Imagine you’re watching a science fiction movie set in a distant, fantasy universe. Now imagine that story is populated almost entirely be women. There are three noteworthy male roles in the whole thing. One of those men dies to contribute to the protagonist’s tragic backstory. One of those men is a very minor character who imparts some plot point info. And the third, while starting out as a hostage and a potential love interest, at least manages to do some interesting stuff and stand out as more than just a token male. Throughout the film, no justification is given for this narrative choice. There’s no indication that men are in short supply in this universe, or that this is a story where a matriarchy has taken control of things. This story, set in a completely different universe than our own, simply has cast women in nearly ever part with no explanation why.
It’d seem weird, right?
The internet would be abuzz with theories. Media outlets would dissect the story for some sort of political message. No doubt, many would cry out about “Lesbian agendas”, and those people would even get some air time on a cable network to air their grievances. Male bashing would certainly be claimed. The neutering of our culture. The loss of traditional role models. And so on and so on and so on. If you’ve been paying attention at all, you know the drill by this point.
But take the exact same movie, cast it almost entirely with men, and it reads as neutral to most of society. We call it Star Wars, and we consider it (rightly so) a classic.
This is privilege, and that privilege isn’t merely the fact of assumed superiority. It’s the benefit of being treated neutrally. The nearly entirely male universe of the first Star Wars films was invisible at the time, and it often still is (aside from a joke now and then). It doesn’t draw attention unless you go out of your way to notice it, and even then, it’s easy for others to dismiss such observations. Simply put, the ability to be ignored, to be treated as an individual, not as a representative of a group, is a right not many people have.
We see this continually, but we’re so used to it that we also don’t see it.
When Donald Glover wanted to play Spider-Man, people said “No way! Spider-Man is white!” Yet there’s nothing innately white about Spider-Man. Peter Parker could easily be any ethnicity and, heck, a woman, and it wouldn’t call for major changes to the character.
Batman could be Asian.
Superman (and all Kryptonians) could appear like Pacific Islanders.
A little girl dresses like Darth Vader or Han Solo and everyone thinks it’s cute, but some boys like My Little Pony and society falls all over itself to make sense of the phenomenon.
Every character in the Star Wars universe could be gender flipped or race swapped, and it wouldn’t have one effect on the story. Not one.
Except for the audience, who would have trouble understanding it, who would assume there was some story reason for the change or because the storytellers had some secret agenda.
This isn’t just about agendas though. This is also about story simplicity, and one of the rules of basic storytelling is that details matter. I’ve written about this before, and how this philosophy creates inherently unrealistic expectations in our fiction. There’s no reason, aside from storytelling efficiency, that Professor X’s paralysis need to have anything to do with his adventuring life. But it’s more efficient and dramatic if he was paralyzed by Magneto. As much as I love the original Kung Fu Panda, the second (while still an excellent film) falters by taking Po’s adoption and making it a central plot point because if it wasn’t, why should he be adopted in the first place?
Anything that draws attention to itself is usually there for a reason, and it works fine for telling a story. Although there’s also the negative side of this media saturated, internet obsessive age when any little detail can be blown out of proportion and taken as some grand important clue to a character’s backstory. It can get out of hand. We seem to believe that everything should have character defining repercussions. If a character loves waffles, there better be some deep-seated characterization at work to justify it. Because people don’t just “love” waffles, right?
Gender and racial baggage are everywhere in my culture (and every culture probably), but that doesn’t mean we need play along with it. I wrote Helen and Troy’s Epic Road Quest knowing that for a lot of people, having protagonists who are 19 would mark it as young adult and that featuring a prominent female protagonist would make many think it was “for girls”. My new Constance Verity trilogy with Simon & Schuster will probably be dismissed by many as just another “kickass urban fantasy heroine” series. And I won’t lie to you. It is a bit of an effort to get in on that bandwagon. It’s also a deliberate choice because, as much as I love classic pulp heroes, they aren’t generally an ethnically or gender diverse bunch.
That’s the truth. EVERYTHING has some politics behind it. EVERYTHING is a statement in some way or another. It doesn’t have to be a big statement or a radical statement. The politics (accidental or otherwise) might be minor or unremarkable. But they are still there. Star Wars is not a statement movie, but it makes a statement. It needn’t necessarily be condemned for that statement, but we can still discuss it. In fact, we should discuss it. Otherwise, status quo is king and all the nonsense we take as assumed and invisible will just stay around forever.
So the next time someone tries to tell you about Frozen‘s man-hating, Lesbian agenda, feel free to point out that if the gender roles were reversed in the film, we probably wouldn’t even notice. (Seriously, how many evil queens have fairy tales foisted upon us?) Or if some idiot says James Bond can’t be black, point out that James Bond is a fictional character and that he has already been portrayed by actors of different nationalities, hair colors, and styles in the course of his long cinematic career. Is skin color really that radical a shift?
They will probably not agree with you because these thoughts are so ingrained in us that we don’t even notice them. But maybe they will. If not, hey, at least you tried.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m going to begin my interpretation of Lord of the Rings where the trolls are the good guys and the hobbits are the evil invaders. Because there’s absolutely no reason that story can’t be told.
Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,