Women in Storytelling – Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Rey Star Wars: The Force Awakens
Source: http://www.comicbookresources.com

We always wanted to write Rey as the central character, but it was just one of the things we knew we wanted to do: to make the film look and feel more like the way the world looks and feels. – JJ Abrams, The Guardian

It is well known that Star Wars is based on the hero’s quest which is an archetypal story that transcends culture and time. According to Joseph Campbell, the hero’s quest is hard-wired in our psyche and so when our hero battles villains and the powers of darkness, it resonates and entertains each generation anew. The hero’s quest never gets old which is why the Star Wars franchise, begun back in 1977, has endured.

The pattern of our hero receiving a call to action, going on an adventure, doing great things, and returning home to great reward is very satisfying and appears in many of our stories:Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, to name just two. However, these stories have only ever had women in supporting roles as temptresses or goddesses, and other stereotypes (prostitute with a heart of gold, love interest, the really hot girl disguised in glasses) while men do the self-actualisation.

In Star Wars: A New HopePrincess Leia seems to be the only woman in the whole of that galaxy far, far, away. She is a born leader, but still has to wait around for Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Chewbacca, because everyone is following the rescue the princess trope. She may be feisty (*groan* = a terrible word. Why are men never described as feisty?) doling out snappy one liners and keeping her cool whilst in the clutches of Darth Vader, but she is still doing her best with a terrible supporting role.

Therefore, to watch Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens: a female character, a woman centre stage at last, is completely satisfying. And, Rey is not alone in this story. The ever fabulous Princess Leia is now a more rounded character as General of the Rebel Alliance, a mum and wife (possibly ex-wife). Leading the stormtroopers is Captain Phasma. And, wise guru, Maz Kanata, is the voice of Force wisdom.  So, we have female stormtroopers, female pilots, and female medical staff in the Rebel Camp. Star Wars has becomes representative of the world we live in today. No one feels the need to explain or justify these women’s place – it is the way of the world – a balanced world of equal opportunity.

The story which contains these women is brilliant. Not least of all because this episode of Star Wars reuses all the best parts of the previous Star Wars episodes, and sets up the promise of a satisfactory ending from the very beginning, whilst continuing to build momentum right to its resolution in the last frame of the film. I didn’t even realise I was holding my breath until the credits started to roll. We follow Rey right to that ending, leaving us to speculate about her full story, and looking forward to meeting her again in the next episode.

We believe in Rey because we first meet her on the planet Jakku where she lives as a scavenger who finds scrap metal and machinery from abandoned space ships to trade for not-enough food. It is a lonely existence in which she has learnt to become self-sufficient, and how to defend herself.

Like all great characters, she has worked long and hard to learn her skills. She is knowledgeable about spacecraft and how they are put together which has kept her alive all these years.

When her lonely existence is interrupted, first by a droid, whom she refuses to trade for food, we know that she is a good person. And, then when she is called upon in a crisis to fly the Millennium Falcon, we are not surprised that, not only can she fly it, but she can fix it too. It is completely plausible and logical that she is a talented pilot. She has learnt through many lonely long days of taking apart spaceships for food. Han Solo recognises her talent and offers her a job.

However, Rey has her own ideas about what she needs and follows the heroine’s quest of answering the call, transcending her circumstances, and creating new ones for herself whilst becoming happy (or at least happier) in the process of self-actualisation, which has only just begun.

At the end of the film, we know that Rey is a brave woman with still as yet untapped skills and powers, who does the right thing. But, she is still a mystery to us. There is still a lot more for her to discover about herself and for us to vicariously experience as she does.

Finally, we have a Star Wars heroine on her quest of her own.

Roll on Episode VIII. I can’t wait.

Women and Storytelling: Saint, Spy, Suffragette

Spy, Suffragette, Galadriel, White Queen, Princess Leia Pics

We’re in every home, we’re half the human race…

– Maud Watts, Suffragette

Two years ago, I wrote a blog I called Women Centre Stage. It was inspired by my girls, who had just started school, and had discovered that by using the open world or free play mode when playing Lego Lord of The Rings and Lego Star Wars, they could create their own stories, with all the female characters in the centre of the story. Each time they get a new game, they spend time tailoring it to reflect their lives – lives in which girls have the main roles.

It is 2015, but incredibly, there is a proposal to drop feminism from the A-level politics syllabus. In her column, Bridget Christie wonders why the new Creative United Kingdom passport, celebrating 500 years of British talent, only included two women yet seven men. And, why an Israeli newspaper digitally removed Angela Merkel and Ann Hidalogo from a photo. Women are literally being airbrushed from history.

I am a female computer scientist and on a recent IT course I taught, there were three female students to 40+ male ones. This ratio is a lot worse than when I was an undergraduate and, I didn’t really notice until my girls asked me at breakfast: How many girls do you teach, mummy? …Where are the rest? 

Where are the girls?

The other week, we attended Sung Eucharist at St Paul’s Cathedral and my girls asked: Where are the girls in the choir? Where are the female statues? Where are the girls’ stories? I thought about my childhood growing up in the Church of England. When I was about 12 years old, female lay preachers were still novel and I was one of many girl choristers. And, so it was easier to believe that it only a matter of time before things would change further. However, when I looked at the one woman standing at the front in St Paul’s the other week, amongst all those men, I felt like nothing had progressed at all.

It reminded me of Joseph Campbell’s monomyth. Women only appear in it as temptresses or goddesses, and they only have support roles. We don’t hear their stories or their trials and tribulations. Instead they are silent. They are faithful and they endure like Penelope. Odysseus is off living his life seeking glory whilst Penelope is stuck at home as a desperate housewife.

This traditional supporting and enduring journey of our heroine is described in three steps on Ribbonfarm:

  1. The heroine is yet undeveloped.
  2. Her worth and her ability to persevere is threatened.
  3. She endures gracefully and the more she suffers, the more dignified she becomes, until her dignity gives her strength and she regains her worthiness.

When I read Storytelling and Mythmaking by Frank McConnell, I loved that he said that stories save our lives, and that he used films as well as the classics to illustrate myths. However, he only briefly mentioned women and only enduring women in support roles. The discussion focused on male heroes and anti-heroes and their journeys. An alien visiting earth would think that there had been no movies made with strong female characters during that time span – none what so ever.

Not just heroes with boobs

In contrast to the traditional heroine’s quest, the hero’s quest or journey shows that the 1) hero is uncomfortable in the world, and 2) sees a call to adventure, 3) but refuses until life is unbearable and forces changes 4) the hero meets a mentor, then 5) the hero crosses the threshold of no return 6) is tested, meets allies and enemies 7) ready for the major approach or challenge 8) then the hero undergoes an ordeal and faces death and/or a greatest fear, until 9) there is reward, but still the hero is not out of danger – all can still be lost as the hero begins the 10) journey home, only to near get to home and is 11) tested once more, until all ambivalence about this quest has gone 12) the hero sets about transforming the world as the hero has been transformed.

On the fangirl blog series: the heroine’s journey, they look at what a feminine parallel to the hero’s quest would look like. Campbell looked backwards for his model so fangirl blog looks forwards to identify strong female stories who are not just heroes with boobs. They have feminine concerns, such as whether to have children or not, and they do not necessarily get a happy ending. Is this a reflection of our times?

Ribbonfarm defines the modern heroine’s journey in these three steps:

  1. The heroine is confused.
  2. Her value and dignity are threatened, and her ability to defend this value is tested.
  3. She proves her value by either transcending or invalidating the test and then she redefines what her worthiness means.

The reluctant Suffragette

Suffragette follows a group of women fighting for the right to vote. The lead character, Maud Watts, follows each step of the hero’s quest within the modern heroine’s journey. She is reluctantly called and refuses the call, until there is no alternative and she becomes convinced that change is the only way forward. She pays a high price for her value, but is able to save another young girl from living the life she has lived. Maud Watts’s goal is to find a different way to live this life, which is ultimately what she does. It is a poignant and moving film.

Suffragette’s writer, Abi Morgan said that many male actors turned down Suffragette because the male roles were only supporting roles.  It also took ten years to get the funding to get it made because it has a predominantly female cast and no romance – not a major box office draw? It is only aimed at half the population.

Incidently, I read a theory (for which I can’t, alas, find original references) that the reason only the women over 30 were given the vote in the UK in 1918, was because so many young men had been killed in World War I, Parliament didn’t want a female majority making decisions on how the country was to be run.

Would the UK and the rest of the world look different today if Parliament had decided that a female majority was a good thing?

Spy v Spectre

Spy movie also follows a heroine’s quest of answering the call, transcending her circumstances, and creating new ones for herself whilst becoming happy in the process of self-actualisation. It has plenty of great female characters too. The most successful spy, Karen Walker, is a woman, as is the boss, Elaine Crocker, and the baddie, Rayna Boyanov, who inherits the business from her dad. No one feels the need to explain or justify these women’s place – it is the way of the world – a balanced world of equal opportunity. A lot of the movie is played for laughs so it is very funny whilst turning the spy formula on its head. The deskbound agent grow into her brilliance in the field and at the end of the movie she turns down the hot guy to have a girl’s night, because she knows what is important. She values her friends and support network.

Spy has ruined all other spy movies for me because it was so good and like my girls, I love watching women come into their own on the big screen. It is much more satisfying. It resonates with us. Spy is particularly brilliant as the main character is a 40-year old woman who she doesn’t need to be anything else but herself in order to achieve success. Susan Cooper embodies a new fabulous heroine with a great message.

After Spy, I watched Spectre and in comparison it seemed very old-fashioned and formulaic, and no fun at all. Bond shoots people and takes parts in fantastically elaborate stunts. He is a maverick who saves a corrupt world whilst getting revenge. He is of course supported by women who endure until they need saving and who find him irresistible. Yawn! The women are only there to boost his ego.

I eagerly await the Spy sequel. Move over Bond, Susan Cooper has arrived.

Women Centre Stage

women

During a bout of channel hopping, my daughters and I started to watch James Bond Die Another Day. NSA agent Jinx (Halle Berry) shot a baddie in a gene therapy clinic and then chased and shot at another one who escaped in a helicopter. She then dived off a cliff into the sea below and swam to her waiting speedboat. The next scene switched to Bond, but my girls weren’t interested, they wanted me to rewind live TV so that we could just watch Jinx.

It is the same when they play Lego Lord of the Rings and Lego Star Wars on our PS3. They always choose open world mode so that they can make up their own stories and play with just the female characters.

I was desperate to see women taking centre stage when I was a girl too. I just didn’t have the technology to do anything about it. Everything seemed to be all about men and this is because many stories were and still are based on the hero’s quest or monomyth identified by Joseph Campbell who said that women’s stories are to be found in fairytales.

Fairytales are more women-centred, but they are not the female equivalent of the hero’s quest. They are a historical reflection of women in society. For a long time, women didn’t have rights, possessions, or power. They needed to marry and have children in order to survive in the world of men.

So far, my girls know fairytales because of Disney, which are jollier than the Brothers Grimm. Tangled‘s Rapunzel going off to see the floating lanterns is much nicer than the Rapunzel who gets swapped for a lettuce. Even so both stories are about the girl in a tower who gets rescued and married.

My girls play at getting married a lot and I wonder if their exposure to fairytales will limit their expectations and aspirations when it comes to their own lives as stories have power. So, I was satisfied when my eldest said she was playing at the Princess getting her PhD and then getting married – even if she did wink when she said it.

We tell ourselves stories all the time and shape our lives that way. So, when my girls are playing video games I like to think they are moving women centre stage.

Over on fangirl blog there is a blog series about rewriting the monomyth and what a feminine parallel to the hero’s quest would look like. Campbell looked backwards for his model. So looking forwards would be a way to create a strong female stories which reflect feminine concerns and ambitions.

Historical novelist, Philippa Gregory has found a way of looking backwards to find strong female stories as she shifts women into the centre of the history we already know. She describes her approach in the back of Lady of the Rivers, part of her War of the Roses (or Cousin’s war) series. Gregory says that she has spent her life as an historian of women, their place in society and their struggle for power, especially that large proportion of women whose lives have been ignored by historians in favour of the lives of prominent men.

And that was what was so brilliant about the BBC 1’s historical dramatic adaptation of Gregory’s books. They intertwined three of her books about women to make The White Queen. It was the history that we know and love but with women in the centre. My girls enjoyed watching, more than once, the coronation of Elizabeth of York, aka the White Queen.

And, the BBC’s did a fabulous job of educating and immersing the viewer in that historical period using twitter, tumblr, and the internet. On their website you could find out more about childbirth and child care at that time to see if Margaret and Elizabeth enduring lots of time away from their children was common or just a plot ruse. You could watch again your favourite bits on the tumblr white queen site as they tried to exercise some influence over their lives by plotting and spying or with witchcraft and prayer.

And yet in the Guardian this week, there was a review of the latest films and books about witches and witchcraft stories for teenage girls. The article quotes YA writer Ruth Warburton saying that witch stories are timeless because there is a desire to see girls in less passive roles.

Great! But where are the stories of young females using their nous instead of their supernatural powers? I can only think of The Hunger Games in the hero’s quest mould which no doubt my girls will enjoying playing, reading, watching when they are older, even though it is not that jolly to be going off to fight to the death.

Or, perhaps we don’t need a female version of a hero’s battling quest. Already, my girls are using technology to design female versions of the stories they like in order to please themselves, which include a lot less fighting and more cape swishing and having a nice time. This appeals to me no end and I can’t wait to see what they do next.