Boring Conversation Anyway: The Stupid Internet Controversies Around “The Force Awakens”

This is the first of several posts I wanted to write about “Star Wars.” This one will hopefully come out relatively positive about the new movie, but maybe not. I won’t give a full review here, because I don’t think anybody cares, including myself, but I will say that I saw the movie twice on Friday and enjoyed it immensely.

The following MIGHT contain spoilers; I haven’t really outlined what I’m typing but I’m not going to go out of my way to avoid talking about plot points in the film.

read at your own risk…

Okay, anyway I’ve read lots of interesting commentary on the new film, the more interesting bits are those that have been critical of the movie, or meta-critical of the hype and marketing buildup surrounding the film. I consider myself a big “Star Wars” fan but especially after reading posts on reddit and other sites for well over a year I’m definitely leery of other fanboys (and some, although not many, fangirls) who definitely deserve the derogatory term. Not that I myself have matured much beyond the early teens but at some point in your sad adulthood you are faced with the choice to either accept your imposter syndrome or double down on their immature fantasies, adding sex and violence and obsessive world-building and strict adherence to canon on top of their favorite franchise.

This is why “Game of Thrones”, and to some extent the “Force Awakens” are best enjoyed as guilty pleasures (although Star Wars is much more fun and less pretentious). And the most devoted fan bases of each approach a kind of religious fanaticism (and righteous anger) in their attempt to protect and defend such properties. When you combine extreme escapism with further prejudices against the Real World, you get:

Black Stormtroopers and Black Hermione

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For some reason it was a “controversy” that Finn was a black man. I guess because some really dumb racists were complaining on the internet last year. They should have been ignored. Raising their discourse to the level of “controversy” only emboldens internet trolls and basement-dwelling racists. It empowers them by throwing their sad rants into the marketplace of ideas and by extension making the rather innocuous casting decision look like progress, which it is only if seen through the lens of a grossly racist science-fiction/fantasy fanbase, a group which although majority white are not racist.

Or are they?

Here comes the next stupid internet “debate”, the casting of a black woman as Hermione in a Harry Potter play. The easy reductivist argument, and really the only way to look at this, is that the director casted who he thought was the best actress to play a role in a theatrical production based in a fictional Universe. If anything, we should be celebrating the strong and flexible narrative of the “Potterverse” one which is popular enough to allow for color-blind interpretation of characters.

This is exactly what a commentator said to me on BBC radio yesterday. But then some dufus called in, from the United States of course, to argue that “canonically” Hermione was white, as depicted in the American cover and chapter illustrations and some random comments Rowling made off-hand at some point, some time. Another called (again from the US) argued that since Emma Watson is the most famous (only) actress to depict Hermione, Hermione is white.

Some questions these people should ask themselves:

  1. Why does “Harry Potter and the Curse Child” need to take place in the same canonical Universe as the (mediocre) films, or even the books?
  2. What would these same people say if Lee Jordan was portrayed by a white man? Or Kingsley Shacklebolt? Or Nick Fury? Or Lando Calrissian? Or Blade? Or Kazaam?
  3. Why is nobody equally upset that a non-ginger was cast to play Ron Weasley? Poor Ron can barely stir up the ghost of an internet argument.
  4. Does anyone (or group of fans) “own” the rights or ability to control the “true” canon of Harry Potter? If JK Rowling doesn’t care about the fixed racial identities of her characters, why should the fans? (you won’t like my answer)
  5. Time travel back to before the casting news. Somebody asks you to name Hermione’s most important traits. How many do you name before her race? Five? Ten? Do you even mention she’s white?

So that’s that.

Is Rey a Mary Sue? 

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Now back to “Star Wars” and the dumbest “controversy” of them all: the debate over whether or not Daisy Ridley/Rey is a “Mary Sue” and why we should care?

My first reaction to both of these is: As written yes but Daisy Ridley is so charming she outacts and overcomes the bad screenwriting. and Not really.

But let’s dig deeper.

I saw this discussion in the comments section of an article on Badass Digest, one of the few sites who hasn’t tried to unconditionally heap praise on the new films (they and Salon.com have offered the best commentary I’ve seen, although I haven’t look that hard and it’s still early). Users on that site were upset that Rey was a “Mary Sue” character, or someone who was overpowered and seems to easily defeat all her enemies and all obstacles she faces.

This would indeed make for a weak character, were it true; but the sloppy storyline which sees her over-qualified to fly the Milennium Falcon and fight wannabe Siths without any kinds of training says more about the script than the character as portrayed by Daisy Ridley, who shows enough charm and nuance for us to identify with. Although plenty tough, Rey’s need and anxiety over her parents’ potential return is both a strength (of compassion) and a weakness, in theory keeping her from leaving Jakku or embracing her destiny (the film could have done a lot more with this but just sort of gives up because there’s no time or place for organic-“Organaic”?-development). She also is clearly overmatched (at first) by Kylo Ren, and you could say she was able to defeat him at the end only because he had a lot going on-he’d just killed his father, had a protracted battle with a “traitor” and then a huge cliff opened up and separated them. Also, we don’t know their actual relationship so we don’t know what Kylo Ren wants from her, much like Darth Vader’s dilemma with Luke. Does he want to kill her? Does he want to “teach” her (kinky!)? We don’t really know!

Also, Rey apparently doesn’t shower or wear different clothing, which is kind of gross I guess. But she’s still lovely.

Anyway, you have to project an awful lot onto her character from the actress and our own expectations, filling in the gaps that JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan left behind in the script. That’s Abrams’ “strength” as a director- he casts great people like Ridley and Oscar Isaac who bring a lot of personality into the film beyond what the script or story itself calls for.

But because not everyone sees it as such, the “Mary Debate” gets a lot dumber. Most responses to the “Mary Sue” complaint have not been that she isn’t a “Mary Sue” but that this isn’t a problem, because men get their “Mary Stus” like James Bond so AT LAST women get a stupid, overpowered stand-in to identify with. Which is ridiculous. Not because they’re wrong-James Bond is a blank slate of a character, or has been in the past.

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Also, perhaps Rey was written as a female version of a male superhero, with all of the requisite flaws, because her character was written by two men, neither of whom has necessarily demonstrated an ability to write above a very very masculine frame of reference.

Why do we need or want such characters? It’s like saying “at last, women have a stupid, poorly conceived character with which we can live out our own absurd power fantasies!” As said above, I’m not even sure if Rey qualifies as such. But this argument is horrible. If James Bond or Han Solo or whomever provide detrimental models for young men to identify with, then why is it “good” to try to do the same with young girls? You might say this is apples and oranges, that women need blanket presentations of sexual power, political power, superheroic power, etc…but you would be wrong.

Okay that’s it.

 

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