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.

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Of Patriarchy and Parades

I'm a sucker for the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. For a couple of hours on Thanksgiving morning, I get to veg out in front of the TV with my sister, bury any cynicism, and bask in a cozy, saccharine escape from kitchen insanity. Also, Broadway. Lot's of it.

Last year, there was a mild hubbub over the fact that among the parade's iconic character balloons, only a small minority are female. I am not a cafeteria feminist, but I initially rolled my eyes at this one. The majority of the balloons aren't even human! 

What gender is Pikachu? Seriously, I'm asking.

Plus, if the costumed characters, performers and floats are considered, gender representation numerically evens out. I am now warming up to the legitimacy of the complaint, but I still think the numeric focus wasn't the best approach. Quality of representation is the main issue here, and, being a retail run event, it's not great. I seem to remember some sort of garish, pink princess float from last year. 

As all the event's attractions are based on some popular media, usually children's media, it's the source we should really be talking about. So, as a response to the real problem, enjoy an appropriately Broadway themed take on the subject. Happy Thanksgiving!

Monday, November 21, 2011

Feminist Fun with the Force!

Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

Princess Leia Organa was one of my earliest feminist idols. At eight years old, Star Wars became my first full blown fandom. I remember how my timid 2nd grade-self had to be convinced to watch the first film, which I was sure would be scary and violent, by the promise of a beautiful princess. My very shrewd older cousin told my sister and me that we could turn it off as soon as Leia made her first appearance. Of course, by the time the escape pod containing R2-D2 and C3PO tumbled into space, we both said “You know, we don’t have to turn it off.” One trilogy marathon later, we were hooked. Star Wars was my first geeky obsession, my first favorite movie that wasn’t Disney, my first intro to myth and action and memorable characters. For that, it holds a very special place in my heart. It still remains one of my top fandoms. 

Eight-year-old feminist fangirl, with Sis, circa 1997. We were awesome, clearly.

So, without further delay, let’s analyze Leia.

It's pretty non-negotiable that Star Wars represents the definitive cinematic treatment of classic myth. George Lucas was a student not only of the American New Wave or New Hollywood Movement, but also of Joseph Campbell, renowned scholar of world mythology. With the Star Wars trilogy, Lucas consciously used symbolism and the structure of the universal, ancient Hero’s Journey myth to create a cathartic narrative. Infused with the cinematic references and film student vocabulary of the American New Wave, it was transformed into an even more resonant modern myth. In terms of the Campbell structure, particularly in A New Hope, Leia represents the maiden. But Lucas had some feminist inclinations, and he knew that while Leia would fulfill the role of one in need of rescue for the purposes of the mythic narrative, he did “not want her to be a passive damsel in distress.”[1]

Thus Leia’s initial distress has nothing to do with any supposed “feminine delicacy.”  She’s a political prisoner, captured by the Empire because she is a high ranking leader of the rebellion, participating in key espionage regarding the new Death Star, as well as both royalty and an elected senator from the knowingly seditious planet of Alderaan. In other words, she is anything but passive. He capture under these circumstances is believable and does nothing to reduce the power or agency of her character.

Her attitude while imprisoned is also admirable. As Mary Henderson puts it in Star Wars: The Magic of Myth, “She does not scream, faint, plead or cry.”[2] In fact, she maintains surprising eloquence and confidence throughout her ordeal. She is tortured, but she doesn’t betray any information. Her planet is destroyed by the Death Star in a twisted interrogation, and she still maintains general cool. She does display realistic and appropriate distress in both terrible situations, but any breakdown she might have had, she has in private, off-screen. Leia’s attitude seems to be “They are going to kill me anyway, so I’m not going to give them the pleasure of seeing me snap.” And that’s badass!

Meanwhile, A New Hope has some fun satirizing our expectations of who Leia “should be.” Bored farm boy Luke Skywalker builds her up in his mind from the moment he sees her holograph message. Rescuing the beautiful, helpless princess will realize his heroic dreams and possibly get him laid! For Star Wars, John Williams composed his finest work, one of the greatest classical film scores of all time. It’s Wagnerian influence and strict leitmotif[3] structure makes for a character analysis gold mine. Leia’s Theme, a gentle, melancholy strain, is not entirely inappropriate for her character, but it also functions in an ironic sense. It represents the abstract idea of a beautiful princess, but as the trilogy develops, it plays during moments when Leia is acting particularly badass, as if to say, “I’m sorry, did you expect dainty? Too bad.” Luke’s first encounter with Leia is a wonderful parody of “Sleeping Beauty.” Luke, in his Stormtrooper disguise, opens Leia’s cell. She appears to be sleeping, and her na├»ve theme plays. She wakes up almost instantly, however, immediately asking, “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?”

Luke is obviously taken aback by the jibe, as well as by the fact that Leia doesn’t need much rescuing once her cell door has been opened. She immediately takes charge of Luke, Han Solo and Chewbacca’s highly incompetent plan. She doesn’t even introduce herself to Han, except with “Looks like you’ve managed to cut off our only escape route.” She grabs a blaster gun from one of the guys and starts making decisions, and knocking off Stormtroopers, when they clearly can’t. One of the most amusing things about A New Hope is how haphazard and unplanned the whole grand adventure is. Leia is the only person who has her shit together, and the only well planned and legitimate military action, the Rebel assault on the Death Star, is an operation of Leia’s rebellion, born of her stolen plans. Leia’s role in A New Hope never moves far beyond a strong willed, “self rescuing” princess, appropriate to the fun Saturday morning serial vibe of the first Star Wars film. But with The Empire Strikes Back, her character will give us much more to talk about.  

Next week; A Feminist Reading of The Empire Strikes Back (1980)

[1] George Lucas, quoted in “Star Wars: the Making of the World’s Greatest Space Adventure Movie,” Screen Superstar no.8, special Star Wars editions, 1977, 14.

[2]Henderson, Mary. Star Wars: The Magic of Myth. 1997, 50.

[3] Leitmotif is a recurring musical theme associated with a particular person, place, or idea.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

So it Begins....

I’m a feminist. I’m also a geek. Both identities have always been central who I am, and they always interact. A conversation with my friends about our latest geeky obsession quickly turns to an analysis of female characters. An insightful friend once mentioned that one of the most upsetting things about popular sexism is that empowered women need to compromise their ideals in order to be entertained. This is, unfortunately, often the case, but other times our ideals and our favorite entertainment can go hand in hand. My feminism and my fandoms interact, with feminist reflections often dominating my fandom experience.  This blog was created for three reasons.
  1. To formally gather my feminist reflections on all my favorite narratives in one spot
  2. To raise awareness that girl geeks exist
  3. To serve as a  resource for anyone interested in exploring popular geeky media from a feminist perspective
So, here’s the structure; I am going to tackle all my favorite narratives one at a time, in depth. Each narrative will be explored from the following angles; First, a chronological overview of the narrative in which I scrutinize all female characters as they appear and develop, both within the narrative, and how the author, director, or creator constructs them thematically for the audience. Next, I will move to a broader examination of the narrative, addressing the Bechdel Test and the overall state of gender equality within the respective fictional world. Also, general reflections on female fandom.

This week, we kick things off in a galaxy far, far away......