Return of the Feminist Role Model

The last time we saw Leia was with Luke Skywalker after Lando and Chewbacca went off in search of Han Solo. This could be interpreted as leaving the damsel to avoid the distress, or Leia could have stayed to make sure Luke was okay. Regardless, Leia was left instead of going to try and rescue the love of her life. But still, Leia returns as our feminist role model.

Return of the Jedi begins in a different way… We see a lot of Jabba’s palace, including the women he has dancing for him and tied up in chains. One of the main problems I have with Star Wars from a feminist perspective is how few women are properly featured within the films. Yes, we have a Leia and they are some women dotted around as extras here and there. However, Jabba’s women are shoved into the spotlight during the scenes at his palace and are essentially objectified. The only purpose they serve is for the male gaze – or Jabba’s gaze in this case – which is hardly encouraging for any women of any age watching this film.

After this disappointing beginning we see that an unidentified bounty hunter has brought in Chewbacca – however it is revealed that night that it is in fact Leia who has come to rescue Han Solo. She frees Han and soothes him when he panics after becoming conscious – explaining to him “I gotta get you out of here”. This is a nice role reversal for women in film. Rather than use the damsel in distress trope, it is Leia who conducts the rescue mission rather than any of the men in the film – and her actions are not questioned. However, this is short-lived when Jabba catches them, imprisons Leia and sentences Han and Luke to death.

The next time we see Leia we can see she is also a subject of the male gaze and objectification, forced to lie by Jabba in a revealing outfit. As the execution is taking place, Leia is seen to be loosening her chains despite Jabba keeping a tight grasp around her. He tells her, “Soon you will learn to appreciate me”. Leia seems to be completely trapped and when you watch this for the first time, you may fear the damsel in distress trope has returned. Of course, Leia never fails to disappoint and as soon as Luke, Han and Chewie are escaping from their fate Leia turns the power off and strangles Jabba to death with the chains he bound her in. Leia then frees herself from her chains using R2D2 and is rescued by Luke to get on board their escape ship. I think Leia killing Jabba is an important moment. Using the chains her freedom was bound by, Leia created a situation to free herself with those same chains. This is an important message for women and girls: don’t let something chain your freedom, and if it does – use what binds you to free yourself.

Once they are all safe Han thanks Luke for coming back for him, despite it being Leia that truly rescued him. However the audience are reminded of Leia’s integral importance through Yoda and Obi Wan Kenobi. It is here that Leia’s force sensitivity is suggested properly for the first time, that there is another Skywalker. Although this is the last real emphasis that is placed on Leia being force sensitive. It is a shame as it would have been progressive to have a female Jedi featured in the original trilogy. However, Leia’s skills also lie in diplomacy, which is an important role for a woman to have in this seemingly male dominated universe.

When there is a plan to infiltrate the new battle station on Endor, Leia is one of the first to volunteer to help Han, a role that she completely dedicates herself to. Not only do we see her return to action in Stormtrooper chases, but also we see her befriend and help the Ewoks, which provides them with an ally to defeat the Stormtroopers on Endor. This rapport between Leia and the Ewoks is also emphasised when a Stormtrooper captures her. Leia defeats the Stormtrooper thanks to the help of Wicket the Ewok. It is made clear she is very important to the Ewoks when Wicket takes her to meet the rest of the group.

Leia’s importance is also recognised by Luke Skywalker when he informs her they are siblings: “If I don’t make it back you’re the only hope for the alliance”. Although this is slightly big headed of Luke, I can see the sentiment is there. Obviously it is Luke that will ultimately need to bring balance to the force, but Leia’s contributions are invaluable to the cause and should not be held as ‘second place’. He follows on to say that Leia has always been strong, so it is clear that Luke only has kind and honourable intentions. However, Han also notices this moment and seems to interpret it in a different way – thinking that Luke and Leia are in love. Once again this reminds the audience of the love triangle that has been created between the three heroes. If you have read my previous posts you will know how I feel about this unnecessary love triangle. However, this is followed by a moment between Leia and Han where she asks him to hold her after he apologises for his behaviour. There is often a dichotomy between men and women in society, with the former being described as logical and the latter as emotional. I think this scene is an important move away from this stereotypical dichotomy. We can see both Han and Leia can portray both these traits – a progressive step for breaking traditional gender roles.

When the Battle of Endor commences, Leia covers for Han using a blaster whilst he tries to hotwire the bunker, however she is shot and they are caught. Leia uses her good arm to shoot both Stormtroopers so they can escape and gain control of the bunker. This is a pivotal moment in the film as it allows them to disarm the deflector shields in order to enable the rebels to attack the Death Star.

Meanwhile, Luke has been battling with his father Vader, who has eventually seen the light side and sacrifices himself for his son. In Vader’s death scene, Leia is barely mentioned and it seems to be a truly father and son moment. Although in a sense I can appreciate this, Vader has met Leia but not when he was aware of her parentage. Luke is the only child he has ever known, however on the other hand excluding Leia from this moment is unfair on her character. This moment is again emphasised at the end of the film when Vader returns in the form of Anakin’s spirit with Obi-Wan and Yoda – it is only Luke that can see them. This firmly plants the message that despite everything, Leia does not receive the hero’s ending. Unfortunately, the ending that Leia receives is the knowledge that she assisted in defeating the Empire and her reward, which seems to be the love of Han Solo.

These achievements should not be belittled. Leia played a key part in the defeat of the Empire, however I feel her role has not been emphasised enough. The final time we see Leia she is with Han Solo, rather than being able to see her father and the man she asked for help for in the first place, Obi-Wan. Leia is a strong female character and a role model for all, however the ending of the Return of the Jedi did not necessarily do her the justice she deserved.

 

Thank you for reading this blog post! If there are any questions, feedback, or requests for future posts, please feel free to email me or post in the comment box below! Please note that any comments made on my blog posts may be used in my research, if you are not comfortable with this you may retract your post at any time by emailing me, or you can maintain your anonymity by posting as a guest.

Disneypol

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Why #YesAllWomen Is Totally Okay

Today, to celebrate my first ever blog post, I want to talk about something that has been going crazy on the internet.

Yes ladies and gentlemen, it’s #YesAllWomen.

This started over the last month or so, with women from all over the world explaining how, in one way or another, sexism affected their everyday lives. You can take a look at them here: https://twitter.com/hashtag/YesAllWomen?src=hash

I also tweeted my experiences of sexism, and created my own hashtag: #RelyingOnPatriarchyToGetOutOfPatriarchy after I realised that when trying to reject male advances, an example of a woman’s ‘go to’ response, whether single or not, is “Sorry, I have a boyfriend”. There are at least two things wrong with this response. Firstly, why are we apologising for saying no? You wouldn’t apologise for saying no to a packet of crisps would you? Secondly, why are we relying on a made up male, (or our own boyfriend for that matter) to reject another man’s advances? Why should we have to have an excuse to just say ‘no’?

Then this really got me thinking, how often do women end up using patriarchy as a way of getting out of patriarchy because of social construct? From previous personal experience? A hell of a lot. This is not only something that is probably experienced by most women, but it is also produced within the media. This leads me to thinking about how, as a child, I could see female characters being portrayed in Disney films as relying on patriarchy to get out of patriarchy. Am I saying Disney could be the sole reason why this happens? Of course not! Disney have produced many inspiring female protagonists, especially in their later years of production. Nonetheless, I can see that within some of the second generation princesses, i.e. Ariel (The Little Mermaid) and Jasmine (Aladdin), these characters are portrayed as being reliant on men, to escape from the patriarchy in their lives.

 

The Little Mermaid (1989)

In my opinion, Ariel is one of the least feminist Disney Princesses’, aside from the first generation princesses, i.e. Snow White (Snow White and the Seven Dwarves), Cinderella (Cinderella), and Aurora (Sleeping Beauty). At first you can see Ariel’s clear defiance of practically everyone in the ocean, she dreams of being a human, and undoubtedly makes it happen for herself, defies the evil sea witch Ursula and lives happily ever after with her man. What’s not to love? When I first began planning my dissertation, I was under the impression that Ariel was fairly feisty because of her rebellious nature. However when one looks deeper into her role within the film, we can see something completely different.

Although King Triton loves his daughter, we can see that his constant protection over Ariel makes her feel pretty suffocated. Unlike her sisters, Ariel has a quirky and curious nature, preferring to spend her time exploring ship wrecks as opposed to singing in a concert (that’s dedicated to her) in front of her father. The constant overpowering, controlling and almost patriarchal ways of Triton, cause Ariel to attempt to rebel more, especially when she sees the man she claims she has fallen in love with after only twenty seconds and risks the exposure of her species and her life by saving him from a storm. That kids, is love at first sight. So, after Ariel has decided she now definitely wants to be a human because of her ‘love’ for Eric, and Triton finds the statue she salvaged from the ship wreck, Triton goes bananas. To escape the controlling ways of her father, she is led to the evil sea witch Ursula who offers her a solution. To become a human permanently, Ariel must give up her voice as payment, and be kissed by her ‘true love’ Eric by the end of three days. Basically, in order for Ariel to escape the patriarchy of her father, she has to give up one of the only thing that defines her – her voice – with the hope, that another man will save her. Worst of all, even though we give feminist points to Ariel for querying how she will communicate with him, and worrying she would never see her father or family again, Ursula makes a simple reply of, “You’ll have your man”, and:

“You’ll have your looks, your pretty face.
And don’t underestimate the importance of body language, ha!

The men up there don’t like a lot of blabber
They think a girl who gossips is a bore!”

Now I know this is a song, but lets think about this: what kind of message does this send to children? The first thing that is socially constructed for gender roles is ‘don’t worry about the fact you are abandoning your family for your ‘love’ you will have him and as long as you have a man, everything is fine. Secondly, a woman should not be concerned about having a voice in society, because her real purpose is her looks and how she presents herself. A woman must communicate with others through her looks, because thirdly, men do not want a woman that talks too much. In five lines Ursula has presented to young children something that all feminists fear, a stereotypical gender for women that ultimately forces women back into the private sphere instead of the public sphere.

 

Aladdin (1992)

Princess Jasmine, although feisty, does unfortunately reduce herself to using patriarchy to escape patriarchy. At fifteen years old, she is being forced to marry another man by her father. Although she rejects this idea, claiming that she is not a “prize to be won”, and that she wishes to marry for true love, she does end up betrothed to Aladdin at the end of the film, using Aladdin as a tool to escape the patriarchy of her father and Jafar. Jasmine’s father does mean well, he does not force her to marry a specific man, he just keeps inviting suitors to stay and discusses the political implications of the marriage. You would think the first time a woman said ‘no’, it probably meant ‘no’, however, what does a woman know about her own life decisions right?

Before we even arrive at the idea of Jasmine using patriarchy to get out of patriarchy, it is vital to address the evil Jafar’s role in the film. As Jasmine’s father’s chief advisor, he is an aspiring Sultan himself. Once he realises that by marrying Jasmine, his powers will escalate, he does everything in his power to achieve his goal. Throughout the film he refers to Jasmine as a “shrew”, and often belittles her:

“You’re speechless I see, a fine quality in a wife.”

Only as one grows older do we see the sexism portrayed by certain characters in Disney films, and Jafar is certainly one of them. Even the male protagonist, Aladdin objectifies Jasmine, claiming he will “win” her to be his wife. Although he does see the errors of his ways and wins Jasmine back around with the wonderful magic carpet ride, once can’t help but think whether Aladdin would still see Jasmine as his “prize” for all his hard work, the man who she is supposedly in love with, and he her.

Worser still, before Jasmine can be reunited with Aladdin-in-disguise-Prince-Ali, in order to escape from the evil Jafar, she has to use her sexuality to attempt to save herself by kissing Jafar. This reduction presents women as having a specific set of tools, which are namely their looks and their body language, as the good sea witch Ursula previously pointed out. However, when Jasmine’s plan fails, Aladdin ultimately swoops in and saves the day, and Jasmine – the damsel in distress. After this ordeal ends, Jasmine’s father blesses the marriage between Jasmine and Aladdin, suggesting that although Jasmine has got what she wants – a marriage for love – she has still had to use another man to escape patriarchy.

“But this is a children’s film!” I hear you cry. EXACTLY. If children watch this what kind of thoughts are they going to develop of their own role within society, both girls and boys? For girls, they have to look nice and presentable in order to fall in love with a man they have just met and live happily ever after. For boys, they save the woman and therefore the day, and are the hero of a story that is not even about them, especially in Prince Eric’s case. Of course a six year old is not going to be thinking any of this whilst watching the film, but subconsciously they will adapt their position in society to be more like one of their favourite Disney Princesses. Of course I still love both of these films, however I do think that in order for Disney to maintain their positive impact on children’s lives, they must think about the gender roles they portray within their films. Given, more recent films such as Frozen and Maleficent do provide a more stable and powerful female protagonist, however Disney still have a long way to come before they themselves can demolish the gender gap.

Thank you for reading this blog post! If there are any questions, feedback, or requests for future posts, please feel free to email me or post in the comment box below! Please note that any comments made on my blog posts may be used in my research, if you are not comfortable with this you may retract your post at any time by emailing me, or you can maintain your anonymity by posting as a guest.

Disneypol