Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Just Another Feminist Rant

So a friend of mine recently shared this TED Talk on Facebook. 

I watched.  I liked.  I shared.

And almost immediately, three of my friends (who are Star Wars geeks) had MELTDOWNS because Stokes is taking potshots at their cultural touchstone, their sacred cow, their holy grail of fandom.  “Who is this putz?” they demanded.  “How dare he say that Luke Skywalker isn’t a hero?  That Princess Leia isn’t awesome?  WHY ARE PEOPLE LETTING TV AND MOVIES PARENT THEIR CHILDREN IN THE FIRST PLACE?”

Whoa, there, little dogies.  This wasn’t about the evils of Star Wars specifically, and nobody said Luke Skywalker isn’t a hero.  I think we’re missing the larger point here, hmmmm?

First of all, while I do think Stokes downplayed Princess Leia’s toughness, I have to admit, I have never found her to be that compelling of a character.  Like Stokes’ daughter, I much prefer Obi Wan, or Yoda.  If you were to ask me to make a list of my top female fictional characters, I'm sure I would get around to Leia eventually, but she doesn't spring to mind immediately the way other examples of fictional female badassery do.   Like, say, Dorothy Gale.       

Some may argue that Star Wars is a product of its time, and therefore the Bechdel test shouldn’t apply.  I call bullshit.  It came out in 1977, well after women’s lib, a scant two years before Ellen Ripley would be the sole survivor of the Nostromo.  (Not to mention, 38 years after the other film Stokes is submitting for analysis.)  And you mean to say that in the entire galaxy there were only two women?  And they are both related to Luke Skywalker?  Really?  Which means that their entire import is not based on whether they’re tough or not, or whether or not they’re leadership material, but only insofar as how they are connected to the hero.  Seriously, the only other female characters in the whole damn franchise were some female Ewoks, and that poor chick who became Rancor-chow.  (In the original trilogy, I mean.)   Would it have been such a stretch to give us a woman flying one of those X-wing starfighters?  

Not passing the Bechdel test is a common and distressing trend that is not improving.  Stokes is not the first person I’ve heard point out in that past year that even now, so few films have female protagonists (only 11 of the top 100 last year).  It’s not just about including more women of substance in our stories, though that would certainly be nice, but it’s also about changing how we view men’s roles.   

Meanwhile, The Wizard of Oz centers around three strong female characters and romantic entanglements with men never even come up.  It teaches that gentleness, cooperation and intellect can be heroic, and that it’s not unmanly to follow a female lead.  

But Stokes’ greater point is not just what all this teaches girls—it’s what it teaches boys. 

Too many stories send boys the message that it’s best to go it alone; that being embroiled in conflict makes you a man.  Movies not passing the Bechdel test teach boys and girls alike that women are marginal—they are supporting characters at best, and their entire roles are defined by how they relate to and/or support men.  But we’re not marginal—we can’t be marginal when we make up half the fucking population.  But this misogyny cuts both ways-- it teaches boys that there’s always a princess waiting for him on the other side of battle, and if he fights hard enough, she’ll just fall into his arms.  Stokes is making the same point—we need to break out of the old gender roles and start thinking about what an equal society looks like, and how that affects our storytelling.  

It’s so easy to make a film about men that’s just about men—bands of brothers, royal courts, and even twelve angry men.   

When I was ten or eleven years old, I wrote a futuristic/post-apocalyptic story about a band of women soldiers.  I did that specifically because of the crying lack of female warriors in films and books.  It’s not so easy to make a meaningful film about just groups of women, because, historically, there were hardly any places where women could exist without men running the show.  In fact, I can really think of only two places: convents and brothels.  Madonnas and whores, in other words.  No wonder people continue to struggle with that dichotomy.  

As for using the media as a proxy for parenting, I’m pretty sure that isn’t what Stokes meant.  Maybe it’s just because I’m a writer, but I take it for granted, as Stokes seems to, that stories do shape who we are.  We get so up in arms about worrying whether or not the TV/video games/Internet are taking the place of parenting that we forget that at the core of all those mediums are stories.  No one sees anything wrong with Mother Goose.  All stories have power-- humble fairy tales and nursery rhymes, literary leviathans, or even Dora the Explorer.  It's the parent's job to provide context.  

My first ambition, after all, was to be a Jedi knight.  My mother (who is an engineer) wanted me to be a doctor.  The fact that I happened to be born with XX chromosomes never even entered into the equation.


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