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Real princesses don’t sit back on thrones, symbolic or literal. Acts of feminist mobilisation – be they formal or informal – are vital to women like Leia, Rey and Rogue One’s Jyn.
Juggling the franchise’s overarching narrative with its broader, iconic pop cultural potency, the trick is to keep older fans happy without becoming stagnant, either ideologically or narratively.It is therefore no surprise that rape-revenge and the western have such a long affiliation, despite the latter (erroneously) being so closely aligned with horror traditions.From The Bravados and Last Train from Gun Hill to women-driven narratives like Hannie Caulder, sexual violence and a thirst for vengeance marks many westerns.Often used as a way to add some brute force sexy pizzazz to a genre whose codes are traditionally heavily masculinised.Jonathan Kaplan’s 1994 film Bad Girls is a case in point: what had the potential to be a powerful film about feminist unity collapsed into what critic Janet Maslin memorably described at the time as a film with, “all the legitimacy of Cowpoke Barbie with a lot less entertainment value”.Characters like Jyn and Rey might offer new perspectives to new audiences, but they also recall older ways of women in film rallying to action.
Even the very description of Star Wars historically as a ‘space western’ offers a potent starting place to look for the ancestors of cinema’s mobilised women-of-action.
Her marking off days, scratched into the wall of her abandoned Walker-home, show a woman strategically preparing in wait, her dedication to up-skilling finally paying off when snowman droid-child BB-8 arrives, kicking off her intergalactic adventures.
In Rogue One, Jyn is a defiant outsider who, by joining the Rebel Alliance, underscores the symbolic power of their very name: a mobilised space where non-conformist dissidents must find a way to work together.
At the same time, the rallying of women in these contexts to band together and to fight back, to stake a claim in a cultural and social space of their own offers further evidence of the broad ways women have found to mobilise power through taking action across genre.
This becomes thornier in the case of the notorious rape-revenge film category: if there was one instance of the explicit transformation of women’s emotional and physical energy into direct political action, this would surely be it.
Heroine Maria and her evil gynoid doppelgänger in Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, aggressive sex bomb Jane Fonda as the title character in Roger Vadim’s Barbarella, turbo-mum Sarah Connor from the Terminator franchise, resourceful Katniss Everdeen in The Hunger Games, and – of course – the iconic image of the no-shit-taking woman, Sigourney Weaver’s Ripley from the Alien movies. But if we’re going to lift the lid off of this particular Pandora’s Box, it’s worth doing it properly.