Gone With the Wookie
Since Valentine’s Day is receding into the distance yet again, a reminder that I decided to reread several of my fave romance novels just like I did last year. But this year, I read literary books rather than trashy ones to prove the point that romance can be written about in a literary way. That means you lucky people get to hear even more of my innermost thoughts on the subjects of love and romance, only classier.
I figured since it was March and everything I probably better wrap up my Valentine’s Day series.
As some of you may recall, last year I wrote about the concept of whether people with different politics could find love across the political aisle by reading this old Civil War era romance novel I liked as a kid called Ashes In the Wind. Then, I wrote about my reaction to the reactions to that original piece in a piece about Gone With The Wind.
I probably should have just left it there, but the thing is, this was supposed to be a rather fun series about romance, not me-being-pissed-off-ed-ness, and so I really didn’t want to end this project on such an unpleasant note. But I couldn’t find a book that really really truly captured the spirit of what I wanted to say, that really truly captured my thoughts and feelz regarding love despite political, cultural, and even ethical differences.
Then I reread the following words I wrote in my Gone With the Wind essay:
“Now, if you can come up with a better setting to tell that story that is NOT in a galaxy far, far away, I’d love to hear it.”
So I decided to write a Star Wars piece instead.
Star Wars is not a book, and the movie Solo is barely even a movie because it’s a spinoff and everything. But Solo, for all its derivativeness, touches on something that I think is really, really important to talk about.
A man in love with a droid. Maybe. It’s complicated.
Seriously though — love across the political aisle may be possible, but what about when one of the parties is representative of a group that is like so totally bad or whatever? Like Alanna in Ashes in the Wind, she was a Confederate! Irredeemable!!! Deplorable!!!! And Lando Calrissian is…well, ok, I don’t even really know what he is, but like Alanna, he’s the product of a very messed up world in which sentient beings are held in slavery. Not only droids, but actual humans like Anakin and his mother whatever-her-name-was and of course Princess Leia in her bikini-wearing form. The Star Wars universe really is a wretched hive of scum and villainy, and yet our Star Wars heroes go traipsing through it just not really caring too awfully much about any of that. Are we supposed to just set our moral concerns aside and ENJOY these problematic people and their rollicking adventures?
To catch you up if you missed the movie, in Solo, Lando Calrissian has a weird quasi-romantic relationship with his companion droid, L3-37. Some people liked the characterization of L3-37, and others not so much.
The issue with this love that dare not speak its name except in a cryptic series of beeps and boops, is that in the Star Wars universe, droids are slaves. They’re property. They can be bought and sold – indeed, we saw Luke and Uncle Owen doing exactly that all the way back in A New Hope. Droids can be sent into danger at their owner’s behest and have their memories wiped and their programs rewritten. When they get shot or blown up it’s NBD. Yet L3-37 clearly has feelings, hopes, dreams, and longs for independence, repeatedly calling for droids to be freed and even urging droids to rise up against their masters. Lando sort of rolls his eyes tolerantly and pats L3-37’s head when she starts in on this topic in a way that I, a woman who is perpetually getting worked up about things no one else particularly cares about, found totally relatable.
Some have claimed the L3-37 situation is problematic not because droids are being taken advantage of, but because it was played for laughs. But let’s be real here, it’s a Star Wars movie; does anyone really want to go see a Very Serious Preachfest in which we are berated incessantly regarding our Problematic Badthink?
Of course not. It’s silly to suggest that a fricking Star Wars movie is the time or place for anything but the most cursory investigation of good and…well, not evil, exactly, but somewhat less good. It seemed to me that the relationship between L3-37 and Lando, lighthearted as it was, was actually a pretty excellent way to entice people to think a little bit about the effed-up nature of relationships in an effed-up world full of power imbalances, much the same way that the Joker and Harley Quinn can make people consider the nature of domestic violence by addressing the subject in an non-threatening, depersonalized, entertaining framework.
I liked L3-37. I thought both her rebellious streak and her possible sexuality were thought-provoking little wrinkles in our Star Wars universe. But it wasn’t an unexpected wrinkle, not at all. The ramifications of droid self-awareness have been discussed by StarWarsians since the mid 70s and I can’t even read Google News a single day without them thrusting numerous robotic sex doll articles into my face. The existence of L3-37 seemed like confirmation of what a lot of people have wondered amongst themselves for a long time. Lo and behold, there are actually are sex-capable droids in the Star Wars universe. All those BJ-69 jokes we heard growing up were not far from the mark.
So thinkpiece authors making the “I was totally fine with the status of droids in Star Wars til L3-37 came along and proved they could think for themselves” argument, is nonsensical drivel written by people who IMO have suddenly decided to be pissed about droid slaves in Star Wars now that one of them is voiced by a woman. I truly think that’s the only reason anyone found L3-37 problematic – she had a woman’s voice and whenever a woman’s voice speaks a whole bunch of people start searching for who is oppressing her so they can initiate the scolding process.
The implications raised by L3-37 have been there in front of our eyes all along. Droids in Star Wars are sentient, funny, entertaining, lovable, noble, concerned for their own safety (C3PO never shuts up about it, except for that one time), AND they’re slaves. Most of them wear restraining bolts to keep them from disobeying. Humans and aliens alike treat droids as if they’re disposable. They’re repeatedly insulted, mistreated, misused, abused, and killed. C3PO is dismembered on numerous hilarious occasions. So don’t give me all “zOMG L3-37 where is this insanity coming from” because it was right there in front of us the whole time.
Science fiction and fantasy at their best hold up a mirror to human society, reflecting things present in our own world we might not particularly want to look at too hard otherwise. A love affair between a slave and her master – a consensual relationship despite the power imbalance and ethical lines crossed – is something that has undoubtedly occurred on many occasions throughout human history. Is that not worthy of some investigation? I think it is. But how could such an investigation occur without creating a mirror world in which such things do happen?
Fun fact, every human ever born was born into a world full of gross injustice. To this very day, injustice abounds, yet most of us look at the terrible things happening to other people halfway around the world or even just down the block and say “welp that sucks but I can’t do anything about it” and go right back to living our best lives right there in the system that creates the gross injustice. We capitalize on opportunities that benefit us even when we suspect they may come at the expense of others, and very few people shuffle off this mortal coil without having compromised a whole lot of ideals they would purport to cherish just in the course of their day-to-day life. We freak out about coronavirus because it may affect us personally, while roughly 107,000 people die of treatable syphilis and 59,000 people, including very adorable children, die of preventable rabies every year in countries far away. We freak out about things that probably won’t even affect us at all, even though 128 people A DAY are dying from opioids in our very own country.
Put down that cat o’nine tails before you start flagellating yourself, though. Because that is what EVERYONE living in every system of gross injustice has done throughout all time. It’s part of human nature to be able to live in a world full of awful things happening and ignore everything that doesn’t personally apply to you; if it wasn’t, we’d never have survived the last several millennia to worry about the fates of fictional characters in the here and now. Sometimes, indeed many times, people born into a world of gross injustice don’t even understand that there IS injustice all around them. They’re incapable of envisioning a different world because things are the way they are and have always been, probably. You could even make the argument, as some have, that people alive today are more evil than those who lived in the past, because we DO know better and could do a lot more to right the world’s wrongs. (I’m not faulting you, I don’t do it either, but at least I admit I am just as bad as Thomas Jefferson, rather than sitting in judgement of him from behind my keyboard feeling all holier-than-thou about it).
Every one of us on the planet has benefited in some way from the existence of slavery and many of us still are. There are people in impoverished countries, including very adorable children, living in slavery or situations tantamount to slavery, systems that we support…yes, even you…by buying cheap plastic crap we do not need that was created on the backs of someone less fortunate. China is using Uighurs for slave labor to make products for Walmart where I just shopped this weekend. I know this and still shopped there and the only thought in my head was “oh look they still have hand sanitizer, only 3.99, that’s so awesome, now let me grab the last five boxes of store brand Mucinex”.
There are people, including very adorable children, in sex slavery in Thailand and over a milliion Americans visit there every year. There are marginalized people, probably entirely adorable ones, here in our own country being sexually exploited in exchange for drugs and we write that off as a consensual trade. There are people who are being exploited in the pornography industry and yet the vast majority of people have watched porn at least once (I know, I know, you were just trying to explain to your wife what tentacle porn was).
There are people in this very country, rich, powerful, successful people, who have domestic servants illegally employed in their homes beyond the protections of government agencies. Arnold Schwarzenegger had an affair with his maid and no one is screaming about how exploitative that was, ostensibly because it was “consensual” like Lando and L3-37 were consensual and also because Arnold Schwarzenegger says the right things about Donald Trump.
Hate the Confederacy?? Honeychildren, we ARE the Confederacy. We’re as complicit as Scarlett O’ Hara, living in our plantation houses all fiddle dee dee worrying about what dress to wear to the barbecue at Twelve Oaks Plantation while horrible things happen all around us and we decide we’ll just think about it another day.
Exploitation of actual human beings is happening. It is happening NOW. We benefit from it, both individually and en masse. And yet people get worked up over a movie with a pretend robot? For realz?
But of course this is supposed to be about romance and not me-being-pissed-off-ed-ness. Luckily for my larger point there is injustice in romance too, a case I laid out in my last Star Wars piece, I Want to be Kissed by a Scoundrel.
Some people want to cloak the injustice present in modern romantic relationships like Lando and L3-37 and Arnold and Maid by invoking the concept of consent, but as I pointed out in my Scoundrel piece, what’s so great about consent anyway? If you have created a system in which people experience great pressure to consent (and we have, several of them, as a matter of fact) and pay great costs when they don’t consent to what another person with more power than they have, want (again, totally a thing) the notion of consent really isn’t worth the paper it is printed on, is it? Sally Hemings probably consented to Thomas Jefferson, and we know that was wrong. Consent is nothing more than a fiction we tell ourselves so we can continue to live in our messed up system of power imbalances without feeling guilty about capitalizing on it or victimized when we do decide to make the trade.
One of the greatest power imbalances that we still tolerate is the imbalance between man and woman.
And if you admit that (which some people won’t, but hey, that’s why God made comments sections) but are saying “but how else can we govern these interactions? Consent may not be perfect, but at least it’s someplace to start,” yay, you found my point. I knew it was here somewhere. Moral systems cannot and should not be perfect (because who defines perfect, anyway?) and thus neither should fictional portrayals of moral systems. Interactions involving power imbalances are a thorny hairy dicey business. Sometimes we get them right, and exponentially more often, we don’t. All social interactions involve power imbalances of one sort or another; someone is always a little better off to begin with, someone is always a little more motivated to make a deal than the other guy is. We can never be sure how much the power imbalance factors into any relationship, romantic or otherwise, and oftentimes those who would govern said interactions are merely trying to impose their will onto others, negating the consent they purport to value so highly.
Fiction is a great way to investigate the moral nuance and ethical gray areas of these tangled interpersonal negotiations because that’s the whole purpose of fiction – to investigate moral nuance and ethical gray areas. They may not be perfect, but at least fictional portrayals are someplace to start.
We are all of us – Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lando Calrissian and Scarlett O’Hara and Alanna from Ashes in the Wind and you and me and whoever wrote Solo and even our old buddy Thomas Jefferson – born into these worlds that are entirely screwed up and rotten from top to bottom, inside and out, and then we have to exist within them. We cannot change the world singlehandedly or immediately, and trying to generally ends up with the changee lying broken on the rocks as the world rolls right on over them, which is why it’s usually only attempted by people who are totally freaking insane. Some of us try to change the world and fail and end up nailed to a cross or burned at the stake or stoned to death or with our entire brains downloaded into the Millennium Falcon’s computer system like L3-37. And the rest of us stand there watching it all and thinking “oh, well, that’s too bad, I kind of saw their point” and then eat a Hot Pocket and play video games till we feel better.
It sucks, but it’s reality. There is absolutely nothing wrong about creating a fictional universe in which that reality is portrayed.
Above all else, that’s what I enjoyed about L3-37. Her fate was realistic. What happens to her is super sad, sure, but it’s sad in a true way. She refuses to fit neatly into anyone’s box, literally building herself out of spare parts. She tries to launch a rebellion, gets killed, and then her boyfriend uses what’s left of her, literally, to get himself out of danger, thereby dooming her to a life in which she’s chained in one spot eternally, despite her love of and desire for freedom1.
The feminist subtext of L3-37’s existence is AMAZING. After having created herself out of junk that no one else wanted, she got involved with someone who never valued her, was used by him til their love destroyed her, and she ended up held in servitude to him forever (I think this was a euphemism for marriage, but I’ll admit I may be overthinking that a bit). The concept that Lando will carry a piece of her everywhere — L3-37 came into Lando’s life, enriched him, and then went away again freeing him up for another relationship — was straight out of the worst chapters of the Manic Pixie Dream Girl playbook.
After all the sacrifices she made on his behalf, Lando cared so little about L3-37, had so little gratitude for all she’d done for him, he lost her in a card game to Han…because he was cheating. CHEATING. Han says, and you can totally see his point, “she belongs with me”, and the rest is movie history.
That’s no sexist moon, it’s a feminist space station.
I don’t know why it is I seem to be one of the few people who understands subtext any more, but sometimes it sure feels that way. Attention, fellow thinkpiece writers, subtext is this thing writers — real writers, that is, not writers that puke up perpetual outrage for SyFy, Mashable, and Vox — do to reveal and/or explore a truth about the world without being insufferable preachy nags about it. Subtext means that the plot that’s appearing before your eyes on the screen that you’re getting all offended about, isn’t always exactly what it appears to be.
Moon or space station?? Sometimes you gotta think about it longer than .03 seconds to know. Sometimes you have to look beyond the obvious top layer to see the message that is really there lurking beneath the surface like a shark with PMS.
Subtext means you can both have a watchable, enjoyable movie that even the dudeliest of dudes will sit through, whilst still imparting a deeper message to your viewers wise enough to see it. The subtext of Lando and L3-37’s love was two-pronged, and both of them were quality prongs. The first prong involved an investigation of the ethics of sexual relationships against a backdrop of systemic unfairness, and given that a whole lot of people have experienced that dynamic across time and apparently also space, it seems worthy of discussion in the here and now. Discussion, rather than just wagging a finger and saying “Thomas Jefferson, you were a very, very bad boy!” and then lacing up our Nikes and going out for a run whilst listening to Ke$ha on our iPhones and being careful not to smack our earbuds against our diamond studs because OW! Afterwards we’ll treat ourselves to a delicious yummy chocolate bar as a reward for our hard work – vegan, of course, because we are ethical people.
And the second subtextual prong of Solo was the entirely feminist dynamic of having a partner who really doesn’t appreciate your greatness, who doesn’t think your causes are worthy of their support, who wrings you out till there’s nothing left of you, who locks you away from the world eternally for their own benefit, who cheats and loses you and doesn’t even really care. Again, that is something that many, many of us (men too) have experienced.
A movie in which a bad thing happens to a character you like isn’t necessarily immoral and awful and sexist and oppressive. Sometimes a bad thing happens to a character you like because a writer is trying to show that bad things, are like, you know, bad, or whatever?
None of the world’s dark underbelly would ever be talked about if every movie and every book featured a Superhero Princess surrounded by people who tell her how great she is constantly, except for the great big stereotypical meanie she has to defeat, but don’t worry cause she’ll do it without even breaking a fingernail. That may be a genre you personally enjoy, but it is NOT FEMINISM, it is wish fulfillment. It’s not feminism because it doesn’t help any dudes understand why being dicks to women is wrong and it doesn’t help any gal understand what it looks like when dudes are actually being dicks to her, even if they pretend she’s a Superhero Princess and tell her how great she is constantly while they do it.
The truth is, bad things can happen and do happen in this effed-up world in which we dwell, with dismaying frequency, and most of the people who do them aren’t even Actual Bad Guys. Like I’ve mentioned in the past, most of the guys who mistreat women in the way that Lando mistreated L3-37 are not obvious, visible monsters; they’re often lovable through and through and that’s why it’s such a shock when you realize that you’ve been living with one for seven months or more likely, years. It’s a shock because Hollywood taught us bad guys all look like Harvey Weinstein and dress like Darth Vader and act like the bad guy in 80s movies, with no redeeming qualities whatsoever and such transparent motives they may as well have a neon sign reading “this is the bad guy” flashing over their heads.
But the vast majority of the guys who treat women badly are nice guys most of the time, they’re cool and sweet and lovable and sexy as hell like Lando even though they treat their partners like crap. A lot of guys don’t even understand they ARE treating their partners like crap because they’re clueless as Luke Skywalker living in a world where droids’ memories are wiped regularly. They just don’t see it. They’re used to the world the way they thought it was, the world in which the man naturally has more say than the woman does, the world in which the man’s wants outweigh not only the woman’s wants, but her needs as well. And I understand that. After all, we don’t even see gross injustice occurring before our eyes most of the time, how could a guy – a good guy, a decent guy, a lovable guy, not an Actual Bad Guy – really even see the subtle injustice present in romantic relationships even when he’s the one instigating it?
If “bad people” were inhuman monsters we wouldn’t be so easily tricked by them. If “bad people” were inhuman monsters we wouldn’t so easily become them.
I love Lando, he’s one of my personal fave characters and I thought Donald Glover did a great job following in Billy Dee Williams’ footsteps. And I absolutely believe that a character I love could exist in a time and place where people didn’t care too much about injustice, because I’m honest enough to admit that ~I~ exist in a time and place where people don’t care too much about injustice, even when they vehemently claim that they do.
I do! I do care, really, and BTW did I mention that my 3.99 hand sanitizer has a very pleasant citrus scent?
Fiction has a higher purpose than preaching morality. Fiction actually is able to make us think about ethical stuff in ways that kinda sneak in under our defensive shields and get into our heads. And in order to allow fiction to do that, we have to acknowledge that people – whether they dwell in the mists of time or in a galaxy far, far away – lived in worlds that were terrible and unjust but they had to keep living their lives anyway. Because how else can we demonstrate how bad things are bad, unless we show bad things? How else can we show the insidious ways otherwise good people can exist in bad systems if we never show a bad system and the good people standing around complaining “This R2 unit has a bad motivator” knowing full well the Jawas will take it back to the sandcrawler and put it out of its misery, while daydreaming about getting off Tatooine once and for all?
The answer is, we can’t. The people who call for Star Wars movies to be sanitized for our protection don’t really care about morality. They care about creating clickbait-y content and engaging in that most beloved of all human pursuits, standing around knocking the people who are actually doing things while refusing to actually do things themselves. That ain’t morality. It’s virtue signaling by ninnies who are too dumb to understand subtext even when it is actually supporting their own cause.
The rest of us should just ignore them harder than Lando Calrissian ignores droid injustice.
Getting attached to robots has a long history.Report
It’s true that the way droids are treated in Star Wars is really messed up.Report
Eh, everything about Star Wars tends towards a nonsensical gabble if you look anywhere past the main plot line. Robots exist but slave labor is somehow economical; a single secret planet can manufacture and crew the largest and most advanced fleet of capital ships the Galaxy has ever seen… in total secret. Ships with hyperdrive can annihilate large cumbersome vessels regardless of armor or defenses- yet large capital ships are still an integral part of space battle.Report
I was thinking about this, and it occurred to me that this crazy world, where they have robots but human slavery makes sense is, actually the world we live in right now.
In some parts of the developed world, the level of technology is astonishing, with robotic devices doing everything from vacuuming floors to performing surgery.
Yet, it is still cheaper to have immigrants pick fruit than have a robot do it.
And actual human slavery exists in many parts of the world, and still makes economic sense.
It seems strange, but it is true that in some cases, human labor is cheaper and more plentiful than robots.
On a broader note, not everyone on our planet lives in a similar world; In some cases people live surrounded by technology while others live without electricity or running water. The economics of planet Earth as as varied as the people. This sort of labor over here is wildly expensive, while that sort of labor of there is cheaper than a machine.
For me, what stories like Dune and Star Wars got right was the importance of religion, that people don’t behave rationally, but in quirky irrational ways that don’t necessarily make sense but fit their emotional and psychological desires.Report
Great article. I think it’d be bolstered by some examples of the writings of people calling for the sanitizing that you reference but otherwise great points.Report
Hero stories tend to be inherently unable to address issues of justice, because they require a fundamental inequality of people where there is some sort of aristocracy of worth.
The hero is always just somehow better than other people, and acts according to his own code and desires without the messy input of peers. There is never the need to negotiate and work with other people’s inputs and agendas.
I wouldn’t be the first person to note how the hero is uncomfortably similar to the fascist Strong Man On Horseback.Report
IIRC shortly after the release of Episode VII, a director (I wanna say David Fincher) pitched Disney on the idea of a film from the perspective of droids and how mistreated they are by the setting: not surprisingly, 12 Years a Droid didn’t make it past the pitch stage.Report
Counter-argument: SW Droids aren’t sapients, they’re merely simulations of sapients. The ability to speak and fake emotion doesn’t change their moral status to human-equivalent anymore than Alexa and Siri are human-equivalent. This inhumanity doesn’t prevent people from forming emotional attachments to objects, but it isn’t and shouldn’t be any deeper or more meaningful than that which you would see with a treasured car or other possession (it hurts to see it damaged and there’s a sort of grief if it’s lost/destroyed, but under no conception could it be regarded as an equal to its owner). L3-37 wasn’t a person in a relationship, it was a malfunctioning tool. Its manifest defects frankly endangered Lando. Where you see a romance, I see a guy with a favorite ‘project car’ falling apart and nearly getting him killed at the end. That L3-37’s remains were then incorporated into the Millennium Falcon, rather literally a ‘project car’, wasn’t tragic so much as bringing it full circle: the broken tool was restored to its intended functionality.Report