Eddie: Christ, I like a drink, but I ain’t out on the beer every night or screwin’ other women, or… ‘Ere, I’ve never once raised me hand to you. Ever. Or the kids.Rita: Christ.Eddie: What? Why are you looking like that?Rita: Right. You’re a saint now, is that what you’re tellin’ me, Eddie? You’re a bleedin’ saint? ‘Cause you give us an even break?Eddie: What are you saying?Rita: That is as it should be. Jesus, Eddie! What do you think this strike’s all been about, eh? Oh yeah. Actually you’re right. You don’t go on the drink, do ya? You don’t gamble, you join in with the kids, you don’t knock us about. Oh, lucky me. For Christ’s sake, Eddie, that’s as it should be! You try and understand that. Rights, not privileges. It’s that easy. It really bloody is. – quote from Made in Dagenham
Ever since the cast was announced, everyone has been talking about gender representation in the new Star Wars reboot. A mysterious, unknown actress was cast as a main character. (A mysterious, unknown black actor was cast as another main character.) It looked like Star Wars was making way for a new era of equal gender representation and diversity in Hollywood. And I hope it is.
However, partially because I wasn’t holding my breath for this movie to solve all of Hollywood sexism issues, and because while I like Star Wars and loved Luke, Han and Leia as a kid I am not a hardcore fanboy and I didn’t want to have to view the movie with a bunch of guys drooling over the effects and/or debating the accuracy to the lore, I waited to see the movie until a few weeks after the release date. Consequently, I had to listen to many enthusiastic fanboys extolling the virtues of the film and encouraging me to go see it.
One reason they kept sighting as a reason I in particular would like the film was that “it was very feminist” and there was a lot of gender equality. Perhaps foolishly, I got very excited about this claim, and consequently I got my hopes up much too high. (Also, perhaps we must acknowledge that an average man’s benchmark for something being ‘very’ progressive along gender equality lines may be somewhat lower than my own.)
After seeing the movie, which I enjoyed for several reasons– one of which certainly being the new female co-protagonist— I playfully chided the fanboys in my immediate network for having gotten my expectations for gender equality up a little too high.
You would have thought I had deeply insulted these guys’ by the explosion of outrage that followed. These guys couldn’t believe their ears! One guy kept repeating over and over and over again as if in a state of shock “How could you say that! The main character is a women! The main character is a women!” I had to keep emphasizing that I hadn’t said there was no progress in terms of gender representation, and that I hadn’t said that the movie was sexist garbage. Another point that was made was that “It was science fiction” so it didn’t have to have gender equity— when I noted that with this logic, the movie could have been mostly female characters, these gentlemen denounced that idea as “domineering.”
We didn’t really have a chance to have a nuanced conversation about it, as the discussion descended into a shouty mess but if I had I would have pointed out that out of the roughly 12 principle characters of the film (if we ignore the robots), only 4 of them were female. Also the film barely (and arguably) passes the Bechdel test— boiling down to whether or not a discussion about Rey’s visions of Luke are about Rey herself (or rather Luke), and to whether or not hugging counts as ‘talking to each other.’ While there were definitely more women in the background as extras, very few of the small roles with 1-3 speaking lines were women. A scene that stood out to me in particular was a scene in which the Resistance formulates its battle plan— while many women stood around listening, none of them contributed to the discussion. (Part of the reason for this is because Abrams filled most of these roles with actor buddies of his; apparently he doesn’t have any actress buddies.) This also bothered me because often small speaking roles pay more than background extra work— meaning that even before considering the pay gap, male actors were much more likely to be paid more than female actresses on this film simply due to these gendering/casting choices.
But I think the thing that upset me the most about this conversation (and also much of discussions around gender and race in the film) is this idea that we (as female viewers) should be happy with what we have been given.
I am not going to be grateful for something being fair and right.
Am I glad that Star Wars has chosen to include more women in its universe, and hopefully more moving forward? Yes, absolutely! But I am not going to cite it as a paragon of gender representation. Especially not when things like Jennifer Jones or Battlestar Galactica exist. Just because something has taken a step in the right direction, doesn’t mean we have made the whole journey and we should stop there. There is still a distance to go!
I object to an attitude that because a big Hollywood film has thrown women a bone, our hunger should be sated and we should be quiet. It is not up to the patriarchal system to decide when it has achieved equity, it is up to us. We don’t have to just take what we are given— and then sit down and shut up so the men can enjoy their slightly-less male dominated universes in peace.
Let’s not award things for being average.
In thinking about this, I was constantly reminded of a scene in Made in Dagenham— a true-story film about a group of female workers who go on strike due to unfair wages. After many days of the strike putting pressure on the workers families, the main character Rita has an argument with her husband (quoted above, and who I should note is a pretty good guy) in which he complains that she should basically do what he wants (break the strike) because after all she has life pretty good— he doesn’t beat her or their kids, spend all their money on alcohol, or cheat on her, like other guys in their community might. Rita is outraged by this and informs him that he doesn’t get a special prize for being a decent human being. “That’s as it should be.” she shouts at him. And that’s what I want to shout at people extolling the virtues of The Force Awakens because it has a few women in its principle cast. That’s as it should be! The fact that this is some sort of feat of heroism just shows how messed up our media is!
The Force Awakens has done some helpful work in tipping the scale back towards gender equality (although its not a 50/50 balance). But I don’t believe in showering accolades upon something that is doing the bare minimum.
Let’s not get carried away in the general frenzy around Star War, and in the relief of women finally being acknowledged or included. Just like when the internet praised Dustin Hoffman gratuitously, when he finally realized basically a bit of what it is like to be a human woman and how shitty they get treated. I’m glad he shared his experience, because he was probably able to reach a lot more people and help them understand the challenge of being a woman and problems in our society, but at the same time I don’t think he needs to get a Feminist of the Year Award for this. (Here is Amy Poehler helping another man achieve such enlightenment as well.)
By going overboard with praise and awards for things that are only creeping towards parity, we are in some ways lowering the bar for what progress can be and what excellence is. We are also setting up an expectation that even the slightest move towards inclusion of women and non-whites is some sort of huge achievement or concession even. We can do better, and it’s important to know that we can do better.
We can love media and be critical of it at the same time.
To quote Feminist Frequency, it is possible to enjoy and care about a film and still see it’s flaws. I was frustrated that these men I was discussing Star Wars were so unable to engage with the Star Wars storylines or politics or cultural relevancy in any way other than in zealous binaries— especially when they are able to discuss the minute details of the effects and the self-referential moments.
Either I loved the movie or I hated it. Either I was with them, or I was against them. Either I thought Star Wars was AWESOME or I thought it was trash that should be thrown out the window. I was angry to find myself being forced into a box that I had no hand in creating with words being put in my mouth, and being forced to participate in a reductive, binary system so typical of the patriarchy.
There were other things about the film that I definitely enjoyed and I’m looking forward to seeing what the subsequent films have in store (hopefully more great female and racially diverse characters!). But because I had an unrealistic expectation of gender equality in the film (50/50) but instead saw something that was more (30/70), I had found myself disappointed that more work hadn’t been done in this regard.
However, Feminist Frequency makes a good point that it’s very important for such a huge, popular franchise to be making such conscious and conspicuous effort to be more inclusive because this can be just the thing to spur other Hollywood filmmakers, studios, and franchises to also move in this direction and to help them understand that gender equality sells! Also, because Star Wars is a global phenomenon, this effect might be felt globally.
Keep up the good work Star Wars! Let’s keep moving until inclusion on screen is as it should be.