Sitting in the darkened theater watching “The Rise of Skywalker,” I found myself zeroing in a subtext of the storyline, one that had nothing to do with droids or wookies or mythic Sith daggers. As a female activist and organizer, I was interested in the dynamics of the female-led resistance that is showcased in the film.
To be sure, there are problematic elements, especially around relationships with male characters and the persistent centering of a beautiful white heroine. But I was appreciative of what the movie gets right about women organizing for change — particularly about how women make decisions and work together. No matter how many women occupy political spaces, organizing in real life often remains a male-centered activity due to dominant ideas about gender and politics, which are typically reinforced in our cultural narratives. Any conception of something different, no matter how Disneyfied, provides another model and validation that women can and do make change through political action. And as a female organizer, that’s what I’m looking for — even if for now, it only exists in an imperfect way in a galaxy far, far away.
Watching Rey strategize in the film, I thought of quips from two different friends about my own organizing work. First, back during last spring’s primary election, I assembled a team of 16 committee candidates to run as progressive challengers against the establishment-backed Dems. A male friend referred to my mission as the assembling of “Delany’s 16,” alluding to the heist film Ocean’s 11 (the Rat Pack 1960s original and the George Clooney 2001 remake) in which one con man rounds up a team of ten others to rob three Vegas casinos. I appreciated the implication of the joke, suggesting my work was like a carefully orchestrated power heist (and indeed it was!).
More recently, another female activist reached out to me about an issue she wanted us to lobby for together, saying “Let’s Thelma and Louise this!” I liked that too — the reference to tenacity and solidarity, the latter being especially powerful as my friend and I are working together from different racial locations (I’m white, she’s black). In a culture that continues to be predicated on white privilege, white organizers of any gender expression need to know when they should be standing beside and behind organizers of color doing the same work, just as Thelma and Louise bonded over their commonalities and differences.
As these analogies show, we often draw from films to frame our understanding of gender in politics. What we see matters. And what we see in the Star Wars franchise especially matters because it’s not only the second most popular movie franchise in history, its language and mythology have permeated every aspect of our culture.
Reason? Feeling? How About Both?
There’s a tired narrative about women in politics that women are more “emotional” and men are more “rational.” This logic permeates our culture and has real consequences when women try to assume leadership roles. A 2019 Georgetown University study found that 1 in 8 Americans still believe female candidates are too emotional to hold office. The idea reinforces the notion that leadership only happens one way.
Even my friends’ film references were distinctly gendered. The strategizing men of Ocean’s 11 were cool, unflappable, analytical and indifferent. In Thelma and Louise, women derived their power from a surfeit of intense emotion (again, a tired trope). While my political buddies don’t necessarily buy into these simple stereotypes, the ideas can infiltrate our thinking and create unconscious bias.
Pop culture representations of powerful women working on change and working together can and should do better. We need depictions of female leaders who are feeling and rational, who can open weep for a lost friend as Rey does for Leia, as well as fight ferociously and make necessary command battle decisions. In fact, what we see in Star Wars is a female leader (in fact, many female leaders) who combines both reason and emotion to effectively lead. In this way, I’d posit that Rey — and her companions in her political struggle — are a win.
“We Think Back Through Our Mothers if We are Women”
In the Star Wars movie, Rey is a strong, capable character, so capable in fact that some fanboys have labeled her a Mary Sue, often viewed as a sexist putdown. Her backstory includes tragedy but she doesn’t come across as driven to action because she is emotionally or psychologically damaged. She is anguished about family history and lineage but in a way that is very much like the Luke Skywalker genealogy crisis of the original films.
Just as Luke has Obi Wan, Rey has Leia as a mentor. Leia also happens to be a general in the film, one of several strong female characters. As a maternal figure as well as a role model, they share a strong bond that guides Rey even after Leia’s death. While male characters are haunted by their predecessors, racked with guilt and shame, this is not the case for Rey and surrogate maternal figure, Leia. The Virginia Woolf quote comes to mind: “we think back through our mothers if we are women.”
It is important that women have their own histories; rich communal narratives to draw from, rather than simply inserting themselves into male framework for personal understanding. In her prose and poetry, feminist author Adrienne Rich examines the consequences on female consciousness of the continued assumption that the universal is male. For women to be bereft of other women’s stories of courage and victories has consequences, as Rich notes in the conclusion of her poem, “Diving into the Wreck”: “a book of myths in which our names do not appear.” For Rey, the “book of myths” does exist. It includes female names and stories of Leia and other female leaders.
Collaboration, not Cat Fights
The film is not perfect in its intersectional politics, particularly in how it centers a normatively beautiful, white and British female lead. However, as other writers have noted, the movie presents not just one exceptional strong woman but a number of them — and that’s important. Speaking about her role as bounty hunter Zorri Bliss, Keri Russell noted her strength and resourcefulness, which in Russell’s view do not negate her femininity.
Maybe even more importantly, the women are presented as collaborators, as supporting and extending each other’s efforts. A standout moment in the film for me was when female mercenary Zorii Bliss pauses to tell Rey she admires her work. It is nearly a textbook example of how linguist Deborah Tannen asserts that women use language for connection, in contrast to how men use language for power and dominance. She uses the terms “rapport talk” and “report talk” to distinguish between male and female speech patterns. Women’s rapport, she notes, is about social connection, the glue cementing bonds. The exchange between these female characters is emblematic of that language use.
The female characters in the film work together, in collaboration, and the characters are each strong in their own right. This includes Jannah, a woman of color, described as fierce by the Naomie Ackie, actress portraying her. These women working in tandem, talking about strategy pass the Bechdel test. There are multiple women in the film. They all have names. They talk with one another about something other than men. In fact, these women of Star Wars talk about working together to wrest unilateral power from patriarchal forces to restore the public good. (I’ve been there myself).
Ethics of Care in Action
Throughout the movie there are moments when Rey opts to heal rather than harm, to listen and feel rather than vanquish or kill. She has the opportunity to kill Kylo Ren but does not. She listens to a kicked around droid that others dismissed and in the process, gains useful intel. She heals a wounded giant serpentine creature that might otherwise kill her. In this impulse to do more than simply flex her power, she demonstrates what feminist psychologist Carol Gillan terms an “ethics of care.” According to Gillian, this female approach to morality differs from a male “ethics of justice” in that a “ethics of care” is contextual, rooted in real life dilemmas and tangible relationships, rather than an abstract definition of right and wrong.
In a post-election postmortem with another female organizer, we noted that during our many collective years in the activist trenches, the campaigns led by women seemed to have the most success with team-building, volunteer coordinating and overall cohesion. Perhaps, my friend posited, this was because of the strange, unlikely upside of a lifetime of female acculturation in which women are rewarded for being warm, empathetic and nurturing. These traits lends themselves nicely towards movement building, including constructing movements that can eventually wrest power from patriarchal control.
However, women’s need to feel for others can be problematic as well. One troubling element of the film is Rey’s relationship with Kylo Ren. Once again, we see the stereotypical notion of women needing to save or civilize angry or badly behaved men. Once again, male violence is romanticized. Despite earlier attempts to harm or kill her, Rey not only forgives but also saves and kisses her would-be killer, Kylo Ren. In a nation where on average 52 women are shot and killed by an intimate partner each month, romanticizing domestic violence has the potential to harm more women by normalizing what is harmful to their well-being (or even their lives!). It’s time to put to bed the myth of women rehabilitating immature or violent men.
An Organizer’s Take
Most of my experiences organizing for social change have been in the company of other women. This work has been marked by collaboration, camaraderie and what would be considered essentially flat leadership, meaning that hierarchy is de-emphasized and input is solicited and valued from all members.
Additionally, in the organizing spaces that I occupy, it is women who do the bulk of the work. It is women who log countless volunteer hours, handling both the large scale planning and the tedious minutiae. In my experience, men may lean in at the eleventh hour, to critique or partake of credit but it is women who stand by other women and their work, knowing how painstaking it is to complete it and the attendant vulnerability of being a female organizer in the public eye. I also see how in leftist organizing, women and people of color remain likely to be talked down to, harassed online, and have their work attributed to others or critiqued by those who contributed little to nothing.
History is full of examples of hard-working pioneering women whose accomplishments are attributed to men. I see this all too often in the progressive grassroots space too — women assiduously laboring for systemic change and men suddenly pushing their way to the front, deciding that now that women have laid the backbreaking groundwork, it’s “their time” to run for office and be a progressive hero (and all those women can be staffers and adoring supporters).
What I liked about this final Star Wars movie was that there was none of that. No male character used the work of Rey or other women as a springboard for their own male victory. The male characters instead did something that is still surprising in this day and age: they stood behind female leaders. The women are powerful in their own right, not underlaborers in a male authored cause. While 2020 has turned out to be another year in which Americans will not see a woman in the nation’s most powerful role, there is plenty of female strength in the grassroots. And as Star Wars concludes, this level of organizing, and the feminist ethic that goes with it, might be what actually gets us to progressive social change.
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