The new trailer was about as girl-powered as you could get without a Leia 2016 bumper sticker. The voiceover was taken from “Return of the Jedi,” when Luke intones, “The force is strong in my family. My father has it. I have it. And … my sister has it” and came coupled with visuals of female hands, holding lightsabers and helping John Boyega up. Already the Internet is abuzz about Daisy Ridley’s Rey, a scavenger. Could she be the protagonist?
Does “Star Wars” need one? Is there a woman problem?
Ignoring the prequels (please don’t make me think more about the prequels than I have to), there aren’t very many women in the “Star Wars” saga. Luke could count them on the fingers of his remaining hand. Furthermore, they are all brunettes. There is the lady who says, “Stand by, Ion Control. Fire.” There is Mon Mothma, who plans the attack on the second Death Star using the information that many Bothans died to provide. There is Aunt Beru, serving blue milk.
And, I think, that’s it. There are nameless alien women, of course — Twi’leks and exotic dancers, including someone listed in the “Return of the Jedi” credits only as Fat Dancer.
We all remember that bikini. We all remember George Lucas’s baffling pronouncement to Carrie Fisher that “there’s no underwear in space.” There are ways in which Princess Leia was exactly the princess you would expect from a fantasy space world invented by a bearded man in the 1970s. (What is it about male fantasies and women in uncomfortable metal undergarments, anyhow?)
But in so many ways, Leia is so much more than that. She’s smart. She’s funny. She holds her own against the men, gets them out of tight spots — “Into the garbage chute, flyboy.” She’s a resistance leader, masterminding the Battle of Hoth, and if she isn’t always on the front lines all the time literally fighting with a blaster, she’s a sharp shooter when she needs to be. She can use the Force. She’s a very equal team member. When Han jokes dismissively about being better off if he can avoid any more female advice, he turns out to be wrong.
But interesting and vital and lovable as Leia is, it’s also not her story.
I mention this because, in an interesting piece at Salon, Sonia Saraiya observed that she always felt Leia’s story was slighted.
The films weren’t totally for me — Leia (Carrie Fisher) is the only female character of substance in the original trilogy, and she’s both a plot device and an object of romance. Despite being given the murky prophecy of “there is another,” she’s not the hero of the story. Sometimes a story only needs one hero, and Leia gets her limelight in other ways. But I have always felt, keenly, that Leia was shortchanged by that original trilogy. Her story of torture at the hands of the man who turns out to be her biological father is conveniently backgrounded; her trauma at seeing her planet blow up, at the hands of her father, is similarly ignored. Leia has a story that is never told—a princess who turns out to be adopted, who chooses to make her life about resistance instead of acquiescence. When Luke first meets Leia, she is making flirtatious wisecracks in a prison cell, following her life’s total devastation, to a man wearing a Stormtrooper’s uniform. There is so much written there that is never given voice, a story of a woman who is at the very end of her rope.
First, Saraiya anticipates my objection by noting “she’s not the hero of the story” and “sometimes a story only needs one hero.” To butcher a Will Rogers phrase, we can’t all be protagonists, because someone has to sit on the curb and clap as they go by. Protagonists need best friends and they need love interests and they need sisters and they need awkward intersections of those three.
Second, I don’t think Leia and her traumas are shortchanged any more than Luke and his are.
For Pete’s sake, he stumbles on the burning corpses of his aunt and uncle before the one-hour mark. One of his best childhood friends explodes in an X-Wing just as he’s trying to take down the Death Star. By all rights, he should spend the better part of the film curled up in the fetal position, and so should the audience.
But we don’t, and he doesn’t, and it doesn’t feel wrong. This is in part because it’s an action movie and also in part because it’s a myth.
Incredibly terrible things happen to people in mythology and fairy tales. Their sons fall out of the sky on melted wax wings. Their stepmothers get rolled down hills in barrels full of nails. Their sisters dance to death in iron shoes. But there is something larger at work, in the service of which these things have to happen, and so they aren’t traumatic story-stoppers. They occur in the context of trials that the hero passes or fails, in a framework where the just are rewarded and the unjust are punished, and we accept them stoically, as the hero does.
Going back to the first “Star Wars,” the only loss that the film actually wants to carry emotional weight is when we lose Obi-Wan Kenobi. That one Luke gets to grieve for about a minute — as long as it takes to charge up the guns. And then he’s out there again, blowing up TIE Fighters with the best of ’em.
But where I get off the bus is the proclamation that “The films weren’t totally FOR me.”
Apart from the question of whether the films know what to do with this character they’ve created, whether her story is more interesting than the parts of it that we see onscreen (this feels totally fair! I think the excitement of creating a world is that there are infinite fascinating stories that just barely touch the surface of the screen), I do take issue with the framing that because the protagonist is male, the story isn’t for us.
Once more, with feeling: Just because a protagonist is male does not mean that a story is for boys. Just because a protagonist is female does not mean that a story is for girls.
Girls, especially girls who grew up reading and loving classics and stories of adventure, have learned this the hard way. Just because the protagonist is a girl like you does not mean this is your story. There are not enough stories with female protagonists to encompass all the stories that you want. You want a story about pirates? space? cowboys? wizards? You will have to read something with a male protagonist. (Especially if you like books written before 1900, and you don’t want a story about someone having romantic intrigues in, at, or around the countryside. Nope, sorry, once you have finished “Medea,” you will be reading books with male protagonists, and liking them.) Yes, there are a few cherished exceptions, but the male experience has so long been the default for the human experience that, by and large, you had to find your story in the accounts of people who aren’t quite exactly like you.
This exclusion was just the old default of how stories were told. You want a universal story, get a white-bread male protagonist from a farm, fill the screen with Y chromosomes and go to town.
But if we really think that “Star Wars” wasn’t FOR us if it didn’t have a female protagonist, we might as well throw in the towel on a female protagonist now.
I understand what Saraiya is getting at. There are so few female faces in “Star Wars” that someone, half-jokingly, proposed a Hive theory where females are rare and precious and regarded as queens – or else why would there be so few of them? — and when I read it, it stung. How could I love this thing when almost no one in it was a girl, like me?
Well, because the characters in it were like me, in ways that mattered just as much.
I’m a female “Star Wars” fan, too. For me, a big part of being a female “Star Wars” fan was saying, “I like this regardless of what you presume I like.” Don’t you want something with a female protagonist? No. This is my story. All stories are women’s stories. This is not a Boys-Only club just because it’s full of boys and explosions. Yes, “Star Wars” is for me.
I loved Leia, but she wasn’t even my favorite character. Sure, I picked up some handy courtship techniques from her – the best way to get men to like you is to insult their height while wearing clothes that cover everything but your hands and face! – but I saw myself just as much in the others. C3PO was talkative and unhelpful during battle sequences. Luke was awkward and earnest. Darth Vader breathed a lot, wore slimming black ensembles and spent most of his time hanging out with British people, as I dreamed of doing.
You can still see yourself as a hero or a heroine and want to wield a lightsaber regardless of whether the protagonist is exactly like you. This is increasingly important to remember, I think, as we move into what I hope will be a Golden Age of Female Protagonists, where the selection of a girl as the Chosen One will, I hope, go as unremarked as all those Chosen Boys of movies past.
This cuts both ways. If Rey turns out to be our prime Force-wielding mover and shaker, that will be terrific. But that won’t mean the movie’s not for boys.
This is myth, not American Girl. You don’t have to latch on exclusively to the one who looks exactly like you. You don’t even have to do that with American Girl dolls, for that matter.
No. If a story’s true enough, you can find yourself in it, whoever you are. Girl, boy, droid or Wookiee. If it’s good, what you need is there.