The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

How Wonder Woman and the Last Jedi could make our politics worse

They make us feel good, but reinforce harmful impulses.

Two of the biggest action movies of the year feature female heroines, including Daisy Ridley in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” shown above standing next to co-star Mark Hamill. (Daniel Leal-Olivas/AFP/Getty Images)

Among the many demographic lessons from this past year, one of the most important has been that white women in the United States are not a unified political front. Their votes did not carry Hillary Clinton into the White House, nor did the disturbing allegations of sexual predation against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore stop a majority of them from casting their vote for him.

But the two biggest cinematic events of the past year, “Wonder Woman” and now “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” tell a different story.

Anchored by unflappable female warriors who function as the beating moral hearts of worlds corrupted by male hubris, both films marketed — and have reaped the financial rewards of — aspirational images of white female leadership that are self-congratulatory and easy for the political class to embrace. Clinton, for instance, recently received the Wonder Woman award from the Women’s Media Center and even compared herself to the ageless Themysciran in an email to supporters.

But as products of consumer culture removed from political realities, the iconic heroines in these movies are distorting reality for Americans.

They gratify audiences by mirroring their own beliefs back to them — depicting white women as heroic paragons of virtue crusading for righteous causes — which, in turn, licenses viewers to avoid having either to acknowledge the far more complicated role white women are playing in our politics or to consider what other forms of racialized womanhood these heroines are occluding. So, while these films may trade on a widespread desire for transformative change, they are also replaying cultural scripts that our recent history already seems on the verge of exhausting and, in the process, foreclosing more visionary — and truly transformative — artistic and political possibilities.

This isn’t the first time in the history of American popular culture that a work of art whose white heroine was tasked with saving not only the men who surround her but also an entire social order met an unprecedented consumer demand and, as a result, had its political afterlife severely compromised.

Indeed, this cultural construct can be traced back at least a century and a half, when the U.S. public worshiped at the altar of another fictional white girl from a work even more divisive than “The Last Jedi” is proving to be.

The character is Evangeline St. Clare, and the work, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s debut novel was the first global literary blockbuster, selling millions of copies worldwide. A contemporary reader called Stowe’s sweeping epic of slaves, fugitives, Southerners and abolitionists in the antebellum United States a national “epidemic” — everywhere he went, people were reading or talking about “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”

Although the novel’s most infamous legacy has been the uses and abuses of its eponymous hero, the character who won the hearts of its 19th-century audience was the angelic Evangeline, better known to readers as Little Eva.

The daughter of the languid slave owner Augustine St. Clare and his hypochondriacal wife, Eva is the flaxen-haired image of antebellum Protestant piety. Pale and pure of heart, she is a Christ figure passed through the Victorian cult of the child. Everyone she touches — white and black alike — experiences her unconditional love, which, in turn, awakens their own more tender feelings. And her eventual, inevitable death — by consumption, naturally — promises the redemption not just of her immediate family but potentially of an entire nation.

Eva’s death in many ways represented the apex of antebellum sentimentalism, an aesthetic and philosophical movement that privileged emotions and feelings as a viable path to the good (and even to God). Stowe herself believed that a character like Eva, properly calibrated, could make readers “feel right.”

While scholars have long volleyed back and forth about the meaning and efficacy of Eva’s death, the little evangelist certainly made readers feel something, if the sudden spike in children named Eva after the novel’s release is any indication.

In fact, the novel was so popular and so affecting that Uncle Tom merchandise flooded the nation within months of its release. These “Tomitudes” included poems, songs, ceramic figurines, card games, dinner plates and spoons. One observer lamented that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” had infiltrated the “drawing room, nursery, kitchen, library.”

As a result of this boom, Little Eva quickly transformed from a character into a commodity. She was a capitalist Eucharist for a sentimental public, soothing consumers with saccharine — and usually offensive — models of white femininity and race relations. While Stowe had intended Eva to exemplify the power of interracial tenderness and touch, she congealed over time into a schmaltzy synthesis of whiteness, innocence and Christianity.

Sentimentalism, in general, was not as politically inert as Little Eva may make it seem, however.

It could do cultural work. Stowe’s novel galvanized abolitionist sympathizers, unnerved slaveholders and maybe even softened a few hard hearts. Nevertheless, Little Eva’s post-novelistic life as a commodity still functioned, in the words of one of her most severe critics, as an “introduction to consumerism.” Like other sentimental consumer products of the era, Eva responded to desires and beliefs consumers already had.

Thus, according to historian Robin Bernstein, while Eva emerged as the pinnacle of pious white innocence, the novel’s black characters (especially Uncle Tom and the slave girl Topsy) were marketed and sold to consumers as odious cultural stereotypes from which we have yet to fully recover. The circulation of Eva’s image sanded away the particularities of her character, and the intense intimacy that attended ownership during the period enabled her to become a vessel for reinforcing some very ugly cultural norms.

There are many ways in which the supernaturally gifted white heroines of 2017 differ from the consumptive Eva. Besides being older, both Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) and Rey are fighters whose physicality is foregrounded. They also, unlike Eva, did not need to die to activate the sympathies of their audiences.

But beneath their super powers and death-defying acrobatics, with their stoic resolve and their religious asceticism, these fictional women continue to stand as avatars of an unblemished white womanhood that clings to the old sentimental dream that they may still perhaps make their fellow characters — and the audiences witnessing them — feel right.

It is virtually impossible not to be stirred by Wonder Woman’s fearless, slow-motion advance through No Man’s Land or Rey’s balletic lightsaber dual against her fanboy antagonist. But however moved we might be, these scenes are still designed to flatter sensibilities rather than challenge them.

According to eBay, Wonder Woman and Rey were the most sought after fictional female characters this past year. The force of consumerism, at least, remains strong with them. Thus, just as it did in Stowe’s era, white femininity continues to be sold successfully as a moral compass for mass culture.

This, for better or worse, papers over the moral ambivalence of the voting patterns and affiliations of actual white women in the United States.

Despite all that is genuinely inspiring about these films, their narratives continue to turn on the notion that cultural salvation is the work of white women, which implicitly sidelines the political contributions, moral influence and daily efforts of women of color, not unlike Little Eva’s dramatic death and sudden rise to literary prominence did in 1852. If the events of the past two years have taught us anything, it’s that our conventional narratives of political change are impoverished. Our popular culture ought to do more thinking at the limits of the narratively possible.

Perhaps, then, our current crop of cinematic heroines is not aspirational enough, too hindered by the demands of a market. For all the plaudits African American women have gotten from the left in the wake of the Alabama senate race, it is still not they who are reaping billions of dollars at the global box office. Maybe the release of the tentpole film “A Wrinkle in Time” this coming spring, with its young African American female lead, will prove to be the much-needed corrective. Ava DuVernay, you’re our only hope.