A New Definition of Pain and Suffering

A small sampling of some eye-catching headlines from reviews of the latest Star Wars movie: “How the women of ‘The Last Jedi’ make ‘Star Wars’ a Force.” “Women Become a Force to Reckon With in ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’.” “‘Star Wars’ Always Put Women in the Back Seat, But in ‘The Last Jedi’ They Call The Shots.” “Women’s Stories Are More Prominent Than Ever in ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’.” “Star Wars: The Last Jedi Offers the Harsh Condemnation of Mansplaining We Need in 2017.” “Star Wars: The Last Jedi Should Just Be Called ‘Women Getting Shit Done’.” “Laura Dern Says It’s ‘Really Exciting’ That ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ Has Strong Female Leads.”

Hmm. I’m sensing a bit of a theme here. Now, I’m not the biggest Star Wars fan—I wouldn’t even really call myself a “fan” of the series, at all, and my unorthodox opinions of the films have earned me more than a little scorn—so maybe I’m not fit to judge. But still: is there not something mildly kind of pathetic about all of this geeking out over the lead billing in a silly space opera?  I don’t know. Maybe it’s the uniformity of it all—the drearily predictable rave reviews of a film because some women in it behaved in a certain way.

Feminists would say that it’s about more than that—that it has to do with “representation” and showing little girls everywhere that women can be space generals, too—but in truth there is no cultural commentary more enervating and banal than feminist film criticism, a literary genre that essentially turns on the shallow proposition: “A woman did something in a film and it made me (happy/angry).” Its chief contribution to the critical art world is the Bechedel Test, an utterly useless political evaluation tool that views motion pictures like H.R. anti-harassment training videos. One does not get the opinion that a feminist critic has ever truly enjoyed a film, apart from the rare instances when a movie offers a “harsh condemnation of mansplaining.”

That Star Wars—a corny, mostly overrated space opera series—has become the fixation of progressive gender pundits is something of a funny joke, but there you are. In truth, that ideology led a lot of people to overlook some seriously glaring faults of the last movie, The Force Awakens, which was hailed as an absolutely dynamite show-stopper of a movie but which ended up being more or less meh, which is to stay quintessentially Star Wars. It was fun at times, interesting at others, clever at certain moments—but it was also a shamelessly derivative space battle movie with largely one-dimensional characters, a film beset by dozens of major plot holes and with a lead protagonist who was freakishly powerful and successful in a way that defied all reasonable suspension-of-disbelief conventions. The movie also relied several times on comically convenient narrative developments in order to advance the plot, the kind of lurching cinematic touches that honestly reminded me of the fiction I used to write in eighth grade.

It is possible to still enjoy The Force Awakens in spite of these problems—I did, to a certain extent—but the adulation seemed a bit over-the-top for what was, at the end of the day, a largely sloppy rehash of some tired old space tropes.

It was not until after I saw the film that it became clear: while one could get a kick out of the movie easily enough, the high critical praises heaped upon it were likely motivated in most part not primarily by its quality—for it was not a very good movie, and was very far from a great one—but because of what it represented, vis a vis a powerful lead female character beating up a bunch of guys and flying spaceships around the interstellar medium. It becomes easy, in that vein, to ignore the movie’s serious shortcomings. That is kind of the moment we’re in, where we’re supposed to get excited when “badass” fictional female characters do “badass” things, even as the movies themselves are kind of lame.  The Force Awakens—and in all likelihood The Last Jedi—are as hugely successful as they are probably in no small part because of silly gender politics, the kind that think “women getting shit done” is one core measure of a film’s enjoyability. Oh well, surely all of these movies are better than the Star Wars Holiday Special.

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