The Phantom Menace
Han Solo, accurately recreated by Alden Ehrenreich, and Lando Calrissian, expertly portrayed by Donald Glover, have never been feminist icons, nor should they be. They are chauvinistic, self-absorbed scoundrels, the lovable, but flawed products of the seedy underbelly of the Star Wars universe. Yet behind the women, weapons, and card games, the viewer is always aware of their hidden loyalty and compassion. Han and Lando’s bravado undoubtedly makes up part of their identities, but it can still be easily punctured by the wit and gaze of the late great, and hopefully still around in Jedi-ghost form, Carrie Fisher. “I love you,” says the princess. “I know,” answers the smuggler, while allowing himself to be frozen in carbonite. An act of compassion, which displays what his words cannot. Overall, the characters Han and Lando don’t exude aggressive masculinity, but perform it rather obviously. This performance was made legible through their actions, failures to perform, and most importantly, the strength (physically, mentally, and politically) of Princess Leia as a balance in the force.
The Princess Strikes Back
Leia is of course imperfect. Subordinate to Han and Luke, she only succeeds in (accurately) criticizing their plans, not changing them. But it was the 70’s and one had to start somewhere. Unfortunately, years and years in the future in a film not really that far away, the balance she provided back then, however imperfect, is wholly missing from the new Han Solo story. Unlike Leia, Khaleesi the…wait, I mean, Qi’ra the love interest and presumed counterweight to Han’s hubris in Solo, portrayed by the talented Emilia Clarke, is complicit in, rather than skeptical of the arrogant criminal that young Han wants to perform.
Where Leia calls Han’s bluff with cutting sarcasm and political rank, Qi’ra lacks power and cunning. She is not a senator, but the assistant to mob boss, Dryden Vos. Rather than rejecting Han’s attempted outlaw routine, she is wooed by his antics and can’t talk with L3 about anything other than love. Although she does have some pretty awesome sword moves in her brief fight with Vos and ultimately assumes his powerful role in Crimson Dawn next to robot-legs Darth Maul, her action-hero abilities are never explored. Even her decision to abandon Han for a promising career in crime comes across not as agency involving forethought, planning and execution, but rather as betrayal and opportunism, both old tropes about strong women. Ultimately, Qi’ra serves to reinforce rather than resist Han’s machismo, creating the mess that Princess Leia will have to clean up later.
A New Hope?
One could ask: Maybe the balance in the gender side of the force doesn’t come from a human at all, but a robot!? One could ask, but one would be wrong. L3, Lando’s droid co-pilot, voiced by Phoebe Waller-Bridge, is a noticeably activist figure, so much so that it comes across as parody and farce. When confronted with the injustice of robot-fighting at Lando’s hideout, L3 attempts to incite the droids to rise up and resist their oppression. Her powerlessness to affect the situation is obvious and allows the scene to function as comic relief, rather than having an empowering edge. The moment is awkward enough that Lando, embarrassed by his droid/partner/crush?, guides her away like a child. Thus, the fight for equal rights, equal representation and equal voice for droids, Banthans, workers, women, POC, LGBTQ and many more, becomes nothing more than a silly distraction and one that ultimately costs L3 not only her voice, but her life. While leading a failed revolt, she is hit by a laser blast. Her hard drive is then integrated into the Falcon and permanently made part of the ship’s system, never to be heard again. With L3’s assimilation, Qi’ra’s weaker character, Val’s early death, and the narrative unimportance and limited screen time of Enfys, Solo falls short in leveling out Han and Lando’s bravado. Without this counterbalance, there is little artifice to their arrogance and even less reason for introspection in the viewer.
An Actual New Hope
It feels like it’s time for something more positive. There’s always a lot one can find wrong and too seldom suggestions for what can be done better. To the credit of director Ron Howard and the film team of Solo, the film is very Star Wars and there are interesting, subtle moments that challenge the observations above. Also to their credit, it would have only taken one simple suggestion to return balance to the force of the movie: to have Val (Thandie Newton), super smuggler villainess (she, I assume, would also then be entitled to a last name), keep Han in check. In many ways, it is Tobias Beckett (played by Woody Harrelson), Val’s lover, who takes on role of Han's mentor and counterpoint. He is strong, but self-serving, wise, but untrustworthy. Had Val taken on Beckett's role, the story remains the same, except she would provide the strong, clever, complex, influential and indeed longer living character that would have given Solo all the Leia-esque female counterweight it needed to check Han’s brash bravado exterior. But in Yoda’s words “Do or do not. There is no try.”
Solo provides all the camp, action, intrigue, and adventure one loves in a Star Wars story. Han and Lando are their scoundrel selves, and the viewer is sucked along to seedy depths of the galaxy and the enticing debauchery of the smuggler lifestyle. Solo captures much of what there is to love about a Star Wars film from the 70’s. Unfortunately, it brought with it the many problems of representation in a space western from the 70’s.
By Elisabeth Granzow
With the introduction of many streaming services such as Netflix, Hulu and Sky, the consumption of TV shows has become easier than ever. Unfortunately, however, picking the right program to watch has become much harder with the vast selection of scripted television. Another challenge for a critical viewer like myself is to find a show that transgresses common stereotypes of race, gender and class among others and includes complex marginalized and underrepresented characters and viewpoints. Many programs on television still revolve around straight white men and do not even pass the Bechdel Test, which already sets a low bar for the quality of female representation.
This is why I compiled a list of my top 5 current TV series that can be watched on Netflix and Co. Of course this is just my personal selection and does not constitute an exhaustive list. It should be noted that even the best shows can have problematic characters and storylines and could do a better job in some areas. Yet the programs that have made it into this list present complex and complicated female characters, are often partially written and produced by women and include important storylines that feature empowered women.
Please feel free to comment about your opinions of these shows and offer your own recommendations!
The Handmaid’s Tale (2016-, Hulu)
This widely acclaimed Hulu original might not be watchable for everyone. The drama is set in a near dystopian future, where a stark decrease in the fertility rate has resulted in a theocratic revolution in the U.S. In this world, women are oppressed and assigned certain roles for specific purposes, such as housewives who support their husbands or house servants called “Marthas.” The protagonist June/Offred (played by Elisabeth Moss) serves an infertile rich powerful couple as a “handmaid.” Her duty? To become pregnant by the husband in a cringeworthy religious ritual that involves the wife as well.
Season One is based on the novel by Margaret Atwood. The series was created by Bruce Miller, but has a number of female producers and writers. The drama also has a fantastic female cast (Elisabeth Moss, Samira Wiley, Yvonne Strahovski, Ann Dowd among others) and gives the viewer a chilling outlook of the dangers of uncontrolled systems of oppression. I highly recommend this show for fans of thrilling, suspenseful dramas and dystopian fiction. The show presents highly artistic cinematography and depicts the resilience and empowerment of complex female characters in a world that treats them as subhumans. However, I also should warn viewers about the graphic depictions of rape, violence and torture, which makes this drama not for everyone. In addition, the Handmaid’s Tale has been criticized for not addressing race in this world, but rather using a colorblind approach in its treatment of its characters of color. The show does, however, include a number of actors of color, such as Samira Wiley.
Westworld (2016-, HBO)
This big-budget HBO drama blends the Western and Sci-Fi genres into a thought-provoking product that delves into philosophical questions, such as what makes humans human and whether violence and oppression against AI robots is ethical. In this futuristic world, Westworld is a theme park reminiscent of the Wild West, in which rich people can interact with intelligent robots called hosts that resemble humans so much that they can hardly be distinguished from the human guests. As a result, most park guests live out their darkest fantasies, which includes violence against the hosts, whose memory is wiped out after each violent death.
As the first season progresses, the hosts slowly start to rebel, although it is not always clear whether they were programmed that way of whether they have found “consciousness” and therefore their own agency. The drama is created by Lisa Joy and Jonathan Nolan. Having a woman co-create such a popular show is still rather rare in the industry. In addition, women take on the most important roles in the typically male worlds of Westerns and Sci-Fi with very strong performances by Thandie Newton and Evan Rachel Bloom. They play the female hosts Maeve and Dolores, the first to realize they are not human and to fight back against their male/human oppressors. The particular abuse of female hosts therefore serves as a metaphor for violence against women in our present world. Yet one can raise the question whether gender even exists for robots. I argue that the programming of the hosts’ gender parallels the construction of gender in humans. Both in terms of human gender and race, the world outside of the Westworld park seems egalitarian with many women and people of color in positions of power within the companies that are involved with the park such as Charlotte Hale (Tessa Thompson), an executive director of one of these companies. Westworld is a compelling drama with fantastic performances by the many female lead characters and a variety of plot lines centered around female protagonists.
Dear White People (2017-, Netflix)
This Netflix comedy is based on the 2014 indie film Dear White People. Both the film and the series were created by Justin Simien and follow a number of (mostly) black students at a fictional, predominantly white Ivy League college. The title Dear White People refers to the name of a campus radio show by Samantha White (Logan Browning), who uses her program to address racism and share the experiences of black people in the privileged environment on campus. Each episode follows one main character, shows their unique perspectives and interweaves their storylines into one coherent plot. Thus, this satire of campus life is not only witty and smartly written, but also includes many complex male and female black characters with different backgrounds and sexualities - such as biracial Samantha, Lionel Higgins (DeRon Horton), Coco Conners (Antoinette Robertson) and Joelle Brooks (Ashley Blaine Featherson) - as well as political and social viewpoints. Throughout its two seasons, it tackles relevant and urgent topics including debates around activism and protests against racism, internet trolling, abortion, racism and police brutality. The intelligent writing combined with compelling characters and great performances by the cast presents the viewer with an entertaining dramedy and insights into the diversity of black life in the privileged setting of an Ivy League school.
One Day at a Time (2017-, Netflix)
This Netflix sitcom was created by Gloria Calderon and Mike Royce and depicts the life of a working class, Cuban-American household. The family includes three generations of women with single working mother Penelope (Justina Machado), her mother Lydia (the fantastic Rita Moreno) and her daughter Elena (Isabella Gomez), as well as her son Alex (Marcel Ruiz). The comedy includes many important topics around identity into its storylines, such as sexuality and Cuban American identity. Furthermore, One Day at at Time tackles the everyday struggles of working class, veteran and immigrant families. While these are serious topics, One Day skillfully manages to combine social and political commentary with the lightheartedness and comic elements of the sitcom genre and shows that sitcoms can also be thought provoking.
My full review of One Day at a Time can be found in the review section of our Femfilmfans website.
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend (2015-, The CW)
Crazy Ex-Girlfriend is a quirky, intelligent musical dramedy created by two incredibly talented women, namely Aline Brosh McKenna and Rachel Bloom. Bloom also plays the main character, the successful Manhattan lawyer Rebecca Bunch. Rebecca decides to move to the California hometown of her summer camp love Josh Chan (Vincent Rodriguez III) on a whim. While the title and premise suggests problematic stereotypes of the crazy and romance-obsessed woman, the show is actually quite self-aware of sexist stereotypes and adds complexity and nuance to them by thoughtfully depicting Rebecca’s mental illness and its stigmatization. Despite this serious topic, Crazy Ex-Girlfriend includes incredibly hilarious yet thought-provoking musical numbers and a coherent narrative, which will be wrapped up in its fourth and final season. I can truly recommend this show to everyone for its freshness, wit and many extraordinary female characters.
For my full review of Crazy Ex-Girlfriend, please check out the Femfilmfans review section.
By Christina Schultz
This review contains SPOILER ALERTS! If you haven’t watched the new episodes of Arrested Development on Netflix, be warned, some of the details will be revealed below.
Consuming television shows or films critically helps us as an audience hold mainstream media accountable for producing problematic images. Being aware of what happens behind the scenes of our favorite shows and movies feeds into this critical-viewing process. For example, watching the show Arrested Development (Fox 2003-2006; Netflix 2013-) post-scandals certainly leaves a funny taste in my mouth, and not the good kind of funny. The first incident involves Jeffrey Tambor, who was fired from the show Transparent (Amazon 2014-) when two team members accused him of sexual harassment, which he never really apologized for (because how can you apologize for something you deny having done?). The second incident involves Tambor yet again and his now-notorious verbal abuse of Jessica Walter and Jason Bateman’s mansplanatory brushing over of the whole affair during a New York Times interview. Knowing about this now, I can’t help but blur the lines between actor and character as I view the first half of the new season (Netflix released the first 8 episodes of Season 5 on May 29). But that’s not the only reason why I feel the show falls flat in comparison to previous seasons.
For the record, I have been a loyal fan of the show for years, even wearing cut-off jean shorts and wielding chocolate-dipped bananas and “juice boxes” (what Buster calls Lucille’s boxed wine) to AD viewing parties. The previous seasons of the show have provided me with so many LOL moments and hilarious one-liners that I still quote them as if I just saw the episodes yesterday (which is not far off, I rewatch the show a lot). Yet Season 5 shows everyone’s age and another round of quite literally being stuck in arrested development somehow has lost its charm in this generation of promoting the exact opposite: self-love, acceptance, personal growth and honesty with a firm refusal to put up with the same old bullsh*t.
The family dynamics somehow seem more cruel and painfully awkward in the once laughably comical dysfunctional Bluth family. Ron Howard tries to add some freshness by including more of himself and his family - his children, wife and father have cameos in one episode and Isla Fisher reprises her role as his daughter from Season 4 - in an odd pseudo-nod to the comparatively squeaky clean sitcom Happy Days (ABC 1974-1984; which also starred Barry Zuckerkorn actor Henry Winkler as the Fonz), which doesn’t really help rejuvenate the storyline. Every returning character has clearly hit rock bottom, and one cannot help but see the bitter irony in this now.
While this is an admittedly brief breakdown of Season 5, it demonstrates just how worn out the show appears to the critical viewer aware of the important behind-the-scenes context.
Michael, played by Jason “mansplainer” Bateman, tries to maintain a relationship with his son George Michael but often fails because of poor communication. He lies, avoids the true problem, puts words in his son’s mouth and, worst of all, ignores both their feelings (oh, the irony that Michael Bluth behaves like an ass!). George Michael (Michael Cera) tries to do the right thing but unfortunately goes to his cousin Maeby for advice (it’s always terrible). Maeby (Alia Shawkat), technically not related to the Bluths because her mother Lindsay (Portia de Rossi) is adopted, still schemes her way through life because her parents failed her. Tobias, Maeby’s “actor” “father” (the quotes on both words is intentional), pathetically clings to his wife’s family despite their pending divorce so desperately because where else can he go? He spends more time with his newfound son Murphy Brown this season than with Maeby in the previous four. Lucille (Jessica Walter), meaner than ever, has stooped to (court-ordered) “therapy” sessions with Tobias. The youngest Bluth sibling Buster (Tony Hale), once Lucille’s constant companion and admirer, winds up in jail and she could care less. GOB (Will Arnett), once the ladies’ man, pines away for fellow (real) magician Tony Wonder (played by Ben Stiller) and even lets it slip to Kitty (Judy Greer) in Episode 6 that he’s “got a lot on my mind right now with work / am I gay? / my brother Buster’s in jail” and even wants to undergo “conversion therapy” but literally winds up in a “closet conversion” store (in typical GOB fashion, he didn’t do his research). In perhaps the most ironic twist of all, George Sr., played by Jeffrey Tambor himself, cries a lot, shies away from conflict, has no libido and cannot perform for his wife, Lucille (Jessica Walter). Their relationship is, needless to say, on the rocks.
As you can see, the characters’ not-so-funny nastiness and the many cringe-worthy, awkward moments they create hit so close to home in real life that you can’t help but wonder how, or if, the show can redeem itself in its second half by shedding some of the emotional Bluth baggage and recapturing the family’s wild and wacky wit with which we fell in love. Viewing Arrested Development critically allows us to reassess the show and the messages it is sending. More importantly perhaps, by seeing the show’s weaknesses in relation to the actors’ real-life behavior, we continue the discourse of respect and accountability begun by the Time’s Up and #metoo movements. If we, the consumers of images, voice our opinions, we can unleash the power to shape the images we consume. My far from glowing review should not deter you from watching, but stay informed about what you view on screen and off, share your opinions and you will have an empowering viewing experience.
If you have watched Season 5, you might be thinking what I’m thinking: WHERE THE HELL IS LUCILLE 2? Share your theories in the comments!
Lissy, our resident TV expert will also weigh in on Arrested Development soon!
From left, Buster Bluth (Tony Hale), Maeby Fünke (Alia Shawkat), George Michael Bluth (Michael Cera), Lucille Bluth (Jessica Walter), Michael Bluth (Jason Bateman), George Bluth (Jeffrey Tambor), Lindsay Bluth (Portia de Rossi), Tobias Fünke (David Cross), GOB Bluth (Will Arnett) (photo: Flickr, Methodshop.com)