“We’re still here because we should have died a long time ago but we didn’t.”
SPOILERS ALERT!! If you have not seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens please do not continue reading until you do. This post has major and significant spoilers that will ruin your enjoyment of the film.
It’s a busy time of year for us, but we (me and my oldest) managed to see the new Star Wars film twice already–once on Thursday night and again on Friday. It will be awhile before I have time for in-depth posts, but I didn’t want too much time to pass without getting a chance to share some of my thoughts.
First, the movie is great! The story is loving and good, respectful of the past and yet clearly in control of the future of the franchise. I loved the IMAX-3D experience, and felt that it really added to the visual perspective J. J. Abrams gives us. Space ship movements are fantastic and, unlike too many movies, the action is framed in a way that you can understand what is happening. The whole thing was memorable, to say the least.
One of the most surprising parts of the film about the movie was the consistent and varied attempt to make it feminist, or gender progressive. This was so consistently and deeply done that I think it has to be intentional. In any case, it deserves some discussion.
Here are some examples:
First (and this one is hardly the most significant or stand-out, but it was so big that it ranked first in my thinking), there is a primary character droid that is gender nondescript. BB-8 is called by it’s name throughout (unless I missed something, which is possible). R2-D2 and C3PO have always been “he” in the movies, even when R2 expresses no conventional gender. C3PO is not only gendered male, he is, of course, also an effeminate male. This was easy comedy in the 20th century, but (rightly) suspect to a new cultural generation where we do not read homophobia as all that funny. BB-8 is a reflection of this, I think. So, we have a new hero droid, and it is not he or she! Warmed my heart.
The central character in the film is Rey, played by Daisy Ridely. She is a self-reliant person. She can defend herself, she is mechanically-skilled, and she is powerful in other (to her largely unknown) ways. She does not need a man to save her, which is a point actively made in the first act. The point is made so intentionally, that it actually is a line of comedic relief during the action. When Finn first sees Rey she is being accosted. He is about to go and save her from attack until he realizes she has her own. When she beats up her attackers, he looks around at how everyone else hasn’t been doing anything to help her either, calling into question his initial masculinist ideals.
Soon after, Rey yells at Finn for taking her hand as they run from trouble. “I can run faster if you stop holding my hand!” This is yet another way we are being made to be aware of the traditional gender bias of the action movie (with the “savior male”) and how they are working in a different (gender) reality. When they both fall after an explosion, she comes to quickly and goes to check on him. Finn asks her “Are you alright?” She looks at him, confused by his question, before answering “Yes” in a matter of fact way. It was all so subtly acted and so great to see.
I don’t want to suggest that men being flawed and petty and dumb is inherently “feminist.” I do want to suggest that it is inherently “true.” This movie depicts men as they are historically–human, flawed, and imperfect. Why is that important? Because the traditional action movie usually gives us idealized men (hypermasculine or almost too-male-to-be-true) to serve as our aspirational end goal. This movie does not.
There are three primary female characters in the film–Rey, Maz Kanata, and (General) Leia. All three are leaders, strong, independent, and powerful. They show emotion as people do, but not overly so. They are the model characters of the film. They are the ideals. (There is a female Stormtrooper, Captain Phasma, who serves as the exception. This helps to further the cause of the other women characters by offering a suggestion of the span of women overall in the “good-bad” spectrum. That diversity (though only minimally suggested in the film) is a statement of their humanity, overall.)
Every other character–the men–are imperfect heroes, if they are heroic at all. They are liars and/or committed to participating in the actions of war, actions that are portrayed as patriarchal (oppressive “boys games”). War is not glamorized in this film. It is judged, even acting as the motivation for one character to change sides. This is an important part of the film. When it is celebrated, some of us in the audience felt the tension that comes from the silliness of having fun with death. For example, when Han Solo steps up and shoots (and kills) a trooper without looking, it is comical and out of place. I felt like it was a small scene doing two things: giving us one more bit of Han Solo and, yet, calling into question our love of the fighting we are seeing. Another example was when Finn admires Poe’s flying during battle. In that scene, in that moment, I think the film passes judgement on him. There is death all around you, you might get killed, and you are literally stepping out to admire another guy’s flying? I felt like it was passing subtle judgement on the entire culture of war.
The one exception, I think, is perhaps the Max Von Sydow character, although his only role is to act as a futile conscience for maleness gone amok. Which I know turn to…
Dad and Son
The big surprise of the movie–the identity of Kylo Ren and the death of Han Solo–is a clear instance of the Father/Son dynamic (the patriarchal fantasy) bing flipped upside down. In that way, it mimics the movie overall. We don’t know why Kylo/Ben turned. We can think it has something to do with Luke but, as in the past, the blame a teacher takes is rarely true as much as the human flaws in the individual. We do not Leia chose for him to train with Luke and we do know that Han feels like he did something wrong as well. In any case, the son killing the father is the perversion of the traditional action movie that is so vital to this film. The threat of son killing father is part of the Star Wars canon; it is what Luke is told he is going to have to do. It is what Luke ends up not doing. Here, it happens.
Rey and the Force
Rey’s use of the force is a very key part of the feminist character of the film. Rey always has it together and is seemingly always in control of her destiny, except in two key scenes. One is when she meets Kylo for the first time and he stops her in combat and then makes her pass out as he takes her hostage. She has met somebody who has a power she does not have (she thinks) and that knowledge (communicated so brilliantly in Daisy Ridley’s face) defeats her easily. Then, moments later, in their interrogation, she assumes her power and is able to fight back.
That power comes, first, by her seeing that Kylo Ren is nothing but a man. Daisy Ridley’s face in that scene is intentional and perfect. She is surprised when Kylo takes off the mask, as if he has lost some power over her by being just a person, a man. His traditional attack of her is patriarchal in the largest sense. He threatens a kind of rape, really, even though that’s not what he is literally talking about (maybe). It is what he is symbolically talking about: “You know, I can take whatever I want.”
She fights back by doing the opposite of what he does. In fact, every time Rey harnesses the force in this movie it is through centering herself, looking within, and finding peace. When she is emotional, flustered, fearful, angry–when she is like almost all the male characters of the movie–she can not use her real power. He success with the force comes after these anger mistakes.
Maz and Leia
Both are idealized and “perfect” people who do all we want from leaders. Leia is perhaps the best. She is not a hurt woman who wants a man (Han) back. She is a mother and the stronger (always) of the two former lovers. She shows strength and compassion. She’s the best. It is all a symbol of leadership being real, good, and non-male. Even when the battle is won, she is the leader not celebrating the victory of the boy’s game.
Maz and Rey have a discussion in the movie that might make this the first Star Wars movie to pass the Bechdel Test. Maz is knowing and powerful. When she talks to Rey in the tunnel she does not use her tricks, her glasses. She speaks from her small-eyed self, speaking truth. It is brilliant.
When Rey and Kylo fight she wins, she does so by striking him down and NOT killing him (an alternative form of victory, a non-male form), and she cuts down a whole bunch of trees. That last one made me laugh with such delight. Her first strike with the lightsaber is striking down a phallic symbol of a tree trunk. It is a symbolic statement if I ever saw one. Their battle ends when the ground opens up between them. She standing stronger, he weakened and confused. Need I say more?
There are a whole bunch more, but I wanted to at least get out the big ones as you prepare for your next viewing. I can’t wait to watch more of the franchise take on gender is such a rich, and knowing way. As you do, look out for the more substantive examples of the intent here.
And let me offer this: the key is that The Force Awakens is trying to do this by doing more than just swapping out the male lead for a female one. When it comes down to it, women occupying the traditional role of the patriarchal (violent, stoic, controlling and powerful) male is not exactly progress when it comes to gender/feminism. Films that commit to subverting those traditional gender roles, as well as their effects, are much better. That’s the difference between Sigourney Weaver in Aliens or Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 and what we have here.
Being gender progressive in a film (and, more importantly, anti-patriarchal) isn’t about making women into men or about making men into evil idiots. In this case, at least, it’s about dismantling the conventions of the traditional action movie and helping us call into question our assumptions and past behaviors. It’s about giving us human characters of all genders, but also using our expectation for a hero for something more than the tired, old stories of the past.
And, ultimately, it’s about giving young girls the same kinds of exciting possibilities as young boys when making a new generation of action/Sci-Fi films.
I think the best music is often music geared toward a teen/young adult audience, people experiencing some of the enduring emotions and struggles of life for the first time. That’s because we love music about love, about loss, about struggle, and about pure fun.
Music speaks to this period of our lives so well because of who we are in those years. We are possessed by ourselves, by our discovery of self and the world. That comes with the hubris of thinking that we are the first, the most authentic, or the most real of any generation to have experienced these things. And, if we are lucky, those years come with tremendous possibility and not too much responsibility.
Here are 5 songs from 1993 that captured their moment and also represented the peak of commercial or cultural success for the artists who made them.
5. “Weak” (SWV)
“Sisters with Voices” (or SWV) were a moderate success in the R&B world throughout the 90s, topping those charts for a handful of years. This, their debut single, brought them the mainstream pop success that those other efforts could never replicate.
4. “No Rain” (Blind Melon)
The grunge era produced a lot of beautiful music. This qualifies in the one-hit-wonder category, but the song is almost bigger than that. Coupled with the video, it carried with it such a genuine authenticity, one made more tragic just a couple of years later when lead singer Shannon Hoon died of an overdose.
3. “What’s Up?” (4 Non Blondes)
Singer and songwriter Linda Perry has had a successful career as a producer and writer for a slew of artists, ranging from Christina Aguilera to Pink. As a performer, this was her peak. And what a peak it is. One of the anthems of the decade.
2. “Sweat (A La La La La Long)” (Inner Circle)
Inner Circle owe their mainstream success to reality television. In 1989 their song “Bad Boys” (a 1987 release) was used as the theme song for the new FOX show “Cops.” The Jamaican band, who had been at it since the late 60s, were the makers of a song that everybody knew but remained largely unknown. When their dance single “Sweat” started to make waves in the clubs, it brought an awareness of the band into the mainstream.
1. “Heart-Shaped Box” (Nirvana)
Nirvana is a little bit of a cheat, since they were bigger than themselves on some level, and certainly bigger overall than they were in any one year. There is something amazingly stupendous about them in 1993, though. In that year they released the follow-up to their legendary album Nevermind. Nirvana was the biggest and most authentic grunge band of all, a reputation that might have made a follow-up album impossible to do well. What they did ended up solidifying their legendary status, and (again) voicing so much of a moment of a generation. When Kurt Cobain died the next year, the loss was unfathomable. At the same time, it was so comprehensible.
Life is filled with pivotal moments, periods of time that change us in fundamental ways. Most of us don’t have many, but the ones we do have are indelibly part of our story. I’d guess, for most of us again, those moments are far more frequent in our teens and twenties than at any other period of our life.
I turned 20 years old in 1992 and it was a year of pivotal moments for me. I read Marx for the first time and got seriously into Chicano history. The L.A. riots flipped my sense of the world upside down. I studied abroad in England in the fall, my first time needing a passport and my second time on an airplane. I got my first email account.
Here are just five of the songs that I associate with this period in my life. There are many more, but these are all from 1992 and all occupy a soft spot in my heart.
5. “Kiko and the Lavender Moon” (Los Lobos)
Even though I had known Los Lobos for years, this song came from the first of their albums I ever bought, 1992’s Kiko. It’s a mystical album, folksie and spiritual, and the song is indicative of the whole. I was moved by the sound, the organ and the odd chords. It melded perfectly with where I was and who I was, with a nod to where I was from.
4. “Nuthin’ but a “G” Thang” (Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre)
It’s difficult to overestimate the significance of Dr. Dre’s debut solo album The Chronic. This song preceded the album’s December release by about a month. It was the first time I heard Snoop Doggy Dogg. All I can say is that it made an impact, seemingly with everyone.
3. “Galileo” (Indigo Girls)
I had friends who were Indigo Girls fans throughout my first two years of college. If not for the success of this song, the folk duo were the kind of sound I might never have encountered if not for college. This mainstream hit, however, made them unavoidable for my generation, and helped put them on regular play on my stereo.
2. “Tears in Heaven” (Eric Clapton)
I liked this song so much when I first heard it that I bought the soundtrack to the movie Rush, which is how the song–a love letter to Clapton’s son Connor, who died tragically at the age of 4–was first released. It was poignant and bittersweet. On January 16, 1992, Clapton performed it along with some of his classics and other songs as part of an acoustic “MTV Unplugged” concert. The concert would air later in March, result in a best-selling and Grammy-winning album later that summer, and signal the start of the next phase of Eric Clapton’s career. That acoustic version continues to be one of my favorite live performances of any song.
1. “That Feel” (Tom Waits)
Tom Waits was starting the third decade of his musical career when I discovered him. I never knew he existed before that and when he came to me it was like coming home. My first encounters with him where, simultaneously, a live 1974 recording (Nighthawks at the Diner) and 1992’s Bone Machine. This song, the final track to that album (which won the Grammy for Best Alternative Album, go figure…) is a duet with Keith Richards. It sounds about as beautiful as two drunk alley cats singing to themselves as they wallow in self-pity. It’s beautiful.
The Sandoval family said goodbye to one of our own today.
Danny Sandoval was an amazing man. He was a loving father and grandfather, and a loyal brother and son. He was a beloved cousin and nephew. To me and my siblings and cousins, he was an uncle. He was my Uncle Danny. And he was one of the most influential people in my life.
Uncle Danny was a caring and accepting man. Honestly, he was one the most non-judgmental people I ever known. He took people as they were and saw in them the good that they carried. In that alone he made a profound impact on me.
The most enduring memories I will carry about my Uncle Danny are his sense of humor and his love of music. Like all the Sandoval brothers, Danny was quick-witted and had impeccable timing. Not only could he make you laugh, but he loved to laugh himself. Watching my dad and his brothers crack each other up was one of my favorite things as a kid. To join in as an adult was even better.
Danny was also a gifted musician and a lover of music. It’s the first thing anybody thinks about when they think of Danny. He had an amazing voice, one of the best I’ve ever heard. And he could do amazing things on a guitar. He was in bands all throughout his life. Though he was never famous, or never made a living at it, it was his passion. And he was good at it. Mostly self-taught, my Uncle could play the boleros he learned from my grandpa as well as the rock and rhythm & blues he loved from his upbringing.
Our love of music and, in particular, the guitar, was part of the bond we shared. Simply put, he was my guitar idol. He was also my teacher. My Uncle Danny gave me my first real pick. When I was a kid and showed him how I could switch between the G, D, and C chords, he showed me how to play an A chord and then how to make the switch easier to other chords. When I was a teenager and I had inherited one of my grandpa’s guitars, he taught me how to do an A-minor and an A-7. When I started really working at learning songs in my 20s, he opened a new world for me when he showed me how to play ninths.
I loved to watch my Uncle play and sing, but I also loved to talk about music with my him. He was a walking encyclopedia of 20th century popular music, especially 60s and 70s rock. While he had his favorites, he was also non-judgmental when it came to music. For me, that was always a lesson because it seemed incompatible with being a diehard fan. But my Uncle had respect for music, musicians, and for the love people had for both. He didn’t judge what you liked if you liked it because he knew what a powerful thing that was.
When I started to get into heavy metal, we could talk about AC/DC or Black Sabbath or Metallica, even though those weren’t big for him. He knew them as a musician, but he also appreciated that they meant something to me. He could show me what they did or why they sounded how they sounded, to give me something more to appreciate about them. I always admired that about him.
Mostly, I remember him talking about the guitarists and the music he loved, because that’s what I loved to hear. And, if my Uncle loved it, I made a point to like it too, because it had to be good. I remember back in the 80s, when I was in high school, he was talking about Bob Seger to me and one of my aunts. I knew who Bob Seger was but didn’t think that much of him. I remember I asked him, “Why doesn’t he make music anymore.” My Uncle answered, “Because he’s Bob Seger. He doesn’t have to.” That was it! Even to this day I will defend the music of Bob Seger to anyone.
A lot of this blog is about music. That’s because a lot of my life has been about loving music. I work it into my classes and into my family as a result of that love. That love comes from a lot of places. It comes from my dad and my mom, from my grandpa, from my childhood. And a big part of it has always come from my Uncle Danny.
Until the day I die, I will always think of Danny Sandoval when I play the guitar or listen to the music that we loved. He’s always been a part of my passion for both. I miss him dearly already, but I am glad that I can feel him in so many songs.
Here are some songs, a little more than five, that I will always associate with his talent and his love. Rest in peace Uncle Danny…
Throughout the last academic year, incited by the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner and guided by the energy and example of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, students in colleges and universities across the country have increasingly turned to protest. Over the last few weeks alone, student protests at some campuses have reached important junctures, making headlines and creating a powerful moment of possibility.
The New York Times recently provided a cursory overview of some of the more high profile protests and their inciting events. I’m certain this is only scratching the surface when it comes to chronicling racist incidents at colleges and universities as well as student efforts for change. Sadly, students and faculty at the community of liberal arts colleges where I work (and, specifically, the campus where I was a student) are facing a very similar example of our own this week.
These student protests have mostly been in response to racist incidents at the local level, but they’re not about those incidents, not really. They’re about a larger and widely shared problem: 21st century racism in the university.
Each has its own shape and mood, it’s own set of assets and liabilities. But these varied protests each voice part of a unified chorus of what it is like to be nonwhite in the university. They’re about the lived realities that exist underneath the word “underrepresented.” They’re about the feelings of inferiority, anger, and frustration incited by life in an institution devoted to whiteness. They’re about that whiteness, an ideology our institutions do not see and, yet, can not see beyond. They’re about the expectation for something better from institutions that sell themselves as places that are welcoming and “inclusive.”
Though these student movements are not formally connected, and while each campus has its own particular context to address, it’s hard not to view them as part of a critical moment in higher education, one forcing a reckoning with how our institutions act on issues of race, racism, and “diversity.” One of the lessons that’s easy to take away from these (not yet concluded) struggles is that most of those in charge of our institutions of higher education are not adequately prepared to effectively hear (let alone address) students’ concerns.
Fundamental to this is the way these institutions view “us”–the underrepresented, the minorities, the people of color. They languish in the conceit that they are “moving forward” and actualizing “progress” simply by opening their doors to us. Despite the rhetoric, what is painfully obvious is that they do not understand the most fundamental truth related to their “commitment to diversity.” That truth is this: we do not need them as much as they need us.
“Diversity” was always made to benefit them, of course. The university who can paint its portrait with the faces of nonwhite students and faculty wears the hue of modernity and progress. Through our presence we allow them to embody “the future” by helping them distance themselves from their white supremacist pasts. What’s worse, we legitimate their most addictive myth–that the ivory tower is home to only the best and the brightest our society has to offer. Our presence is proof of their contention that entrance is now guided by merit and merit alone. We alleviate their mid-20th century inferiority complex, incited by the Black Freedom Struggle, that forced those who studied in these hallowed halls to come to terms with the fact that they were the beneficiaries of a racist system.
Our most palpable gift to these institutions is the way we animate their moral purpose. As they admit and enroll us they are emboldened by what they see as their commitment to the “greater good.” We’re lucky to be here, they tell us. And how good are they to let us in! It’s a paternalism the student of the past will be most familiar with, one that makes “diversity” evidence of their “commitments” and inherent goodness.
Of course, our presence in the university is good and it is meaningful. We know this. It is one small step toward something better. It is this knowledge, in part, that fuels the current protests. Our real and powerful value is also indicative of the extent to which they need us. They need us to be their mirror, to show them to themselves as they are. Only then can they move forward as institutions–as communities–and become more like the places they believe themselves to be.
We are here to give them a chance to understand how their ways of knowing, ways of being, and ways of dreaming are not the only ways.
Our colleges and universities are vessels of whiteness, proponents of an unacknowledged project of conversion. This is the hangover of a history of formal white supremacy in the US, a system where racial prejudice became the rationale of deciding who could have power. Even when you alter the system, if you do not actively dismantle the ideology, you risk doing little more than cosmetic change.
The palpable remnants of this ideology course through this conversion project to which most colleges and universities are committed. They see our value only in so far as we are willing to surrender ourselves to that project and become like them. It’s a tired notion, laughable if not for its resilience. It deserves to be laid to rest. If they can learn to listen to us, to see as as truly equal, they stand to be liberated from it too, from the cage it represents. To be truly free, of course, they also have to learn to be more like us. That’s its own struggle, to be sure, one that has few success stories. (At least not yet.)
The student protests now taking place, and taking shape, are about this kind of liberation. But they can not make it come to fruition. When it comes down to it, you see, that’s not our job to do. There is no saving to be done here. They’ve got to save themselves! We can speak our truth and let it enable a culture of learning, even a culture of crisis. But we can not make them learn from it. That is a choice they have to make. Let our voices be an alarm bell that the time for that saving is now.
What we can do is frustrate complacency and nurture empathic understanding. That’s much easier said than it is done, not for the processes it represents but for the context in which we now struggling. I was a “student of color” once, too. I remember the epiphanies, the anxieties, the disappointment, and the anger. I remember the frustration, and the exhaustion. As a “professor of color” in the same institutions you’re in now, I remember these because they are a part of my present. Daily I come to terms with the fact that they are also part of my future.
It’s from that place, a place of love and caring and respect, respect for what you feel and for what you know, that I offer these reminders:
Take care of yourself and each other. Protest can be exhilarating and affirming when we experience it as a real community. It is also tiring and diminishing. Respect those costs and seek to care for each other through it. Listen to each other. Hug one another. Make space to learn with one another.
Don’t mistake the symptom for the disease. We engage oppressive institutions through episodes that wound the soul, instances when the realities it produces are unavoidably clear. Each is easily removed or reprimanded without altering the system itself. Do not let them think this is about Halloween costumes. If we do, we lose. In fact…
The system of higher education is nimble. It is self-critical, liberal, and able to agree with you as it defends the fundamental core of its problems. Its reflex will be to co-opt your energy and welcome your protest because it is designed to do so by bending to give the illusion of substantive change. Only vigilance, and an understanding of its inherent flexibility, can provide a check against this survival mechanism.
Remember that they, like us all, are learners. Ignorance is our start in life. Ignorance of these matters, at this point in time…that ignorance is made. It must be unmade. Do not let this stifle your need to speak your truth. Do let it guide the work of finding solutions, real and meaningful solutions.
If I did not believe in the inherent value of education, as well as the ability of institutions of higher education to be better than they are, I would not be in the line of work I am in. Change is possible. These places can be the places they think they are, the places they need to be. That takes work. Real work.
As students, you have done–and are doing–more than your share, even as you know there is much more still to be done. Let us hope the others come to realize that most of the work rests on their shoulders. Let us hope they learn to hear and accept their part.
The early 1990s were an eclectic period in popular music and my tastes were no different. Combined with my (st)age––that powerful period in life when you’re actively discovering who you are and deciding who you want to be––my wide interests make me a fan of so many songs from those years.
Some of that is about the memories songs incite. When I hear “3 Strange Days” by School of Fish, for example, I am instantly transported to the job I worked each break from school, processing checks at two in the morning. Some of it is the ironic fanaticism of my generation, a way of seeing and judging that could make things as stupid as this both enjoyable and, somehow, meaningful.
There are a lot of songs from 1991 that I want to people to know about, songs I wish they played more often on the radio, songs that deserve to be played more often. But there’s no way I could get that list down to only five.
Surprisingly, it wasn’t hard at all to come up with the five songs that meant the most to me that year, songs that I obsessively played on repeat, again and again.
5. “It’s So Hard to Say Goodbye to Yesterday” (Boyz II Men)
A song of change and of transitions, a song of memories and love. I never stood a chance.
4. “Why Should I Cry for You” (Sting)
Sting made his 1991 album Soul Cages to process his father’s death. It’s one of my favorite albums of all time. I used to put on my head phones and push play, then just sail away…
3. “Lithium” (Nirvana)
It was an album that made me feel alive, confused, angry, powerful, and peaceful, all at the same time. This was the one I played the most, the one that made me feel his genius.
2. “Nothing Else Matters” (Metallica)
I bought Metallica’s “Black Album” the day of its release. I remember being surprised by the melodies. I thought it was the end of Metallica, and one of the best albums I had ever heard. This was my Gen X anthem.
1. “Black” (Pearl Jam)
I loved Pearl Jam’s Ten for the way it made me feel. It was like these guys were playing the soundtrack of my guts, in sound and words.