Musings at another year’s end

What can one really say about 2016, the year with such a high celebrity body count that some have even suggested (jokingly) that TIME Magazine should name the Grim Reaper its Person of the Year? I won’t dwell on too many of the passings, but two that have occurred in the very last days of the year have struck home to me, as both have done work especially dear to my heart.

Author Richard Adams, the man responsible for Watership Down — my gateway novel into fantasy, which I fell in love with at the age of eleven — passed away peacefully on Christmas Eve at the age of 96. The sequel comprised of short stories, Tales of Watership Down, did not stir my soul to nearly the same degree (though I’ll admit to a measure of sentimental delight at revisiting Hazel, Fiver, Bigwig, Hyzenthlay, and their world), and I’ve never read any of Adams’ other works. But for this one book I will always honor him. May Lord Frith hold him close.

Yet precious little attention could be spared for Adams’ passing amidst the flood of coverage of another death, that of Carrie Fisher, whose iconic portrayal of Leia Organa in the original Star Wars trilogy holds a substantial place in the hearts and minds of countless sci-fi cinema fans, mine included. My husband and I rewatched this trilogy last year in preparation for the release of The Force Awakens, and it had been years since I’d seen it. What I noticed on my revisit was how much Leia is a part of the action throughout the trilogy, at a time when most science-fantasy sagas would have kept her a beautiful, ethereal, passive figure in the background. Her character arc doesn’t get nearly as much development as Han’s or Luke’s, and that is indeed regrettable, but she’s always doing something. Even when she’s in captivity, she’s making plans. She may need rescuing in the first film (though she immediately takes charge thereafter), but in the third film she famously and awesomely rescues herself. Even though she’s injured at the climax of Return of the Jedi, she doesn’t retreat to the sidelines; she remains in the thick of the action, blasting away with her ray gun and hitting what she aims at. At a time when damsels were prevalent, Fisher gave us a heroine. Rey and heroines like her probably wouldn’t exist if Leia hadn’t come first. Of course we are devastated to hear of her death, especially when we heard of her “stable condition” after her heart attack and took hope that she might actually pull through.

Why has Fisher’s passing received so much more attention than Adams’s? Some might snark that in the world of pop culture, an actress always trumps an author, but I won’t take that cynical view. The difference is that Adams, at 96, got to live out a full life. His death is sad, but not tragic. But Fisher, like David Bowie, Prince, and Alan Rickman, still had years of work left in her. As a person, I mourn the loss of a funny, vibrant woman, a talented author as well as an actress. As a fan, I regret what I will never get to see of General Leia Organa, a figure I so badly wanted to get to know better after I saw The Force Awakens.

At the end of the day, it’s not a competition. Both Adams and Fisher gave me stories and characters that meant a lot to me. I’m happier for what they have left behind.

Now, on to lighter matters: my Star Wars wish list.

“It’s better than The Force Awakens!” came the cry when Rogue One: A Star Wars Story hit theaters. After a little more reading, however, I soon noticed that the cry was coming largely from fans who were less than thrilled with The Force Awakens or even out-and-out hated it. Since I loved TFA, this kept my expectations in check. My ultimate reaction to Rogue One: liked, but didn’t love. The movie has plenty of space-flights and battles to please the fans, along with intriguing locales and an eclectic set of characters, with Alan Tudyk’s re-programmed Imperial droid standing out, along with Forrest Whittaker’s dubious freedom fighter and Donnie Yen’s fearless blind martial artist.

Here’s where I ran into problems. I loved every minute of Yen’s screen time; the man has presence to burn. But what was his character’s name? I had to go to IMdB to look it up. The movie assembles a large cast of characters and lets us get to know them just enough to wish we could know them better. So many characters, so little time for development. I’d kill to see the eight-hour television miniseries this should have been.

Then there’s the more obvious problem, if you’re me: the Smurfette Principle is strong with this one. The Force Awakens had Rey as a primary character, Maz and Leia as secondary characters, and lots and lots of women and girls among the tertiary figures, both Rebels and First Order. Rogue One rolls back this progress, with Mon Mothma showing up only briefly and very few women visible among the throngs on either side of the battle. This wouldn’t matter as much to me if Felicity Jones’ Jyn Erso had the same flash of personality as Rey or even original-trilogy Leia. As it was, while I appreciated her heroic actions, I never really got a fix on who she was, and so I could never quite take her to my heart as I did Rey and Leia. If only she’d been a tenth as quirky and charismatic as Donnie Yen — but that’s one of the biggest issues with stories that follow the Smurfette Principle. The female, the token, is very rarely allowed to be funny or to make mistakes. The male characters are nearly always more vivid, more memorable.

My reservations notwithstanding, I take much pleasure in knowing we’ll see a new film in the Star Wars universe every year for the foreseeable future, as long as they stay good to great. (I can’t wait to catch up with Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron next year.) But I have a couple of things I’d dearly love to see in future movies.

  1. A heroine who diverges from the established appearance template. The casting of Emilia Clarke, best known for her work on HBO’s Game of Thrones, as the female lead in the forthcoming Han Solo movie confirms the suspicion that the creative powers behind Star Wars have a fixed idea of what a heroine from their universe should look like: she should be white, she should be brunette, and she should be petite. I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if I weren’t fond of Rey partly because she’s the only central heroine in the franchise who departs even a little from that description, being on the tall side of average and fit-looking and muscular rather than twig-thin. But what I’d really like to see in some future Star Wars movie is a heroic black woman with a Serena Williams-like physique. Someone a bit like Firefly‘s Gina Torres — or maybe even Torres herself, since it would also be cool to see a central Star Wars heroine who isn’t twentysomething.
  2. A female-buddy pair. The original trilogy gives us Luke and Han. The prequels (which we can’t forget about, as much as we might wish to) give us Anakin and Obi-Wan and, at least in the first film, Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon. The Force Awakens gives us Finn and Poe. In Rogue One we also see strong bonds of friendship between the male characters. Yet the women have no one to befriend but menfolk. However awesome they may be in and of themselves, their teachers and their comrades are always men. Need this be? The all too brief time Rey and Maz Katana spend together in The Force Awakens suggests not, if the creative powers would devote a bit of thought to it. Please, powers, give the next female protagonist a female bestie. Let us see not only more women, but more of those women playing vital roles in each other’s lives.

Welcome, 2017. May the Force be with us all.

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