Thursday, December 29, 2011

A Study in Feminism

In all his ginger glory.
Sherlock Holmes

It’s time to embark on our second adventure in feminist, narrative over-analysis! We had good fun last month with my favorite New Hollywood space opera. But let’s jump back exactly 90 years from the release of Star Wars and look at something completely different. In the winter of 1887, the first Sherlock Holmes adventure, A Study in Scarlet, was published in Beeton’s Christmas Annual. And so began the adventures of one of the greatest characters in western literature, and one of my top fandoms.

If one is a huge fan of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s detective adventures, one has to be primarily in it for the character of Sherlock. He IS the stories, although the mysteries themselves are some of the best of the genre.[1] As a feminist Sherlockian, I am still in this primarily because I adore a wholly original, but still male character. That’s okay! Because, unlike what many people apparently still believe, we feminists don’t hate men.[2] 

But, just because the SH adventures focus on two male protagonists and were written by a man in the 19th century, does not mean they do not have a lot for my feminist self to love. This includes a plethora of great female characters and some seriously interesting feminist themes. In fact, the plots of a majority of the Holmes mysteries are driven by the actions of women; serving either as the mysterious architects of violent revenge, or the intelligent New Women facing baffling problems with impressive resourcefulness.

The first SH novel, A Study in Scarlet, does not give a feminist reading much to work with. Without trying to spoil the mystery, I can say that the marital rape of a woman is the catalyst for a revenge based crime at the center of the story. But it is a man having his vengeance, so, while it is a very good mystery, it’s not super feminist. But by the second novel, 1891’s The Sign of Four, Doyle began to establish his female focused tone. In our next entry, we’ll dive into a thorough look at the central Sherlock sisterhood; the incredible Irene Adler, the awesome Miss Mary Morstan, and the smart, resourceful Violet Hunter.

[1] They should be.  Doyle was in the process of inventing the genre.

[2] Watson is pretty cool too.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

What the MiniFig?!

When I'm not happily offering my feminist (over)analyses of my favorite fandoms for you lovely folks, I'm busy offering my more general feminist perspectives as a blogger for the ever-awesome SPARK. My latest gender in the media rant had a bit of thematic crossover, so I thought I'd share. 

Lego Builds the Wrong Message For Girls

I speak from personal experience when I say that to be “media aware” is to open oneself up to the possibility of being infuriated every day. It’s actually a pretty invigorating experience, but I find that since I’m a pretty positive person, I cannot allow every sexist or sexualizing thing to seriously bother me. Otherwise, I would be in a constant state of mental and/or verbal ranting.
When some new piece of media does come up that royally pisses me off, it’s interesting to think about what exactly about it struck a nerve. In the case of the announcement of the new Lego Friends line, I’m pretty darn steamed. And I know exactly why. To summarize; Lego, which up until recently tended to rely on licensing from pre-existing franchises to furnish it’s more narrative oriented products, (Star Wars, Batman, and Harry Potter, to name a few), has recently embarked on a new direction for their toys. While they aren’t giving up on movie partnerships, they are looking to market more Lego exclusive characters and stories. As a part of this new direction, the brand has embarked on its greatest departure from its previous MO with Lego Friends, a product line for girls, or as Lego CEO Jorgan Vig Knudstorp puts it, “We want to reach the other 50% of the world’s population.” The new Lego figures look drastically different from the toy’s traditional “minifigs.” They are taller, skinnier and they have boobs. They will be marketed to girls five and up. Why? Because, referring to the blocky figure of old, the Lego executive VP of Marketing Mads Nipper said, “Let’s be honest; girls hate him.” Hmm…..I was unaware that the proper pronoun when referring to Princess Leia and Hermione Granger was “him.”
The whole thing really pisses me off for two pretty blatant reasons. First of all, there is the awkward Barbie-fication at work here. I was never a Legos kid, not because I wanted my figurines to have boobs, but because I didn’t like all the assembly required before I could start staging battles and cowboy adventures. Playmobile was more my speed. The only appeal I can personally see in Legos is the hilarious, boxy figures of its characters. They all look the same, with their only curves bizarrely situated below their pelvises. Sure, the minfigs are weird looking, but that’s the point. To beautify them is completely anathema to the Lego brand.
And who is to say girls hate them? I’m guessing Lego arrived at that conclusion after some focus group fun. Which brings me to my next point of anger. Marketers and ad execs and Hollywood and just about everyone else in the media are so busy insisting that women and girls, 50% as Lego puts it, are not interested in what they are selling unless it is pink or cute or a romantic comedy or on Lifetime. But they say this even as they refuse to market their products to the women and girls they are so certain will not like them! Who populates commercials for Legos? Boys! Where in the toy store can you find them? “The boy’s aisle.” So no wonder girls won’t buy your products!
Having been in the education field throughout my college and post-grad life, I can speak from personal experience and assure you, Lego, that girls do like minifigs. They also like Star Wars and Harry Potter, and they like being creative and making up stories that involve adventures and good and evil and things blowing up. But if you keep on excluding them from your marketing vision, soon they will start to believe that they would rather have hot tubs and little plastic boobs. If your research is correct, many of them already have. And if that happens, some girls might miss out on all the fantastic, adventurous imaginative play that only comes around once a childhood. The part of me that still fondly remembers epic Lego vs. Playmobile battles with my sister and cousin, is pretty royally pissed off.
Are you pissed too? Well, I have good news. First, Lego is listening. Sort of. They actually responded to my blog via twitter, which is more then can be said of most of the companies SPARK addresses. Second, you can join our "Bring Back Beautiful" campaign on the Lego Facebook page and tell them you want them to start including girls in their regular product line! Just post this fantastic retro ad and share your thoughts. And please sign the petition!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Star Wars, Gender, and the Bechdel Test

Over the past three weeks, I’ve taken a feminist look at the Star Wars trilogy, particularly at the films’ construction of Princess Leia. Now let’s take a step back and look at two questions central to gender construction in narrative.

First question, do the Star Wars films pass the Bechdel test? The test is a simple way to measure equal representation of gender in a narrative. It comprises three questions. Are there more than one female character? Are those female characters named? Do they speak to each other? If they do, do they talk about something other than a man? The test is not perfect. An otherwise sexist narrative could pass and an otherwise feminist narrative could fail. But it is a good litmus test for how well a narrative reflects the fact that women compose over half the human population, live lives, and have social relationships with other women.

So, does Star Wars pass? Short answer, no, with a but. Long answer yes, with an if.

Long answer first! Princess Leia dominates the narrative so much so that it is easy to forget that she is the films’ primary female character. Other than Leia, the films feature only two more women with speaking roles, Luke’s Aunt Beru, in Episode IV and Mon Mothma in Episode VI. Beru and Mothma are both supporting characters, and they never engage in conversation with other women. Among the protagonists, Leia is the sole woman among two men. Three if you count Lando, four if you count Chewie. And among the villains? Let’s just say there are too many dicks on the Death Star. Therefore, no,  Star Wars does not pass the Bechdel test, but….Leia is an incredibly awesome and well constructed female character with a massive role in the narrative. And the Star Wars trilogy is relatively light on main characters. The droids and aliens are mostly something for the humans, who get all the development, to play off of. And the films utilize the popular two guys and a girl dynamic seen in Harry Potter and countless fantasy/adventure narratives.[1] I keep trying to imagine ways the narrative could have featured more female characters, but I only end up turning some Imperial officers into women and it seems sort of pointless. The fact is, I love the story and characters as they are. I never want to imagine a different version, even if it does have more women. I guess that's just my fangirl weakness. [2] So I’ll accept Star Wars for the narrative and characters that I love and approach it as the best Bechdel fail ever.

Now for the short answer. Yes the Star Wars films do pass the Bechdel test, if we count the prequels. I agree with most original trilogy fans that the prequels suck, and I don’t watch them. But I do think the events they depict are canon to the narrative. The films didn’t suck because the general story arc and world building they came up with was bad,[3] but because they were essentially explanatory footnotes on screen. They wouldn’t have worked cinematically even if the dialogue sang like Pulp Fiction. But in the prequels, we get even more named female characters, and they talk to each other about things other than a man. Since I’m looking at the original trilogy only, I can’t say that the films pass the Bechdel test, but the story does.

Try to say this is not exactly what Leia's mom would look like.

Now for question two. Does Star Wars take place in a sexist world? This is a vital question to ask of fantasy narratives, but it is often overlooked. I never even considered it until my best friend and fellow feminist fangirl pointed it out to me. In reference to George R.R. Martins books, she complained, “You have dragons and snow zombies, but how unrealistic if women were to be treated as equals!”[4] Another feminist friend of mine summed it up nicely. “It’s funny, most popular fantasy novels are all set in alternate medieval societies or dystopian societies and they’re almost always patriarchal. Why is that? It’s a fantasy novel, you’re creating the world! I want to write a novel that has better messages than ‘this is inevitable.’” The fact that so many authors and creators assume that patriarchy and sexism be expected of humans in any environment is quite depressing. So I will insist on asking this question of all my favorite fantasy stories, even if the answer is usually yes.

Except, once again for Star Wars, it’s complicated. Short answer, no, with an if. Long answer, yes, with a but. Women in Star Wars don’t appear to face limitations on education, political, and military leadership. And most people in-verse don’t seem surprised to find women in power. But this happy answer only applies if we consider a world without sexism to be simply a world in which women have equal rights and access to opportunities. But we all know it’s not that simple. If a world is to be truly non-patriarchal, it has to be a world in which no one thinks to oppress women or harbors sexist thoughts.

The fact is, the Empire is all dudes, so I’m going to assume they don’t like women.[5] Jabba objectifies his female slaves (although objectification could still exist as an injustice applied to both men and women in a gender equal world). And in Episode IV, Han expresses his annoyance with Leia by saying “If we can avoid anymore female advice…”[6] So, based on the fact that some jerks[7] can do or say sexist things, we have to assume that at least some of the planets and societies in Star Wars were at one point arranged in a patriarchal gender hierarchy. These origins explain why some individuals and institutions are sexist, even as the larger society appears to have moved past it. It’s not perfect, but the latter fact alone is far better than what many fantasy narratives offer us. And considering that the original films were made in the late 70’s and early 80’s, even a mostly gender equal world is really impressive.

And so we conclude our Star Wars feminist fun! Next week, check in for a little holiday cheer.

[1]More specifically, the popular three characters dynamic. The gender ratio varies.

[2] OR, Wedge Antilles, though he is awesome, could have been an equally awesome woman and it wouldn’t have affected the plot at all!

[3] They actually really deepen the events and themes of the trilogy.

[4] I love me some Martin, don’t get me wrong. And, yes, I will cover his works.

[5] That, or EVERY woman in the galaxy sympathizes with the Rebellion.

[6] Don’t worry. Leia doesn’t let that comment slide.

[7] And people with a bad past and no mother figure. Sorry, but I can’t dislike Han.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Star Peace on Earth!

I obviously love me some Star Wars. And while I don't care for Star Trek, this is a message I can get behind! "Does my boyfriend like me?" as the central narrative conflict?! That's enough to make both Joseph Campbell and Ida B. Wells roll in their, awesome, awesome graves. Thank you, George Takei.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Return of the Leia

Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi

The third and final Star Wars film begins a year after the events of Empire, with Han’s rescue from the clutches of gangster Jabba the Hutt. Jabba, whom Han had previously, unintentionally, screwed over to the tune of lots of money, had the frozen Han delivered to him from Bespin. Leia enters the film, in characteristically badass fashion, disguised as the bounty hunter Boushh. In this form, she appears masked, alien, and ambiguously male. She infiltrates Jabba’s entourage with some gutsy bluffing, and then proceeds to unfreeze Han while Jabba’s palace sleeps. Here, Leia is symbolically taking the rescuer role that Han and Luke filled in the first film, and the descent into the underworld to raise a loved one from the dead places her in the mythic company of Orpheus and Demeter. But victory doesn’t last, as Jabba intercepts the couple, imprisons Han, and enslaves Leia, bringing us to the infamous metal bikini.

Ah yes, the metal bikini. The point at which hundreds of first generation Star Wars fanboys, teenagers by ’83, noticed some very different feelings bubbling up inside them. Up until that moment, one of the strongest positives of Leia’s characterization was that she wasn’t sexualized. Not at all. She looked beautiful, of course, but in a very natural way. Her clothing was practical and not revealing. She wasn't even filmed in a sexualizing manner! It’s really quite extraordinary, considering how a woman can rarely kick ass in an action movie today without looking like a fetish incarnate. Leia was created at a time when action heroines were relatively unknown, so she wasn’t burdened by the current tropes that require women to be super hot, flexible, and clad in leather while fighting. Her combat abilities didn’t insist upon themselves either, they were just a part of who she was. So, imagine my dismay at the fact that the most popular cosplay incarnation of Leia is not her Cinnabon look, nor her practical Hoth jumpsuit, nor even her pretty Bespin gown. Nope, it’s the metal bikini. And when you Google image “Princess Leia,” the top three suggestions are “Princess Leia Metal Bikini,” “Princess Leia Naked,” and “Princess Leia Hot.” Great.

So, let’s approach the getup from two angles. First, what’s up with the bikini incident in-verse? Jabba the Hutt has been thoroughly established as an unpleasant character. He has his monster pet that snacks on people who annoy him, his droid torturer[1], a prison that would probably prompt an Amnesty Intergalactic letter writing campaign, his sexualized slaves of all species, and his tendency to turn people’s comatose bodies into wall art. He’s basically an equal opportunity exploiter of sentient beings. A big question is why he, a slug creature, would be turned on by scantily clad females of other species. I assume it’s a status thing. He’s a powerful gangster who controls most of the Galaxy’s crime circuit, so showing off his “all planets” collection of ladies is an intimidating symbol of just how much control he has.[2] And though I’ll look more closely at the question next week, it’s possible that if Jabba was female, she’d have a bunch of objectified males in her entourage. So, based on his established M.O., it makes sense that Jabba would think a human slave who tried to cross him would add a lot to his reputation. Leia is obviously unhappy with the situation, but I like how she never lets wearing 80% less clothing than usual diminish her in-control vibe. She always looks alert, not vulnerable or ashamed. And let’s not forget the glorious conclusion to the incident. As the skirmish over the Sarlac pit rages on, Leia takes advantage of the chaos, cuts the power in Jabba’s barge, and strangles the slimy motherfucker with her chain. It’s gross, wiggly and gaspy; the most hands on and violent death in the trilogy. Love it![3] She goes on to liberate herself, and help Luke blow up the barge. 

In light of all this, we can assume that the gold bikini could be expected from Jabba. Leia handles it well, gets glorious revenge, and her violent and intense response to being put in an objectifying situation adds something to her character.

So, in-verse, I’m totally fine with Princess Bikini. I get uncomfortable when I consider the behind the scenes brainstorming sessions.  After all, events in a plot don’t just happen. They have to be created by someone. And there is simply no way that whatever man[4] came up with the costume wasn’t thinking of the franchises male fans. Those same fans, I might mention, had already devoted six years to Star Wars with a fully clothed Leia! I highly doubt they were threatening to revoke their support if Jedi didn’t deliver golden titties. I understand that the bikini has become part of Star Wars fan culture, often embraced by female fans.[5] But I get more than a little disappointed when I consider how close Star Wars came to zero sexualization.[6] If I could, would I go back in time and make sure the outfit never ended up in the film? Honestly, no. The incident adds to the atmosphere that made Jabba so iconic, and it gives Leia a chance to get some fucking awesome revenge. Overall, I’m fine with it in the film. I only wish popular culture hadn’t turned an OOC outfit and unpleasant moment for the character into Leia’s (second) most iconic look.  Still, I’m really not surprised.

Now that we’ve thoroughly addressed the scantily clad elephant in the room, let’s get back to the narrative. After thoroughly crushing crime-lord windpipe, Leia returns with the re-united gang to the Rebel Fleet and Star Wars launches into its conclusion.  Compared to Episode V, Jedi has a simple plot. We have Luke in his whole “facing Vader” mode, and that’s where the majority of the story’s emotion is focused.[7] But if there is another emotional focal point, it’s Leia.

Jedi is the film that officially reveals Leia as Luke’s twin sister, and Darth Vader’s daughter. It would have been cool if the film had done more with the revelation.[8] But when a story is trying to get to a conclusion, I understand why it can’t go too crazy expanding on a recently revealed plot twist. What Leia does get is one of Williams' best themes to illustrate the connection, and a quiet scene with Luke during which she discovers the truth. She reflects on their mother for the first time and only time in the Trilogy. It’s a nice break from the paternal psychological conflict at the center of the myth. I actually love how briefly the maternal memory appears in the narrative. It’s tender and melancholy, a breath of humanity in the twins’ otherwise inhuman past. And the essential emotional moment arrives via Leia.

After two films of non-stop strength and resilience, I actually like that she finally lets herself breakdown. I know that narratives get tiresome when even the strongest female character has a requisite moment of “feminine” weakness, while the man has nothing more than a furrowed brow during his dark night of the soul. But before Leia has her subdued Jedi cry, Luke has done enough whining, yelling and crying to last a lifetime. I think Leia can have a moment for an appropriate reaction to the news that her father is Darth fucking Vader.

Leia keeps her connection to Luke secret from Han until the end of the film,[9] which serves as a reminder that even in a relationship; she values her emotional independence. By Jedi, Han and Leia are an established, comfy couple, with some nice moments but little swooning[10] and no drama. The best Jedi moment for the pair is a flirty reprise of their emotional Empire exchange. This time, its Han’s “I love you,” and Leia’s confident, “I know.” And what prompts the declaration? Leia’s wicked combination of a blaster and a sharp mind. Han is crazy about how badass his girlfriend is, and Leia knows it. She thinks he’s okay too.

Leia began the Star Wars films as an assertive anti-damsel in distress. She ended it as a woman with a military victory, a stable, equal relationship, and a profound origin, destiny, and set of powers. By the conclusion of Jedi, she’s been given her own hero’s journey and grown into the story’s second most important protagonist.[11] When it comes down to it, Star Wars is primarily Luke’s story. But Leia is essential, well drawn, and awesome. This feminist fangirl is not complaining.

Next week: We take a big step back. Does Star Wars pass the Bechdel test? And does the story inhabit a patriarchal world?  

[1] And a people torturer, we can assume.

[2] So if some Greedo comes to visit, he’ll see Jabba’s half naked Greedette and think, “Oh, I guess he can exploit my species too. I better not cross him.”

[3] Sorry. But my personal approach to feminism is commonly of the Quentin Tarantino variety. Deal.

[4] Or group of men.

[5] No one is holding a cosplay gun to their heads.

[6] In what would have been marketed today as an action movie for 18-34 year old males.

[7] I know. After the mega-depth of Empire, some people find Jedi’s simplicity jarring. But it’s wholly appropriate to the mythic structure so essential to Star Wars. The third act usually begins with the final escape from the despair of act two, with a streamlined, focused plot that drives the story to its conclusion. Jedi isn’t my favorite of the Trilogy, but I wouldn’t change a thing about it. Yes, not even the Ewoks.

[8] Given Leia a chance to face Vader with her brother, for example, or at least make something float.

[9] Wherein she reveals it casually and offhand.

[10] Most of which actually comes from Han, who repeatedly resembles a lovesick puppy around Leia’s confident cool.

[11] Her presence in the conversations between Luke, Obi-Wan, Yoda, and Vader is intensly felt and helps elevate her to a central role even when she’s not on-screen. In contrast, Han is rarely discussed when he’s off-screen.

Merry (Early) Magical Baby Day!

I know, I promised. No more Twilight. But this is only loosely related. And it's sure to cheer you up after all the ranting against sexism yesterday. Happy Christmas!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

We Interrupt Your Star Wars for a Special Crappy Bulletin

Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part I

I know, I know. Why am I doing this? Why am I even implying that Twilight, those glorified dime store romance novels, are part and parcel with general fandom awesomeness? I’m not. I have heard it argued that the geek community needs to be kinder to Twilight fans, because they are geeks too. I must first say that I have never met another person with legitimately geeky interests who didn't also hate Twilight, and I don’t think any level of community should keep something so laughable, terrible, and downright misogynist safe from its due ridicule and criticisms. And yes, I am aware that, by now, all the bad writing and creepy, patriarchal, religious subtext has been thoroughly discussed. And I am also aware that the most recent film has been out for weeks now and is, thus, old hat. But I have just one last thing to share. Many women in their early twenties, like me, have been called out for criticizing Twilight because we are not part of it's audience. “Pre-teen girls love it,” we’re told, “They are merely expressing a new generations desire for angst-ridden love that glamorizes being a quiet, sad, unassuming girl.” I have heard these exact arguments before. So, here is a review of the new Twilight film. It is by a 13 year-old girl. And she doesn't  think this is a story her generation needs to hear.

Breaking Dawn: Part One Review
By Izzy Labbe
I’m not going to lie. In fact, I’m going to be 100% truthful when I say the latest movie in the crazy-popular Twilight saga, “Breaking Dawn: Part One” is pretty far up there on the list of the most disturbing movies I have ever seen.

Not only is it disgusting, graphic, scarring, and way beyond its unfitting PG-13 rating, “Breaking Dawn” is exceedingly sexist.
For all those unfamiliar with the Twilight saga, let me sum it up briefly for you: An “average” girl named Bella Swan moves from her mother’s Arizona home to live with her father in rainy, gloomy Forks, Washington. There she gets the attention of Edward Cullen, who is of course, a tall, handsome teenage boy that all the girls in school like. They fall madly and passionately in love, but it turns out that Edward is a vampire, which would probably scare the pants off any normal person. Bella, though, is so in love that she doesn’t care what Edward is, which would be quite sweet, if he weren’t a ravenous monster who wants to eat her.

The story line gets a little more complicated when Jacob Black comes in, who is also just an “average” teenage boy, who just happens to be tall, handsome, werewolf. Oh, yeah. And he’s also in love with Bella.
So after three long books and millions of dollars in grossing, we’re left with the last book/movie, “Breaking Dawn: Part One”, the beginning of the end. Bella and Edward are now engaged, and after a lavish wedding, they find themselves on their honeymoon, in a small Brazilian island that the Cullens own (did I happen to mention that they’re incredibly rich?).
So, basically, they have an average honeymoon. Here’s where it gets disturbing: Since Edward is a vampire, he’s a lot stronger than Bella, who is still just a human. So he ends up badly bruising and hurting her, which she thinks is normal. Then she becomes pregnant with a demonic vampire fetus, and it all goes downhill from there.
As the vampire baby grows inside of her, she gets weaker and skinnier, and scarier, until she looks like Zelda from “Pet Cemetery”, which is to say, a bag of bones and skin. Except, she’s pregnant.
As she grows weaker, the baby, who is literally sucking the life out of her, gets hungrier. So what does she do to nutrition her little bundle of joy? She drinks human blood out of a soda bottle.
After breaking all of the bones in her body, this baby is finally ready to come out, many months prematurely. Knowing that the baby could kill Bella if she delivered it normally, they just end up stabbing Bella’s swollen, bruised stomach with a scalpel and literally ripping the baby from inside of her. At this point, Bella is dying. And yet she still wants to see and hold her baby, which Edward allows her to do. And then her little baby girl bites her breast, and Bella dies.
At this point in the movie, I was close to vomiting. Not to worry, though. Hubby Edward, terrified at the thought of losing his new wife, takes a syringe filled with his venom and injects it directly into Bella’s heart. The movie ends with Jacob, (still in love with Bella), falling madly in love with Renesme, the demon spawn, and Bella becoming a vampire.
As you can probably tell by now, this movie is not for the weak-stomached. Or anyone at all, really. It could just end here, being a wildly disturbing, graphic movie. But no. That’s not really the point. I’m writing about this movie not just because it’s damaging to see, but because the whole idea of it is wrong.
Bella knows that Edward is a murderer, as he explains to her many times. Bella knows how dangerous he is. Bella knows that Edward could kill her, and WILL kill her, if she’s to become a vampire. But that’s what she wants. It seems that Bella just wants to die, or be devoured and turned into a vampire, a lifeless, terrifying monster.
It makes sense that Edward’s “adopted” sister Rosalie hates Bella so much. Vampires don’t really choose to become vampires. In fact, most of them don’t want to be vampires. But Bella does.
This is a movie targeted at teenagers, specifically teenage girls. When I went to see it, there were more than a few girls who looked under 10-years-old in the theatre. It disturbs me so much that the only reason “Breaking Dawn” is rated PG-13 is probably because they want to make money off of the age group it’s targeted at.
Would you want your daughter being submitted to the messages Twilight gives? That when your boyfriend leaves you as Edward does to Bella in “New Moon,” you should just lounge around the house for months, staring out the window and wondering if you have the will to live? Should teenagers think that it’s normal when your husband bruises you? Should it just be a sign of his love? Is it right that you should HAVE to keep a baby, even when it’s literally killing you? Would you give absolutely everything up, even your life, just to have a husband?

These are the messages Twilight is sending to young girls. Decide for yourself what you think about it, but I know how I feel: there should be less Bella Swans in the world, and there should be less books and movies like “Breaking Dawn.”

So there you have it. The last time I will ever discuss Twilight on this blog. I merely felt it was important to share the opinions of a member of its target audience.

Later this week, we will return to discussing a female character so awesome, a romantic relationship so down to earth, and a narrative so much better it might as well be from another galaxy……..

Monday, November 28, 2011

"Command Hoth Evacuation, Sleep, Get Captured, Have a Little Nosh, Commune with the Force, Sleep..."

"Gone with the Wind" pose very OOC for both parties. So.....we're gonna say she slipped.

Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back

Last week, we looked at the character of Princess Leia in the first Star Wars film. This week, we look at movie number two. The second installment of the trilogy takes Leia’s character to new levels. Three years after the events of the first film, Luke and a less selfish but still sarcastic Han have been serving in Leia’s rebellion.  (As the second most important leader of the movement to be consistently in the heat of things, I will continue to call it that.) Based on her introduction in Hope, Leia has some predictably badass leadership moments in the base on Hoth, remaining in the command center to direct evacuations even as the rebel base is collapsing around her and Imperial Troops invade the site. 

Like a blizzard....

As always, she maintains her wit and confidence throughout the film. But Empire delivers two big developments for Leia; her relationship with Han and her destiny as the “other.”

So, without further ado, Leia and Han. We feminists often complain that women are never allowed to have fictional adventures without a romantic entanglement. And it is a frequent problem. But now is not the time to raise the complaint, because I think the relationship between Leia and Han is one of the best love stories in film. Sure, it’s not some The English Patient or Titanic swoon fest, but that’s my point. It’s actually a wonderful depiction of a modern, no-nonsense relationship of equals.

Han starts out in Empire with that whole flirty asshole thing I usually can’t stand. And neither can Leia, obviously. But they have been friends for three years by the opening of Empire, and the film is very realistic for throwing us in the middle of what is obviously some years’ sexual tension mixed with friendship. That’s how relationships work in real life! Sudden passion and inspiration and love at first sight are very rare. Han and Leia had good old fashioned enmity at first sight that has developed into friendship with flirty antagonism.[1] And can we blame either of them? Leia and Han are the two best characters in the trilogy and their personalities are incredibly compatible; just enough surface difference to be fun, and enough deeper similarities for a connection to be natural. Their dialogue is great, never cheesy, and actors Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher have such electric chemistry, their interactions could probably write themselves. This praising of the romantic arc may seem off track, but I want to start out by emphasizing that this isn’t some tacked-on and artificial plot device that limits Leia. It’s realistic and feels entirely appropriate to the characters and narrative.

So at first, we have some serious sexual tension, a couple jerk comments from Han about how much Leia wants him, some arguments, and so forth. But when they do finally seal their status with a kiss, it’s wonderfully casual, conversational, and much more sexy then swoony. And that, combined with the fact that Leia initiates all the “we are a couple now,” body language for the rest of the film, tells the viewer that she is the one who ultimately said yes to the relationship. Need specific proof? After Han detaches the Millennium Falcon from the Imperial Starship for a covert escape, she says “You have your moments. Not many of them, but you do have them.” Then she gives him a side hug and kiss. It’s their first “couple moment,” and it’s characteristically understated. The casual and affectionate gesture represents Leia wordlessly saying “Yes, we are a couple, that first kiss was not a onetime thing.” And look at Han’s face! He bashfully half smiles, while his eyes suggest that he is inwardly bursting with joy over the fact that she has accepted him. It’s a very subtle moment, but it reveals that all his cocky posturing was just a cover-up for the fact that he was seriously smitten with Leia, mixed up with some self-esteem issues.

Another common complaint that other feminists and I have with romantic narratives is the idea that the heroine must find the love of a man in order to “find herself.” That a heterosexual relationship is contingent for a woman to realize her complete self is simply incredibly sexist. But with Han and Leia, this is not the case at all. Leia is not a stagnant character in the story, but her development and transformation is not connected to her relationship with Han.  She remains the same person she has always been when she is with him. Instead, stereotypical gender roles are reversed and it is Han who is changed by Leia’s love. His transformation from a selfish, pragmatic criminal to a loving and selfless person already began in A New Hope, but with Leia, you see him become comfortable with being emotional and letting his guard down. A non-diagetic confirmation of this reading lies in Williams’ score. In Empire, Leia’s Theme is built upon to become Han and Leia’s Love Theme. Her relationship with Han has become a part of her identity, BUT her individual theme remains in use and plays whenever she alone is evoked or she acts independently. Han, on the other hand, didn’t have a theme until the appearance of the theme he shares with Leia. It’s not that he didn’t have a character, but he remained difficult to access emotionally (and musically) until Leia accepted him. Thus, his theme is shared with Leia.

Shortly after these developments, the group lands on Bespin. The planet’s mining colony, or “Cloud City,” is the climactic location of every character’s mythic “dark night of the soul,” in a film that has already taken the narrative to some very dark and reflective places. After Lando Calrissian betrays Han, Leia and Chewie to the Empire,[2] we see once again how Leia reacts in a desperate situation. But now, unlike in Hope, she is not alone. Sharing her experience with others translates to a little more unease on her part, probably because she understands that her silence and resilience alone cannot save the people she loves. Still, other than a little more anxiety in her eyes, she still remains the most together of the group. Take, for example, the first time we see her post-betrayal. Leia has just been tortured,[3] and so has Han. But Leia is MUCH more together than Han. She asserts herself, looks out for Han, and even manages to maintain some of her sarcasm. And I am not criticizing Han, because if there is ever a time to turn into an immobile pile of jelly, it is after being tortured. That fact just enforces how subtly badass Leia is.

The moment when Han and Leia’s relationship is the closest it ever will be to ZOMG drama major angst, is throughout the ordeal on Cloud City, specifically when Han is about to be frozen in Carbonite.[4] 

Leia uses the moment to vocalize what she has already pretty much said, “I love you,” and Han famously responds with “I know.” The line was an improvisation by Harrison Ford, who felt that the scripted “I love you, too,” didn’t fit Han’s character. And he was right, but not because Han is a mega jerk to the last. The line is delivered with deep emotional sincerity. It suggests that Han is hastily trying to tell Leia that he has wordlessly perceived her acceptance of him, as well as suggesting that Han has never had to respond to that statement before in his life. The exchange will reappear in a wonderful way, but I’ll save that for when I discuss Jedi.

So now Han is in Carbonite, and Lando is feeling bad about that whole fucking his friends over thing. He tries to make it all better by helping Leia and Chewie escape, but he neglects to let them know about his personal redemption before un-cuffing the enraged Wookie. So it’s Chewie, non-human but still male, who gets the rage strangle moment, but Leia still oversees the whole thing like a BAMF. She’s obviously the one in charge, calling off the esophagus squash, not because she’s feels bad or has even forgiven Lando, but because she’s too busy running off to try to save her beaux. I love how she doesn't even pause to see if the gasping guy on the ground is okay.[5] The last minute dash and rescue fails, of course.

Meanwhile, Luke is off learning about the Force with Yoda and it’s all well and good.[6] But what does it mean for Leia? After Luke speeds off to save his friends, Yoda is seen communicating with the spirit of Obi-Wan Kenobi, who is despairing about possibly losing Luke.  “That boy was our last hope,” he says, referring to prophesy that a Chosen One will restore the Jedi order and bring balance to the Force. “No,” says Yoda, “There is another.” And then there is a super awesome cut to Bespin, as Leia is pacing with anxiety. Leia will not be formally revealed as Luke’s twin sister, and the other Chosen One, until the final film.[7] But it’s all wonderfully hinted at in Empire. One of my favorite Leia moments is when Luke, having faced the intense revelation of his parentage in the nuclear belly of Bespin, is hanging above the gaseous surface of the planet. He instinctively calls out for Leia when his pleas for help from the dead Obi-Wan go unanswered. Williams’ haunting Force Theme is heard, and we see Leia onboard the Falcon. She is in some sort of subtle trance, with Carrie Fisher’s doe eyes working wonders. Of course she is using the Force, and though it could be because I’m biased towards Leia’s trilogy moments, I think this massive development rivals the famous paternal revelation of the film. In A New Hope, and for the first chunk of Empire, Leia was awesome and badass, but she still remained a supporting character in terms of the trilogy’s larger mystical themes. Now she is revealed as being much more important. She hears Luke through the Force, orders Lando to turn back, and rescues her brother.[8] The film ends as Luke recovers on the rebel Starfleet, Lando and Chewie embark on the first stages of Han’s rescue, and Leia has moved into a new, deeper role in the mythic narrative.

Next Week; a Feminist Reading of Return of the Jedi

[1] With Han and Leia, Lucas combines classic myth and American New Wave film theory again. Their relationship follows the mythic structure of rescue, courtship through service, and sacrifice at its most basic narrative level. But in terms of content, especially at the outset of Empire, it is a New Cinema quotation of Screwball Comedy tropes.

[2] It is also worth noting that Leia is the only character who is perceptive enough to “have a bad feeling about this,” before shit goes down on Bespin.

[3] “What!?” say the fanboys, “You are getting her mixed up with Han.” “Nope,” say I. The thing is; the fandom doesn’t seem to think Leia was tortured on Cloud City just because they see Han being tortured and not Leia. But just because you don’t see something onscreen doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen in the narrative! Seriously guys; do you think the Empire had her out of her cell so they could serve her tea?

[4] And honestly, this isn’t some sort of wanting to knock sense into the characters, totally unnecessary and manufactured Twilight style angst. If you think you or a person you rationally and legitimately love may be ABOUT TO DIE, you have permission to be sad!

[5] Sorry. Lando’s a nice guy. Really.

[6] Actually, very good. And these are extended scenes with only Luke and a Muppet! That’s filmmaking.

[7] She is the Neville Longbottom to his Harry Potter. If Neville’s awesome was magnified by a thousand and didn’t spend anytime hiding under a mountain of fail.

[8] Leia is not yet consciously aware of her connection to Luke, so her love for him is a nice assurance that platonic love can exist between two heterosexual friends of the opposite sex. You don’t need some sort of stupid love triangle when you get two guys and a girl together. Someone apparently needs to alert Han to this fact.