The Rise of Skywalker: New hopes, old choices, and spoilers

I have a fondness for seeing worlds torn apart.

Fictional worlds, that is.

I’m not talking about post-apocalyptic fiction, though I enjoy the genre and have even written in it. I’m talking in the broader sense, when a fictional world is built on assumptions that the reader or viewer comes to accept, and then those assumptions get questioned, and one way or another it becomes clear they cannot hold.

When I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I loved it for affirming a science fantasy world that I’d loved since elementary school. But when I saw Star Wars: The Last Jedi, I loved it for questioning that world, for showing characters I loved as flawed, for giving us the sense that the Jedi, in their way, were as problematic as the Sith, or at the least, problematic enough that a something had to give, to change.

When Luke Skywalker said the Jedi had to end, he seemed to have a point. And at the very end of the movie, when we saw an unnamed young stable sweeper using the force, without training and without any apparent danger, I saw what seemed to be the first hints of a new world, a new way of looking at the force and its place in the world, and what it was for and who it belonged to.

After all, we’ve been hearing for ages about the need to bring balance to the force. Perhaps balance meant moving beyond the rigid dichotomy of Sith and Jedi, of black and white, of starkly clear-cut good and evil.

So I settled in to Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker with hopes that I was about to see this universe that had for so long been a part of my life undergo a fundamental, mythic transformation.

Perhaps I should have known better.

But for much of the movie, it seemed the story was heading just that way. Time and again, Rey found third options, alternate solutions, instead of going with the standard attack or retreat, fight or flight responses I’d come to expect.  She got creative, thought outside the teachings of the first eight movies, and even, in the end, figured out that the force could be used for healing, not just for inflicting damage and teleporting small objects and convincing the occasional stormtrooper that you’re not worth bothering with. (I’ve long thought that magical healers and magical warriors must have, at the core, the same basic magic.)

And then there were Rey and Kylo, both closer to the middle than the edges of their respective orders, so close they could fight back to back, surely poised to set that fundamental change in motion.

But in the end, the final battle is literally a battle between all the Sith that ever existed and all the Jedi that ever existed. If the Jedi fought defensively, and with love rather than hate, in the end it was still their greater power that won the day.

A friend who writes tie-in novels for another fictional universe once told me that he had the freedom to do whatever he wanted, so long as he put everything back where it started by the last page.

I felt like this is what happened in The Rise of Skywalker, which is in retrospect unsurprising for a franchise with many more stories to tell.

I enjoyed the movie, which may not be clear from all I’ve said about it so far. At times I enjoyed it a lot. There are bits that I’m squeeeeeing about in various forums, even now. The importance of chosen family. The fact that the force can heal. Jedi master Leia Organa. Flying stormtroopers. C3POs sacrifice. A certain Wookiee, receiving his medal at last.

The importance of remembering we’re not alone, no matter what fear tries to tell us.

Yet in the final moments of The Rise of Skywalker, that unknown stablehand is forgotten. Rey buries Luke and Leia’s lightsabers, letting me think, for just a moment more, that maybe everything was going to change after all. Then Rey pulls out her own lightsaber, consciously chooses Team Skywalker over Team Palpatine, and the status quo—a dichotomous world with two choices and two sides, is affirmed.

The universe I’ve long loved was still there, intact.

Unchanging and unchanged.

Is Star Wars better than Twilight?

An article on how Twilight-hate is part of the larger picture of teen girl hate in our society, something I’ve been aware of for a while now: “For many people, the fact that teenage girls like something — whether that something is Taylor Swift or One Direction or ‘Twilight’ — is a reason to write it off completely.”

When I first shared this article on social media, there was some discussion, as there usually is (because I’ve been part of discussions about this before, the past few years), about how our hatred of Twilight isn’t really or only about dissing teen girls, because the books really are problematic, because they provide such horrible models for teen girls of who they can aspire to be.

I used to share this concern. But after talking to actual Twilight readers, I’m convinced that teen girls read as critically or more critically than the rest of us, and that they’re no less aware of the problems with the books than any of us are aware of the problems with whatever fluffy, escapist stories we happen to enjoy. In fact, I’ve had some of my favorite thoughtful conversations about YA books and reading with Twilight readers.

The Twilight books still don’t hit my story buttons. I’ll never be part of their core audience. But then I began thinking about how Twilight is nowhere near the only fiction out there that provides poor role models for girls. One could argue that, more often than not, most stories out there–in books and in other media–still do that. Girls and women are so often either absent or victims in everything from children’s stories to adult ones. (Being a girl is also not-infrequently tossed off as a one-line joke in movies, because apparently nothing is funnier or more humiliating than a guy being mistaken for a girl, or finding himself in girl’s clothes.) One could argue that Bella, at least, gets what she wants at the end of her story, which even today isn’t true for the women in so many other stories we read and watch.

So after thinking about that, I began thinking about one of my favorite bits of escapism from when I was a teen, something that remains one of the things that still does hit my story buttons: the original Star Wars trilogy.

Star Wars had a huge influence on my writing. It helped ignite my love of fantasy and adventure stories. (I do consider it more fantasy and adventure than science fiction, though that’s a whole other discussion.) It helped turn me into a writer, because I spent hundreds and hundreds of hours writing hundreds of thousands of words of Star Wars fanfic. The Star Wars movies were huge for me. Huge.

The Star Wars movies provide horrible role models for being a woman.

Oh, sure, in the very first movie Leia is full of spunk and fire and no small amount of strategic planning. She’s also, as far as we know as of the original trilogy, one of only two women in the entire Star Wars universe, which is a tremendous problem in itself, especially when the other woman dies horribly in the opening scenes and is never really a character at aLL. But by the end of the trilogy, Leia has been drained of all real agency. In The Empire Strikes Back she’s reduced to primarily a love interest, and by Return of the Jedi her main active actions revolve around trying to rescue the man she loves. By the end of Jedi movie, Luke does all the heavy lifting, while Leia discovers and helps inspire the Ewoks to help out on the ground. And that ground battle doesn’t even really influence the course of events; it’s Luke and Vader’s battle with the Emperor that truly destroys the Empire, though not everyone knows it.

A point is even made, in Jedi, of the fact that Leia has the same powers as Luke–but she never gets to use them, not even a little bit. At the end of Jedi Luke has saved the galaxy, Leia falls into Han’s arms, and viewers cheer.

I cheered. Which is actually the point I’m trying to make. These movies, which also don’t provide strong role models for girls, were movies teen me loved beyond all reason. They’re movies adult me loves beyond all reason, too. Loves them even as I critique their flaws, which I’m fully aware of, and which include front and foremost their treatment of female characters. Teen me was just as aware, though she articulated it differently, by constantly adding female characters to the fic she wrote, and giving them agency.

Teen Twilight fans (and, yes, adult ones too) are capable of the same self-awareness. They’re as capable of enjoying problematic things as I am.

The difference is that, when I say I love Star Wars, very few people sneer and go “oh, lightsabers, seriously?” in that way that they so often sneer and go “oh, sparkly vampires, seriously?” Two problematic stories–two very different societal reactions.

Likewise, while there are certainly thinky gender critiques of both Star Wars out there, when I say I love Star Wars, few people immediately respond by saying, “Oh, but what kind of an example is it setting for our girls?” — even though the example Star Wars sets is not ultimately better than the example Twilight sets. Leia has more spunk than Bella, sure (though even that spunk is tempered by the end), but she doesn’t have more agency.

Of course we should talk to our daughters about the problematic messages and role models in Twilight. I’m not suggesting otherwise. But we should also talk to them about the problematic messages and role models in other stories–and be on the lookout for them ourselves–because Twilight is nowhere near unique in this regard.

But before then, first and foremost, when a teen girl says she loves a thing?

We owe her the same respect we owe anyone else, when they talk about the things they love.

Today’s dose of good feeling and general inspiration

I came upon this embedded into a five-year-old blog post of mine. Some things one doesn’t stop needing to hear:

If you want to cry as well as smile, this longer version ends with a Jim Henson tribute. How many years has it been? (25, says Wikipedia.) I still miss his work and his presence in this world:

And another bit of unrelated-yet-related inspiration, for those of us coming at all this from a when-creativity-meets-professional-life perspective:

Star Wars, episode … yeah

So. There’s a trailer online for The Force Awakens, aka Star Wars episode VII. And I have thoughts.

(ETA: Here’s the first full trailer. The thoughts below are–more or less–nchanged by its release.)

Those thoughts begin in the summer of 1999, on the release date for The Phantom Menance, I was hiking through Capitol Reef National Park, miles from any movie theater. And at some point, staring out at a 360 degree panorama of some of the most stunning geology out there, I found myself thinking that I was missing something amazing, for all that I knew I was surrounded by things even more amazing that I’d consciously chosen over opening night of Star Wars Episode I. Still, I wondered if I’d made a mistake, choosing to go camping instead of waiting in line that week.

I hadn’t made a mistake. When I finally saw the movie a few days later, I knew that.

Still, I was an optimist. I saw both of the remaining prequels. The second time, I genuinely hoped I’d see something better. The third time … well, the third time, I saw the movie at a local drive in theater some days after release, mostly for the sake of completeness, but also “just in case” that something amazing might turn up after all.

Because the first three Star Wars movies, episodes IV through VI? Pretty much changed my life.

Teen me imprinted on The Empire Strikes Back hard, and from there there was no turning back. I practically memorized that movie. I practically memorized the novelization of that movie. I wrote hundreds of thousands of words of self-insertion Star Wars fanfiction. Han Solo became at once my hero and my crush object. I did wait in line for Return of the Jedi, and while by the end of the movie my teen self was just beginning to understand how that movie–and the trilogy–weren’t perfect, I did not regret it. At all.

For me, the first trilogy was always about characters, not special effects. In many ways, although I was a voracious reader, it was the screen-based Han, Leia, and Luke who occupied the space for me that for later readers would be occupied by Harry, Ron, and Hermione. I loved their interactions and interplay, I loved the whole good-boy/bad-boy vibe of Luke and Han, I loved Han and Leia’s romance, did I mention I especially loved Han? (Later, I would think about the problems of Leia’s becoming an increasingly non-character over the course of the trilogy, and my decreasing engagement with her. But I was young, and my understandings were still growing, and I was unsubtle in my expectations. Characters who were larger than life and cast in broad–if problematic–strokes were still what I was looking for.) I loved, too, the sense of epic struggle, and being able to straightforwardly hate Darth Vader with all his straightforward villainy. (The flip side of this being that I was never sold on his redemption … but that’s a subject for another post.)

When Leia told Han she loved him, I cheered.

Years later, when Amidala told Anakin she loved him, I looked at the friends I was with, and we all mouthed the same word: WHY? (Jedi mind tricks, we later decided. Only Jedi mind tricks could explain that romance.)

It wasn’t just that I was no longer my younger, less subtle self by the time the prequels came along, though a couple decades of idolizing and being shaped by the original trilogy did mean that any new movie would have struggled to live up to the originals.

But the prequel trilogy, it didn’t even come close. For me, the heart wasn’t there, the soul and the characters weren’t there, and if the effects were pretty, well, unlike many the effects had never been what drew me to the Star Wars universe. Like I said, I enjoyed the novelizations as much as the movies. I was looking for character, and I was looking for story, and I’d probably have found those somewhere else if I hadn’t found Star Wars when I did–would probably have happily obsessed over something else instead–but Star Wars came along first and filled that space for me.

Star Wars shaped me as a fantasy reader (you didn’t think those movies were really science fiction, did you?), and it shaped me as a fantasy writer.

So. There’s a trailer for a new trilogy online. And it sure looks pretty.

I don’t care about pretty. It looks like it has characters too, but I can’t tell much about them from the trailer. And it looks like it has the Millennium Falcon too, which of course makes me smile, but the Millennium Falcon is not, by itself, enough, not unless I knew I’ll care about whoever’s piloting it now.

And maybe I will. The trailer, it doesn’t give me enough to know either way. And while I know there are in-depth analyses of every last detail of that footage out there, I haven’t read them.

Because I’m not getting my heart broken again. I’m not waiting in line opening day or opening week or … probably ever … for this one. I’m not thinking of it as the start of–or a return to–something amazing this time.

Unless. If enough people who I respect and whose story buttons are similar to mine tell me it actually is amazing–and not just visually amazing or tech and battle scene amazing–I’ll … think about it. But this time around, you all can take the opening day/week/month/maybe-forever hit for me.

I’ll be here at home with a novelization of The Empire Strikes Back, and several hundred thousand words of fondly remembered fanfic.

“Andrew knew that the moon had stolen his parents away …”

Chelsea Mead Kirkpatrick’s film adaptation of my short story “Drawing the Moon” begins shooting in just a few weeks! “Drawing the Moon” first appeared in Bruce Coville’s Book of Nightmares and is the story of a boy who’s convinced the moon has stolen his dead parents away–and who will do anything to get them back.

The short clips of the actors in this video gave me shivers in places:

It’s pretty amazing seeing the first hints of how these characters will be brought to life.

If you want to help make this film happen (and to get your own DVD of the finished film), you can support the Drawing the Moon film funding campaign here.

Peeta as movie girlfriend (and story relationships in general)

I still need to make it out to see Catching Fire (I have, of course, long since read it), but I sound this article on Peeta playing the functional role of movie girlfriend kind of interesting.

What makes me sad is that Hollywood has such generally rigidly defined gender roles that this makes sense, as it doesn’t in the real world, where we can all play all the parts. But if we have to have rigidly defined Hollywood gender roles, it’s nice to see them at least being subverted sometimes.

This also got me to thinking about how I’d always been Team Gale. This is a little odd, for me, because I tend to like the good boys, and Peeta is solidly my usual type.

Except that Katniss is a lot like Gale, so they meet as true partners instead of having Katniss being weak in the presence of Gale’s strength. (In the books, at least. I don’t yet know what their relationship is like in the second movie.) If Katniss were a different sort of female character, Gale as a male character would irritate me no end. But she isn’t, so instead of a strong guy looking out for a less-strong woman we get a true partnership among two strong-in-the-same-ways people who are very much alike. This is what I love about their relationship, that partnership.

And even when (spoiler) Katniss and Gale ultimately fall apart as a couple in the books, it isn’t because of their differences. It’s because they remain alike, only Gale ultimately takes their shared strength-that-is-also-weakness in a different direction than Katniss does.

It may be that more than having a soft spot for good boys, I have a soft spot for relationships that are I’ve-got-your-back partnerships (in whatever way, physical or emotional or a mix of the two, that the particular characters involved do this), and that good boy relationships are the ones that most often go there.

Or maybe, of course, it’s both/either of those things, with a large amount of “depends on the individual story” mixed in.

On not-horrible movies and the nature of dreams

So among other things (like catching up on laundry and email and getting outside more), finishing a book tends to mean taking in some mindless movies. I don’t watch movies much in general, but there’s a certain pleasure, in a certain mood, in hitting a second-run theater alone and kicking back with low expectations and some popcorn by your side.

Turbo, the story of a snail who dreams of racing in the Indianapolis 500, seemed about up to the task.

It was by the numbers, but more or less successfully by the numbers, and I bought in enough to care about the title character’s success. Along the way there were characters of color in central roles; and while the movie didn’t come anywhere close to passing the Bechdel test it didn’t fail spectacularly, and there were random background women of all species as well as slightly more than the token minimum of foreground women–though I did have issues with a snail being mistaken for a girl passing as humor because, well, girl. And, yes, I was sold on the idea of a snail in the Indy 500–I actually think that’s a brilliant whack idea.

But one of the things the movie was by the numbers about was having big dreams and achieving them, and there are two things about this formula in particular that I found myself wanting to talk back to as I watched.

1. To achieve your dreams, you just have to want it badly enough and to never give up.

The problem here is the “just” part.

Because heart and belief are crucial … but they aren’t enough. You also have to put in the time to develop the skills, no matter what natural ability you bring to the table. We see the title snail (it makes me happy to type “title snail”) dreaming big dreams, and despairing of reaching them, and receiving encouragement and discouragement, and ultimately finding within himself the strength to succeed. What we don’t see, for the most part, is the snail working to up his skills, practicing, learning–and repeating what he’s learned over and over again until the learning becomes habit. It’s not just the dream that you have to never give up on; it’s the striving to master the things it takes to make the dream real, as well as the practicing and always trying to be better even when you think you’ve already learned all you can.

Heart will get you started, and stubborness will keep you from giving up too soon, but if all you’re being stubborn about is reminding yourself how much you want it … that isn’t enough. The day-in, day-out trudge of working at one’s sport or one’s writing or one’s craft of any sort doesn’t always make for compelling fiction (though it can), but, well, that’s what training montages are for. Instead we get heart and yearning and a bite by a radioactive spider drag-racing car, though to be fair that last isn’t what saves the day in the end.

“You just have to want it bad enough” also implies that if you don’t succeed at whatever you set out to do you didn’t want it bad enough, which is a whole other problem.

2. Winning is all or nothing.

The movie makes clear that if our snail doesn’t win the Indy 500, it’s over, his dreams have failed, he goes home with his head tucked inside his shell.

Except. Dude. This is the first snail in the Indy 500. If he came in second, he’d still make news and make history and draw attention to his human companion’s dream of running a successful business. He’d do that if he came in seventeenth, too, or last. He’s a snail in the Indy 500, he’s run faster than any snail has ever run before, and the world really isn’t going to yawn and say, “But he came in second.” In fact, it would take some serious media spin and suppression of footage to make the world think this is anything but awesome.

It’s like yawning and saying, “But she only won a Newbery Honor.” Newbery Honor books regularly go on to sell and to be at least as well-beloved as Newbery winners, sometimes more so. Books that have never won any award in their lives go on to do this, too. For most things, there really isn’t a single one “make or break” moment or a single way to succeed. And even in sports where technically there is only one first place, there are other ways to be awesome and/or capture the hearts and imaginations of those around you.

The idea that it’s all about one moment and one winner taking all not only isn’t true, but is a myth that regularly stresses out people putting their all (heart, belief, stubborness, effort) into any number of things.

Okay, one more thing. This one has nothing at all to do with the nature of dreams.

3. Evil corvids

Epic did this too, though to be fair Brave did not. What’s up with assuming the corvids are the bad guys in kids’ movies? The self-centered, tricksy, out-for-their-own-best-interests guys, sure. But that’s not the same thing.

Department of how did I not know about this?

You know the awful “it’s all just fine” ending to the movie of The Golden Compass? The one that anyone who’s read the book all the way to the end knows is a lie, because the real ending is one where nothing is at all fine?

The real ending was actually filmed. And there’s a fan video piecing together footage and storyboards to recreate it as closely as possible:

(And yes, I did get here via thinking about “The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas” in my last post. Blame TVTropes.)

“Doesn’t look lonely at all, does it? It has friends. Cares for the Hitaki nests, too. It won’t die.”

And today’s writing takeaway, from Castle in the Sky (because there just might be a Miyazaki festival going on at our local theater):

Making someone care about a whole world–even a floating world, shrouded in the most beautiful clouds ever drawn, even a world that can fly–is hard.

But make me care about one character living in your world–say, a giant gardening robot who cares about protecting birds’ nests and is a friend to fox squirrels–and I’ll care about your world too, utterly and completely, because what happens to the world, happens to that one character, too.

Secondary takeaway: Flying is awesome. We should all do it as often as possible.