Shawn Henfling explores the diversity in our favorite films. Is this what we want, or just what Hollywood thinks we want?
I recently read an article by Mike Lehr called “Star Wars, Women and The Good Guys”. In it, Mike calls attention to the homogenous nature of the Empire and the utter lack of female influence while the rebels include species beyond measure and a strong female leader. Mike parlays this dichotomy into the business world, discussing the benefits of women in the office, while the bigger picture offers a far more interesting comparison. What does it say about society in general when we see mass conformity as an evil enterprise, celebrate a break from the norm, and in a stunning display of hypocrisy, tend to reward the conformist? What does this mean for men in particular?
When first I read the article, my reaction was to think it was a silly comparison. After all, Star Wars is fantasy, a creation of the mind, a story of fiction. What could we possibly have to learn about society as a whole from a thirty year old trilogy? On the other hand, I’ve been a fan of the Sci-Fi genre since I was a child, and could, at one point, recite verbatim what scrolled up the screen during the introduction to all three movies. I even wrote a paper, the content long since forgotten, about the parallels between “The Matrix” and religion and secularism. I’m no stranger to stretching myself to find symbolism, and the more thought I put to it, the more I felt compelled to look more deeply at not just Star Wars, but Good and Evil in the movies as a whole.
For the sake of this article, my sanity, and my affection for George Lucas, I’m going to ignore the prequel trilogy. Jar Jar is still an unforgiveable mistake, and I’m just having trouble moving past it. “Yoosa follow me now, okeeday?” may in fact be the single most annoying line ever written for the big screen, and is akin that song from Chumbawumba that once heard, simply cannot be extricated from your head without drugs, alcohol, a stint at Guantanamo Bay, and several sessions with a waterboarding master. You are probably singing it to yourself right now. Don’t worry. You can thank me later.
Take a good, hard look at the Imperial Army and its officers and commanders. The storm troopers all sound and look alike. There are no women, at least none that stand out to me. I’d be willing to wager that there no women at all on the Death Star, not in the movies anyway. The colors are all the same, white and black, with some grey thrown in for the uniforms of the officers. They use standard, bunched formations when they march, their conformity standing in stark contrast to the rebels. The Rebel Alliance, on the other hand, is full of “scruffy looking Nerf Herders.” They are underequipped, have a single strong female character, and are a truly diverse conglomerate of species. If you haven’t seen the movies (shame on you), think British Regulars versus the American Revolutionaries.
How about “The Hobbit” or “The Lord of the Rings”? Recall the books and movies both. The armies of Sauron and Sarumon were predominantly Orcs and Trolls, ugly, loathsome creatures. How many female Orcs can you recall? How many female villains in any of the movies? Shelob perhaps, though she served no side, and had no other purpose than to exalt Sam to the level of a hero while calling attention to Frodo’s increasing vulnerability. Go further back, to the original “Hobbit”, where, to my best recollection, the only female “villain” was a member of the wood elves, who turned out to be a major asset to the Dwarves, and assisted in their escape. In both cases, the “good guys” were a very diverse group, typically with at least one strong female character, and typically portrayed as far more attractive than their evil adversaries.
In another example, we can look to the movie “Serenity”, with its rebels and the dreaded Alliance. Here, as in before, there is a rag tag bunch of people, fighting to stay alive against a much larger, better equipped force. Again, there are strong female characters playing important roles for the “good guys” while on the side of the “bad guys”, we generally see a bunch of men. But wait! There is a missing element here! What of the ugly characters, pertinent to the formula, helping to create sympathy for the underdogs? In this case, they are the Reavers, a cannibalistic race of men accidentally created by the Alliance when things went horribly wrong on Miranda (a planet) when a drug called “Pax” was released.
Great! So what does it all mean? Mike’s opinion is that Hollywood is a reflection of us, and that including women promotes diversity, something the general public sees as inherently “good.” Personally, I see the “good guys” as representative of a flawed ideal, a diverse group for sure, but still dominated by predominantly white men. Most of the time, these men promote the ideal of a strong lead, with any show of emotion other than anger considered weakness. Recall the moment when Han had an opportunity to express his feelings for Leia, and instead evaded the situation with sarcasm. The very same thing happens frequently in the Serenity/Firefly series, and many other movies outside of our target genre as well.
Hollywood truly is a reflection of society as a whole. We tend to pay to see ourselves in the movies, which serves to perpetuate the very stereotypes that we live everyday. Successful movies are usually considered groundbreaking for their scores, visual effects, or even the story. How often, however, is a movie considered truly successful that breaks free from the broad and vast generalizations of society? We shouldn’t be looking to Hollywood to make changes. The movie industry is comprised of businesses, all looking to make money. They continue to make products for mass consumption because we buy them. Instead, the questions should begin with us. Had the movies included heterogeneous armies on both sides, with multiple strong female characters and softer men in the roles, would we have made them into blockbusters or cult classics? Instead of calling out the evil corporate overlords who continue to churn out movies with recycled themes and plots, we should be looking to ourselves to understand why such a routine continues to be so massively profitable. When we begin to promote and buy films that celebrate a better representation of what society SHOULD be, only then can we point our fingers at those responsible.