosian Arena, where her clothing shows skin and yet Padme ‘seems to be on top of things’ while our Jedi friends Anakin and Obi Wan are still chained to the execution poles. The opulent concealing dress-code of the Senators and the Queen is something that weakens Amidala, but when she is visibly and vulnerably herself her true strengths shine through.
For both Amidala as well as Leia this is not just the case in their interactions with the larger world. Both women have a relationship with a man where they themselves need to be strong and independent. Whether it is the smuggler who allegiances are never totally clear, or the Jedi who cannot submit to attachments without risk, neither of the two men is a pillar of strength in that relationship. The two women both are. Neither is afraid to be vulnerable and typically in those scenes they wear things that underline their natural forms.
At the end of the first six films in the saga it is Anakin who also discovers the power of being vulnerable. Obi Wan needed years of training in the Jundland desert before he could come to that point where he could just let go … lower his defences and … became more powerful than Darth Vader could imagine. Yoda begins to learn that hard lessen in season 6 of The Clone Wars. Anakin knows it from the start of his life, as a boy he is vulnerable yet strong. But as he gets wrapped up more and more, as less and less of Anakin’s body is visible to us, he loses himself. Only when he opens himself up to the vulnerability of a parent seeing the suffering of a child does he find the strength to take the chains that bind him and use them as a weapon against the one who is holding him as a slave. His mother, his wife and his daughter lived that as an example before. And the way it looks, his grand daughter is carved from that same wood.