Friday Arts Diary

Our cultural picks for the week ahead.


Raindance Film Festival, Apollo Piccadilly Circus, 26 Sept – 7 Oct

Notable for having repeatedly premiered next year’s most talked about films (cf. The Blair Witch Project, Memento, Old Boy), Raindance returns this week with its signature array of new movies from across continents, provocative new documentaries and live events. The Piccadilly Apollo and Haymarket Cineworld will lay on everything from a far-Eastern adaptation of The Tempest set in near-future Japan to an Irish horror mockumentary: Portrait of a Zombie. There will be a new Mexican Cinema strand, and as ever, short films will form an essential element of the line-up which debuts over 200 shorts on average each year. This year’s festival winner will be automatically shortlisted in the Best Short Film category at the 2013 Academy Awards. The full programme can be downloaded by clicking here.



The Times Cheltenham Literature Festival, 5 – 14 Oct

Cheltenham’s Imperial Square will hold more marquees and Times readers than usual next weekend as the town’s annual literary festival gets under way. Big names involved in talks and debates include the world’s best-known “left-leaning demagogue” J. K. Rowling, recent memoirists Salman Rushdie and Paul Auster, screen stars Benedict Cumberbatch, Paul O’Grady and Clare Balding, and former UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan, talking about his new book Interventions: A Life in War and Peace. The festival’s theme is apparently People: Power, and even if it barely needs the word “literature” in its title, the line-up is broad enough for everyone to find something of interest.



Darbar Festival, Southbank Centre, 27 – 30 September

Darbar is a festival of Indian classical music which brings concerts, talks, food and yoga to the Southbank’s Centre’s Pucell Room once a year. At fourteen concerts across four days the programme boasts a selection of India’s best musicians, many of whom are sixth or seventh-generation instrumentalists, appearing in the UK for the first time. Ones to watch include the tabla master Pandit Swapan Chaudhuri and sitarist Ustad Shujaat Khan. Music is drawn from both the Hindustani (north Indian) and Carnatic (southern) traditions and for those who want to know more, the curators run an Indian Classical Music Appreciation Course, enabling newcomers to get their heads around the subcontinent’s ancient musical forms. After London, many of the concerts will tour to the rest of the UK.



Our Country’s Good, Aberystwyth Arts Centre, 2 – 6 October

In 1789 a young lieutenant named Ralph Clark was charged with directing inmates interred at the (new) New South Wales penal colony in a performance of the Restoration comedy the Recruiting Officer, commissioned to celebrate the king’s birthday. Based on the novel by Thomas Keneally (of Schindler’s Ark/List fame), Timberlake Wetenbaker’s play sees the lieutenant struggle with a morose cast, critical fellow officers, two damaged script books and a leading lady threatened with the gallows, to find out what theatre is really made of. First directed by Max Stafford-Clark in the late 80s and revived this year by the same director for his Out of Joint Theatre Company, the play will tour nationally before joining the opening season at London’s new St James Theatre early next year. This Tuesday’s performance will be followed by a post-show talk with the cast and crew.



Open Studio Weekend, Gasworks, Vauxhall SE11 5RH, 28 – 29 September

A south London contemporary art organisation, Gasworks has studio space for eleven resident artists, three of whom have arranged a series of events for an Open Studio Weekend. Starting tonight Cécile B. Evans will premiere new works generated by an open call for rejection letters from artists and curators between 6-9pm, including a full studio tour at 7pm. The weekend continues on Saturday with Sunoj D., who will discuss his research for a commission by the National History Museum about the experiences and values of modern farmers (2pm, bring a plant pot), ending on Sunday (12pm) with a walk through London, exploring sights of protest and conflict from through the city’s history with Francisca Benítez.

The "left-leaning demagogue" J. K. Rowling will appear at the Cheltenham Literary Festival next week. Photograph: Getty Images.
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No, J J Abrams – Star Wars was never “a boy’s thing”

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”.

In 1977, millions of people went to cinemas to see Star Wars: A New Hope, and afterwards, a good portion of them were suddenly rendered invisible. It didn’t matter that they rushed to line up for the sequels; it didn’t matter that they were eager to buy and play with the toys; it didn’t matter that they grew up to read the novels and explore the expanded universe and sit through the prequels and introduce their children to something they had loved as a child. They’re a group that overlaps with the invisible force that haunts comic book shops, or plays a lot of video games, or makes up nearly half the audience for superhero films, or, to one New Statesman staffer’s persistent, possibly-only-half joking incredulity, liked Doctor Who long before Russell T Davies got his hands on it. 

With less than three weeks before J J Abrams’s rebooted Star Wars hits screens, the director went on Good Morning America yesterday to talk in vague, broad strokes about his turn with the franchise. But the otherwise-unremarkable interview made headlines because of one segment, when Abrams was asked who he most excited to hear from about the film. He said:

“Star Wars was always about, you was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads take their sons to. And though that’s still very much the case, I was really hoping that this could be a movie that mothers can take their daughters to as well. So I’m looking forward to kids seeing this movie and to seeing themselves in it, and seeing that they’re capable of doing what they could never imagine was possible.”

That invisible group of Star Wars fans, who love that well-known “boy’s thing”? Women, who have spent the past four decades loving the franchise just as much as all those fanboys, even if no one else – the fanboys themselves in particular – seemed to take much notice. Abrams’s offhand remark coincided with recent headlines like Bloomberg’s “‘Star Wars’ Toys Aren’t Just For Boys Anymore as Rey Takes Over”, a reference to the female lead of The Force Awakens, portrayed by Daisy Ridley. Across the web, aside from stirrings by the now-mandatory Internet Outrage Machine, the overwhelming response seemed to be one of sad and somewhat resigned frustration, with women sharing memories of falling in love with the series, essentially saying, “We’ve been here this whole time.” My friend Lori Morimoto, in “An Open Letter to J J Abrams”, wrote, “I’d like to tell you the story of a girl who became a Star Wars fan. I hope you can suspend disbelief over my existence long enough to make it to the end.”

Star Wars is a universe populated by complicated gender politics, on and off screen. The three original films fail most facets of the Bechdel test (I laughed out loud here seeing the suggestion that A New Hope deserves a pass because the only two named female characters could have talked offscreen). Princess Leia’s enslavement and escape (and the bikini she wears while doing it) is a cultural touchstone that’s launched a complicated feminist dialogue over the decades. And it is perhaps because of the mostly-male cast in the films – and the long-held assumption that science fiction is a primarily masculine property – that the franchise has long been marketed exclusively to boys, despite the massive and loyal female audience.

But the modern Star Wars empire is helmed a woman, Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, and when she revealed that two-thirds the story team behind the newest film was female, she also pledged that there would be a woman in the director’s chair before too long. And since one of the leads in The Force Awakens is a woman, her character, along with a black male lead – portrayed by John Boyega – sparked anger from the reactionary white guy corner of the internet in recent months (sorry that the SJWs ruined your movies, guys!). For films that once portrayed a place so alien that only white men were allowed to speak to each other, the widening of representation in this reboot apparently looks to some like a political – or, to them, a politically correct – act.

The welcome diversity of the leading cast highlights all the good intentions in Abrams’s statement: that this new film promises more than a panoply of white guys, that girls and people of colour can see themselves reflected back in these new heroes. All the girls who thought the movies weren’t for them because they only saw men onscreen, or the endless line of male action figures on the shelf, have a point of entry now – that’s what representation means. And that’s certainly worth cheering for, even if it only took us 40 years to get there. But it’s hard for all the people who aren’t white men who’ve found other points of entry over the years, who managed to love it without seeing themselves there. I can speak from personal experience when I say that a lifetime of media about white guys hasn’t stopped me from finding characters and stories to fall in love with.

Here’s a theory: you might not have noticed that you were surrounded by female Star Wars fans all these years because you were the one who rendered them invisible. Women who like things such as Star Wars, or comics, or anything else that leads journalists to write those painful “not just for boys anymore” trend stories, have had to take it from all sides. Enthusiasm for something seen as the province of men clashes with mainstream perceptions of femininity. Even women liking this stuff in the context of traditionally feminised fan spaces, like fanfiction, find themselves fending off assumptions from men and women alike, perhaps the accusation that they are sexualising something too much, or they are placing too much weight on the emotional elements of a storyline. Basically, that they’re liking the thing the wrong way.

But women’s enthusiasm for perceived “male” spaces is always liking the thing the wrong way. The plainest illustration of this is the Fake Geek Girl, in meme and in practice: the barriers to entry are raised immeasurably high when women try to join in many male-dominated fannish conversations. The wonderful Noelle Stevenson illustrates this beautifully – and then literally, when a guy challenges her on her work. I’m sure that just by writing about Star Wars, I’m opening myself up to the angry gatekeeping-style pissing contests that men like to toss at women who claim to like the things they like. (Let’s get it all out in the open here: Star Wars isn’t my fandom. I saw the three original films on dates with my first boyfriend – our first date: Star Trek: First Contact, because we were clearly the coolest kids in town – and upon rewatches as an adult nothing grabbed me. But I am also a fandom journalist, so that’s kind of how this works.)

There’s a persistent myth – and I say persistent because I keep seeing these deluded boys get mad in new viral posts – that women who claim to like geeky things are just pretending, the somewhat confusing notion that they are doing it for attention. (And then there’s the inevitable anger that in this supposedly desperate plea for attention – why else would a woman claim to like their beloved characters?! – these women still don’t want to sleep with them.) And what never seems to occur to any of these gatekeepers is that these women were there all along, liking these things just as much – and are finally being given the cultural space to be open about their interests and passions. But that space is given haltingly; plenty of women, tired of waiting, are going out and taking it. The result is the tension (and, at times, outright hostility) that has marked certain corners of the fannish world in the past few years.

Women love things that are “for boys” because these things are actually “for humans”. There are many reasons that people love Star Wars, and most of them are universal things: the themes, the characters, the archetypal struggle of good versus evil. Most of the time we default to the white guy; he struggles with things we all struggle with, but somehow, he is deemed most relatable. Abrams, Kennedy, and everyone behind the new films should be applauded for their efforts to give non-white guys a turn at the universal story – I think these are incredibly valuable choices, and certainly will make the films vastly more accessible, particularly to children.

But we don’t just need Rey on screen and Rey dolls on the shelves for mothers and daughters – those same mothers and daughters have found plenty to love without many women to look to on their screens. We need boys to love the female heroes as much as we’ve loved the men over the years: we need universal to be truly universal. And when we express that love, the default reaction shouldn’t be a challenge: not, “You don’t like this thing as much as I do,” or, “You don’t love this the right way.” Isn’t it easier to say, “Oh, I’m so glad that you love this, too!”

Elizabeth Minkel is a staff writer for The Millions, and writes a regular column on fan culture for the New Statesman. She is on Twitter @ElizabethMinkel.