By Kerwin Holmes, Jr.
Ahem, SPOILER alert. Ahem.
So, like any good Star Wars fan with the access to money and a reasonably modern theater, I have seen the newest Star Wars film. I have a mixture of sentiments about the film, but this is on one particular concern of mine, and that is the troublesome ongoing effort for Disney to create a strong female lead…which has somehow now crept into the legacy of Star Wars.
Now, this was a thought that I had all on my own, but this discussion was inspired by a discourse I had with a friend of mine who saw the film a few hours before I had. We’re bros, so bro-talk is what framed the convo and the fact that we both hold very incompatible worldviews makes every discussion very comical. Once we cleared the air of how attractive the young star portraying the character Rey was (I pulled that card first) my friend began by stating something like:
“You know how annoying it was seeing Rey being better than Finn at everything, and her being all smug and attitude-ish about it all?”
Well, I had noticed. It was kind of an oddity to me. I mean, in the film, Finn is a disciplined soldier raised from an impressionable young age to “do one thing.” That was a fact made obviously clear by the trailers. So then, why the devil does Finn bumble around in the sand during a stormtrooper fight and fail to take initiative in defending a Rebel-sympathizer, er excuse me, a Resistance-sympathizer outpost when the First Order attacks? Who knows. I mean, for all of the new diversity the revamped franchise claims to sport, the fact that Finn was by far the darkest-skinned individual onscreen also didn’t help my impression of the film.
But putting that aside for a sec, I’d like to talk about the one particular issue that I have with the film after I pause to take a moment to address how much I loved some other aspects. The cinematography of The Force Awakens flowed with the story line. I personally called Abrams on revamping Star Wars after I saw his first Star Trek movie, so going to see this was like cashing in on a good bet. And the fact that he left the awkward CGI currently plaguing Hollywood to a minimal in the crucial moments of the film is highly commendable. I also think that the secrecy of the film’s plot up to its release was a good return to the normalcy that I grew up with for a short time in my life. And, come on, the humanizing of the bad guys in the First Order was a pretty good shift in dynamic storytelling from the nigh invisible personalities behind the first stormtroopers. Now for the issue at hand.
Why is it trendy that for any motion picture or major work of fiction to portray a strong and powerful female, whether a girl or a woman, they must also juxtapose that to a weaker and more ludicrous male figure? I mean, really, can’t the two exist at once? I mentioned before that Finn was basically the most obvious human of darker skin color on screen. I don’t have anything against Star Wars portraying weak black men in character leads. (Anybody remember the juxtaposition of Lando and Leia? Anybody remember any other lead characters of darker persuasion from the original films? And I was okay then with the galaxy of innumerable inhabited planets having only one black human being who turned to mush in battle EVEN WHILE the whole movie franchise was called “Star Wars.”)
See, no problem. I really do, however, have something against storytellers positioning a strong female next to a damsel male when the characterization of the male argues for a completely different story. Yes, Finn got a bit wrecked when he saw his comrade brutally blown away by Poe Dameron, who about three minutes later Finn risks his life to rescue from torture (plot hole maybe, but then again, who knows if Finn could tell who was firing at who in all of that blaster fire, heck maybe I got that wrong). Still, if Finn is a battle-raised orphan and not a smuggling and backstabbing coward (like Lando) then why the devil does he blunder about so much? And Rey, the desert-dweller who obviously has street-smarts and grit in her favor, almost effortlessly soars to rise to the occasion. Every. Single. Time.
I’m not mad about Rey being the true Jedi-to-be in the film and not Finn. That actually was a good call by Abrams, and one that I kind of saw coming and was delighted to get hit in the face with when I saw the film. And to all my hispanohablantes out there, ya saben desde el principio, when we first read the desert-dwelling character’s name it was kind of obvious that something was amiss.
But come on. One of the most creative and endearing ways to portray a strong female character in the midst of all of this misogyny and reverse-misogyny (when efforts to confront misogyny backfire or morph into misandry) is to have a character who comes off as obviously stronger but not blatantly so. The audience needs to be able to come to the internal realization of the heroine’s strength in order for that strength to be convincing and long lasting. This is even true for male leads. Think of Frodo, Luke Skywalker, Christopher Nolan’s Bruce Wayne, James and his giant peach, the kid from Ole Yeller, the kid from Free Willy…even Harry Potter. Come now, we don’t really need a female lead who shows her strength by proving to be less bumbling than an out-of-character child soldier who fills a male role juxtaposed to hers. Well, in the grander scheme of things we really don’t need anything, but that is beside the point. What should be given, if the goal really is to challenge our gender stereotypes about frailty and strength, is a female character so strong, so noble, so vulnerable, and so present that the audience even subconsciously sits back and says
“Wow, she really handled that. It was looking like she would break, but she didn’t. Cool. Wow, she really is persistent. She has flaws, but she has spirit. Dang, she holds her own with Finn, and Finn’s got formal martial training where she doesn’t! Look at her take on Kylo!!”
“Wow! She’s a strong woman! And she’s a woman! Look at that weak man fall and try to play like he wasn’t unconscious! Hah, the fronting bloke! Look at how she yells at him that she doesn’t need anyone to hold her hand while running! Look at how she gives him the weird eye when he somehow thinks that he knows more about mechanics than she does, even though she’s been scavenging machine parts all her life! Look at her not get grabbed by the murderous alien monster that randomly grabs Finn and drags him about screaming and wailing her name, even though he’s only known her for five minutes! Man, Rey is off to become a Jedi at the end of the movie, and look at Finn the soldier, all unconscious and in the hospital. Shame, shame, shame!”
Get the picture? I’d rather have a female character who falls and gets back up, a heroine who sees herself in her abilities and her weaknesses…that Rey, that lead female character who directors aren’t afraid of portraying merely as being human, and then as a woman. I’d rather not have a Rey whose strength is so necessary to point out that it jeopardizes the validity of the entire origin story of her co-star. Now for clarification, Abrams did a solid job at portraying Rey as human, hands down. But why put Jar-Jar in a stormtrooper suit to accentuate the point? Finn deserves better. He’s the only brother on the blasted screen, man.
Thankfully, the presence of Maz Kanata really did well to ease my woes. The wryly space pirate was a great foil to Han Solo’s trademark pessimism, and she had the powerful cinematic presence of a Jedi master…so much so that I believe her statement specifically stating that she wasn’t a Jedi was more of a cover for Abrams than anything. I mean, without that line, I am certain that enough of us fans would have left the theater thinking that Kanata was to be the next Yoda. And what, did Solo fumble the blaster when Kanata carried on the heroic cause and lifted everyone’s spirits? Nope. Maz Kanata just was. And that’s a more wholesome story to give fans in a world that sees strength and power as an either, or, or neither when it comes to gender. Don’t get me wrong, Rey is a promising character…as long as the next batch of movies are more interested in plot than in politics. But, when you do a job with such blatant gender dichotomy and selectivity, don’t be surprised when Star Wars fanboys walk away making remarks that Rey is bae (i.e. the fantasy poster girlfriend in their dreams for the coming months), or disgusted with not being able to enjoy Rey’s strength without remembering Finn’s embarrassing moments, rather than seeing Rey as the Jedi they’d wish to be beside as she’s piloting the Millennium Falcon while the darkness of the galaxy reemerges.
And another thing, the prequels really were not all that bad, guys. Seriously, don’t let the geek overlords control our every forum.