Spoilers: Your sexist childhood is now feminist AF
December 15, 2017
So we need to talk about the Last Jedi and women in the Star Wars galaxies.
Stop now if you haven’t seen it yet.
I have to admit that after seeing the revelation that was Force Awakens my guard was up. I’d seen this scenario before. Heck, astute pop culture critics have chronicled it for years.
Introduce a “feisty” girl or woman.
She is “bad ass” and “strong” and “the perfect role model for little girls!”
Pay gap begone!
And then she goes on to train the dopey boy who becomes the ultimate hero of the story.
It’s happened so many times that even though I adored the Force Awakens and its introduction of Rey to lead the franchise for a new generation, and even though I witnessed with my own eyes that lightsaber scene in the snow forest, I still spent the last two years waiting — just waiting — for Rey to get punted aside for the ultimate hero of the story: Kylo.
Because let’s face it. Star Wars is notoriously horrible for letting women speak, let alone do stuff.
Yes, two or three “feisty,” “fearless” women out of a first- and second-trilogy cast of literally hundreds is horrible, so don’t even start because you’ll just go on adding in your head, get to Padme (#2) and then think “Oh.”
So my guard was up.
With good reason.
Even though Force Awakens went much farther in casting more girls and women than its galactic predecessors, populating the reimagined Star Wars universe with more than ever (villagers, bar patrons, random star fighters, Rebel minions, people in the streets), the casting as a whole was nowhere near equal.
In Force Awakens, there are a total of 186 cast members listed, with 41 women — or 22 percent.
Then there was Rogue One, an unwatchable parade of space dudes. That stupid movie is the worst. While it deserves huge credit for its racially diverse cast, it leaves girls and women in the void of space.
In Rogue One, there are a total of 145 cast members listed, with 17 women — or 12 percent.
It feels like it in every scene. It’s unbearable because of this.
And then, finally, the Last Jedi.
It really could have gone either way.
A new director. New storylines.
There are a total of 96 cast members listed, with 18 women, or 18 percent.
I’ll be honest: I don’t know how this cast stuff works. Do they withhold some actors from the IMDB listing for a little while so as not to spoil anything?
Because those numbers for Last Jedi just don’t … feel right.
It felt like I was seeing more women on screen than ever before, much much more than Force Awakens — and certainly more than any previous Star Wars film.
Yes, there were the new, amazing heroes (my god that opening scene and those Tico sisters — where have you been!), but there were also just more functionaries and fighters and random women just popping up here and there, speaking, making orders, taking orders, blowing crap up and getting blown up. There were multiple scenes when there were only women onscreen. For the first time, the Star Wars empire felt more representational of our own.
It felt 50-50.
But at the same time … it wasn’t. At all.
It left me struggling with my male bias today.
It reminds me immediately of those studies showing that when men and women are given equal speaking roles, women are perceived as having more time. Then there are the studies showing men speak more in almost every social setting, despite a cultural misconception that perpetually labels women as “Chatty Kathys.” More like Chatty Chads.
I remember telling my wife about that study and she interrupted, “Oh my god yes! You guys speak all the TIME!”
It’s all connected — these cultural myths we see onscreen, the stories we think are worthy of telling, and how we then perceive women and men on the street. In real life. Art imitates life and the other way around.
It’s how sexist men can watch a remake of Ghostbusters and bemoan a cast of female leads as the downfall of men or even shake their fists at the lawns of “reverse sexism!” and not notice that A. the all-male originals felt somehow normal, and that B. out of a total remake cast of 213, there were 61 women — or 28 percent.
It’s how a remake of the all-dude Ocean’s 11 franchise can create the same outrage with a woman-led cast in the forthcoming Ocean’s 8 — despite the fact that the actual cast list is not quite perfectly equal: 150 total in the cast, with 72 women, or 48 percent.
Even in the “all female” blockbuster genres, women as a whole take a back seat.
So I’m watching Rey in the Last Jedi, thinking of these studies and stats and the stories we tell and the way we live in a society populated by 51 percent girls and women but a movie-verse, government-verse, and business-verse where they are represented more or less at 20-30 percent levels, and I’m … waiting.
Just waiting for Rey’s hero journey to suddenly turn into Kylo’s.
And then … it happened.
The moment I feared for years finally arrived.
In the middle of the movie — in the midst of her own training session on cute bird island — she basically says, “OK, let’s go find Kylo because he’s the key to saving everyone.”
Or something like that.
It was midnight. I was gagging. The moment had finally arrived: Star Wars turned Rey into Lucy and made her pull the football out from under herself like so many white women voters.
But then … she didn’t.
Moana (also Disney) had a moment just like it. After training the star girl to be the hero, it was then suddenly up to the male Maui to save the day.
Until … it wasn’t.
The rest of the movie continued.
And there she was again, in the end … heroing.
Moana saved her island and her people.
Rey saved the entire rebellion.
I’m still having trouble processing it. It didn’t give me chills the way the lightsaber scene did in Force Awakens, but there was no mistaking the camera angle, the voice over, the everyday, could-be-anyone woman at the center of a multi-billion dollar, multi-generational cultural touchstone, floating rocks and taking names.
It was a moment to behold.
Even having seen this, the farback, cynical parts of me that study these things for a living is still waiting on Episode IX now to go ahead and pull the football away from Rey.
I merely study it. I can’t imagine living it.
But I’m relieved and excited to think now … it might not happen. It probably won’t happen.
In the (also) Disney movie Cars 3, I spent a solid hour rolling my eyes as the “strong,” “feisty” Cruz Ramirez character training the star male lead to regain his mojo. She was better, faster, smarter, and yet her entire job was to prep him for a return to stardom.
Until … it wasn’t.
Until the male star turned the “minority feisty” trope on its head and pointed her toward victory.
We’ve haven’t reached a critical mass where all-dude movies are a thing of the past. But something’s definitely shifted. There are encouraging signs.
I’m waiting for final cast numbers to arrive because I do think the movie represented women in numbers far greater than they show now. Maybe not and that’s just my own bias rearing its head.
But certainly, the Last Jedi made their stories of heroism central to the telling. Not just Rey. But the Tico sisters, and Admiral Holdo, quietly having a plan and not needing a hero’s parade for it all (while also somehow forgiving outright mutiny as just boys being plucky boys, or, more accurately, grown men being forgiven as plucky boys who gosh darn it all, just don’t know any better).
So there are flaws. Sure.
But it’s also fuller, richer — made better by a wealth of experiences brought to the fore in characters large and small.
There’s also, between the lines of the story and our culture writ large, something that Star Wars as a franchise has always offered: Hope. Hope that although our political-verses and everyday-verses might be hellscapes for half the population, our shifting cultural mythologies, the stories we see and tell, just might lead the way to a better place, to a rebellion that persists.