A Star Wars Manifesto or A Belated Thank You to my 6th Grade Teacher

Cue music.

In 6th grade, Ms. Russell taught us how to read. I don’t mean the phonics, Dick and Jane kind of reading. I had made it to 12 years old with successful elementary school basics, though my penmanship stopped improving at age 10. I mean read in a way that treats the text as more than the lazy river of plot. Something that one floats through on an inner tube, a presence on the surface, drowsily suspended from falling in. Ms. Russell taught us to pay attention, that there was more going on than the story. There was the way it was being told, consequences to authorial choices, secondary implications in descriptions, subtle changes in perspective. She taught us to read literature, and she did it with the Star Wars books.

For those of you whose nerdom has never brought them in this direction of galactic fantasy, this might be your moment to say, “ah, yes, it seems the movies are based on books,” and while I do appreciate the attempt to invest the film trilogy with traditional literary merit, let’s be clear. The books are a novelization of the movies. Each came out with its corresponding film in 1977, 1980 and 1983, and though Mr. Lucas’s name graces each cover, they were in fact ghost-written (with varying degrees of ghostliness) by Alan Dean Foster, Donald F. Glut and James Kahn. (The first actually came out before the film, but the two were written concurrently). You might wonder why Ms. Russell chose these books instead of your typical Mary Shelley Frankenstein or Lois Lowry The Giver — novels which enjoyed the dignified timeline of book to screen, rather than vice versa. I’d wonder too, but my questions are quickly quelled by gratitude and geeky surrender.

I do not now remember every lesson, but I remember the first. We took turns reading aloud: “CHAPTER ONE: Bursts of laserfire streaked after the consular starship Tantive IV, which was racing for the planet Tatooine. The ship was fleeing from the Devastator, an immense Imperial Star Destroyer that was firing nearly all its turbolasers at the elusive ship. Both vessels had just entered Tatooine’s orbit when the Devastator’s lasers scored a direct hit on the Tantive IV’s primary sensor array.” Ok, no one said it was high literature. You try to summon the interest of a room full of 6th graders without some level of lazy-river style storyline excitement generated by laser blasters and imperilled princesses. Captivated by scrambling rebels and adorable droids, we continued our reading: “‘There’ll be no escape for the princess this time,’ C-3PO said just loud enough for R2-D2 to hear. Mere minutes before the Star Destroyer attacked, the Tantive IV’s commanding officer, Captain Antilles, had issued command/control instructions to the droids, ordering them to restrict and protect all references to Leia Organa’s identity and presence onboard the Tantive IV.” The plot was building, but here, an excited “Ah! There!” from Ms. Russell stopped our momentum. She explained our first literary term: foreshadowing. We were asked to mark the reference to Princess Leia’s capture and escape in some way — with brackets, underlining, or by painting it with one of the various highlighters our parents had sent us to school with. In my copy, there’s a crooked FS on this first page. I remember writing it. It’s even legible. We knew from the movie that the Empire would take our beloved princess, and that Han Solo and Luke Skywalker would rescue her, but “here,” Ms. Russell told us, “the text is already alluding to what will happen.” Foreshadowing. Boom. Reading would never be the same.

I still write in my books. It makes sense given my profession as literary scholar, critic, teacher, and eternal student. Reactions in the margin, underscoring, squiggly lines. A star. A star with a circle. My books are always fatter and darker when I’m done with them. A colleague of mine leaves his pristine. I’ve always been impressed by this. It’s hard for me to remember that verse when an immigrant is rejected by a life-like landscape, where I’d seen the same linking of traumatic memory to faded photographs prevalent in other works of a certain period, or on what pages an essayist equates primitive man with colonized peoples. The act of marking puts a pause in my reading, forces me to tread water for a bit and be aware of its temperature, its flow, the rocks putting ripples in it. Even just having the pencil in my hand reminds me to pay attention, to take a moment, to put this knowledge in a safe place for later. The stopping leads to other questions: how did this river even get here and where is it going? My colleague can do this without acting like some ink-filled dog marking territory. It doesn’t prevent him from stopping to question, from continuing to consider once he’s closed the book, from teaching his students how to do the same.

Literacy is more than being able to sound words out, whether struggling or sailing across the page. It’s being able to think while you read, to ask questions about origin and bias, to look for assumptions implicit in a particular representation, to contemplate the consequences of pairing certain ideas. High literacy, to me, is to be able to assign these same inquiries to your own ways of reading and writing, but at the very least, people should be taught to read critically. Whether that’s done using a literary vocabulary — like that my 6th grade teacher strove to give our class — or something else, these tools are the difference between teaching someone to swim and giving them a rubber dingy and an expired patching kit. Ms. Russell was the first of a few talented teachers to teach me how to read, and that she did so using the Star Wars trilogy only increases my gratitude. Not only did it validate and, let’s face it, increase a certain form of my nascent nerdom, but it hammered home that this type of reading should not be reserved to the supposedly high-brow. We should approach all that we read — novels, poetry, movies, cartoons, commercials, history texts, the news — with a reflecting spirit. So, thank you Ms. Russell, and may the teaching force be with me as it has been with you.

Accusing Blonde

Warning: This post contains extreme spoilers for the movie Atomic Blonde (which, let’s be honest, you weren’t seeing for the plot anyway).

A friend of mine recently taught a short course called “Accusing Women,” which he was kind enough to ask me to TA.  The theme of the class was the recurring literary trope of Potiphar’s wife, the woman who falsely accuses biblical hero Joseph of raping her when in fact she is the villain who came on to him and, after being rebuffed, decides to make him pay for it. (Oh the guile of women!)  The result of this prevailing theme in literature is that women are fundamentally distrusted and that when they seek to have voice (read: assert themselves as subjects rather than wards, possessions or objects), they must be lying.  Doubly so if they’re accusing a man of wrongdoing.  Triply if the wrongdoing should malign that man.  The trope indicts not only women’s voices, but the evidence they present as well.  Potiphar’s wife (who of course has no name, though at some point — and not within the story as told in the Bible, the Koran or in Jubilees — acquires the name Zuleika) fabricates evidence as well, presenting the garment that she ripped off a fleeing Joseph as physical proof of his assault.  Moral of the story: don’t trust them bitches because they’ll even appeal to your faculties of reason to get you to condemn your bro.  In the end, my friend’s class meant to show the false accusation of women’s false accusations.  A nice set of lit crit Russian dolls to play with, eh?

What does all of this have to do with Atomic Blonde?  Atomic Blonde is a better than average action movie with a female hero who, aside from being a bombshell in absolutely amazing 80’s clothes, mostly acts like a combo of Jason Bourne (without the identity crisis) and James Bond (without the humor but with the vodka abuse).  Sadly, this means she falls short of my test for have you created an original female character or have you simply added a vagina to a male protagonist, but the movie is not entirely without the feminist redemption of provoking new thoughts and presenting new images.  (Principal among the latter being a seriously buff Theron emerging from an ice bath).

Fairly certain she could crush walnuts between those shoulder blades.

Prep spoiler.  We spend most of the movie thinking that British agent David Percival (James McAvoy) has “gone native” in Berlin and that loyal agent Lorraine Broughton (Charlize Theron) has been sent there to complete a mission and discover Satchel, a traitor to the British who’s been leaking information to the Russians (read: Cold War movie with typical seeming plot).  It’s obvious from her arrival that Broughton is being set up, and we discover fairly quickly that it’s Percival who’s behind it.  With every fresh set of acrobatically defeated Russian operatives, we renew our support for Broughton.  We root for our bad ass bitch the whole movie (in particular when she escapes a car armed only with a red stiletto) and slowly come to assume that Percival must be Satchel, trying to arrange things so that his countrywoman will take the fall.

Broughton (Theron) taping microphone wire under her clothes.

But, turns out, all those scenes of Broughton’s taping a microphone to her body were not just an excuse to display flawless Theron in frankly fantastic lingerie.  Broughton is Satchel, and she records Percival (let it be known, he was doing the same to her) along with several other characters she encounters.  She then cuts these tapes together (a lovely scene of Theron in her underwear under blue neon lights) to make it sound like he was in league with the Russians all along.  Couple this with photographs left to her by a French lover (the entrancing Sofia Boutella), and our lady hero falsely accuses her male counterpart of being the traitor (that she is) and gets away with it.  We even side with her without the terrible, tacked-on second twist of her actually being a triple agent of the CIA.  (I didn’t need the US to justify her actions for me to continue to be on team Broughton).  To summarize: a woman falsely accuses a man by taking hard evidence out of context (the garment, I mean, the photographs) and manufacturing evidence so that his voice can, along with hers, testify to his treachery.  Has this trope progressed or has she simply become so clever as to best a bias that’s existed for over 2,000 years?  Has she gotten us to doubt the voices of men or plunged women even further into a well of suspicion?  I can’t answer this, but I can tell you one thing: if I could have helped her, I would have volunteered to be that wire.

Wonder Woman Has Left Me Wondering

My expectations for the Wonder Woman movie were high.  I was looking for a hero. Not just in Wonder Woman, but in the movie itself.  I was thrilled at the prospect of going to a superhero movie directed by a woman (Patty Jenkins) and with a woman (Wonder Woman/ Gal Gadot) at the center of its story.  Such movies have been making strides in the direction of no longer horrifying my sense of feminism – from Thor and Tony Stark’s dick measuring contest conducted by comparing their girlfriends’ professional and intellectual achievements (“…and the company that Pepper runs is the foremost tech conglomerate on Earth,” “There’s even talk of Jane getting a, um, a Nobel Prize”) to a male-female friendship based on mutual support and respect without the obligatory phase of manipulative sexual tension (see Captain America and Black Widow) –, but in the recent spate of Marvel and DC mega-movies, Wonder Woman is the first one with a $100 million plus budget and the first in over ten years to revolve entirely around a powerful female character, to give her a history, a coming out of ignorance and into herself.  Hallelujah.  A female as star of the show rather than as narrative prop to evolving but still highly self-involved male protagonists.

In some ways, Wonder Woman rose to the occasion.  After the obligatory franchise frame linking present day Wonder Woman to Bruce Wayne, the film opens with something between a male fantasy and a male nightmare as it pans over leather-clad women training on the paradise island of Themyscira.  Thanks in large part to its female director, the film suffers little from cringe worthy shots of these women as a series of sexualized parts.  It would be an exaggeration to say that there is no objectification happening at all, but gratuitous nudity is delivered in the shape of a less than embarrassed Steve Trevor (not that a naked Chris Pine elicits any complaints from me) and Gadot’s good looks are treated with a measure of self-awareness (if not by the character, at least by those around her).  The shooting itself might even make Laura Mulvey proud, for Wonder Woman is no mere object of scopophilic gaze.  The camera does not reduce her to a thing to be looked at by a man nor to a cipher for the quelling of male inadequacies.  She is here to do a job, that is, end all wars, and seems little aware of her effect on a room full of men or that people in the street might be staring.  Setting aside the question of whether Gadot and writer Allan Heinberg successfully combine naiveté with incredible intelligence and ability in the character of Diana Prince, this mixture creates a powerful image for all women: a woman who carries herself with unapologetic confidence, unafraid of what the world of men, its systems and its violence, might try to do to her.  In the realm of further positive symbols, the film delivers us: a woman repeatedly saving a man’s life, that man recognizing and supporting her superior capacities (best exhibited in four men lifting a door to aid an impressive, battle-ending leap by Wonder Woman), and a sexual relationship that pointedly does not try to sanction itself through allusions to an eventual marriage or happily-ever-after.  By featuring a woman who is rewarded instead of chastised for her curiosity and enjoyment of sex, Wonder Woman reminded me of Barbarella.  (Although, that such a big screen depiction of female sexuality should still appear revolutionary 49 years later is likely less than the best sign).

Wonder Woman first shielding herself against Ares’ energy ejaculate.

But the strides for feminism seem to end with this truncated sex scene precisely for the reasons most critics have cited as the collapse of the film in the last quarter of its run time.  Following modern comic-book movies’ need for definitive and outsized final fight scenes, thirty minutes of battling a poorly thought-through plot twist replaced the development of the central characters and their relationship.  One of the opening narratives describes the Amazons as at one time having kept men from making war, but how?  Wonder Woman largely acts like an action movie’s typical leading man.  She does not consult others, she believes herself to be the silver bullet (one deployed exclusively through violence), and with an ejaculation of power, defeats the final villain, temporarily albeit, ending the war.  This screen time would have served better had it been spent on building the characters, depicting intimacy or giving a plausible grounding to Wonder Woman’s doubts and ambivalent feelings.

My major gripe is with anyone who watches this movie and thinks our job is done.  I will not deny the incredible steps forward represented by and in Wonder Woman.  But the conversation cannot end there.  We need to ask where it falls short, when you can tell that this movie was still written by a man surrounded by male producers, and how it could have better defied its environment of crowd pleasing measures directed mostly at adolescent male tastes.  But then again, my expectations were very high for something that first and foremost was meant to be a better-than-tolerable summer blockbuster.  Perhaps I, like Wonder Woman, need to realize that the Ares influence that fostered our current conditions is not to be vanquished in one blow, even by a woman made to kill that god.