I came across Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once in a local library early last December. The premise – that feminism has gone from being a political movement to being a brand identity – intrigued me. I found myself thinking about Bridget Christie’s observation of the rise of Tory “feminists”, including then-future UK Prime Minister Theresa May, in contrast to former UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, who has called feminism “poison”. Christie observes that, while these Tory MPs were calling themselves “feminists”, their actual actions had a disproportionately negative impact on women. By December 2016 I was well aware that antifeminist anger could also generate political capital, but it wasn’t the only place where political movements were being assumed with words that might not be backed up with actions. In the aftermath of the US Presidential election a few weeks before, the writers of the then-forthcoming Star Wars prequel Rogue One positioned themselves, and their film, in direct opposition to the President Elect. Having now read We Were Feminists Once and seen Rogue One, I wanted to reflect on the film and this claim in the light of that book. This blog post will contain spoilers.
“We know how many people flocked to the movies that have been heralded as game-changing feminist statements, but we don’t know whether those numbers will change deeply gendered systems that make game-changing feminist movies a necessity to begin with.”
Andi Zeisler, We Were Feminists Once, p. 255
Rogue One is probably my favourite Star Wars film released in my lifetime. Returning to the galactic civil war of the original trilogy it tells the story of how a group of rebels stole the plans to the original Death Star, leading directly into the beginning of the original Star Wars film, A New Hope. Hope is a key theme of the film: faced with the unprecedented threat of the Death Star, the still-nascent Rebellion wavers, buoyed only by the grit and determination of Jyn Erso. Erso, a young woman whose father helped build the Death Star but also included the design flaw that the Rebellion would exploit to destroy the superweapon, is joined by an ensemble cast composed primarily of men of colour. Together, they steal the Death Star plans and broadcast them to Princess Leia Organa of Alderaan, but along the way every member of the team is killed. Considered alongside the original Star Wars trilogy this film carries an urgent message previously only conveyed by a single line in Return of the Jedi, referring to the second Death Star, delivered with pathos by Rebel Alliance leader Mon Mothma: “Many Bothans died to bring us this information.” The victories of Luke Skywalker and friends come on the back of immense sacrifice by other members of the Rebellion.
In the current political climate this story and its message of hope carries considerable political weight. The reaction described here by E. A. Sophia is not too different to my own response: as the sacrifice of the Rogue One crew allowed hope for a better future in a galaxy far, far away, so too did it create hope on this planet, that even in the darkest of times our sacrifices might create a better future. The claim made by the writers of the film that it is anti-white supremacist might not seem too far from the original narrative of Star Wars, which has long based its totalitarian bad guys on the Nazis, but by placing women and men of colour at the centre of the Rebellion Rogue One destroyed the possibility that of reading that story as just the victory of frustrated young white men like Luke Skywalker against the totalitarian regime of the centralized state, political correctness, multiculturalism, or feminism (after all, the popularity of the term “feminazi” pretty clearly shows that right wing demagogues have also recognized that the Nazis can be used as a shorthand for “this thing that I think is bad”). This builds on a foundation set by The Force Awakens, which also centres a woman and men of colour and casts a violent, angry, entitled white man as its antagonist, but by going back to the beginning Rogue One injects these much-needed themes back into the original story. Rogue One is not perfect in this regards – compared to The Force Awakens, it is a very male universe in which (white) women run the Rebel Alliance but men fill the ranks. On the other hand, it is a far cry from Revenge of the Sith, where ignorance of how pregnancy works and a lack of women’s healthcare essentially destroyed the Galactic Republic.
Going beyond the text, though, renders Rogue One’s message a little more ambiguous. Towards the end of last year in Walmart, I was brought to a halt by the display of a pair of Rogue One licenced pyjama pants with a repeated pattern of the Death Star all over them. For those of you who can’t get to sleep without a reminder of the planet-destroying genocidal superweapon. I’ve since looked through Walmart’s Star Wars sleepwear shop online, and while I cannot find the precise pyjama pants that I remember, I did find a Death Star bathrobe, Dark Side pyjama bottoms but no Light Side pyjama bottoms, and various other sleepwear branded Imperial. With the occasional concession to BB-8, there is not as much advertising one’s allegiance to the Rebellion – or even the Rebels cartoon. The insignia of the Rebel Alliance, the Alliance Starbird, appears in the context of The Force Awakens, but less so as the symbol of the Rebellion in Rogue One merchandise. This is startling given that it is the Starbird itself that formed the basis for the Rogue One writer’s symbol of protest. It seems that, if you want to use the Alliance Starbird as a symbol of hope or protest, you have to do it yourself (as I have been trying to do).
Perhaps this imbalance isn’t such a bad thing, as it allows those of us with the time and resources to craft our own acts of rebellion against the regressive political climate while exploiting fans of the Empire through the capitalist system I assume they adore. There’s also the fact that Star Wars packaging has always favoured the characters that are simplest, usually those with masks (Darth Vader, Kylo Ren, Stormtroopers, Boba Fett), droids (especially BB-8), and aliens (Chewbacca, Yoda). And it would be disingenuous of me not to note that I use a Walmart Star Wars t-shirt with a Rebel Alliance X-Wing on it as pyjamas (and their t-shirts do include the Alliance Starbird). I’d feel better about that interpretation, though, if I hadn’t spent a good deal of Christmas dinner trying to persuade a ten-year-old that the Light Side was better than the Dark Side all that merchandise was trying to sell to him. And given the prominence of the Alliance Starbird in not only the protests of the writers, but in the marketing of Rogue One, it seems strange that the Empire should continue to dominate said merchandise.
The Feminist Frequency review of Rogue One commented on the fact that while the film allowed the Rebel Alliance moral ambiguity, the same conflict was not permitted for the Empire, which remains a monolithic, faceless (or at least masked) evil. It’s interesting, because by adding that moral ambiguity to a diverse Rebel Alliance it makes the Rebellion seem a lot more interesting than it has done before. And yet, it also furthers the problematic associations between the Rebellion and terrorism and the defensive articles about how we really all ought to support the Empire. Would humanizing the Empire make them less attractive? It’s a strange thought; personally I suspect that we’re already supporting too many empires at the expense of rebellions.
Given that the merchandise associated with Rogue One and the rest of the Star Wars canon makes it far easier to dress completely in Darth Vader clothing all year and at any time of day, I find the claim that the film is intrinsically anti-White supremacy difficult to believe. But I am conflicted. I read what E. A. Sophia wrote, what I thought watching it, and it feels so strong a message; I think about how a ten-year old supported the Dark Side and I wonder how it could have been missed. This is without even considering those who insist that a space fantasy film can’t carry a political message. Before seeing Rogue One I thought that Star Wars’s use of the Nazis as the basis for the Empire had never been subtle enough to resonate as a contemporary antifascist movement. Rogue One is more subtle and I appreciate that. But I think that fans can and are doing more to use the iconography of the Rebellion for their own rebellions (or to highlight the resemblance of guys like Kylo Ren to contemporary right wing groups). Rogue One pushes that interpretation harder than any previous Star Wars film, but it remains a product to be sold.
[Edit: I had to correct a link so I will also add that I wrote a Postscript to this post here, which essentially involves a comparison of Rogue One to Animal Farm.]