When the Rogue One trailer hit, my little geek community group was absolutely buzzing. We picked over the trailer looking for clues, obsessed over the odd word and phrase and shot – what does it MEAN? We generally flailed with excitement, trusting the franchise again for the first time since 1999 (and the least said about that the better.) We wondered who Jyn was, what she’d be. And everyone in my little geek bubble was thrilled about the whole thing. Then someone said “I wonder how long before the douchebros of the internet complain that evil feminazis are ruining Star Wars with their matriarchal agenda by making ANOTHER film about a WOMAN.”
As it turned out, about 5 minutes.
We knew it was coming. After the “boycott” of Mad Max and The Force Awakens by internet misogynists unable to handle a narrative that didn’t front and centre a white dude, it was inevitable. A third film featuring a complex, powerful yet flawed protagonist who wasn’t male was just TOO MUCH.
In all the years that Hollywood has been churning out action films about men women have just got used to seeing their stories while seeing women relegated to “mother”, “love interest”, “dead wife that makes hero sad”, “reward for being strong/funny/kind/brave” or, if we were really lucky, “strong sexy high-kicking sidekick”. We got so used to it that for a long while many of us didn’t even question it. We’re so used to men being the protagonists and leaders of their own stories, with “women’s stories” being relegated to “relationship” dramas and “rom coms” (and the devaluing of media made for/popular with a female market is a whole other worm factory…) that women have got used to not being the centre of the narrative. My first viewing of Mad Max at the cinema had me whooping out loud; seeing a woman finally allowed to be the badass, to make mistakes and still be a hero, have a past that often made her motives questionable and which drove the narrative, defined by herself and not by her relationship to the male protagonist. It was Max who was defined by his relationship to Imperator Furiosa. When Max handed her the gun, the unspoken acknowledgement that she was the better shot, I nearly cried. I hadn’t even realised until that moment how often I had removed part of myself to enjoy action movies almost my whole life (apart from that one time I stayed up late and watched Alien on television in the 80s, despite being warned it would give me nightmares, and then I dreamed about being Ripley for months).
Women and people of colour have been watching the stories of white men for decades, and as we’re starting to find out what it’s like to see a different type of protagonist in the big Hollywood movies, (hint: it’s AWESOME), white men are finally finding out what it’s like to not have someone that looks like them be the hero. And some of them (#notall y’all – let’s make that clear) are having a really hard time with that.
I do have a sort of empathy for these confused men however. I mean, is it any wonder that we’re seeing several generations of men and boys who are uninterested in the stories of women? They’ve been told again and again in myriad subtle – and not so subtle – ways that the stories of women are not for them ever since they were very young.
I’ve heard countless tales from friends who have children under five who are already learning this lesson – that female characters and women’s stories are for girls and male characters and men’s stories are for everyone. Children who don’t yet even know what “gender” means, to whom “boy” and “girl” are things you can be in the same way you can be a dog when you grow up (my brother insisted he was going to be a dog when he grew up until he was about 6). At that age, their only concept of “boy” and “girl” is gleaned from their parents, from cartoons, from the messages that surround them telling them what those things mean. And holy shit, what insidious messages they are.
Friends of mine with young boys who are obsessed with “Peppa Pig” must go shopping in a sea of pink, purple and white (in an aisle that might not physically be labelled as “girls” but may as well be…) because over in the other aisle (which isn’t necessarily labelled “boys”…) where the clothes are all green, blue and red, all the Peppa branded
clothes only have “George” on. Of course, very young children won’t mind wearing something from the “girls” section if their parent doesn’t mind it; but so many parents are still just as caught in the binary trap as the clothing and toy manufacturers all seem to be. Even at that young age boys are learning that pink is not “for them”, enforced by peers at school, by the toys on the shelves and by less enlightened parents. The clothing manufacturers have decided that boys just won’t want Peppa on their clothing, and thus the boys learn that Peppa is for girls because she is a girl.
My friend has two awesome daughters, both pre-school age, who love In The Night Garden. Personally I think it looks like a bunch of people took shit loads of acid in an abandoned theme park while reading Chaucer; but what do I know, I don’t have kids. Anyway, she bought them some adorable “In The Night Garden” Pyjamas – they were bright green, red and blue, cotton, comfy and practical. Her girls loved them. One morning, the eldest was looking down at her top and said “Mummy. Where’s Upsy Daisy?” (For the non-initiated into this acid trip, Upsy Daisy is the only female character in the show.) My friend looked, and couldn’t find her. She then remembered she’d bought the pyjamas in the boys section – because all of the pyjamas in the girls section had been one colour (guess which) and fitted tight around the waist (another subject worthy of a blog all of its own. WTF is it with making fitted clothes for prepubescent girls? They LITERALLY DON’T HAVE WAISTS OR BREASTS THAT’S JUST FUCKING WEIRD). This meant that the manufacturers had decided that Upsy Daisy wasn’t necessary. She was surplus to requirements. She wasn’t needed on the boys’ pyjamas, because she’s a girl and boys aren’t meant to be interested in girls.
When The Force Awakens turned out to actually be really good, manufacturers were completely blindsided by the popularity of Rey. They marketed toys for arguably one of the biggest film event of the last 15 years, based on the assumption – no – the deeply held conviction that “No boy wants to be given a product with a female character on it.” They will claim that the market dictates their decisions – even as the market shouts WHERE’S REY? WHERE’S GAMORA? WHERE’S WIDOW? WHERE’S UPSY DAISY?
Are boys really born with an internal breaker switch that goes off whenever a girl character comes on screen or on the page, shutting down all input? Do they burst into flames when they pick up a product with a female character on it? Of course not, that’s a completely ridiculous notion. Equally ridiculous is the idea that boys can’t be interested in the narrative of a female character. They LOVE Dora the Explorer. They LOVE Peppa. And holy shit do they love Elsa.
Boys aren’t naturally uninterested in stories about girls, or girls being heroes. They learn. Every time they walk into a shop with their parents and see a shirt without Upsy Daisy, it’s a tiny little lesson that girls don’t matter. And these “tiny little lessons” are everywhere, amounting to one great education that stretches into adulthood that is internalised by both little boys becoming men and little girls becoming women that men are not meant to be interested in the narratives of women. That women are ditsy background characters while it’s men that do all the actual business of having a story – even if the main character is actually female.
If “no boy wants to be given a product with a female character on it” it’s because we’ve told them they aren’t interested. We’ve told them over and over and over again, on their clothes and in the toys and Easter eggs that they’re not meant to be interested in girls. No wonder so many men are finding it hard to love Rey, or Black Widow, or a team of female Ghostbusters. They have spent their entire lives being told they’re not meant to.