Monday, 28 December 2015

Rey is Not A Feminist Heroine, and Kick-Ass Females are Actually Male Fantasies

So there’s a new Star Wars movie out, in case you hadn’t noticed, and it has a female action heroine (Rey, played by Daisy Ridley) and a black male hero (Finn, played by John Boyega). I’m not going to discuss that, because Star Wars is now a Disney movie, and Disney movies have central characters like Rey and Finn. Rey is Disney’s take on the kick-ass heroine.

Kick-ass heroines have been a staple of Japanese manga since the Dawn of Manga (and Joss Whedon is a huge manga fan, which is where both Buffy and Dollhouse come from) and manga got it from earlier Japanese stories about warrior women. Furthermore, the idea of Warrior Women and Goddesses is as old as all sorts of northern European myths - which is where Wagner got his Valkyries from.

But feminist heroines? Are you kidding? First, all kick-ass females are always hot, as well as fit and healthy. So that’s really feminist. Second, they right wrongs with often extreme violence dispensed with nary a doubt. Bad guy? Kill. Move On. So that’s really a feminist thing to do as well. Third, they don’t dissemble, manipulate, or engage in “relationship management” (aka “lying”). Which is also pretty feminist. Nikita uses her considerable sexuality feminine power on men, but since Maggie Q is tall, slim and very hot, she doesn’t count as feminist.

Since kick-ass heroines are women, they don’t carry any freight of moral expectation. They can kill, maim, detonate and destroy at excessive will without anyone wondering about their moral character. The only male action hero who can wreck as much havoc as Maggi Q’s Nikita is James Bond, and he is always told off for being a near-psycopathic rogue at least once in every movie. Most ruthless male killers, such as Denzel Washington’s Equalizer, turn out to have been brutalised by their time in Special Forces, or something similar. The capacity of the female for psychopathic levels of violence at the drop of a hat is a cultural given. This is a boon for writers and directors who want maximum carnage with minimum time wasted on explanation and moral justification.

Why the growth in kick-ass heroines in western culture? It’s tempting to blame Joss Whedon and Sarah Michelle Gellar, who found a way to westernise the extreme Otherness of manga heroines. But the real blame lies with an earlier creation: the anti-hero. Anti-heroes do the right thing, eventually and reluctantly, for the wrong reasons and with the wrong attitude. They are competent and capable, but also cynical, lost, disillusioned and have questionable personal morals. Anti-heroism passed into the mainstream and made all male lead characters more complicated, requiring backstories and explanations. (Or exceptional luck with casting: why waste words when you can cast Harrison Ford as Han Solo and let his face do all the explaining?) It got to the point where it was impossible to have a simple male hero unless he was wearing a cape or a mask. And after the Dark Knight even the capes got complicated.

But with a kick-ass heroine, it’s easy. Women are known to be random complicated. Having swallowed the utter implausibility of her combat skills and strength, why strain at the gnat of psychology? Anyway, she’s a SHE, so there’s nothing to explain: mood swings, emotional upsets, changes of mind and motivation, all come for free with a female character. So there’s no need for characterisation or character development. Male characters change and develop (the one weakness of the Bond franchise is that Bond doesn’t change): female characters are created whole and perfect. (Quick: think of any female character with a development arc who isn’t played by Demi Moore or Sandra Bullock.) So if you want a simple hero, get a heroine.

The kick-ass heroine is a male fantasy figure: she can take care of herself, doesn’t exploit the impressionable young men around her, hauls her share of the load, takes responsibility for getting stuff done, and is generally a pretty decent sort of chap to have around, despite being hot. So just like thousands of teenage girls then. She’s not whiny, dependent, manipulative, exploiting, and above all, she shows up and doesn’t flake. She is the Girl All Men Want But No Girl Wants To Be. The fantasy isn’t about “hot”, as “hot” is the default for actresses, unless fat-or-ugly is a feature of the character, as in many comedies. The fantasy is about a woman who is capable, straightforward and dedicated to a higher goal than a new pair of shoes.

By contrast, feminism is obsessed with power, not capability. A feminist heroine wouldn’t be kicking ass at all: she would be giving the orders for men to die kicking ass. And then escaping on her personal transporter when the Rebel Alliance flew in to save the day. And therein lies the problem. Someone who does that is not a hero. The Big Three of World War Two - Patton, Montgomery and Rommel - are admired as commanders, but not as heroes. “Feminist heroine” is a contradiction in terms. Rey, Buffy, Nikita and the others are plain old heroines, and there’s nothing “feminist” about them.

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