Feminism in Star Wars: Rey Vs. Princess Leia

The new Star Wars¬†film has a woman with a gun shooting people and committing other acts of violence. She also has various other skills. This has been described as feminist by some, in contrast to Princess Leia. If people want more characters (or worse, people) like Rey, then I’m afraid feminism still has a lot to accomplish.

If you praise Rey for her skills and ‘strength’, you’re probably uncomfortable with a female character being a human. This new obsession with resilience, with a power fantasy also leaked itself into discussions around Mad Max. I don’t know which is worse. A power fantasy about violence, or a fantasy about being weak and defined by how a man feels about you.

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Your average Fallout protagonist

Rey has no unique line of dialogue, no reactions that are specific to her that define her personality. Han Solo is a sarcastic, gritty smuggler. Chewbacca is his partner who growls and says whatever is on his mind. Finn is a moral hero who’s too afraid to be a hero. Kylo Ren is an angry teenager dying for a little bit of power. BB-8 is a childish, more energetic version of R2-D2.

What makes Rey unique?

People praised Rey for being strong, for being skilled and ‘surviving on her own’. If you played a Fallout game, you know that’s not much of an achievement. A character survives on a wasteland because the author wrote it so. A character can fix a spaceship because the author put skill points into that area.

Characters are not defined by skills. They are defined by their personalities, their desires and needs and flaws and inner conflicts. These are the qualities that drive stories. If skills were enough, then my Amazon in Diablo II would have been one of the best female characters ever.

The skills of the Amazon don’t move the story of Diablo. Why the Amazon would go chasing after Diablo could be an obsession with morality, or revenge, or desire for glory. Each of these traits would lead to a drastically different story with different themes.

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From one fantasy to the next, we still struggle to draw women as human beings

A hero concerned more with glory would interact differently with characters. They would boast and they would only take missions that will grant them fame. A hero that seeks revenge will have tunnel vision, won’t bother about anything but killing Diablo. In all of these stories the Amazon still has the skills. She can still throw javelins, yet they’re so different.

Princess Leia is more of a human than Rey. She might be a damsel in distress, but that’s her initial role. It’s not her personality. Throughout the film we learn who she is by how she speaks. She’s confident in her position of power. She’s so used to it she speaks to everyone in a bossy way. As soon as she’s rescued she takes command of the gang. Notice how, before they reach Leia they’re a bunch of weird buffons.

Rey doesn’t affect her surroundings like this. I often forgot she even existed. I cannot remember a scene that her personality contributed anything to. There is a bit of ‘tough girl’ persona going on, but it’s not well-developed. Rey screams here and there for Finn to stop holding her hand. Instead of sounding strong, she sounds like a grumpy tsundere. It’s shocking she also didn’t call him ‘baka’.

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Looks feminine, relies on a guy and still has more personality

The tough girl persona can work, of course. Furiosa was a cliche, but the creators (kind of) knew what makes the cliche work. Everything in her appearance pointed to a hero so rugged they have no existence outside of posing with shotguns. She has a distinct look that fits her archetype. Rey’s archetype is more vague. She’s tough, but not in a unique manner. Furiosa was tough in an 80’s action way. She’s inspired by Schwarznegger and Sylvester Stallone – the desexualized human who exists to kill people because it’s fun. Of course, they did tack the whole redemption thing but I already addressed Fury Road‘s failure at feminism.

It’s weird how Western cinema still struggles with female characters. You don’t have to explore anime too much to find diverse casts. Just look to Neon Genesis Evangelion or Attack on Titan. Even shows that rely on sexiness and fanservice, like Freezing, still have a cast that’s as diverse as their design. What’s better is that all of these characters can be developed without hiding their femininity. The characters of Freezing don’t need a tough exterior to fight the Novas.

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Leia isn’t satisfied with just getting rescued – she reacts.

The request for more women who ‘kick ass’ (basically, are violent) is odd. The obsession with power also makes me question whether these people even understand how fiction works. Fiction isn’t a fantasy to escape from reality to. Fiction, like any other art form, brings us closer to reality. It’s supposed to connect to it in some way. It can be anything from exploring pure visual beauty or themes of life and death. A character that is a wish fulfillment is boring.

I wonder how long it will take until this trend will die. Trends come and go, anyway. We now have an obsession with toughness and grimdarkness. We used to have an obsession with escapist brightness. Someday we’ll look at it all and laugh at how stupid we are.

Further reading: Keely’s series of posts on Strong Female Characters

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Mad Max: Fury Road

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So, Anita Sarkeesian managed to piss a lot of people off (again). That’s not surprising. There’s that famous quote about how people love you for making them feel like they’re thinking, and hate you for actually make them think. Anita is an expert in fiction analysis, which is why no one managed to defeat the behemoth of her video game series. Just like she did to video games, she saw through Fury Road‘s pathetic catering to feminism.

If you hear anyone praising the film for ‘strong female characters’ and subverting the norm with the old women, you can be sure the person has little understanding of fiction. Feminism means promotion of women’s rights with hopes they’ll be equal to men. It seeks not to fuel the dichotomy of the patriarchy but to end it. It seeks to erase differences and question norms. Fury Road doesn’t question any norms but fuels existing ones that are more politically correct.

A world that challenges gender roles will challenge the concept of gender roles. It’ll put men and women in the same position, and ask us whether it’s possible or not for gender to mean nothing. In Fury Road, gender tells you who’s evil and who’s not. All of the guys are bad. There is not a single bad female. There are only two male characters who aren’t villains, and a character expresses mistrust towards them because of their sex. This is more than enough to tell us that males are pretty awful, but women are good-natured and also badasses.

You even get an action heroine, who’s defining feature is that she looks like the singer from Skunk Anansie. This is also the most interesting thing about her. She has no personality beyond doing what’s right because she’s a protagonist. That’s fine. That’s how action heroes work. Luckily she has enough charisma and a gritty look that emphasizes badassery instead of sexiness. She’s a great action heroine that ticks all the right boxes, but her character is as shallow as a damsel in distress.

It gets worse in the climax, where a bunch of old women push into the final scene despite the film not wanting them there. There’s no reason to focus on them so much. They’re a plot device that tells the characters to go back and instigate the final chase. They contribute nothing to the scene. They have no personality and no charisma. We have no reason to cheer for them other than that they’re good, and they’re only good because they’re women. They just take up precious time that could be better spent on Max and Furiosa.

Amidst all this, the only character with a personality is Max himself. Tom Hardy destroys Mel Gibson with his performance. Gibson made Max a charismatic but shallow action hero. Hardy and the script turn the ‘mad’ into ‘mentally ill’. The looks on his face, his jerky behavior – all points to a broken, damaged man. We also get some ‘visions’ to let us know Max has a troubled past, but they must’ve written that before they knew how brilliant Hardy is.

So, Fury Road has one of the most sexist worlds ever. It’s a world where all males are bad and disposable. Females are either angels or badasses. Thankfully, feminists couldn’t ruin George Miller’s vision. There’s a brilliant moment of symbolism in the final scene where some of the old women die a beautiful death, which is a metaphore for how the film doesn’t let social justice stops its brilliance.

At its best, Fury Road betters the ideas in the previous films. The world is weird, mentally ill and unstable. There are plenty of odd design choices to emphasize this, but the the car with the guitarist is the most telling one. It may seem impractical to have a guitarist in the middle of a car chase, but this is how this world works.

Humanity couldn’t stay the same after an apocalypse. There’s no reason that the cultures that will rise up will be like ours. Memories of the old world should be erased. New symbols take their place. In this world it’s cars and weapons. It’s a culture that worships cars. That’s why they run with their designs, and you get a sports car with wheels of a tank and the guitarist. This is what makes the world seem so real and alive. If only George Martin could think of such odd details.

It’s less weird than before. In the previous films, the world was desexualized and truly insane. George Miller took a few cues from Martin and added some very out-of-place grimdarkness. In the previous films, the villains were cruel but also weird. It was a unique way to give them humanity. There’s no antagonist as charming as Master Blaster. They dress weird, but their behavior isn’t very different than whatever Marvel is churning. Fury Road should have looked to its followers – Fallout and Borderlands, who borrowed this weirdness and created their own spin of a mentally ill world.

At least they kept the aestheticization of violence, which is the heart and soul of the series. It still feels like a respond to John Woo. If Woo is the master of gunfights, then Miller will be the master of car chases.

Action scenes aren’t measured by how well the effects are. Good action scenes are like a dance. The movements need to connect. There needs to be good pacing, tension and release, make it visually appealing and let it flow. Good action is not realistic. It is indulgence in visual fantasies.

Fury Road is full of this. Each car has an eye-popping design. Even cars whose drivers aren’t seen have a unique design. It’s still filmed to let you feel the speed. The blurry roads remain the defining feature. There’s also variety. Spiky cars, people hanging on poles, a guy with a chainsaw – the action relies more on memorable set pieces than effects.

It’s also completely heartless, but it’s part of its beauty. The film asks you to cheer for every death, every explosion and every wound. Even when the good guys are wounded it’s shot as if it’s another cool addition to the scene. It may seem too much for some people, but violence can’t be aestheticized properly if it’s censored. It’s not that Fury Road uses extreme violence to cover up creativity. It just knows you can’t be too creative with the PG-13 rating.

Whether it’s better than Road Warrior, time will tell. Miller compromises his vision a bit for silly grimdarkness and feminists, but in the end he runs over them. They put enough holes in his wheels, which means Fallout and Borderlands are ahead. There’s plenty of fuel left in this franchise though. If they keep Hardy and ignore the social justice warriors, then the action genre will come back to life. If not, then maybe this will motivate someone to make a Borderlands or Fallout film.

By the way, Gizmo from Fallout 1 appears in a pretty cool car. Apperantly, fat guys are okay to kill. So much for social justice.

3.5 cars out of 5