Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Empire Strikes Back Love Must Stop!

So I decided to indulge my love/hate relationship with John Scalzi's opinion pieces this morning by reading a column he did for Film Critic on how Ripley's status as the preeminent female character is as much due to the dearth of genuinely well-written female characters as it is due to Ripley being awesome, well-written, and well-acted. (I also decided to indulge my love of starting a blog post with "So I...", which I try not to do so much anymore.)

And what do I find? Apart from an actually extremely well-written essay about the way that even the "strong female characters" in sci-fi and fantasy are really just male fantasy figures, only nowadays they can kick people's ass, that is. I find this quote: "Some distance behind Sarah Connor is Princess Leia, who looks great on paper (a senator at 19! Leader of the rebellion! Feisty with Han Solo!) but who is woefully underwritten in every film she's in except The Empire Strikes Back and who isn't the focus of the series in any event."

So let me get this straight. When Princess Leia was risking her life by covertly spying for the Rebel Alliance, when she withstood brutal interrogation and truth drugs, when she cunningly stalled for time by "confessing" false information under duress, when she single-handedly took charge of her own rescue and shot her way out using someone else's blaster, then planned her own escape route, then deduced that the rescue was too easy and that they needed to act as though they were on a timetable...that was the "woefully underwritten" Leia.

When she got dragged around like a sack of potatoes by Big Strong Man Han Solo, when she carped and whined about every decision Han made only to be proven wrong at every turn because Han knows better about such things than a silly little girl, when she got forcibly kissed by Han only to swoon into his arms because all a woman really needs is a take-charge man who knows what he wants in the bedroom, when she hung out in her room changing her outfits and doing her hair and leaves Han and Chewie to make sure the Falcon gets repaired and C-3P0 gets found, when her primary contribution of the entire movie was to have a sudden "female intuition" that Luke is in danger...that's the strong female character who almost competes with Ripley.

This is how badly fan opinion has ossified in regards to the Star Wars trilogy. Even on a level where one movie is blatantly, demonstrably, provably superior to the other, even when a respected and devastatingly brilliant sci-fi writer like Jeanne Cavelos has already published a scathing essay pointing out how obvious it is that Leia becomes less and less feminist as the series progresses (my comments above owe a great debt to said essay, BTW)...we still get a token, "Empire is the best movie" thrown in there. Because it's just the Truth now, and facts only get in the way.

And since there are no comments on that column, I have to rant about it here and hope he sees it. Hey, it worked once before...

12 comments:

Jonathan Gad said...

In that the source you're citing only appears in book form rather than online, I think it may be incumbent on you to make (or at least restate) the case that Jeanne Cavelos made.

I will say that Star Wars doesn't really do Leia that many favors either, in that she's pretty much the damsel in distress throughout. She's either a prisoner on the Death Star or helpless in the Rebel Base waiting for Luke to save her from getting the moon blown out from under her.

Really, she's only an independent actor during the escape from the Death Star sequence, and even then she ends up having to cling to Luke to cross the inexplicable bottomless gorge.

(Why do they HAVE a bottomless gorge on a space station, anyway? And how can a space faring society exist that has planet-destroying superlasers but no handrails?)

Meanwhile, in Empire, while you can argue that things don't go her way for much of the movie, once they're doing the escape from Cloud City, SHE's IN CHARGE. Its her word that spares Lando's life from Chewie's wrath, her determination to save Han that gets them as close as they do to rescuing him, and her insistence that they go back that DOES rescue Luke.

And you can remark on "female intuition" all you want, but the truth is she just got a Force delivered phone call, not some kind of female intuitive insight. But more importantly, she was in a position to turn the ship around because she was the one giving the orders!

Now, between the slavekini and the cuddly teddy bear love, it's pretty hard to defend Return of the Jedi, I'll grant you. But between Star Wars, and The Empire Strikes Back? I don't think that Star Wars was that much kinder to Leia than Empire was, so at the moment I'm only willing to score you a Draw between the two films on the Leia point.

And since I find a lot of other things to like about Empire, you're going to have to sell me on why Star Wars is a better film.

But hey, I'm willing to be convinced. What'cha got?

John Seavey said...

Well, first off, I have got to call BS on, "Star Wars features a passive Leia because she's only really an independent actor during the 50% of the movie that's spent on the Death Star escape, while Empire features an active Leia because she totally tells people what to do during the 10% of the movie that occurs after Han gets frozen in carbonite."

(Which, apart from anything else, still isn't true. In Star Wars, even while physically captive on the Death Star, Leia remains powerful by refusing to yield her secrets to Vader and Tarkin. They hold physical power over her, but she has secrets that they need. While in Empire, even after Han is gone from the film, Leia's power, such as it is, comes from the men around her. Chewie does the shooting--and there's immense symbolic significance in the fact that he's still acting under Han's last orders to protect her--and Lando flies the ship. Leia's primary contributions are to let people know that the men need saving, after which she becomes passive again as the other men do the actual rescuing.)

And saying, "It's not female intuition, it's Jedi powers," practically deserves its own entry on the Anti-Feminism in Sci-Fi Bingo card. Leia uses her Force powers exactly once in the entire Star Wars trilogy. It is to perform an action that is identical to a traditionally stereotypical female action. To claim that these things are totally coincidental and not at all evidence of sexism is somewhat along the lines of claiming that Starfire just happens to come from a planet where women have taut, sexy bodies and wear very little clothing. :)

And I didn't even get into the stereotypical, misogynist, "Han commits sexual assault against Leia but it's okay because he's so manly that she instantly falls for him and wants more" sequence on the Falcon. ("Oh, hey, she kept saying that she didn't want to kiss me, that she would rather kiss a Wookie, and that she found me unattractive and had no interest in me. But I knew she was lying." "Tell it to the judge, pal.")

This isn't the only problem with Empire, of course. There's also the fact that it's not really so much a plotline as a long string of random incidents that doesn't so much end as trail off, and that the cliffhanger retroactively makes a major sequence in the middle not make sense, and that Yoda's philosophy is intellectually stunted and devoid of compassion. But anyone who tries to claim that Empire is the one with the strongly-written female characters is frankly nuts. :)

RichardAK said...

I actually agree with you that Leia becomes a weaker character in the second film, but I think you take it too far.

First, let me point out that Leia is not wrong about everything: she's the one who insists that Lando is not to be trusted, and that Threepio's absence is suspicious, while Han tells her to relax and that everything is fine. To be fair, Han, a smuggler, is an expert on evading pursuit in spaceflight. Leia, a diplomat and politician, is better at reading people and having a sense for who is a trustworthy ally. It may be that those are more traditionally feminine qualities, but it's also more realistic. Making her a better smuggler than Han would not make her a stronger character; it would risk making her a Mary Sue.

Secondly, Han and Leia both get tortured in Empire. If you watch the scene closely, when they throw Han back into the cell after torturing him, they also throw Leia back in right after. She then asks Han "Why are they doing this?" and he says "They never even asked me any questions." It's subtle, but I read the scene as saying that both were tortured, but Han was the one who couldn't take it. Incidentally, Luke says to Leia in one of the Zahn novels that the others, referring to Han, Chewie, etc., don't have her ability to hold up under torture.

Thirdly, I just don't see how anything Han does could be interpreted as sexual assault. He doesn't force her to kiss him.

Lastly, I agree that she's a somewhat weaker character in Empire, but I don't agree that she gets progressively weaker over the course of the whole trilogy. It seems to me that she gets stronger again in Return. While she does get caught, she's pretty tough when masquerading as a bounty hunter, and let's not forget that she's the one who kills Jabba the Hutt. In fact, she strangles him with the chains he had put on her; that seems like it might be symbolic to me. She also holds up her end in the final battle; she shoots her share of storm troopers, or so it looked to me.

So while I think you have a point about how Leia becomes a weaker character in Empire, I think you've taken it too far.

Jonathan Gad said...

Luke's the one making the phone call. He calls out to Leia and she hears it. Whether or not she would have heard it if she wasn't secretly his sister or wasn't able to use the Force herself are debatable points.

Saying that she only was able to hear it because of some feminine intuition thing is not.

I don't see what's so complicated about Luke being able to use the Force to contact someone and ask for help. If you can use it to see the future or move shit around with your mind and that's okay, how is also using it to send a message to get someone to bail your sorry ass out somehow an example of "feminine intuition" and "weakening of Leia's character?"

Sorry, I'm still not sold.

John Seavey said...

@RichardAK: Except that Han's response is, "I don't trust him either." The one situation where you might reasonably expect Leia's superior experience to come into play in the film, she's undercut by Han's superior worldly-wise knowledge and cynical awareness of the situation. Leia doesn't trust Lando, but she doesn't come up with any alternate plans of her own. All she does is nag at Han in a situation where he can do nothing, which is a very sexist way of portraying a female character.

And heck yes, Han forces her to kiss him. They are in close quarters, he ignores all of her attempts to protest and presses his affections on her, and he does not obtain consent before initiating intimate contact. What he does on the Falcon in the "You like scoundrels" scene would unquestionably be considered sexual assault in a court of law.

And as for 'Jedi', it's not so much what Leia does as what she doesn't do. She's supposedly an important figure in the Rebel Alliance, but she's not involved in the planning of the single most important offensive of the entire resistance campaign and major decisions about the composition of the strike force on Endor are made without her knowledge, let alone her input. And when she finds out that the man who imprisoned her, tortured her, and destroyed her adopted homeworld and everything she'd ever known is actually her father...she is not allowed any emotional reaction, let alone to confront him about his actions. By Jedi, Leia is entirely a passive spectator to Luke's emotional arc, and that's frankly BS in what's supposed to be an ensemble series.

@Jonathan Gad: So your claim is that Leia's flash of insight isn't a case of her acting to rescue Luke at all, even in a stereotypically feminine fashion; it's just one more example of Empire reducing Leia to the role of a passive figure following the orders of men. When she tells Lando to turn the ship around, it's really Luke's plan; she's just his Force-secretary, as it were, relaying his commands to Lando because when the menfolk say "jump", she says "how high?"

And this is somehow an improvement on my previous interpretation of your position. Okay... :)

RichardAK said...

John, I don't know where you studied law, but I don't think there's a jury in this or any other galaxy that would convict Han of sexual assault based on that footage, and I suspect, and certainly hope, that there are very few judges who wouldn't dismiss the charges out of hand.

John Seavey said...

It's difficult to determine whether Han's actions towards Leia would be considered sexual assault by the legal standards of the locality; the exact definition of criminal sexual assault varies wildly by jurisdiction, and we're not given a whole lot of information about the justice system long, long ago in a galaxy far, far away. We don't even know where Leia would press charges, let alone what a judge might think.

Certainly, though, as defined by the National Center for Victims of Crime, Han commits sexual assault and sexual harassment. They define sexual assault as "when someone touches any part of another person's body in a sexual way, even through clothes, without that person's consent," and sexual harassment as "unwanted sexual behavior". Note those key words, "unwanted" and "without consent".

Now let's look at Leia's reactions to Han's advances. Her exact words are, "Let go," "Let go, please," "Stop that," and "I'd just as soon kiss a Wookie." Definitely no consent in any of that. Han responds by continuing his sexual advances, touching her without permission, grabbing her, kissing her, and insinuating to others that she slept with him already. ("Last night in the north corridor, she showed her true feelings for me.") He responds to her refusals by denying their emotional validity, suggesting she just needs to be 'loosened up a little' ("You could use a good kiss!") and persisting despite her repeated refusals...while in a position where she is alone with him and can't stop him.

This is not romance. The sweeping music fools you into thinking it might be, but no, this is actually sexual assault. You could probably make a good case under Minnesota law for at the very least 5th degree sexual assault--a gross misdemeanor, not a felony, but a crime nonetheless. (It's probably more the grabbing her than the kissing, but still, Han does commit a crime.)

Note that none of this is rape. I am not saying Han is a rapist. But he does commit repeated sexual violence against Leia in the movie, and anyone who says otherwise does so primarily because we have been indoctrinated, as a culture, to believe that when a woman says no, she's just playing hard to get and we should persist more. And we have been taught that by movies like this. It's BS, and the first step to avoiding it is recognizing when it is BS.

Rob Clay (Flailthroughs and Co.) said...

I've been thinking for a while now that Empire is overrated, and while Leia hadn't figured into that thought too much you make some pretty valid points. I'm more approaching it from the perspective that Star Wars was a pretty wonderful movie on its own and each of the sequels- yes, even Empire -undermine, contradict and weaken it in various ways until it ends up looking like the odd man out in the very series it created. Which is unacceptible, so I have a Star Wars-only micro-continuity which exists only in the confines of my skull.

Anyway!

Out of curiosity though:

the cliffhanger retroactively makes a major sequence in the middle not make sense

Which sequence is that? I'm sure it'll be forehead-slappingly obvious once you tell me...

RichardAK said...

Except she didn't say those things, Seavey, or at least not during the relevant incident. She said "Stop that," to which Han replied "Stop what?" to which she answered "Stop that. My hands are dirty." In other words, her objection, at least on the surface, was not the fact that he was touching her, but to the fact that he was touching her when her hands are dirty. And let's not forget, he was touching her hands.

He answered her, not unreasonably, "My hands are dirty too, what are you afraid of?" to which she answered "Afraid?" to which he said "You're trembling." She then said, falsely, "I'm not trembling." He then said "You like me because I'm a scoundrel; there aren't enough scoundrels in your life," to which she answered "I happen to like nice men." He said "I'm a nice man." She then said "No you're not, you're--" at which point the conversation was cut off when they kissed.

Now, in this last part of the conversation, Han moved closer to her, and both of them dropped their voices to breathy whispers. And, as they got closer, it was Leia who very visibly closed the last half-inch or so between them; she moved into the kiss.

The only time he might be construed to have "grabbed her" is when they first landed on the asteroid, when the ship rocked, and she fell into his arms. He catches her to keep her from falling, and then listens to try to find out what's going on. When she insisted that he let her go, he did so.

And he was not implying that she slept with him when he says that "Last night in the north corridor, she showed her true feelings for me." He was implying pretty much exactly what he said: that she said that she cared for him.

By the way, when Leia grabbed Luke's head and kissed hum full on the mouth when he was lying in his hospital bed, I notice that she didn't obtain his consent for that first. Maybe we can hold Han's trial right after Leia's. Or we can be serious, and not toss out absurd and frivolous charges of sexual assault because we're unhappy that not everyone shares your preference order for the Star Wars films.

John Seavey said...

@Rob Clay: We see a sequence in the middle where Vader and the Emperor argue about what to do with the "son of Anakin Skywalker", when both men are fully aware that Vader is Anakin Skywalker. There are lots of fan justifications for the convoluted dialogue in this scene, but it's really just phrased the way it is because the audience doesn't know what the characters do. :)

@RichardAK: Well, first off, Han doesn't let her go when she tells him to. She has to repeat the request. When you're grabbing a woman, and she says "let go", and you don't, that's sexual harassment.

But more importantly, you are attempting to divorce every single moment in the film from every other in an attempt to present them without context. Yes, Leia does not say "I'd just as soon kiss a Wookie" immediately before Han kisses her. But she makes repeated, unambiguous statements that she is not interested in sexual contact with Han, statements that she at no point retracts. She says "Let go," and Han doesn't let go. She says "Stop that," and Han doesn't stop that.

(And if you've never had experiences where you've had to come up with an excuse like "My hands are dirty" to stop someone from touching you in a way that makes you feel uncomfortable, when you know that telling them that they're making you feel uncomfortable will just make them feel hurt and angry and they're going to take that out on you in ways you can't stop...congratulations, you're probably a guy. :) )

It Does Not Matter that Leia doesn't reiterate her lack of consent in the instant before Han's lips touch hers. She says "no". Repeatedly, clearly, and unambiguously. And Han touches her anyway. That is indefensible behavior.

(And yes, what Leia does is probably inappropriate as well. We don't know how for sure, because we're not privy to as many conversations between Luke and Leia and we don't know what Luke's attitude is towards being kissed, but if she just planted one on his lips without making sure he's okay with that as a general rule, it is not appropriate. I'm not going to defend it.)

(I will, however, point out that "tu quoque" is not a valid defense. Saying, "Well, Leia commits sexual assault against Luke, so therefore it's okay to commit sexual assault if you're in a Star Wars movie," is nonsensical. Maybe you shouldn't dismiss reprehensible treatment of women just because it happens in a movie you liked when you were a kid.)

mrjl said...

I'm not a big Star Wars guy. In fac the only movie I ever watched completely was the original. But I always felt the movies were 90% about Luke, not a real ensemble piece.

As for the "son of Anakin Skywalker" bit that was there a chance that the "I am your father" wasn't meant to be "I am Anakin Skywalker" but "I had an affair with your mother, Anakin's wife" originally

Dean said...

I love the Star Wars films, but the series is deeply flawed. More to the point, the series is flawed as a direct result of attitude it displays toward its female characters.

"Return of the Jedi" really should have focused primarily on Leia. She has all the interesting conflicts. There is the return of the man she loves, but doesn't really like in Han Solo. There is the revelation that her family was not really who they thought they were. Finally, there is the bold strategic gamble that the Rebel Alliance takes to get Luke close to Darth Vader and the Emperor. That strategic gamble mirrors to one made by Palpatine with Vader a generation earlier. That dynamic was potentially really interesting, but ignored.

Worse, shifting the focus away from Leia undermines the Vader-Luke arc. Darth Vader was perfectly willing to kill his in Empire, which was consistent with his willingness to kill his "brother" Obi-Wan. However, finding out that he had a daughter changed things. It opened him up just enough to give Luke the upper hand.

Why? Well, Anakin Skywalker was a man that betrayed everything in the belief that he was protecting his wife. That seems relevant.

Of course, Padme Amidala is the most under-cooked character in the entire series. Leia was at least given a moment (or two) in every film. Padme makes hugely consequential decisions that are totally unmotivated. The whole series turns on her decision to seduce, secretly marry and have children with a younger, much less sophisticated Jedi in direct violation of their code.

Why? Who knows, but I am super clear on the fact that Queen was elected position on Naboo that was filled exclusively by young women. That entirely irrelevant fact was detailed at great length.