Thursday, December 31, 2015

Star Wars, The Mornings After

A handful of mostly unrelated thoughts on the latest Star Wars installment after reading a number of essays online:
  • The Discontents Of Star Wars-Land: Christopher Orr in The Atlantic takes on critical reversal on Star Wars: The Force Awakens (which includes Peter Suderman's meh review, something I touched on briefly here), and earns his paycheck with this one sentence:
    Even George Lucas has gotten in on the act, complaining that the movie is all recycled ideas, and that his experience of selling the franchise to Disney was akin to selling his children to “white slavers.” (Which mostly raises the question: Who’s worse? White slavers, or the person who sells his children to them?)
    Ouch. Thanks, George. You're now allowed to buy a small tropical paradise and disappear from our cultural landscape. (I guess he must have gotten a call from someone at Disney.)
  • Mary Rey? In the context of such a play-it-safe approach, it seemed likely Rey would be held up as a feminist icon, Abrams having already addressed "will the fans embrace this episode?" questions. The issue of whether she is a sort of Mary Sue has come up in multiple corners, with Charlie Jane Anders at io9 wrestling with definitional problems:
    “Mary Sue” is one of those terms that had a useful meaning in fan culture at one point, long ago, and has now become both vague and toxic. Originally, a “Mary Sue” was an author surrogate, inserted into fan-fiction. The “fan fiction” thing is important, because part of the fantasy of the “Mary Sue” was the fan-fic author getting to live at Hogwarts or travel on board the U.S.S. Enterprise. And this thinly veiled copy of the story’s author is incredibly good at everything, to the point where all the established characters marvel at her (usually it’s “her”) wonderfulness.

    The “Mary Sue” is a very specific wish-fulfillment fantasy, in other words. It’s about getting to hang out with Harry, Ron and Hermione, and having them admire you. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of fantasy—we’ve all had it, when we get especially invested in a particular universe—but the term acquired a pejorative meaning because people felt it made for bad stories. Fair enough.

    Over time, the term “Mary Sue” has broadened until it means “any female character who is unrealistically talented or skilled.” Which is insane for a couple of reasons: It makes this “trope” so vague as to be meaningless, and this is also purely a way at tearing down female characters who are good at stuff.
    Rey isn't perfect — she manages to get captured (conveniently!) by Han Solo and Chewbacca — but she's plucky and resilient. Rey is indeed many things female fans have longed for since the opening trilogy — a heroine in her own right in a heroic story. Nevertheless, the familiarity of the arc leads us to wonder just how much of her story isn't Luke Skywalker in drag.
  • Whose Feminism? The Atlantic's Megan Garber takes on the broader subject of feminism as it appears in The Force Awakens. There's a great deal that's positive to be said about Rey's handling of herself; as Garber writes,
    Rey’s feminism does not protest too much. It is not insistent; it is not obvious. It is, instead, that most powerful of things: simply there. Rey, tellingly, is not an archetype, but rather a fully realized character, subtle and nuanced and human. She, as a character, luxuriates in her own subjectivity.
    I'm not entirely sure what Garber's trying to get at with "luxuriates in her own subjectivity", but it sounds like writerly fan service. Yet Rey as a new feminist model can only come too soon. As with Miss Piggy, whose martial arts exploits go underappreciated, it would represent a step up from many of the modern acolytes operating under that label.
  • Slave (Leia) To Fashion: I guess it was inevitable that Carrie Fisher would catch a bunch of sniggering about her 30-years-older visage, since the last time we saw her in the series, she was wearing a metal bikini. Consequently, awful people are on Twitter (and elsewhere) saying awful things about her appearance: Fisher apparently had a fairly ambivalent relationship with her role as a sex symbol in the series, on the one hand warning Daisy Ridley, "Don’t be a slave like I was… You keep fighting against that slave outfit." Simultaneously, she recently mocked people objecting to the bikini as failing to see the whole picture (which is that she was about to kill the "giant testicle" that had imprisoned her). Live by the sword, I guess.
  • Laurie Penny Is Still A Horrible Person: Witness what limitless self-pity and identity politics yield:
    This isn’t just about "role models". Readers who are female, queer or of colour have been allowed role models before. What we haven’t been allowed is to see our experience reflected, to see our lives mirrored and magnified and made magical by culture. We haven’t been allowed to see ourselves as anything other than the exception. If we made it into the story, we were standing alone, and we were constantly reminded how miraculous it was that we had saved the day even though we were just a woman. Or just a black kid. Or just - or just,whatever it was that made us less than those boys who were just born to be heroes.

    The people who get angry that Hermione is black, that Rey is a woman, that Furiosa is more of a hero than Mad Max, I understand their anger. Anyone who has ever felt shut out of a story by virtue of their sex or skin colour has felt that anger. Imagine that anger multiplied a hundredfold, imagine feeling it every time you read or watched or heard or played through a story. Imagine how over time that rage would harden into bewilderment, and finally mute acceptance that people like you were never going to get to be the hero, not really.
    The sense of entitlement involved in telling others how they need to tell the stories you want in the manner you want and with the characters you approve of — STFU. Really, what this is about is whether you get to operate the machines of culture while forcibly annoying others.

    Update 1/1/2016: It occurred to me that Penny here embodies a great deal of what's wrong with modern feminism: it's not enough to simply enjoy a movie with a strong female hero. A good bit of Penny's enjoyment comes from sticking it to men. There's no small irony in that, given who Rey is and what Penny is not. In Penny's telling, patriarchy is a suffocating conspiracy to suppress women like Rey. Rey is about doing; Penny is about kvetching, a permanent, dull narcissism that rejects even the idea of empathy between the sexes.

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