A few weeks ago the teaser-trailer of Star Wars: Rogue One was released and immediately found an overwhelmingly positive response. In this post I don’t intend to argue that there is vast body of Star Wars fans who have a problem with female characters, there isn’t. They are a loud (as usual) minority. But I do want to take them on and dissect that actually they have been among us for decades now.
The response to Rogue One
We have so far only seen a little over a minute of Rogue One, evidently that will not be a reason for anyone to suspend judgement, right? The teaser trailer opens with a shot of the lead character Jyn Erso under which her ‘track record’ of crimnal offenses is listed. This is already where according to some reviewers, the ones I want to have a chat about here, things start going awry.
Now we on Clone Corridor have written about the role of the female in Star Wars quite a few times before. We also have a series in which we cover such characters in a little more detail ranging from Kreia to Shmi Skywalker. The pathetic core of typically all the Rogue One ‘criticism’ at this first observation of the female lead character can be summarised into essentially two categories:
- Jyn Erso is a ‘mary-sue’ i.e. she is a character which inexplicably can achieve with ease all the great feats for which realistic characters need time, training and perseverance;
- Jyn’s depiction as a strong, independent, woman who can stand her own ground is only intended to denigrade men and male attributes and roles;
Let me share with you two of such responses and reviews posted on YouTube
The arguments and comments you hear in these are quite representative for the bulk of these types of reviews, at least for the subset that can just about manage enough eloquence to not name-call the entire time.
For those of you who don’t feel the need to go through the torture of watching these recorded statements of narrowmindedness let me just mention a couple of the examples. Jyn is, on the basis of roughly a minute of footage, judged to be a Mary-Sue because evidently she is depicted as being a perfect badass. Actually she is depicted as being this renegade, lawless swindlers but what the heck, I guess that is the role model the critics wish to strictly reserve for well-trained, persevering characters after sufficient incubation time. The notion that the mere fact that she can fight, cheat, shoot and run apparently is viewed by these critics as highly unrealistic and too close to perfection. If that were the case of course 90% of all the male characters in movies would be Mary Sue’s unless you happen to believe that male characters can do all these things from the craddle.
So as you see, the preconception behind declaring Jyn a Mary Sue is actually already a rather skewed view of masculinity. So simply having a female law-breaker is apparently already taking it unrealistically far according to these critics. It makes you wonder which kinds of laws women are allowed to break ‘realistically’ in the minds of these people? Kitchen appliances instruction manuals? The real issue however is, as you find out when paying sufficiently close attention, not even that these kinds of criminal skills would be considered the exclusive domain of men or exceptionally well-trained women. The Rogue One trailer is however not the first Star Wars film that presents us with a female protagonist.
Misogynistic responses to The Force Awakens
It is not difficult to find similarly voiced responses to Star Wars: The Force Awakens. There is an actual community on YouTube, for example, of Sequel Haters (who could be surprised after a decade of Prequel hate) who spew the same kind of hate that we have come to know so well. However this time around it takes on a very clear political and anti-feminist tone. Compare for example
if you can stomach hearing this kind of rubbish for more than 5 minutes. It is clear these critics view The Force Awakens is a film with a political statement! Well to that all I can say is ‘Welcome to Star Wars’ these movies might be popcorn entertainement but they all make political statements and most of the time these statements are in your face … not hidden under a multitude of layers of subtext. But of course the problem these critics are focussing on is not the actual fact of there being a political message, it is this particular message that drives them up in arms. So which message are we seeing portrayed in The Force Awakens?
A scene that keeps coming up in these reviews as to how annoying it is are Rey’s refusals to let Finn take her hand. Indeed there are atleast three occaissions in the sequence where Rey and Finn run from the First-Order’s Tie fighter attack in which Rey explicitly rejects the notion she is a ‘damsel in distress’. Two times Finn grabs her hand and she pulls it away while voicing her protest and one time when she brings him back to consciousness after being knocked out you can see it in her look as he asks her whether she is okay. This is immediately followed by a close up shot of her offering her hand to Finn to help him get up. It couldn’t be clearer that Rey is not rejecting cooperation, she is rejecting being treated as the weaker gender. In the Rathtars sequence she even goes a step further and saves Finn’s life ascribing it to ‘that was lucky’ afterwards instead of putting him in a position where he owes her something. Rey’s natural state of mind is one where there are no owed debts or priviledges and there is just the equality of teammates.
So what is there to reject here? Which political statement is it that enrages these critics so much? Well in all of this it is Rey who has the initiative. She is the one who will guide her own path and she is the generous one who will not take stock of what Finn owes her. This initiative in most films is the preserve of men. In most films when the man releases a woman of her owed debt, after saving her life for example, she rewards him with physical love … even when it is a mere embrace and a kiss. In The Force Awakens no such trade occurs. All she does in the finale of the movie is show Finn her gratitude for him coming to save her, after she has already saved herself. She thanks him with a hug for his idea, not for actually saving her. She reciprocates an emotion with a similar emotion.
Apparently for these critics it is very hard to stomach that Rey is a strong independent woman who does not deal out physical favours for a man’s achievement but rather values his intent. It is interesting regarding the Mary Sue acusation to see how these critics seriously argue that the male-female roles should be modelled in these films by sticking to ‘biological facts’about average strength, etc, while of course there is no problem with space ships, light sabers and Super weapons ignoring even the most basic physical facts nor with males displaying super-natural powers. Suspension of disbelief is in their case apparently an extremely gender-dependent phenomenon. And I guess that is exactly the root of their problem.
Prequel Bashing and the rejection of gender-role diversity
If you try to find such ‘Mary Sue’ acusations levelled against the character of Padme or Leia you will hardly find any. At least I couldnt find any. Both fought and battled with blasters during much of their screen time, both treated some of their male counter parts with obvious awareness of their own superior statusses as diplomats, senators or royalty. Yet none of that seems to have trigered a similar response.
The character of Padme has come under intense criticism of course within the framework of the ubiquitous prequel-bashing on the Internet. Leia’s hasn’t really. If there was any criticism levelled against her character it was more of a feminist nature regarding her seeming withdrawal from her free and independent role towards the end of the Original Trilogy and her objectifying depiction in Return of the Jedi as Jabba’s slave. We have written elsewhere about these and I will not repeat any of that here. I will make the observation that Leia’s objectification occurs at the hands of Jabba, not Han’s or Luke’s, and is a fan-favourite depiction of her especially within the circles of those who considered the Prequels an abomination and now rant against Rey’s character.
It is, from this perspective interesting to consider some of the Prequel-bashing criticisms. We don’t even need to go into Plinkett’s 3+ hours tirade against the Prequels as there is plenty of hostility towards women in that sad attempt to ‘spice up’ the otherwise frightningly boring videos. Oh wait … I guess chopping up your wife in the bathtub with a meatcleaver is humor. Yeah … really funny. I prefer to look at reviews that at least try to maintain a sense of professionalism.
Take for example the review of Star Wars: Attack of the Clones by Jeremy Jahns. Now in particular pay some attention where the reviewer discusses the ‘love story’ in the film.
Repeatedly the points that Jahns makes about why this love story feels so forced, badly written and clunky boil down to the following two issues
- Padme’s looks are way to good to fit her independent strong character;
- Anakin is only expressing his passionate emotions by words rather than doing anything about them;
From the perspective of our previous discussion this sounds a lot as if the main complaints about this lovestory are actually (1) that Anakin realizes that anything beyond words will not have Padme’s consent and abides by that without hiding his true feelings and (2) that Padme, if she is not interested in Anakin’s advances should alter her wardrobe. Sounds familiar? I thought so! Note that Attack of the Clones does not portray Anakin as someone who excels at keeping his emotions under control. He actually commits a massacre exactly because he fails to do so. But at no point does he transgress against Padme to follow the strong and passionate emotions he is expressing to her in mere words. This then probably is the unease and the tension that the critics find so indigestible.
Also Plinkett’s criticism of the lovestory between Padme and Anakin is almost exclusively one that emphasizes how Padme breaks the gender stereotypes. Consider for example these:
- He claims Padme has no reason not to allow a romantic relationship! Does that mean he thinks female character should have a relationship unless they have a compelling reason beyond their control why they cannot?
- He complaims Padme nevertheless goes on romantic walks with Anakin and dresses up in a sexy feminine and exhuberant way. Does wardrobe imply implicit consent?
It is so totally obvious how Plinkett’s rant draws upon deep misogyny and prejudice regarding what females are and are not allowed to do within the presence of men. Because Padme behaves the way she does he calls her flat and uninteresting, just a few seconds after calling her a ‘cocktease’. Now it can’t be both, now can it? Oh yes it can … if your starting point is that a woman who does not give consent to romance on your medieval terms is thus by definition frigid and uninteresting. That is where this ‘film criticism’ is actually coming from.
There is a second interesting part to this that emphasizes this even further. Because in the rejection by these critics of Padme’s character, her behaviour and the choices she makes regarding wardrobe and romance, they usually also explicitly voice a rejection for Anakin’s character. They call Anakin ‘creepy’ and/or ‘whiny’ because he utters his feelings for her in strong language yet does not act upon it. It is true that Anakin professes his love for Padme, he desire to have her, in strong physiological terms when he describes his bodily reactions to her presence. He avoids describing genital reactions but rather focusses on his body as a whole. He describes her presence as ‘intoxicating’ to Obi Wan and his inabillity to act on it as suffocating and painful to Padme herself. Yet he respects that fact that she does not consent to it. That, in the eyes of these critics, makes him ‘creepy’ and ‘whiny’. But why? Wouldn’t it be actually creepy if he did give in to his passions and did not respect her choice? That would actually have been creepy. Would it have been better if he had not expressed his strong emotions for her? Or would not doing so actually have been whiny? I think the criticism against Anakin’s behaviour levelled here draws on the same prejudice and misogyny: Anakin is a whiny, creepy, exactly because he does not transgress against her and simply takes her as … James Bond would have done only to see the non-consenting woman melt in his arms and give her consent post-fact. Of course in the real world that is just rape.
Just like Rey rejects Finn’s hand-holding and attempts at treating her as a damsel in distress, Padme refuses Anakin’s romance. Their refusals do not come from some compelling external force they cannot control but from within their own will. Again just like Rey, Padme does charm and kiss her counterpart but she does so on her own terms and on her own initiative. Padme takes on the part of a fighter, survivalist and warrior to a lesser extent than Rey does and she definitly does not completely take center stage like Rey and Jyn do. These critics, like many of the Prequel bashers before them, have gender issues they cannot get over.
Why do we have yet another female protagonist in Star Wars? Is there some on going political conspiracy headed by Kathleen Kennedy as some of these moronic critics conclude? Is Dave Filoni in on it too with his introduction of Ahsoka Tano in 2008 as the first female lead in Star Wars? Another girl who hardly ever needs saving and does quite a bit of it herself, thank you! No gentlemen, the answer is really very very simple! To paraphrase Canada’s first-minister Justin Trudeau: “Because it is 2016!”