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Daily Reads: ‘The Force Awakens’ and Strong Female Characters, One Writer’s Three-Year Mission To Avoid ‘Star Wars’ Spoilers, and More

Daily Reads: 'The Force Awakens' and Strong Female Characters, One Writer's Three-Year Mission To Avoid 'Star Wars' Spoilers, and More

Criticwire’s Daily Reads brings today’s essential news stories and critical pieces to you.

1. We’ve Reached Peak Strong Female Character With “Star Wars,” and So What?
It’s “Star Wars” day here at Criticwire, so our Daily Reads are going to be filled with “Star Wars” pieces after the big opening day weekend for “The Force Awakens.” There’s a lot of ground to cover, including major spoiler scenes, what “The Force Awakens” does right and wrong, and silly controversies that are as dumb as they are offensive. The Verge’s Tasha Robinson writes about the film’s female protagonist Rey, the dumb Mary Sue charge, and why it’s alright that she kicks ass.

I’d be a hypocrite if I suggested, even for a moment, that we shouldn’t examine Rey, that she should get some kind of cultural free pass. I’ve done plenty of that kind of examination myself, and I regret none of it. But at the same time, the swoony heights and dreary second-guessing of “Mad Max: Fury Road” have left me a little weary of the impulse to prize apart and examine every heroic female protagonist, skeptically wondering whether they properly fulfill all our many ideals — and then, if they do, fussing over whether that’s a good thing. Because let’s face it, Rey is kind of a Mary Sue character. (That’s fan-speak for a thinly-veiled, self-insertion character in fan fiction, usually written by someone who wants not just to be part of an imaginary world they love, but to be its ultimate, most beloved and respected hero. The male version is a Gary Stu.) Rey is a survivor who seems to be consummately skilled at everything she tries. She’s a crack pilot. She’s a skilled mechanic. She’s so innately talented in her use of the Force that she figures out Jedi mind tricks on her own, out of nowhere. She keeps falling into standard-issue damsel-in-distress situations, then capably rescuing herself. Even Han Solo is vocally and visibly impressed with her awesomeness. Her only weakness is a minor and understandable one: She misses the parents who seemingly abandoned her. For women who’ve felt underrepresented through decades where most of the ladies onscreen were victims, tokens, rewards, or shrews, it’s natural to feel a sugar rush of fulfillment over characters like Katniss Everdeen and Imperator Furiosa. That these heroines not only make it to the screen, but beat out their male counterparts at the box office is even more encouraging. And it’s especially thrilling to see a new tough-as-nails, take-no-prisoners heroine in the “Star Wars” franchise, which even writer-director J.J. Abrams has described as “always a boys’ thing.” Abrams was wrong about that (and knows it; he’s clarified that quote) — given that “A New Hope’s” Princess Leia was a feminist icon back in 1977. She was one of the original models for modern women heroines: like Rey, Leia is confident, competent, unapologetic, and an active participant in her own rescues. (Even when rocking a skimpy metal slave-girl getup.) But while Leia was quickly reduced to a secondary character after “A New Hope,” Rey is all Leia’s potential fulfilled — jumping right into the pilot’s seat instead of moving to the rear of the starship while the boys fly. So here’s a radical suggestion: instead of being concerned about whether her Mary Sue flawlessness is a problem, why not, just this once, enjoy it for what it is? The fight for equal representation for women, in front of and behind the camera, continues, and will continue for a long time. No one’s saying sexism is over and we should put our feet up and enjoy it. And no one’s arguing that all female characters should be as flawless and fearless as Rey. It’d be a boring cultural landscape if they were. I’m still convinced, as I wrote for The Dissolve around this time last year, that the best Strong Female Characters are the physically and emotionally weak ones. Characters who have a lot to overcome to become heroes are the bravest and most inspirational — more so than characters like Rey, who are naturally good at everything. But it takes more than one kind of character to make a world, and joyously proficient lady badasses are just as important to a diverse, rich, fulfilling cultural landscape as troubled, complicated lady heroes. And there’s something deeply suspicious about the early stirrings, on Reddit and 4Chan and especially all over Twitter, about how Rey is just too damn effective and nifty to be acceptable. She’s a fantasy wish-fulfillment character with outsized skills, an inhuman reaction time, and a clever answer to every question — but so are the other major Star Wars heroes. Are they all getting the same level of suspicion and dismissal?

2. You’re All Clear, Kid: My Three-Year Mission To Avoid “Star Wars” Mania.
A major part of the whole “Star Wars” news cycle is the fury over spoilers, potential spoilers, or even stray random thoughts and musings that may potentially resemble “Star Wars” spoilers. Some of this spoiler-avoiding is unnecessary and childish, but some of it is legitimate seeing as the Internet is a daily part of our lives. Over at Thrillist, writer Matt Patches examines his crazy three-year mission to avoid any “Star Wars” spoilers whatsoever, and the lengths he went to do so.

“Star Wars” fans were ready to talk about “Star Wars” before there was even “Star Wars” to talk about. When rumors swirled, my early filters weren’t ready to weed out “possible” “Episode VII” actors like Alex Pettyfer (remember him?), Benedict Cumberbatch, and Zac Efron, who “The Guardian” went so far as to report was “in talks” for a major role. I said “thanks, no thanks” to a high school friend who forwarded me word that Emperor Palpatine might rise from the dead for the sequel (I never read the actual article and immediately disabled Facebook chat — lesson learned). “Star Wars'” gluttony of “what ifs?” were emblazoned across dinky fan sites and major news outlets alike. A few would even turn out to be real spoilers. If it sounds juvenile and slight, realize that we’re 100 years into the industry-talk-as-entertainment conversation. In a September 1914 issue of “Movie Pictorial,” one of the many film magazines providing a window into a star-studded new medium, described the scene of a bustling set. “While the armies of Europe are compelling the attention of the world, quite an unknown to the people of Boston there has been re-enacted during the past week some of the events that stirred the world during the American revolutionary period.” The film was Charles Brabin’s “The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere.” For decades, trade and celebrity reporting shared space in these publications. One could expect a preview of Dorothy McGuire’s “Claudia,” and just a few pages later, tidbits on Jimmy Stewart’s return from his WWII tour. Genre magazines attuned those living vicarious Hollywood lives towards the fictional. Forrest Ackerman’s 1958 mag “Famous Monsters of Filmland” to build fandom around monster makers like Ray Harryhausen; “Cinefantastique” penned scholarly behind-the-scenes profiles on B-movie subjects; and “Starlog,” imagined for “Star Trek” obsessives, started looking to the past and present. In its November 1976 issue, the magazine’s second, “Starlog” reported on 20th Century Fox’s upcoming “Star Wars,” the story of “Luke Starkiller” and a Galactic War general played by Sir Alec Guinness. “Without any parts of the film even previewed yet, some critics have already heralded ‘Star Wars’ as, ‘…everything in science fiction you’ve always wanted to see on the screen but knew no one would ever put there.” Last Thanksgiving, while struggling through a turkey coma, I received a text message: “GET OFF THE INTERNET.” Disney had taken advantage of everyone’s four-day weekend to release the first trailer for “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” (a title reveal I’d successfully avoided until the killjoy that is my Apple TV’s movie poster-parading screensaver spilled the unwanted beans). Not watching a trailer is easy. At home, you look the other way. In a movie theater, you put your head down, cover your ears, and hum a steady, noise-cancelling LALALALALALA until it’s out of sight. Any pressure is FOMO-related. And there is FOMO. After tipping me off to the trailer, the same friend started texting reactions from the peanut gallery. The trailer was “stunning.” Flashes of the action in it took cues from classic “Star Wars.” Scant character moments made grown men and women weep. Abrams’ film was a year away, and already having its first cultural moment. The world basked in it. I did not.

3. What “The Force Awakens” Gets Right That The Prequels Don’t.
In many ways, “The Force Awakens” functions as a corrective to the “Star Wars” prequel trilogy, which many fans and critics view as largely disastrous. EW’s Kevin P. Sullivan explores what “The Force Awakens” gets right that the prequels do not. (This article discusses the film’s details, but there are no explicit spoilers.)

Exposition With Moderation:
 Thirty years have passed, and “The Force Awakens” wants you to know that. The galaxy is a different place from when we last left it, and while some of the key players look familiar, the specifics aren’t exactly clear. What is the First Order, and how does it relate to the Empire? So there is a Republic, but then, what is the Resistance? A lack of clarity on a the political level is a genuine complaint about “The Force Awakens,” but it’s to the film’s credit that we don’t slow down to talk logistics, like for example — and I’m just pulling this out of the air — trade blocks and senate votes. Or get into too much detail about what transpired in the intervening 30 years, for that matter. All Kylo Ren’s past needs is a couple lines of dialogue, not an entire trilogy. It’s hard not to see& “The Force Awaken’s” light touch for filling in the blanks as a direct response to the prequels’ obsession with answering for every little detail about its world. Instead, the new film uses the mystery to its advantage and understands that a joke about C-3PO’s red arm is better than an explanation for it.

It’s Fun:
 There’s a moment early in the film that telegraphs pretty clearly that we’re in for a lighter adventure than “Episodes I,” “II,” and “III.”After Poe Dameron is dragged before Kylo Ren, he waits for the masked figure to speak. “Who talks first?” he asks after a beat. It’s genuinely funny, but more than anything, it’s human. Within five minutes, “The Force Awakens” is already speaking a different language, and that exchange sets the tone for the rest of the film. Han Solo got all the clever lines in the original trilogy, and it’s as if his spirit was sprinkled throughout this film so that multiple characters enjoyed idiosyncratic moments that make us laugh, like BB-8’s butane torch joke or the Stormtroopers backing away from Kylo Ren’s temper tantrum. These are small moments that add up to a feeling of warmth that was completely absent from the prequels.

4. Tina Fey & Amy Poehler’s 25 Greatest Hits Together.
Though it may seem like “Star Wars” was the only movie opening this weekend, there was another film that was also released into theaters. Tina Fey and Amy Poehler’s raunchy new comedy “Sisters” puts their rapport front and center as they throw one last party in their old childhood home. In honor of that movie’s release, Vulture’s Anne T. Donohue lists their 25 greatest hits as a duo together.

Golden Globes 2013 Opening Monologue:
 Lest we forget that what feels like a million years ago, Fey and Poehler took over for Ricky Gervais as Golden Globes co-hosts. They set the bar so high, they were asked to match it in 2014 and 2015, too. Their best joke from round one? Poehler’s shout-out to Kathryn Bigelow’s marriage to James Cameron. See also: Jessica Chastain’s reaction.

Amy Poehler’s Dialogue in “Mean Girls”:
 Speaking of “Mean Girls,” we have Fey to thank for writing Amy a part that’s equal parts hilarious and horrifying. Casting Poehler as Regina George’s cool mom (not a regular mom) was a stroke of cinematic genius, and helped to make Tina’s first full-length project one of the best comedies of the 2000s, especially since we all knew a mom like that growing up.

“Mom Jeans” Sketch (2003):
 Little did any of us know that, come 2009, mom jeans would be the uniform of cool people everywhere, and that appliqué vests would be the icing on the hipster cake. Of course, 12 years ago, the fashion landscape looked a lot different. Case in point: In 2010, Fey explained that the sketch came about after a fire in her apartment led to her buying an emergency pair of jeans that she and Maya Rudolph made fun of. From there, Tina created a sketch that embodied the nonsensical nature of “mom”-targeted clothing, made even better by Poehler’s smiling, vest-wearing character. Think of this as “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” all grown up and gone full minivan, or just biting commentary on how the fashion industry views women of a certain age.

5. On Criticism, Opinions, and Magic Tricks.
On a final note, it’s important to look at criticism not as a writer’s opinion on a certain movie or TV show, but as an argument for a certain position. Criticism is less about what a person thinks than an illustration of how they think, which is something to keep in mind when you’re reading “Star Wars” reviews with which you don’t agree. On his Episodes blog, veteran critic Todd VanDerWerff writes about criticism, opinions, and how the best writing is like a magic trick.

Criticism is sleight of hand. It’s three-card monte. It’s whatever you call that game with the cups where there’s a ball under one of the cups. What I mean by this is that criticism is a personal essay that either needs to put the personal front and center, or that needs to pretend it’s being written from an incredibly objective point of view. It is, in other words, sort of like a political opinion column in that regard. I think I’ve written about this before, but the thing that draws most people to criticism is the idea of sharing their thoughts and having people care what they think. I certainly know that I was intrigued by the notion of getting to give star ratings or turn in top 10 lists and have readers who would say, “Wow, I can’t wait to hear what you think about X!” For those of us who are obsessive about critics and criticism, this makes sense. We read our favorites and nod in agreement or shake our heads in frustration. And so it goes. But as we’ve seen with the “Star Wars” reviews kicking up angry fanboy reactions, the vast majority of people who consume criticism don’t consume it in conversation with the writer’s work. They haven’t read everything that person has written recently to know that, say, they aren’t really susceptible to the kinds of things “Star Wars” does well or what have you. They are, instead, approaching the work solely as a binary opinion — a rotten or fresh rating on the Tomatometer. The paradox inherent here is that the readers who are most likely to follow what you’re saying are also those who are least likely to really care about your raw opinion of “I liked it!” or “I didn’t like it!” Sure, they are curious on some base level, but what they’re really reading you for is your argument. Did you like “Star Wars”? Cool. Why or why not? And can you back that up with evidence from the film? It’s, again, a magic trick.

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