Forward, to the Past! - Episode II: Cuckballs

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Yes, it’s the second part of the trilogy. This time, I just made some notes and gave them to Irvin Kershner to write-up for me. Of course, he’s dead… which might explain why is take is a little darker than mine.

In Star Wars, we don’t see anyone on Alderaan die. We hear Obi-Wan say that their voices cried out in terror, but we never hear those voices ourselves. The only other acknowledgement of them in the film is Leia’s remark that “we have no time for our sorrows”, but even this is in response to someone saying that they “feared the worst” when they heard about Alderaan… meaning, in effect, that the murder of billions of people made them worried in case a Princess had been killed too. Of course, the context is that they’re worried about Leia because they think she has the Death Star plans, but it’s still a startling formulation. I confess to liking Leia’s pragmatic refusal to prioritise her own feelings. She never does the ‘girly’ thing (which would of course be to break down in tears). Even so, it’s worrying that she is given the task of comforting Luke about Obi-Wan’s death so soon after her entire planet (and presumably most of her family, friends, and colleagues) are all destroyed. Nobody ever offers her any comfort. As noted in the previous episode of this series, Alderaan goes unmourned. It’s a detail, put in to establish the hugeness and devilishness of the threat the Death Star poses. It is fear of the Death Star that will “keep the local systems in line” as Tarkin says (though what ‘local systems’ might mean, I have no idea… ‘local’ to whom, or to what?). Essentially, the destruction of Alderaan is a dramatisation - for plot reasons - of a point of politics.

There is also the extreme nature of the overreaction. You destroy an entire planet - presumably one with industry and wealth of some kind - in order to punish one dissident and demonstrate your new capacity for technological destruction. It’s impossible for me to not think of two things: the dropping of the atom bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and Nixon’s ‘madman theory’ (essentially, Nixon’s idea that he could scare communist leaders out of confronting US power by convincing them he was bonkers enough to use nukes). I don’t think there was enough awareness, in the seventies, of the case for the nukes being dropped at the end of WWII more as a salutary demonstration of American power. I’m sure the claims were about but I doubt they had sufficient currency to be part of popular consciousness. As for Nixon, I suspect he’s part of a political context which makes its way into the first film… though I plan to talk about the Empire, and what relation it has to US politics of the 60s and 70s, in the third part of this series.

The point I want to bring out here is one I alluded to last time: in The Force Awakens, we see people on the planets about to be destroyed. The acts of genocide are illustrated with the faces of the victims. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not like watching Shoah. Nor is much attention paid anywhere else in the film to how anyone feels about what’s happened… the film is too much of a ‘structre’ (see Episode I of this series) of the original to depart that much. But a strangely conscientious attempt is made, almost all the way through Force Awakens, in the midst of the structre, to illustrate some new ethical consciousness.

This interests me.

I said last time that “the film [Force Awakens] is conscious of the fact that it is a structre [a spectre of a structure], and that it cannot escape being one, that this is what it exists to be. It is perfectly conscious of the fact that it is doomed to be, in some sense, a reiteration of Star Wars but telescoped forward in time. The interesting thing is that the film tries, in various ways, to escape or address this…” I think the primary way it does this is by trying, apparently quite deliberately and strategically, and even dutifully, to remake Star Wars but with a built-in, self-aware (and, it has to be said, somewhat ostentatious and self-satisfied) project of overhauling it to be more morally and politically acceptable to a demanding section of the consumers who care about stuff like ‘diversity’ and ‘gender’ and ‘representation’. You might say, Star Wars remade for Tumblr. The project is, by and large, quite successful - hence the praise and love heaped upon it by some of the more right-on sectors of fandom and audiencedom, and hence also the outrage and opprobrium heaped upon it by the less right-on sectors of same (the kinds of 'people' who call BB8 a “cuck ball”).

The project can be boiled-down to one soundbite: whereas the original trilogy was about privileged people vs other privileged people, The Force Awakens is about abused and/or disavowed people vs privileged people. I’m not going to overstate this (at least, i hope I'm not) and I don't plan to go into this in huge detail, but I will just draw your attention to the fact that all three of the young hero characters - Rey, Finn, and Poe - are mentally abused by the First Order. Rey is mind-violated by Ren, as is Poe. Finn is brainwashed and indoctrinated since birth to be a soldier (more on that next time, Finn fans). Moreover, Rey is poor when the story starts (unlike Leia who, though abused by the Empire, comes from privilege). Finn is a lowly grunt. Poe is relatively privileged, but occupies a relatively less privileged position within the narrative. And, of course, there is the quiet but strong implication (clearly deliberate) that Poe is gay or bi, and Finn is also at least attracted to Poe. As I say, I’m not going to dwell on this, partly because a lot of pretty good stuff has already been written about it, especially the queering of the boys and their role in the film. Go looking, you’ll find it - I promise. I’m instead going to focus mainly on Ren and Rey, and on how ‘who they are’ tells us something about the way the film is consciously adding an attempt at modern liberal moral/political sensitivities to its reiteration of the structure of the original film.

 

Edgelords of the Sith

I strongly suspect that, when we finally see Supreme Leader Snoke in the flesh, he’ll turn out to be tiny. He’s just projecting a massive image. Now, there’s nothing wrong with being small. But some people think there is. The Napoleon complex, if it exists, is about men feeling ‘feminized’, and thus weakened, by the false standards of patriarchy. The problem is the perception of smallness as linked to weakness. It’s beyond the scope of this essay to investigate this in great detail (and a I daresay other people have already done so better than I could). But I noticed the jarring hugeness of the projected image of Snoke and, coupled with the ways in which the villains are represented in this film, I wondered… when he turns up, is he going to turn out to have been overcompensating? “Judge me by my size, do you?” asked Yoda rhetorically. I like the idea that Snoke unconsciously judges himself by his size. (Mind you, even if he doesn’t turn out to be the same size as Yoda but desperately insecure about it - which is what I’m hoping - and he is instead as big as his projection, he’s still the Anti-Yoda. It works either way.) It would tie in with the Star Killer base having to be a hundred times the size of the Death Star.

The new baddies wear masks not because they’re scarred and in need of breathing apparatus like Darth Vader, but because masks are cool. (”I wear a mask now! Masks are cool!”). Phasma wears a silver Stormtrooper uniform because reasons. I’m sure she tells herself it’s about rank, but it’s actually about blinging up a retro look that she digs. It’s a fascist uniform as fashion statement. Kylo Ren wears a mask because that’s what baddies do. He wants to be like his evil gramps, all big and powerful. It’s about his sulky rejection of his parents (”Pop was never there and Mom never had any time for me, waah waaaah!”). It’s teenage outsider syndrome. He’s sensitive and dark and brooding, and people don’t understand him. He’s the trenchcoat mafia in space. A privileged kid shitting the bed because life isn’t perfect for him.

On one level, the nature of the bad guys in Force Awakens is another aspect of the ‘structral’ nature of the film that I talked about last time. The First Order are a reiteration of the Galactic Empire. And yet, they are strangely situated in relation to the Empire. They do much of what the Empire did, aesthetically and stylistically ape the Empire, etc… and yet they are noticeably not ‘the Second Galactic Empire’ or anything like that. They do not appear to be a government. Crucially, the co-exist with the Republic (presumably restored after Return of the Jedi). They co-exist antagonistically... but they both exist at the same time.  The original Empire replaced and supplanted the Republic, and was in conflict with the Rebellion (which, for all that it seemed to have grown out of the Republic, was not itself the Republic). The First Order are seemingly a splinter group, a sect, perhaps even a counter-revolution. They are almost in the same position relative to the Republic as the Rebellion used to be in in relation to the Empire.

I’m planning to go into some of this in more detail in Episode III, so I’ll go no further down that road just yet. What I want to point out here is the way the First Order and its members are visibly overcompensating for being a bad copy. It’s that ‘structre’ thing again, but with the self-consciousness I pointed out. With the First Order, you see it transferred onto the villains themselves, onto the individual and collective/political/cultural (or possibly even sub-cultural) psychology.

The film is recognising and contextualising the fact that its villains are inevitably going to be seen as inferior copies, as wannabes, as echoes. In line with a wider tactic (see last Episode) it maps this awareness back onto the narrative.

As with Leader Snoke, the opening of the film plays with scale expectations. It has to. It’s a structre. It can’t open using the exact same trick of scale as the first movie… it can’t directly copy Star Wars… but it has to evoke the same feeling… or rather, it has to acknowledge the need to try to evoke the same feeling… and thus it escapes the need to actually evoke the same feeling via the expedient of admitting that it faces this challenge, and why, and then gesturing towards a doomed attempt at evocation. Fascinatingly, it does this via a visible failure to actually evoke the same feeling, a failure of which it is quite conscious. Indeed, the failure is what it is aiming at (so is it actually a failure?). It trades either on ignorance of the problem on the part of the audience (what they don’t know won’t bother them) or, if they know, directly referring to the problem with a shrug of self-awareness, an acknowledgement that the comparison can’t be avoided, and a rueful acceptance of the cop-out, accompanied by a winning “hey, we knew, and we tried”.

The First Order itself works in the same way. It is a structre too. It is a phantom Empire, a revenental Empire. It is the spectre of the structure (narrative and political) that was the Empire. Like the film’s calculated and self-alibiing visual failure at the start, the First Order itself self-consciously admits upfront its own failure to actually be the Empire, while also acknowledging that it has no choice but to be a bad photocopy of the Empire. This is how it gets away with not being the Empire. It says “Yep, you got me. I’m not the Empire. And I’m really anxious about that!” and shrugs. And remember, the visual failure at the start concerns one of the First Order’s ships… which successfully fails at being the surprisingly vast Imperial Star Destroyer from the opening of Star Wars by allowing itself to be disappointing… and a crucial part of how it successfully fails is by being much, much bigger than the surprisingly vast Imperial Star Destroyer from the opening of Star Wars! The gigantism is part of the point. The film does that sequel thing of upping the stakes, upping the visuals, putting nipples on the batsuit, upping scale of everything… and yet it is in an odd position for a sequel. It is never going to live up to, let alone out-do, the thing it’s a sequel to. Not even in terms of spectacle. Not even with CGI on its side. Because the scale of Star Wars is in more than its aesthetics. It’s a modern myth (because they decided to make it one and we decided to let them). So Force Awakens has to find a way of making the in-built inadequacy of the escalating scale ‘work’… and it does this via the self-aware shrug described above, and also by deliberately making the bad guys pathetic. Bad copies. Ersatz. Store brand.  A tribute band. Cosplayers.  Wannabes. It puts this in the story itself. And, in so doing, it achieves some political points… some of which I’ll talk about next time, but some of which I’m talking about now.

In this Episode, I’m going to mainly stress the political valence of making the central baddie into a wannabe-Vader who is visibly anxious and insecure, obviously uses the Imperial style consciously in the same way young edgelords use various forms of political obnoxiousness as style, revels in adolescent posturing, has a schoolyard antagonistic relationship with his fellow baddie General Hux, etc, etc. Making Ren into the son of Han and Leia makes him a child of privilege. It positions such a character as a whiny brat who feels entitled to all sorts of things… and thus feels deprived at the first sign of everything not being perfect. (It remains for subsequent films to bear out or nullify this reading, but I think it’s a valid reading as things stand.) I don’t think anyone familiar with modern sexism, the debates and struggles around privilege, and even the ‘perfect gentlemen’ who go out to shoot ‘sluts’ who won’t date them, needs to be told why it is significant to have implications like these about a character who is clearly meant to be the main villain of the biggest film series currently going. And, once again, we see the logic of the structre altered by an apparent self-awareness which is parlayed into a strangely conscientious ethical/political concern. I don’t want to overstate this, or imply that I think the filmmakers are nobly using Star Wars as a delivery system for passionate activism, but it’s clear that this stuff is on their minds.

Ren is meant to be as pathetic as he is dangerous. Indeed, he’s dangerous because he’s pathetic. He’s not meant to be thrilling and glamorous in quite the same way Vader was. Vader, like many villains, is thrilling because he’s a power fantasy. Ren, much as he tries to be Vader 2.0, is never going to be a thrilling and glamorous figure in the same way as his hero. He desperately wants to be… because he enjoyed the same power fantasy we did! ...and his desperation is part of why he’ll never succeed. This is the secret inner meaning of the scene where he seems to almost pray to Vader’s ruined helmet, guiltily excoriating himself for not being good enough at being evil, at being tempted by the Light Side. He’s really wallowing in narcissistic self-pity about the fact that, no matter how hard he tries (which is the problem actually) he’ll never be cool like grampa was. He’ll always be a wannabe, a follow-up, a structre. And he knows it. And entitled, privileged, self-pitying brat that he is, he thinks this is a tragedy. So he’ll get his gothy inverted cross lightsabre, and wear his unnecessary mask, and speak in his unnecessarily deepened voice (because he thinks that’s the sort of things the dark hard-men have to do), and go and blow up some planets, and violate Rey’s mind in Kilgravian fashion, and thus make himself feel better. He’s the Elliot Rodger of space.

 

Rey as Mary Sue

Much as Kylo Ren is sort-of his very own Mary Sue of Evil, so Rey has at least been called a Mary Sue in the more traditional sense. It’s worth taking a moment to consider this.

Our concept of what constitutes a Mary Sue has evolved since ‘A Trekkie’s Tale’. This is fine. It happens. The concept of the ‘Manic Pixie Dreamgirl’ has been adapted beyond its original stricter context (to the annoyance of the term’s originator). Similarly, the Mary Sue idea has branched off. It no longer refers to the parodically perfect person of youthful beauty and beautiful youth, who everyone fancies and admires, and whom the fan-fiction writer wishes to be. It has been adapted to simply mean someone who displays hyper-competence. Which hero characters in popular fiction do all the time. It’s just that they tend to be male. So when a girl does the same, people notice. And complain. Because the idea that Rey is a Mary Sue is, of course, based on judging female characters by standards that are not applied to male characters. The complaint about her being a Mary Sue is, at least for a great many of those making it, essentially a call for her to be less competent, and thus a more (to them) ‘believable’ female character. She can’t be that good - she’s a girl. That really does seem to be the logic, consciously or unconsciously… at least for some critics. The criticism can be read as a demand for her - or rather, the next ‘her’ - to be written as less admirable. But making her more flawed to compensate for a perceived Mary Sueishness would be to reduce her competence to bring her more into line with what is already an unfairly weighted scale.

There are structural factors in storytelling of this kind which more or less make Rey’s hyper-competence obligatory and unavoidable. She’s the main character of the film, and likely the focus of the trilogy. Such stories as this need hyper-competent central characters. For the simple mechanical reason that they need to be able to defeat meaningfully powerful and threatening villains who look, for most of the story, like they should and will easily win. In adventure stories where the central hero character isn’t hyper-competent at the start, the story is usually about them becoming hyper-competent. Or adapting their innate and/or pre-existing skills successfully to new contexts. This last is what Luke does in the original Star Wars. The point is that nobody questions his adaptation of his hereditary Jedi abilities, and his pre-existing ability to aim at things and shoot, to the new context of fighting a massive interstellar battle station. Nobody within or (to any serious extent) without the story worries about it. Because he’s the boy hero (which is as good as a tautology by this set of assumptions). So, no probs. It’s neutral because it conforms to established hegemonic assumptions (much as the glowing portrayal of Churchill in ‘Victory of the Icon’ is seen as apolitical by the writer). Rey, like Luke, adapts her presumably innate powers and pre-existing skills (skills which she has every good reason to possess simply by virtue of how she makes a living) to new contexts, achieving similarly huge feats. And people cry foul because she’s the non-tautological hero girl… though, notably, nobody cries foul within the story.

Outside the story, looked at from the theatre seats, she’s an unusual thing: a female hero (rather than a female main character) in a big adventure movie (i.e. Leia is a main character of her films but, while she may be heroic, she’s not ‘the hero’). Rey is, by definition, being judged by the audience against their expectations, i.e. against the more usual male hero… well, against the hero itself, which has the default cultural assumption of maleness built into it, making a woman hero into a departure by definition. This is happening even in a positive sense (which the film understands and uses). She looks ‘perfect’ because she is as competent as your average male iteration of such a character in such a film. You’ll be told by some people that sooperdooperperfect male heroes who brim over with bravery and skill, etc, are ‘flawed’ because they are cocky and brash… but this is, of course, eyewash. Eyewash for the myopic, even. Cocky brashness - certainly in those male characters otherwise coded as heroic - is admirable, for the simple reason that the default assumption in a patriarchal society is that males are entitled to self-confidence, and that aggressive self-opinion is a good index by which to measure. It’s suave scallywaggery. It’s ‘boys will be boys’. It’s not a ‘flaw’.

Interestingly, Rey has an actual flaw in place of such psuedo-flaws for men: she is self-doubting, in the sense that she does not expect to inspire confidence in others, or to be cared for by them. She is repeatedly visibly shocked when people are nice to her, or give a crap about her. Her greatest flaw is an internalised lack of self-worth… which is only a flaw because it represents a failure at self-knowledge. Otherwise, it is the product of material unhappiness: her childhood abandonment and her subsequent… there’s no other word… poverty (she’s notably an actual pauper, living from hand to mouth, very much unlike Luke, who is the relatively privileged ward of relatively prosperous farmers). Unlike the pseudo-flaws of so many male characters (which are actually charming, as with the ostensibly charming Eleventh Doctor, whose immaturity is displayed like a row of medals), Rey’s flaw is both real and unjust, and also speaks to an interiority partly shaped by social injustice. Luke’s flaws are impatience and recklessness, dreaminess and passion which clouds his judgement. This is a bit like criticising someone for being just too ready to get out there and be awesome. Force Awakens avoids giving Rey such psuedo-flaws (girls don’t need alibis and excuses - they need real positive attributes if they’re to stand a chance of being appreciated). Force Awakens avoids giving Rey flaws which denigrate or infantilise her (very important in such a high-profile female hero, and yet so characteristic of female characters generally). Force Awakens gives Rey flaws which do not reflect some weakness, but rather injustices perpetrated upon her by the world, injustices which she has survived but which have injured her. She is flawed in ways that do not weaken her as a character, which have a material social context, and which are very apt and pertinent for woman heroes in a world (diegetic and extra-diegetic) inherently hostile to them.

Having said all that, I ultimately think Rey kind-of is a Mary Sue. At least in a sense. It’s just that the valences of this term are more complex than is generally acknowledged when people use it as snark. It’s not really such a bad thing, once taken out of the context of being a satire on bad mistakes made by beginner writers, or the context of misogynistic sneering and silencing. (I highly recommend Josh Marsfelder’s take on this stuff at Vaka Rangi.) As noted above, the term and concept have evolved (or perhaps both evolved and devolved). The prevailing usage crudifies the term down to meaning ‘hyper-competent’. And, as noted, this is only perceived as a problem when the hyper-competence is displayed by a woman. But even taking out the gendered double standard, there is nothing obvious to me about why a hyper-competent character should inherently be a problem - at least not a particular problem. Of course, there are problems baked into the whole idea of the ‘chosen one’ or the lone hero, etc, etc. But that’s been there for ages. Why kvetch about hyper-competence in that context? Why worry about that in the context of what have always been, at least to some extent, power fantasies? Especially since the modern ‘Mary Sue’ is no longer the old-style Mary Sue who just has to turn up to solve every problem and set every heart aflutter, but rather someone who is generally really good at stuff. Again, there are problems baked into the whole idea of heroicizing and fetishizing ‘professionalism’, but when are there not problems? And, in any case, Rey is not a ‘professional’. She has acquired great skills as a result of a lonely, poor, hardscrabble childhood and youth among the sunbaked sands of Jakku, and the gorgeous post-apocalyptic ruins of Return of the Jedi (the question of why the defeat of the Empire apparently failed to make the galaxy much better is one for next time).

There also the issue of Rey’s morality and likeability. Lieutenant Mary Sue evinces little in the way of empathy or kindness or ethical concern in ‘A Trekkie’s Tale’. Indeed, this may be one of the common mistakes made by beginner fan-fic writers that Lieutenant Mary Sue was originally intended to satirize (i.e. a character is admirable because the writer says they are… a surprisingly common problem even with the work of ‘professional’ writers). Part of what makes Rey an admirable character, even an aspirational character, is that she’s… well, she’s just a very nice person. (This carries its own problems, of course… like with Harry Potter, we’re left wondering how someone with such a godawful childhood ended up so ostensibly good, with the apparent implication being that goodness is just in their genes. The answer to the riddle with Harry is that, if you read between the lines of the books, he’s actually a selfish little shit, even if most of the sycophantic adults who crowd around him - including J.K. Rowling - don’t realise this.) Rey’s niceness is actually quite unusual in Star Wars. Much as I love the original snarky-terrorist-version of Leia, she’s also a horrible snob. Original Han is a selfish bastard, and we’re supposed to cheer his voyage from this to basic decency… as if grown men deserve applause for not being utter shits (see above). Luke is a spoiled, selfish, arrogant kid (his kidhood is his one genuine excuse) who shows little empathy for anyone besides people who do stuff for him. This is all fine and dandy, because the original film isn’t asking us to adore these people, nor do we need to in order to empathize with and care about them, or even to admire them (though Leia is really the only one of the three main characters who is admirable in any direct way… and this stems from her political activism, which is a plot-device at most). The original trilogy cast get more and more bland and vanilla as they go along, but never really manage to achieve basic and believable niceness. Rey, by contrast with Leia, hasn’t been doing much before the start of the film - but that’s because she hasn’t had a chance; she’s been fighting (honestly) to survive. She has, however, acquired empathy, even for droids. She comes to BB8’s rescue when she sees them being taken by a dealer. This is a big deal. One of the problems lurking within the original films is that the droids are slaves, bought and sold and used without much in the way of concern for their feelings; and not only does nobody ever comment on or question this, the droids themselves are always depicted as entirely happy about it. It is simply taken for granted that metal sentient beings (and the films are in no doubt that they are asking us, the audience, to construe Threepio and Artoo, etc, as sentient) exist to serve fleshy sentient beings. And nobody treats them as people, even as they work their gears off helping and caring about the humans. BB8, by contrast, seems to have an actual friendly relationship with Poe, and Rey never hesitates to treat them like they’re alive and deserving of help. She even refuses to sell BB8 when offered (in effect) more money than she’s ever seen in her life. I’m sorry to stress something that probably looks like a minor detail to most people, but this is huge - at least in principle. This is an endorsement of transhumanism in a milieu (SF/Fantasy, etc) currently under assault by reactionaries for whom any positive engagement with the transhuman is an affront to be stamped out. Nor would such people be comfortable with such a radical extension of empathy, especially not when it carries implications of an internal egalitarian critique of assumptions built into such a high-profile SF property.

Actually, I think Force Awakens goes out of its way to make Rey what some people would (and did) dismissively call a Mary Sue… but its project here is more-or-less explicitly to position her reasonably far outside persistent and pernicious sexist tropes. For instance, it puts her in jeopardy by being captured, and then works the plot in such a way (including bringing in her innate Jedi skills) that she does not need to be rescued from her cell by Finn and Han and Chewie. Nor is her abuse at the hands of Ren used as fridging to make Finn angsty or full of vengeful hate for Ren. This (along with lots of other little… well ‘subversions’ is too strong…) is emphasized by the feint towards the end when the duel between Finn and Ren is sidelined and it transpires that the real duel will be between Rey and Ren.

The Force Awakens might even show us that the whole idea of what constitutes a Mary Sue, and whether or not it’s shameful to have them, is changing. In line with increasingly widespread concerns about representation, it seems that Mary Sues are being cried out for… but that what is meant is that ‘positive’ representations are culturally useful. As a corollary, a Mary Sue (i.e. a ‘positive representation’) can now find his or her value not in being ‘perfect’ but in demonstrating equality of competence, and also in being kind, open, tough, independent, resilient against bitterness, moral in the face of injustice, etc. There’s undoubtedly a degree of sentimentality here, but it’s better than a kick in the guts every time you go see a movie.

 

Cloaking Devices

In my ‘Solid Dick’ essay, I said that Iron Man is the most evil film ever made (at the moment) because not only does it have noxious things to say about the War on Terror (etc) but also because it says them in the context of a brilliantly-made, hugely-successful, culturally-significant, influential, widely-beloved movie. The excellence, professionalism, success, and ongoing relevance of the film makes its message more toxic. By the same logic, haven’t I backed myself into the corner of saying that The Force Awakens must therefore be the most (morally and politically) ‘good’ movie ever made (at the moment)? To be clear, that’s not a position I’d be comfortable taking. Fortunately, ‘Solid Dick’ rested on a hefty amount of performative rhetorical overstatement. And also fortunately for me, I can see a sinister loophole when it comes to the politics of Force Awakens (and without even departing from a discussion of representation and identity, and going instead to any of the deeper, structural political assumptions in the film).

You see, with The Force Awakens, they’ve cracked - at least in principle and outline - how to make a right-on Hollywood blockbuster that thrills the lefties and liberals and feminists, etc, while also managing not to alienate any of the masses of moviegoers who don’t give a wet fart about diversity or positive depictions of gender and sexuality. Some might be inclined to greet this development with tears of joy, relief, and triumph. Personally, as much as I might have dug many of the aspects of Force Awakens that I’ve talked about above, I find the development itself in some ways rather worrying.

There appears to be an extent to which even Disney themselves don’t get this film. Reportedly, they expected Kylo Ren to be the next big craze, and therefore manufactured loads of Ren merch which they now can’t shift. Meanwhile, buyers have been crying out for non-existent Rey merch. On one level, wahey that’s good. On another level, do we really want to rely upon consumerism so much? Do we really want to marketize our desire for justice so readily and enthusiastically? The market has a dismal record when it comes to delivering positive social change.

I recently joked on Twitter (in reference to his recent spate of Islamophobic sniping at Muslim women) that David Cameron needs to learn a language: human. A witty tweep came back at me with the question “wouldn’t that just make him a more efficient killer?”. Which is a good question. Do we really want the predators to have better ways of blending in? Relatedly, do we really want the capitalist culture industries to become even more adept at camouflaging their nature as structurally enmeshed within, inextricable from, and supportive of, the network of oppressions that is capitalism? Do we really want them to get better and more convincing at acting like they’re on our side? On all our sides? That we’re all in this together? All equally citizens of that great kingdom of spectacle? Because as good as it is to get better, fairer, more equal, more diverse, more respectful representation in mass culture, we are basically being handed these boons by the same system that is killing us.

It’s a bit like seeing the mix of people on the Republic planets before they’re destroyed. It’s nice to see them all, but the planet’s still about to blow.

 

Comments

halcoromosone 1 year, 6 months ago

I suppose Rey's hyper-competence is a problem for me drama-wise because it's not obviously a part of her character prior to the scenes where she displays it. While I expect Doctor Who to have used his genius to be five steps ahead of other characters in any given moment, there's nothing in Rey's character to let me make that same assumption. To take one example, the bit where she force persuades the stormtrooper to set her free from the torture table comes out of nowhere - we haven't seen her learning that skill or even ever seen her exposed to someone else using it, so to me it feels entirely arbitrary and dull that she is suddenly a master of it.

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halcoromosone 1 year, 6 months ago

Whoops, double post. Read the one below, which I revised slightly.

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Goodluck 1 year, 6 months ago

Her "Mary Sue"-esque abilities are inevitable in the circumstances, due to inherent expectations of escalation for a sequel.

The Starkiller Base has to be the size of a planet instead of a moon. Kylo Ren has to have unprecedented new Force powers. Odds are that Snoke is going to be an ancient mastermind infinitely more powerful and evil than the Emperor ever was.

The prequels had some insanely well choreographed lightsaber fights, and I don't really hate that they felt they needed to end the film on one. Finn's ability with a lightsaber's a bit more questionable, really.

The Force Persuasion isn't much of a barrier either, if you're willing to accept Ren's ability to stop time (which pretty much everyone has already).

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halcoromosone 1 year, 6 months ago

I think you've misunderstood me. I'm not saying I would never believe Rey could do a Jedi mind-trick, I'm just saying it wasn't dramatically set up. Nothing to do with questioning the 'rules' of this universe, which your time-stopping niggle fits into.

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James 1 year, 6 months ago

I'd agree that Rey's mind trick wasn't set up within the context of The Force Awakens as a stand alone film and that it would have come out of nowhere for anyone watching their first Star Wars film, but I was certainly waiting for her to use the mind trick to escape as I sat in the cinema. I think that is because Rey's use of the mind trick was set up by her ability to resist Kylo's force mind probe thingy and our having seen the mind trick in the earlier films.

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halcoromosone 1 year, 6 months ago

And that's where the fan-fiction complaint is sourced from I think - it feels like Rey has seen those films as well.

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James 1 year, 6 months ago

I guess I've always assumed that the force "guides" users as to what they can/should do. For example, I always wondered how Luke knows he can use the force to pull his lightsaber to him at the beginning of Empire ... from memory it's not an ability we'd seen or even had hinted at prior to that point.

Also, Luke knows about force-choking at the beginning of Jedi - but he hadn't seen Vader do it, and it doesn't seem like the kind of thing Yoda would have given lessons on.

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halcoromosone 1 year, 6 months ago

I mean sure, the force might do that, but I'd argue it's pretty bad storytelling if an audience has to make that leap late on in a film.

The two examples you give from the original films don't have that problem because those moments come very early on - in any film, even a sequel, that's when we are learning the nature of this world, how things are positioned going into the meat of the story. (I worry that it seems like I'm just arguing whatever suits my position, but I do genuinely think all of this.)

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SpaceSquid 1 year, 6 months ago

Aside from any clever arguments one might want to make about how Rey knows what Jedi can do because she's heard the legends of Luke etc. (so essentially she has seen the original trilogy) I think it's worth noting that Luke's ability to move things using the Force comes entirely out of nowhere in Empire... There's nothing at all in the first film to suggest he knows the Force can do that, and in fact as far as I can remember it's pure retcon that Vader's force-choking represents him Forcibly (sorry) closing that dude's windpipe, as oppose to him straight out magically making him unable to breathe.

The Force has ALWAYS just been "some thing that lets you do some stuff when some stuff is what you want to do".

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halcoromosone 1 year, 6 months ago

You've just restated James's point, which I talked about in the comment you just replied to.

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SpaceSquid 1 year, 6 months ago

Yes, whoops! Not quite sure how I missed that. My apologies.

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David Anderson 1 year, 6 months ago

If one needs a rationalisation for how she learns about it, she's just read the mind of a Jedi who was trying to read her mind; Jedi mind tricks in general were plausibly something near the surface of Kylo Ren's mind at the time.
Alternatively, it was something she took in from the force vision when she touched the lightsaber.

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halcoromosone 1 year, 6 months ago

I suppose Rey's hyper-competence is a problem for me drama-wise because it's not obviously a part of her character prior to the scenes where she displays it. While I'm not surprised to see The Doctor pull out some as-yet undisclosed talent or piece of knowledge in any given moment, there's much less in Rey's character to let me make that same assumption. To take one example, the bit where she mind-tricks the stormtrooper to set her free from the torture table comes out of nowhere - we haven't seen her learning that skill or even ever seen her exposed to someone else using it, so to me it feels entirely arbitrary and dull that she is suddenly a master of it.

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encyclops 1 year, 6 months ago

Given that this film takes place within Luke's lifetime, and that just prior to his birth there were Jedi policing the galaxy, I find it less weird that Rey has heard of Jedi mind tricks than that she or anyone else would need to be told by Han Solo that the Force isn't a legend.

Also, she at least has one failed attempt before her successful one. I wouldn't say she's a master so much as a quick study. Though I think it would have been more fun to see a film where a character (maybe not Rey) keeps trying and failing to pull off Jedi mind tricks until they finally nail it. Though I'd hate to make Finn too bumbling for a variety of reasons, John Boyega has solid comic timing and it would be a great running gag for him.

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halcoromosone 1 year, 6 months ago

Your first point just seems to point out a contradiction which makes Rey's mind-trick usage all the more odd. Anyhow, the larger point I'm trying to make is that although, yes, it probably is possible to justify that moment in the story and other similar bits after some thought, it is only ever after some thought. To me, that's a problem in a fast-moving popcorn adventure movie.

It is maybe the case that that sort of thing - dramatic cleanness, satisfying set-ups and pay-offs etc. - just aren't such a big deal to some people, which is fine. Indeed, I suspect Jack doesn't put them that high up the list of things he's looking for in a story. I was listening to his Oi Spaceman podcast appearance the other day where he talks about 'Planet Of The Ood' and how much he likes the fact that The Doctor and Donna don't do much in the episode aside from observe the uprising. For me, I also like the fact that they stand on the sidelines, but not the way it's dramatised - we never see a moment where they actively choose not to get involved. So yes, I'm sure different people value different things in stories.

But, it does explain why some people are bothered by the writing of Rey for entirely valid, if likely non-universal reasons.

To your second point, I guess I don't see much of a difference between easy mastery and being a quick study.

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encyclops 1 year, 6 months ago

it probably is possible to justify that moment in the story and other similar bits after some thought, it is only ever after some thought.

The stuff you need to justify, of course, varies from person to person. This particular point didn't really bother me when I was watching the film (both times). Nor did a whole slew of other supposed "unforgivable plot holes" people have been wringing their hands about. "The Starkiller should have been slightly harder to destroy" wasn't a big deal to me. I was more caught up in stuff like "why are people not even remotely suspicious of Finn, and so eager to help him shore up his lies?" (I still don't know, unless it's that they find him as adorable and endearing as we do) and "why is Snoke such an uninspired Big Bad?" (like Jack, I'm betting he's a Wizard of Oz). "Why isn't it slightly harder for Rey to learn Jedi mind tricks?" was in the first category to me: if you accept that she's going to be able to do it during the runtime of the film, I can accept the shorthand we see so that the film is not 3 and a half hours long.

I'm not saying it shouldn't bother you, or that your objections aren't valid; I'm just suggesting that "dramatic cleanness" and whether the set-ups and pay-offs are "satisfying" are a matter of opinion.

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halcoromosone 1 year, 6 months ago

Well sure, and it's never a great look to argue against someone's subjective experience of something. All I'll say there is that the whole reason I went down this route of argument was in response to Jack's assertion that there's not that much wrong with hyper-competence as a character trait. My argument is that it's something that needs to be explicitly set up as an individual trait, otherwise the drama is flat. Now, if you don't see Rey as hyper-competent, merely competent, then I think we're talking about different things.

Secondly, to what you say here: "If you accept that she's going to be able to do it during the runtime of the film, I can accept the shorthand we see so that the film is not 3 and a half hours long."

When I say dramatic cleanness, I'm talking about how writers earn this kind of moment with very economical writing - i.e. exactly the kind of stuff that keeps the runtime low. For example, in the first Star Wars film, Luke asks Han to stay and help fight in the Death Star battle, Han says no, then - wonderful surprise - Han changes his mind and turns up at a crucial moment. It's simple, brief and yet very effective. I think Kasdan and Abrams obviously have the talent to do a similar thing with Rey's story and yet don't, both in that moment and lots of others.

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Aberrant Eyes 1 year, 6 months ago

As for Nixon, I suspect he’s part of a political context which makes its way into the first film…

If memory serves me right, Lucas said as much in interviews, that the Empire was the US and the Rebellion were the Vietcong, demonstrating (to paraphrase a song by a musician who worked on TFA) how a ragtag volunteer army in need of a shower defeats a global, or a galactic, superpower.

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Boscalyn 1 year, 6 months ago

"You see, with The Force Awakens, they’ve cracked - at least in principle and outline - how to make a right-on Hollywood blockbuster that thrills the lefties and liberals and feminists, etc, while also managing not to alienate any of the masses of moviegoers who don’t give a wet fart about diversity or positive depictions of gender and sexuality."

I really, really don't buy into this idea. Partially because, as you note, Disney clearly figured the white boy was going to be the breakout star of the film and made their merch accordingly. More to the point, though: is there any configuration of actors that wouldn't guarantee a record-breaking profit? If they'd gone the safe route and had an all-white cast with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Darth Vader analogue, Disney would be making billions. If the shocking twist in the film was that Kylo Ren was Jar Jar Binks in a trench coat... the film would still make billions, because it's Star Wars Episode VII.

I mean, I would make similar complaints about Frozen, a film that seems tailor-made to appease feminists who love Disney films but are (rightfully) concerned with the disgustingness of the Disney princess myth. But I have a hard time saying that Frozen is the highest-grossing film of all time because of all the feminist thinkpieces it inspired.

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Max Curtis 1 year, 6 months ago

It's likely that different branches of Disney had different opinions on the film and its merchandise. Clearly JJ Abrams believes that Rey is the primary protagonist of Force Awakens, even if others in the company thought Finn and Poe would be everyone's focus.

Also, if I recall correctly, the film was completely recut as late as September. John Williams even had to rescore most of it. So it's entirely possible that Rey wasn't quite so obviously the film's focus at the time Disney was working on merchandise agreements.

And sure, the film is commercially successful and culturally significant because it's Star Wars, not because of its feminism. But I think it's resonating for millions of people, especially children, for the same reason that it's inspiring feminist thinkpieces.

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David Anderson 1 year, 6 months ago

Frozen is successful because it perfectly hooks onto a piece of the brain in girls aged between roughly three and ten in our culture. That's not the same as inspiring feminist think pieces. But it's still related to the ability to inspire feminist think pieces. Feminist think pieces do bear some relation to the lived experience of women and girls (and human beings generally).

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Roderick T. Long 1 year, 6 months ago

I suspect the reason we see the victims this time but not in 1977 is budgetary more than anything else.

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Hypo-Calvinist 1 year, 6 months ago

I also thought Snoke must be tiny, and in speaking to my nine year old son about it, we've decided he's probably about an inch and a half tall.

As for the sentience of droids, I don't see how the new movies can work themselves out of the corner the previous films painted them into. I agree that they are trying a bit harder this time around, having important characters relate to droids as something other than objects. But even the scene you mention with Rey refusing to sell BB-8, replace BB with a child. Then the impact isn't "wow, she did the right thing, even though she was tempted"; it's "Holy fuck, Rey was just about to sell that kid!" Even if you don't dig that deep into it, the admirable way the new characters treat droids just emphasizes how much of a dick pretty much every one else in the galaxy is (including all of the characters from the first 3 movies).

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Aylwin 1 year, 5 months ago

The last section seems to imply that there is some kind of incongruity between capitalism and diversity politics. Surely if anything it's the reverse - there is a natural convergence between the impulses of capitalism and, say, feminism, whereas there is frequently a contradiction between the impulses of capitalism and conservative social attitudes. Not only is endorsement of the progressive social causes of the moment a potential selling-point in itself, these are often causes which capitalist interests have every reason to want to see succeed.

With regard to gender, capitalist interests benefited greatly from bringing women fully into the labour market. Likewise, from the capitalist point of view there is every reason to attack the kind of cultural distinctions that restrict what you can sell to whom. Just as it makes sense to bring men more fully into the market for lotions and potions, so it makes sense to bring more female consumers into the market for the special-effects blockbuster (already the most bankable branch of the film business, so an especially desirable area for expanding the market).

The feminism of films like The Force Awakens or Mad Max: Fury Road serves that marketing purpose directly, but it also makes sense for capitalism more generally to promote such a cause as an end in itself, leading towards a logical end-point where the kind of attitudes that make it harder to sell a certain product to one group than to another effectively disappear. Fundamentally, gender distinctions make no more capitalist sense than sumptuary laws. It's just a matter of having the cultural power of persuasion to make sure the distinctions break down in the right direction, so that everyone ends up susceptible to the full set of commercially-exploitable aspirations and insecurities - let them all want to be strong and pretty.

So there is no need for pretence, no need for capitalist institutions, their organisers, or the capitalist "system" in general to strike a pose of being "on our side" in terms of diversity, because in that regard, in so far as they are capitalist, they already are. The fact that actual behaviour so often seems at variance with this is partly down to inertia, partly to the very considerable practical difficulties, delays and risks involved in finding ways to sell to new customers without losing the old ones, and partly to the fact that people are not merely the avatars of economic drives, but have other ideas in their heads.

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