Buzzwords, Double Standards and ‘Gender Blindness’
A podcast was brought to my attention via Ohtze on the website talkingstarwars.co.uk in which Reylo and Ohtze’s famed ‘Death and The Maiden’ was discussed. To be fair, these men seem nice and reasonable but I definitely take issue with their views on Reylo. Now, everyone is allowed to ship or not ship whoever they want without being condemned, demonized or otherwise alienated for it. There are many understandable reasons for not wanting or caring about Reylo, just as there are in favor, the most obvious and unarguable of which is that it simply doesn’t speak to you personally. You can’t fault someone for that. However, the reasoning behind ideas, preferences and opinions - the whats, the how, the whys - can and should be critiqued.
One thing in particular that stuck out to me in the podcast trio’s denial of the possibility of Reylo, was that they said that such a romance, utilizing the gender dynamics discussed by Ohtze, would be too “Twilight”, in that it was a diminishing and feminizing of Rey’s character in relation to the dark domineering masculinity of Kylo Ren, and that it was ‘rapey’. They brought up that considering what an icon Rey is as a hero, to have her character go down that route wouldn’t be tolerable for the public. It was also mentioned that Rey isn’t a feminized character, she is a character who happens to be female, and basically they were of the thought that Reylo would undercut this seemingly progressive characterization. This last bit in particular was very distressing to me as it brings to light again the double standards female characters have to contend with. On the one hand there is plenty of legitimate reasons why we discuss and worry over female characters in a way we do not their male counterparts. (In this instance we are talking solely of ciswomen - trans/genderqueer females are a whole other story that deserve their own thousand pages…) Our society is still in the process of learning how to write nuanced female characters without relying on traditional tropes, sexist stereotypes or regressively gendered narratives. It is a hard thing to achieve when you are writing with literally thousands of years of inequality behind your back and it does require scrutiny and criticism. Our fear that a female character will be disempowered, undermined or compartmentalized is not unwarranted.
But this kind of mindset and treatment does bring it’s own set of potentially sexist baggage. I’ve always been fairly disturbed by how we talk about woman characters as “a character who happens to be female,” as if the femaleness of a character is incidental. When we talk of a character that isn’t “feminized” we are talking about neutralizing femininity and positioning this as a positive and enlightened step. There is no flip side to this: male characters have no such preface. Manliness and masculinity is never brought up as a worry. We never try to separate their gender from their character. The maleness of a character is built into it with little fanfare as a generic template that doesn’t alienate its audience, whereas femininity is posited as a glaring anathema to the hero formula. For a female heroine, her gender, far from being of innate importance to the character as a natural part of her identity, is erased; it is something we are required to ignore. What happens with female characters, particularly those who are put in the role of hero/protagonist, is that we are asked to put on the goggles of ‘gender blindess’. The gender of a character elicits shallow acknowledgement in the form of that ever tiresome buzzword “strong female character” but outside of this female gender is something that must be disregarded in fear that it is costly to the character. The line of “the character didn’t have to be a girl” means that a movie/show has successfully rendered her gender moot - we have overcome the obstacle of her being female and therefore too particular for audiences to relate to. What this results in is a careful spaying down of anything that might evoke complaints of being too “girly” and therefore either sexist or alienating to a wide audience. The character must not draw attention to the fact that she is a girl.
The net effects of this are startling in that they entrap female characters in a catch-22 and create new double standards. Yes, an effort must be consciously made on the part of creators to avert or subvert the classic sexist tropes that plague fiction and find better, more three-dimensional ways to depict characters that transgresses traditional models of thinking. But this also might led to overcorrection that is ultimately limiting. By trying to avoid feminizing a female character we stigmatize the concept of femininity in general, associate it with negatives. Neutralizing markers of gender completely and indiscriminately denies that the femaleness of a female character’s identity as part of their lived experience. And that simply isn’t true to life. In Rey’s case, we have so many of the fandom who are against or prefer Rey not to have a romance for the stated reason that this would be a progressive move, prove that a woman doesn’t need a man in her journey and validate her status as a badass. The sentiment gets double downed when Reylo is mentioned; since Kylo Ren carries traits of a dark, brooding Alpha Male and Rey of the innocent maiden people argue that it’s regressive and too “Twilight”. Romance could potentially feminize Rey or at least emphasis the more feminine aspects of her being and that’s not good apparently.
Well, I reject this notion that including a romantic narrative in Rey’s story (or any heroine’s story), especially with Kylo, undermines Rey character and put forth that this is a dangerous opinion to hold. Romantic relationships are a huge part of people’s lives, including women’s, the idea that romance is contrary to progressive female characters is in my mind its own brand of subversive sexism, as is disregarding her gender and labeling it unimportant. By creating new hard and fast rules on what specifically must govern a “strong female character” we are limiting the scope of exploration of females in fiction and denying them the right to a full and diverse range of life experiences. It is a parring down of complexity, a potential threat to creative freedom and a roundabout affirmation that femininity is indeed bad. It gives no consideration to execution and skill, which surely individuals like Rian Johnson, have in storytelling, and instead leads to broad assumptions about what narrative templates are “appropriate” for female characters and what are not, something male characters don’t attract, without regard for nuance and context.
I know this may seem like weird examples but take for instance, Sailor Moon or Mad Max Fury Road. The former takes traditional aesthetic and behavioral femininity - pretty clothes, jewelry, bright colors, a cute romance, girl squad dynamics etc. - and far from treating them with disdain or simply erasing them reimagines these qualities as empowering rather than weak, expansive rather than limiting, and important rather than frivolous. The main characters all live, struggle, develop and eventually work in concert with their own femininity by weaponzing it and not defining itself by society’s standards. The heroine gets to kick ass while wearing a skirt and smooching handsome, dapper men. Here, the feminine principal is both turned on its head and shown not be antithetical to the hero formula. Here, the character’s genders are accepted as an innate element of who they are that informs their character.
In Mad Max you have Imperator Furiosa and The Five Wives as interesting contrasts. The Five Wives are easily the most feminized characters in a movie full of manly men and masculinity and violence. In a lesser director’s hands they might have been reduced to McGuffins and eye candy. Yet the presentation of their femininity serves a poignant purpose: the conflict is not the wives helplessness in their overt femininity but in the fact that a brutal patriarchal autocratic society wants to keep them in a box because of it. The Wives are targeted specifically because of their fertility and beauty. The satisfaction is that The Wives, who are as much individuals as they are a unit, are not made to neutralize their femininity or not draw attention to their gender but are shown rebelling against the society that traps them for those very reasons. They escape with the help of a female road warrior to discover a place that will neither erase nor solely define them by their gender. The point is most audaciously exhibited when Splendid, the most heavily pregnant of the wives and thus the one we expect to be most vulnerable, flaunts her body as a shield to protect Furiosa and simultaneously demonstrating an act of defiance in the face of her rapist. They subvert our expectations of them by putting their gender front and center yet never being reduced or compartmentalized because of it. It’s not ignored nor is it treated as a lazy gimmick. Furiosa adds diversity to feminine representation as a woman who’s taken measures to masculinize herself. She is the one token female allowed to rise in a world hostile to women. Furiosa’s gender is not incidental.
In both of these cases gender is never the sum of the female characters but it is not erased either.
Star Wars is obviously a different animal then my two above examples, and the issue of female representation in media and how we perceive it is a complex issue that requires ongoing discussion, insight and education. And though I’ve spent this entire essay seemingly ranting against gender neutrality, I am actually not against it and think it does have its place in formation of female characters. Neutrality can be a perfectly legitimate strategy to help expand and revolutionize female characters, fictional characters in general and buck conservative ideas attached to gender. But it’s being applied unequally and enfolded back into traditional ways of thinking by positioning men as generic and women as special, and so long as people are saying Rey can’t have a romance with Kylo or a romance at all because it could feminize her and that’s bad but Finn can have a romance with KMT and it’s fine, so long as it is asking us to employ ‘gender blindness’ with female characters only, and treating what is seen as feminine with hostile circumspect, neutrality is not serving the progressive purpose that it aspires to: it is only one type of practice that can get us so far until we are forced to contend with the actual social values at work. What is clear is that we need some sort of discussion about what we believe constitutes femininity, masculinity, anything and everything between or outside of it and how this is portrayed in fiction (notice that I haven’t specified what I think femininity is exactly - that’s intentional) in order to arrive at some sort of holistic conclusions on this subject. This may seem overly complicated and led to contradictory viewpoints but that is the price you must accept when dealing with something like sexism. It’s not suppose to be easy, and if it’s seems easy like neutrality does, then I wouldn’t trust it.
TL;DR. In the end, Rey is not a “character who happens to be female”. She is our heroine, and that shouldn’t be made into a sidenote. What she needs to overcome is not her femininity, it’s the darkside. Yes, characters are human beings - or living beings, or droids - but gender is a dimension of the human experience and asking us to downplay or avoid one gender and gender expression is a form of stigmatization that has to go.