Monday, January 01, 2018

Not the Heroine You're Looking For

There’s this way people say the word “powerful” when they’re referring to characters, especially female characters, that puts my teeth on edge. It’s far too often public ego masturbation, “Look at what a wonderful and good person I am!” I’ve come to associate it with people who talk a good game about “empowerment” but treat the actual women in their lives like disposable conveniences.

In the literary world, we had nearly a decade of “powerful female characters” who were… well, we get a great example in Last Jedi’s Vice Admiral Holdo.

Holdo looks like an important character in Last Jedi. She’s commanding the fleet, she’s calling Poe down on the carpet, she’s the lady with a plan. The survival of the Resistance is on her shoulders. And like Lea and Rose, she is a font of wisdom and insight. These women are correct and mature at a deep and important level where the men are still growing into their roles, half-formed and immature. Holdo is a far more important and powerful character than Poe.

From a certain point of view.

We’ve seen these kinds of characters before. The Hotshot, whether pilot or programmer or musician or whatever, is frequently challenged by the Voice of Experience. This tempers the hotshot, matures them, gives them the secret they need to raise their already amazing skills to the next level while learning to work as part of larger team. We’ve seen so many variations on this theme, from The Paper Chase to An Officer and a Gentleman to Top Gun to Harry Potter.

The thing about the Voice of Experience is that they’re one of many challenges thrown in front of the Hotshot. But the story is about the Hotshot.

Holdo is all about giving Poe an arc, maturing him from hero to leader. She makes him more interesting. Holdo herself, however, isn’t nearly as interesting as Poe is. She has no arc. She’s not a dynamic character. She gets some good lines, some interesting (if, frankly, bizarre) costuming, and the best special effect in the movie. But she’s the same character at the beginning and the end of the film. And, like the Voice of Experience, she’s removed at a critical point in the film to let the Hotshot take center stage.

From the point of view of the Star Wars universe, Holdo is a powerful, important character. She’s a war hero, a high-ranking military officer, and the one who rescues the Resistance from nearly certain annihilation.

From the point of view of story, she’s yet another in an ancient and long line of female characters who exist solely for male characters to bounce off of. Ditto Rose, though she (maybe?) goes from being an engineer to a warrior, so she at least gets a little arc. But story-wise, these characters can be replaced with challenging terrain features like mountains, or being diagnosed with cancer, or a demanding client.

I’ve seen this sort of bait-and-switch pulled too many times now. Characters billed as being “strong” and “independent” and “powerful” who, yeah, sure, might be all those things in the universe of the fiction, but in terms of story they’re more background than people. Typically, it’s a way to have your cake and eat it to; look, here’s a powerful female character, but don’t worry, the story’s still about the guy.

What makes Holdo (and to a lesser extent Rose) interesting is how in-your-face she is. Because Holdo is making many of the decisions, is (kinda-sorta) justified in her reasoning, and has only a sorta sideswipe reconciliation with Poe, she comes across as abrasive and overshadowing Poe as a character. There’s also a strong element of bait-and-switch; we know Poe is a hero, so we want to peg Holdo as a variation on JK Rowling’s Umbridge. But she’s not that sort of character, and her death robs us of the sort of reconciliation of mutual respect we expect from this character arc. (As an example of what I’m talking about, see the cigar-lighting scene near the end of the first Hellboy movie.)

So fans of Poe can feel miffed that this overbearing second-rate character seems to be stealing the spotlight. And fans of “strong” female characters can whoop about how this makes the Star Wars universe more inclusive.

Unfortunately, the whooping sounds hollow because, as I pointed out above, Holdo isn’t a main character and her existence in the movie is all about giving Poe something interesting to struggle against. So yeah, I suppose, her presence might create a more inclusive Star Wars universe, but at the end of the day, she’s there just to make Poe a more interesting character.

Her presence serves the needs of a male character.

So, “strong?” “Powerful?” “Independent?” Perhaps. But without expert handling, Holdo was bound to piss people off, both fans of Poe and those who want greater representation for female characters in the Star Wars universe.

Which, I suppose, is perfect, if your goal is to create controversy and buzz. But storytelling-wise, it turns poor Holdo into an idiot who withholds vital information to the point where the enemy knows more about her plans than her own bridge crew. She becomes yet one more female character who supposedly exists in a military chain of command who isn’t taken seriously by the men and women who serve under her.

In short, this is not the “strong, powerful” female character you ought to be looking for. Sci-fi and fantasy novelists moved past this tokenism back in the ‘80s, in no small part thanks to authors like Anne McAffery and Elizabeth Moon. Hell, Last Jedi gives us a legit female hero in Lea (and, kinda-sorta if you’re willing to look past the androgyny, Rey).

So that all said, and at risk of beating a dead horse, let’s look at Poe. He gets the classic Hotshot arc: reckless and cocky competence. It looks flashy but it fails to further the actual aims of those he claims to support and serve. It gets people killed. He gets demoted, he rails against authority in classic angry-young-man style, he struggles to prove himself.

There are echoes of the classic hero’s journey here as well. Lea calls on him to be a more than the hero he is but he refuses that call at first. Holdo serves as his threshold guardian, the monster that must be overcome by recognizing how it is a part of himself, which Poe does when he points out that Holdo wasn’t running away. He “dies” (gets stunned by Lea) and then buried in the vast tomb of the old hidden Rebel base. When he sallies forth with his team to slay the drag- er, I mean, battering laser, he recognizes the poor trade-off between certain self-sacrifice of his entire squad and questionable damage to the laser, and calls off the attack. He then recognizes that Luke is buying them time. By this point, Poe’s proven his transformation of death and resurrection and Lea literally tells the others, “Don’t look at me; follow him!” thus reconciling the hero with his father figure/goddess. Finally, Rey literally rolls stones out of a cave mouth to complete his resurrection.

It’s a lot clumsy in the writing and execution, but Poe gets a classic protagonist’s arc and hero’s journey in this film. Poe fans have some legit gripes about the clumsy, but he gets the goods storywise. Fans of Holdo probably need to raise their standards.


Ruprecht said...

She is weak and her pilots plot without her hoping to save the fleet. She needs Leia to control her own troops and stop the uprising. Eventually standing up, after it is a bit too late. From weak to taking responsibility with her life, that is her arc.

graham said...

Do you wish that she had actually been a more competent leader? or just that people wouldn't tout her as a "powerful" character.

trollsmyth said...

graham: can't I get both?

Honestly, I'm annoyed by the uneven writing of the film (something, honestly, all Star Wars films suffer from to one degree or another). In-universe, Holdo doesn't demonstrate competent leadership. On the page, she's the victim of the writers needing her to stupidly keep secrets from people and pretend like she doesn't actually have a plan. It's compounded by the writers having created a siege situation (more so than a chase situation) that they need Finn and Rose to be able to sneak out of, necessitating that members of Holdo's bridge crew be in on the mutiny from the beginning. (The audience also can't help but wonder why Finn and Rose can escape and fly off to Planet Monte Carlo and everyone else can't.)

At the same time, talk of "inclusion" and "representation" attempts to get past mere "tokenism." If that's important to you, understand what that looks like in terms of story so you can recognize the real thing when it comes along. You can call Lando "problematic" but at least he's got an interesting story arc, transitioning from wheeler-dealer mining-baron to gung-ho rebel along a relatable path. All Holdo's got is a briefly-mentioned reputation she fails to live up to.

Lando is vital to the plot of Empire; he's the reason folks go to Cloud City, he gets Han and Leia to let down their guard long enough for Vader to spring his trap, and he's instrumental in them getting out of the trap. Without Lando there's no second half of Empire.

Now imagine Last Jedi without Holdo. Let's take it a step further and say Poe ended up in charge of the fleet. What changes? Finn and Rose still go to Planet Monte Carlo to find the "code breaker," Leia wakes up in time to explain her plan with Planet Salt to Poe, so he can prep that as Plan B. The only real change is that it's probably Leia on the bridge of the rebel cruiser when it rams the Order flagship.

And, instead of Poe sulking and sneaking about under Holdo's nose, we instead see him forged into a leader by the fires of keeping moral up as his ships are picked off and he struggles to write condolence letters to the families of the bomber crews.

Damn. That would probably have been a better movie. :/

Ruprecht said...

There are incompetent leaders out there so I don't mind seeing a few in movies, I just think they could have done more with it if they acknowledged it directly.

SPOILERS! Imagine for example: Leia comes out of her coma and confronts her about her failed leadership, how keeping secrets when nobody knows her enough to trust her led good pilots to act like cowboys and led to an unnecessary mutiny. How she could have distracted the enemy away from the shuttles with a jump into hyperspace or at least put the ship between the shuttles and the enemy to protect them. Then have Leia be the one that makes the suicide run to save the fleet.

This would have Leia go out as a true bad-ass and left the rebels with a questionable leader who has to step up next episode creating a lot of drama.

Yes they didn't know Lady Fisher would die but they could have updated the ending with CGI and given Leia the glorious ending she deserved instead of leaving the questions about why they Mary Poppins her back only to have her do nothing and having her unavailable for the next one.

trollsmyth said...

Rob Schwarz: yes! That would have been a much better movie! As I understand it, the plan was for Leia to have a huge part in the next movie, so they needed her alive at the end. Oops. :/

Ruprecht said...

I understand wanting her alive. Still the actress passed away ruining whatever plans they had for Leia in the next one and to make it worse now they have lost all of their rebel leaders. They could have CGI'd her in to make the fixes and sent her out with a bang.

As it is it will be interesting to see how they resolve the missing Princess-Senator.

Yora said...

Ah yes, Poe. He seems to have his fans, but to me he seems the most superflous character in the movies. Why is he even there? How is he connected to the rest of the characters? And even as a separate character going on his own separate adventure I just don't find him interesting in any way. His problems and goals don't make me feel any kind of investment.
Leia and Holdo dealing with their problem without him hugging the spotlight would have interested me more.

trollsmyth said...

Yora: I think Abrams set Poe up to be the "normal one." Both Rey and Finn had decidedly odd childhoods and both come off as quirky and not-quite-whole because of that. Poe looked like the perfect character to help them both integrate into being free people in a more benevolent society then they are used to. It's one of the things that made the whole Finn/Poe shipping really work.

More so than the others, this new direction for Poe really comes out of nowhere. I do wonder if Holdo was made to be so abrasive in order to raise an emotional smokescreen to hide that fact.

What's the appeal of Holdo for you? What makes her an interesting character in your eyes?

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