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Rogue One’s Moral Ambiguity


The Star Wars universe has a slight problem with moral complexity. Although it does occasionally hint at stances beyond Good Is Good and Evil Is Bad, like when Lando Calrissian sells out Han and Leia, it mostly makes very clear who is supposed to be a hero, and who is supposed to be a villain.

But the more the Star Wars universe grows, the trickier this stance becomes. When Finn turns against the Empire, he raises questions about the idea that Stormtroopers are mindlessly evil. They’re still treated as generic villains, but once Finn changes sides, we have to wonder about the morality of mass killing brainwashed Stormtroopers who have little choice about what they’re doing. The more detailed the world gets, the more we have to question this idea that the rebels are always the good guys, and anyone mixed up with the Empire is always a villain.

Rogue One is the first movie to really embrace that problem. Again, as general groups, the Empire is Bad and the Alliance is Good, but inside those clearly defined sides, the movie explores the massive grey area of how individuals act, and to what extent the ends justify the means. And it’s the very existence of this grey area that allows the story to explore certain narrative risks and consequences that the main Star Wars movies would be unlikely to touch.


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Rogue One and the Token Protagonist


First, let’s get this out of the way: I thought Rogue One was a great movie. Well-paced, thrilling, with a story that I think we need right now. I definitely recommend it, if for some reason you haven’t seen it already.

But this blog isn’t just about whether movies are enjoyable, and Rogue One failed on one major issue. Women, apparently, are shockingly rare in a galaxy far, far away.

It feels like it should be impossible. The protagonist, Jyn Erso, is female. People have been complaining about this avalanche of female Star Wars protagonists and the sexism against men included therein for months. Another female protagonist? What, is every person in space a woman now?

But Rogue One suffers from token girl-ism, with the twist that that token girl happens to be the protagonist. I think the film passes the Bechdel test, as I think Jyn talks to both her mother and Mon Mothma, which is an improvement. There are a few women around, at least. But beyond Jyn, they’re all required women. Her mother has to be a woman, and she quickly dies anyway. Mon Mothma is one of the few women in existing canon, so she has to stay, and have a small, if powerful, role. But there’s pretty much no-one else with an even vaguely significant speaking role. Could we have had a female leader of the Death Star project as the main villain, maybe? A female rebel who raised Jyn? A female blind monk, a female pilot, a female other pilot, a female-voiced droid? I left Jyn’s father off this list initially, because I thought perhaps Galen Erso was part of existing canon, but it looks like that’s not the case, so even he could have just as easily been a female character instead. The crew of Rogue One was wonderfully diverse in terms of race, but Jyn was one woman in a crew of six, with very, very few other women scattered across the landscape.

I’m sure people will argue that gender had no effect on the story, whether the characters were male or female, so we shouldn’t force diversity on them. After all, it didn’t really matter whether the defecting Imperial pilot or the Krennic the Death Star planner were men or women. But that’s kind of the point. It didn’t matter. There was no plot or world building reason why they should be men, but they fell to that as the default, even though the result is a world that really needs to worry about its minuscule female population.

It’s pretty frustrating, especially since the movie seemed seriously committed to improving the franchise’s racial diversity. Although I doubt the film’s creators meant it to be political, since they’ve been working on it for years, it feels incredibly political and relevant in the current climate, and that powerful message is slightly undercut by this idea that very few women can be in the revolution. Maybe, instead of simply moving the team’s token woman into the lead role, we could get rid of the concept altogether and have some gender balance instead? It’s not that hard to have women in space, is it? Unless, of course, they were all strangled by their non-expanding bras.

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Shipping for Salvation


When it was revealed that Disney expected Kylo Ren, not Rey, to be the breakout star of The Force Awakens, everyone laughed. Of course everyone would fall in love with the villain who’s responsible for the death of a fan favorite, and not the protagonist of the movie. Obviously.

But one group was drawn to the series’ new villain — shippers. Although Finn/Poe is definitely the most popular pairing from The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren and Rey are the close second.

Pairing the female lead with a young male villain isn’t exactly new. Hermione and Draco were always popular during the height of Harry Potter fandom. But there are troubling implications when a female character is paired not just with an enemy character, but with one who is, for lack of a better phrase, truly on the dark side.


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We have to stop debating Mary Sues


Let’s talk about Mary Sues. Again.

As I discussed a couple of weeks ago, Star Wars has got people talking once again about Mary Sues, after people criticized Rey for being too capable to be believable. This “Mary Sue” label has been critiqued to death, with many, many people pointing out its sexist connotations.

But I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how the term “Mary Sue” isn’t just annoying, but actively harmful to younger viewers. The label “Mary Sue” suggests that a character is poorly written, and that only undiscerning and uncultured people could like them. This probably doesn’t change our opinions on characters when we’re older, but it definitely influenced me as a teenager, and I doubt I’m the only one. By allowing the term “Mary Sue” to masquerade as literary criticism, even by discussing how “Mary Sue-ish” or un-“Mary Sue-ish” a character might be, we reinforce this idea that a female protagonist can be too powerful, and end up taking empowering narratives away from readers and viewers.


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The Force Awakens breaks the record


On Wednesday, The Force Awakens passed Avatar as the highest grossing movie in the North American box office, just twenty days after its release.

For comparison, Avatar set its record of $760.5 million after being in theaters for seven months and then later re-released. And Star Wars is probably going to take a whole lot more money before it’s done.

Obviously, The Force Awakens set this record because it’s a Star Wars movie. An excellent Star Wars movie, after a very long break. First people didn’t expect it to ever exist, then people didn’t expect it to ever be good, and now Star Wars fever has taken over, and most people are seeing it at least twice.

But that doesn’t change the fact that this is a Star Wars movie with a female protagonist. An awesome female protagonist. And a lead trio of one white girl, a black guy, and a Hispanic guy. And a low-key brewing interracial romance between that girl and the black guy (or between the two guys, depending on who you ask).


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Rey and the Hero’s Journey


I could fangirl about Rey from The Force Awakens all day. She is amazing, to the point that I could barely write anything of substance about her in my review of the movie, since my first-watch reaction was mostly just an excited squealing noise in my head. (And, I’ll admit, out loud).

But I think it’s time to get a tiny bit meta, and talk about Rey as a protagonist, and as a Star Wars protagonist in particular.

The Force Awakens is a perfect Star Wars sequel because it blends the old and the new, feeling fresh and innovative while also echoing A New Hope, and Rey embodies that combination. She’s the lost hero on a desert planet who stumbles across a droid and goes on an adventure, and in the process, her story echoes Luke Skywalker’s narratively, thematically and even visually. Yet she’s not a traditional or even particularly familiar genre protagonist. She follows in the footsteps of Luke’s Hero’s Journey, marking her as the clear protagonist of the story, but she’s also a female lead in a movie aimed at all viewers, in a franchise often seen as one for male viewers in particular.

Rey is a reimagining of the classic hero, but the most significant and innovative thing about her character is how traditional she really is.


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