I was so eager to watch the trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story that I did so in a toilet cubicle at work (fairly sure some colleagues heard). After initial childlike glee, my reaction was immense gladness that we had another Star Wars film with a female protagonist. I swiftly perused the internet to see what others were saying . The ensuing conversations were easily anticipated – praise for a new female heroine in a male dominated franchise, immature distaste at the same thing, Tumblr debates about the term “Mary Sue”, elation at the presence of people of colour, frustration at not enough people of colour.
Overall though, Rogue One has received a thumbs up for diversity. It’s being grouped with The Hunger Games, Mad Max: Fury Road, and the upcoming all-girl Ghostbusters reboot as part of a current shift towards greater female representation on the silver screen.
Now, that makes me really happy.
But, as a man (a white, western, university educated, financially comfortable one at that), I find myself in the odd position of not really knowing how to express this happiness, for fear of how it will be received by women. And I keep second guessing myself as to what exactly it is that I’m happy about, or should be happy about.
Could my happiness be phrased like this: “us men have way more than our fair share of blockbuster protagonists so, women, I’m happy that you’re starting to get some too”? That’s probably what comes most naturally. But that feels like the equivalent of standing at a distance yelling “you go girl!” It kind of sounds like I’m sitting back and enjoying my fair share of compelling male protagonists, leaving “you girls” to play catch up. I guess it feels quite passive, maybe even condescending.
Another natural response: “that’s the kind of female character I’d want my future daughters to grow up watching”. Being a pretentious humanities graduate, I’m gutted I didn’t grow up watching Studio Ghibli movies, only discovering them at university. But they’re films I very much intend to show any daughters I have. Now, the presence of good female role models in cinema is obviously great – it was a profound privilege to watch The Force Awakens with my future wife, because I was just so pleased that there was now a Star Wars movie with a member of her sex in the central role. But I feel problems with this too. Is it a problem that I immediately start to think in terms of “wife”, “mother”, “daughter”, and not just for women per se?
This all seems rooted in the wider issue of how those who benefit from power structures speak about the concerns of those whom power disadvantages. As I’ve alluded to, basically every social structure in my context benefits me. I’ve never experienced what it’s like to find no films in which the main characters resemble me. How then, do I react to the troubling gulf between men and women here?
Some try using privilege to level the playing field – but this is fraught with problems. Quentin Tarantino has been criticised as a white Italian-American filmmaker for making films where Jews (Inglorious Basterds) and black slaves (Django Unchained) exact bloody revenge on their Nazi/white oppressors. Peter Jackson made an appallingly misjudged gesture by creating Evangeline Lilly’s character Tauriel to The Hobbit in an attempt to add balance to the Middle Earth sausagefest. Both have an air of condescension about them. Now, I’m not a film director, so maybe “using my privilege” would mean encouraging other men to watch more films centred around female characters – “hey guys, make room for the girls”. But, it can be argued, women then simply go from suffering under male privilege to “benefitting” – but the power dynamic remains.
I could go with Wittgenstein: “Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must remain silent”. An English degree studying Marxism, feminism and postcolonialism showed me there is no shortage of voices saying that, due to my privilege, I should not speak about the experiences of the unprivileged. And I get that. It was truly eye-opening for me to realise that I occupy a position of privilege which affects my experience of the world. Privilege blinds, so one should be wary of speaking in ignorance. But a blanket ban on the voices of the privileged has always felt deeply troubling to me. I want to understand how my privilege affects the way I see things, but my privilege isn’t a pair of glasses – it’s a pair of eyes. Ultimately, I can’t remove it.
Maybe it’s as simple as asking “do I even need to express my happiness here?” Who does it benefit? Especially if I’m not even the intended audience of some piece of media I want to praise. But enjoyment without praise is an oddity, perhaps even a contradiction. I think of C.S. Lewis: “we delight to praise what we enjoy because the praise not merely expresses but completes the enjoyment; it is its appointed consummation”.
Discussing this with my fiancee, she made this point: when I see Jyn Erso, Katniss Everdeen, female Ghostbusters, rather than leaping straight to “isn’t this good for the girls?” I should think “isn’t this good for us guys?” The advent of more prominent, well-rounded female protagonists on screen is only a good thing for men. A lifetime of watching passive damsels-in-distress, scantily clad eye-candy and hardcore porn has been a toxic education for my generation – which has no idea what a real woman is like. This trend isn’t just good “for them” (the women), but for me, for all of us. Us men, in our privilege, need to view the protagonists who are the most unlike us as profoundly “for us”. Neil Gaiman, a favourite writer, says “fiction gives us empathy: it puts us inside the minds of other people, gives us the gifts of seeing the world through their eyes. Fiction is a lie that tells us true things, over and over”. Perhaps here is where I can begin to express my happiness: joy that I have more opportunities to step into the shoes of those unlike me.
But I feel like there’s more than that. As you can see, I don’t have answers here – I’m not entirely sure of the question!
I worry about how I sound when I join in the conversation – or if I even need to be there at all. Clearly, the answer here isn’t simple. I imagine it’s some mix of the above, and other factors I haven’t included.
So, I really want to hear what different women have to say about this.
If you’re a woman reading this: can men speak constructively about this new wave of female protagonists? If so, how? If not, why not? Who decides all this, if anyone?
Please share your comments below, or on social media.