We watched the Star Wars trilogy again this weekend, and I commented to Robin that of course Luke figures out straight away that his sister must be Leia: she’s the only actual woman in the universe. (In the first film there’s Aunt Beru, and the second and third films have an unnamed woman each in the Rebellion who get a couple of lines, but there is literally no-one else.) So we got to wondering how the story would differ if various characters changed sex.
Darth Vader, of course, can’t. She couldn’t be unaware of the existence of her children having given birth to them, and the plot really does depend on this. Which is sad, because it might have been interesting to explore a Darth Mader–Lucy mother–daughter relationship in place of the father–son one.
Solo, on the other hand, could totally be a woman, with no change to the basic character. So could Lando. Though changing the sex of one of these, or Luke and/or Leia, would set up different possibilities for love triangles (there was, of course, no suggestion in the 1970s that any of them might have a non-standard sexuality, apart from that pervy human-fancier Jabba the Hutt).
Yoda, as a woman, would simply further pierce Luke’s expectations, and ours, of what a Jedi master would be like. She needn’t even look much different. The Emperor could just as easily, perhaps even more powerfully, have been an Empress. And changing the referred sex of genderless (in practice) characters like Chewbacca and R2-D2 would simply be a matter of the other characters using different pronouns. There’s plenty of opportunity to redress the gender balance without touching the basic story at all.
The sad thing is that this was terribly progressive at the time. Leia may be the only woman in the universe, but she’s a kick-ass woman, subverting the ‘helpless princess’ trope as often as she can. Even the brass bikini, degrading though it is, is intended to be a degradation, to be seen as such, and to be disliked. And yet there’s still so far to go. The entirety of the Rebellion, apart from a few token faces in a couple of scenes, the entirety of the Imperial army, all the passers-by and the drinkers in the cantina – all male. And in all probability nobody even noticed.