Despite being a professor of popular culture (more or less) I am never current on popular culture. Even the stories I love best are rarely seen before they come to DVD. When I watched the Hunger Games films, after much anticipation, I fell asleep every time. I could stay awake on re-watches, but I hate to admit that I did not make it all the way through Mocking Jay part two until a few months ago.
I wanted to stay awake only to see what choices they made at the end of the film, and whether these choices matched my thesis in my forthcoming book, Girls on Fire: Transformative Heroines in Young Adult Literature. They did. I could have said a lot more in my book about the way in which this ending illustrates just how much the absence of the voice and countercultural strength of Katniss makes the movies a rather empty and superficial representation of Katniss.
But such a critique does not ultimately matter because our culture is not ready for the voice and force of Katniss. It might just be enough to have the equal presence of girls and women in films to start making a dent in the patriarchal strangle-hold on popular culture representations.
Which brings me back to Star Wars. After the disappointment of the new Star Wars films, I did not pay much attention to the newer Star Wars films. I heard echoes of strong female protagonist, but I did not pay much attention. I hadn’t had a chance to watch The Force Awakens until visiting my sister and her family at the beginning of my sabbatical this winter.
We watched the film with plans to go see the new release of The Last Jedi in the theater during our visit. At first I was not excited about this plan, and I watched the film out of the corner of my eye while finishing breakfast. But soon I was hooked, with my eyes glued to the screen. I had found another Girl on Fire.
But Rey, as a Girl on Fire, is only the most obvious aspect of this film’s feminist activism. (And she is totally awesome.) Girls and women pepper the second film in a variety of roles. Women are old and young. Good and evil. They are leaders and heroes. They solve problems and they make mistakes. They are present. They are stock characters. They are role models.
Such representation is exactly what I argue and illustrate in Girls on Fire: Transformative Female Protagonists in Young Adult Literature. We don’t look to girls to lead us—in the present or the future—because we have not been given the opportunity to see girls and women outside the narrow confines of sex symbol and side story.
Before the film began, there were a variety of sci-fi themed films with Girls on Fire at the helm. There were, of course, plenty that did not feature girls at all, but we don’t have to be and do everything. We just have to get the opportunity to be seen as equals, to be equals as the norm rather than as the exception.
The Baby Boomer generation is having trouble accepting equality as fact. Generation X is trying to live within contradictions. But we can see hope when we see that the next generations see women in the world at every turn and in every position. Girls and women are the phoenix rising from the ashes of a world that has silenced us for too long.