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25 Apr, 2020 14:40

Just when you thought wokeness and identity politics might be waning, Disney says its new 'Star Wars' show will be ‘women-centric'

Just when you thought wokeness and identity politics might be waning, Disney says its new 'Star Wars' show will be ‘women-centric'

According to Variety, another 'Star Wars' show, described as even more “female-centric,” is in development, and will soon be available on the Disney+ streaming service. Don’t they realise it’s not what fans want?

Whenever it seems that the era of agenda-driven identity politics in popular culture might finally be coming to an end, announcements such as this remind us that studios are still willing to use their properties as vehicles for virtue signalling and wokeness, despite the inevitable disconnect with the fan base, lost box-office revenue, and failure to expand audiences.

The new 'Star Wars' project is confounding for so many reasons, not least because recent offerings have been so, well, female-centric already. The recent trilogy of 'Star Wars' films revolved around a determined female protagonist whose innate powers were so strong that audiences struggled to connect with her as a character.

While traditional protagonists are fallible, experience inner conflict, make mistakes and therefore learn and grow, becoming relatable and making viewers emotionally invested along the way, the character of Rey Skywalker never made mistakes, showed poor judgement or faltered morally; or, if it appeared she had, it would be rapidly remedied by plot developments.

She was imbued with natural fighting abilities and a fearlessness that made the combat sequences boring, because there were never any stakes. Unusually receptive to 'The Force,' she manifested God-like powers to heal wounds and revive people from the dead, or face down villains by discovering and summoning ever deeper reserves of supernatural strength.

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Traditional fans were alienated by the agenda-driven identity politics in the trilogy’s second instalment, 'The Last Jedi,' a film that sought to “subvert expectations” by having a pair of matriarchal characters stymie the intrepid efforts of the male characters. After the online furore over that, and the trilogy getting dreadful reviews on film aggregators, it’s both jarring and frustrating that Disney is now apparently doubling down on its identity politics.

It is also frustrating given that the preceding trilogies both had strong female characters in Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia and Natalie Portman’s Padme, and the film 'Rogue One' also had a strong female lead.

It’s a similar story in wider popular culture. Marvel’s latest comic book series, 'New Warriors,' champions the cause of representation with “brave," body-positive, non-binary, sexually ambiguous, diversity-approved heroes. The most prominent characters are twins named Snowflake and Safespace. It’s baffling that such a tone-deaf project would be given the green light when the comic-book industry is struggling, its audience grown alienated by such identity politics. The YouTube trailer for DC’s 'New Warriors' currently has 4,000 likes – and 210,000 dislikes.

DC Universe has recently produced a graphic novel, 'Gotham High,' transposing the world of Batman into a present-day school setting, in which the principal protagonists are angsty, superficially attractive teenagers. The adolescent versions of Bruce Wayne, Selina Kyle and The Joker are framed in a contrived love triangle. Alfred Pennyworth is an East Asian man in a gay marriage, and Dick Grayson is an underprivileged African American kid, harassed by his rich, white, privileged classmates, who belong to the white, heteronormative patriarchy. The future Commissioner Gordon is an African American woman in charge of a high school.

The novel layers the Batman mythology with contemporary identity politics, deconstructing it into a shallow and generic teen drama. Beneath its trailer on YouTube, there are 2,600 likes and 35,000 dislikes. Are these rejections not of concern to the studios, or do they simply not care?

One reason to believe the era of wokeness in entertainment was beginning to ebb was the fact such agenda-driven properties lose vast sums of money for the studios, and there must inevitably be some kind of reckoning about the sustainability of such an approach. The all-female 'Ghostbusters' reboot in 2016 was a critical and commercial disaster that lost an estimated US$70 million. One review: "Who you gonna call? A taxi outta here, of course." 'Terminator: Dark Fate,' with Linda Hamilton reprising her role as Sarah Connor, was a critical flop and a box-office bomb, grossing US$261 million against a break-even point of US$450-480 million. 

The same dynamic has played out on TV. When 'Dr Who' introduced Jody Whittaker as the new Doctor in 2017, some commentators praised the move as affirming and progressive. Fans of the series disagreed. The show has slid to an abysmal 16% score on Rotten Tomatoes, making Whittaker by far the most unpopular Doctor in modern history. The program’s ratings are cratering.

What the modern trend fails to recognize, is that the most successful, culturally significant and enduring female-led movies and TV shows all featured protagonists whose femininity was an important part of their character without defining their entire personality. Those shows enjoyed success among male and female audiences alike because their appeal was centered on the original concept and plot, not on gender.

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The science-fiction horror film Alien introduced Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) as a character whose gender didn’t matter in terms of her narrative development, proving that casting women in lead action roles doesn’t compromise the relatability or success of such movies. The original 'Terminator' film introduced Sarah Connor (the aforementioned Linda Hamilton) as a young waitress whose character, by the end, transforms into a resourceful and courageous protagonist. Making these characters fallible made them relatable, in stark contrast to overly powerful and empowered feminist Mary-Sue characters such as Rey in 'Star Wars.'

At heart, what is frustrating is the almost obtuse indifference to the dissent from the fanbase. Doubling down with another female-centric show implies a disregard for the idea that any criticism is reasoned or legitimate, and a stubborn refusal to temper agenda-driven narratives. Rather, Disney appears to be happy pouring millions of dollars down the drain of wokeness.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.