(Many spoilers follow. Also, while my intention is to just talk about MY experience as a film-goer and not to get into feminist politics per se, that whole “personal is political” thing means that some folks may experience this as a political post. In keeping with the spirit of Mindless Diversions (and my own intentions), I’d encourage you not to read this post as an argument, and not to respond with one. It’s just my story.)
Dear 1984 Me,
One of my clearest memories from my 7th birthday is of Dad letting everyone at the party vote to decide if we’d all be seeing Return of the Jedi, or Care Bears. I remember wishing I’d invited more boys to the birthday party, after the vote went down 9-2 in favor of Care Bears (much to my surprise!), and I remember my utter glee when it turned out that Care Bears was sold out, while Return of the Jedi still had lots of seats left.
I don’t remember a whole lot about the movie itself, but I do remember that I thought Princess Leia was the hero. I remember thinking that for a while, but then I spent the next few years playing Star Wars with boys (most of my girl friends were more into Barbie, which was … okay, but not full of lasers and stuff), and getting told otherwise. When the world finally invented the VCR, and I could rewatch the movie, I came up with my own insights into why my initial impulse was wrong. Princess Leia was really cool. She fought well, and she was a good leader. But Star Wars wasn’t really about her – without her the story would be less wonderful, but it would still be the same story. (Just, you know, with less misdirected affection on the part of the hero and less rescuing of the damsel in distress. Which, uh… wouldn’t make it worse.) I still loved Leia as a character – I will defend her importance, her awesomeness, and her amazing skills to the point of hoarseness, even today – but, once I added Star Wars to the pile of a million other stories where the best a girl could hope for was to be a wicked sidekick (even if she was running a whole darn resistance movement!), I found her story as troubling as it was inspiring.
When I arrived at the theater today, one of the first things I noticed was that there were two teenage girls behind me, giggling in excitement at 99 percent of the previews. They were as stoked for the sci-fi films as for the fantasy ones, as excited about a cool fight sequence as they were about a gorgeous visual. And the minute the iconic music started up, they dropped into utter, absorbed silence.
At the beginning of the movie, I was pretty excited. The imprint of you in my head was pretty excited too.
A new droid! A link to the past! Sand dunes! Storm troopers! Hapless villagers. But we were also a little puzzled. A storm trooper showing compassion, showing conflict? What was that all about? We were intrigued. When the story cut to a mysterious figure, almost but not quite like a Tuskan raider in appearance, scavenging the ruins of a great battle from the past, we were both disappointed. But when the face coverings came off to reveal a young woman, one who was strong and agile and physically daring, your head almost exploded in glee. I was a lot more cautious than that. I could feel myself tamping down your enthusiasm. Not in the front of my head. The front of my head was caught up in the excitement, quickly starting to root for all the good characters and against the bad characters en masse (but a little bit for the possibility of at least one bad guy turning good, ’cause that’s a lot more likely in Star Wars than in real life) …. but the back of my head was busy bracing both of us for the inevitable let-down. This bright, scavenging woman with gusto to spare and a strong moral compass won’t really be the center of the story. She’ll turn into The Love Interest. Or the Asexual Sidekick. Or just fade in importance until everyone knows the real story is the story of two bros, Finn and Poe, and how they saved the universe with help from their kickass Strong Female Character Friend With the Androgynous Name. Just wait. It’s gonna happen. Deep breaths. Focus on what you like about the movie. Harrison Ford! So funny! The guy playing Finn is awesome! Don’t pin your hopes on the girl, sweetie. You know she’s going to be sent to the back of the spaceship before long.
But to my amazement, that didn’t happen! Instead, the movie kept making Rey more and more bad-ass, more and more into the strange new adventures she was having, but also more and more human. Full of doubt, overwhelmed, reluctant to accept help or to change her life. In need of mentors to guide her on the way. Rey was getting a hero’s journey of her own. One that didn’t happen off-stage, or as a subplot. One that was too big for a single film. The echo of you was smug, in my head: OF COURSE Rey deserved her own journey. Heck! Princess Leia was the star of those other movies, no matter what the rest of the world thinks about it! Also, THIS MOVIE IS AWESOME LET’S GO SEE IT FIVE MORE TIMES.
My own reaction was a little different. As the final scene rolled, Rey still not quite at the point of seeing that she is the hero now, I started to cry. I was a bit sad – remembering the years and years that I spent, learning that your view of the world didn’t fit the world we had to live in, and that if we wanted to identify with the characters we DID identify with in all the stories, maybe we’d have to get pretty darn good at knowing how to think we were a boy… but mostly I was happy. So happy for all the little girls I know, who will grow up in a world where there are LOTS of stories where girls can be the heroes, sidekicks, mentors, and random X-wing pilots who get 5 lines in the whole movie, and where that is not a big deal. Just the natural way things are. And happy, too, to realize that I could feel the returning of YOUR particular happiness, so long tucked away, at knowing that in imaginary worlds, not just the special ones we had to hunt for and be guided to, but also many of the ones that millions of kids all over the world would share, WE WERE THERE TOO. All the way there, not just sprucing up the place a bit. And not just us, but all the rest of the people we loved. Finally, the world was remembering that we are all part of each other’s stories, just like we always knew it should be.
Thank you, 1984 me, for always fighting for that world, no matter what else we had going on. I’m so excited to tell you that it finally seems to me like maybe someday, that one fight will be as irrelevant to kids your age as our great-grandmothers’ fights were to you.
Very much love,
Sooooooooo… what have you been watching, reading, listening to, or otherwise culturally imbibing this week? I’ll have my non-Star Wars-y stuff in the comments section; please join me!