Reviews Round-up

The critics' verdicts on Evgeny Morozov, Gillian Shephard and Diana Pinto.

To Save Everything, Click Here by Evgeny Morozov

In his new book, To Save Everything, Click Here, Evgeny Morozov looks at how “big data” and “smart” technologies may not be the ideal solution to human problems. Writing in the Daily Telegraph, Tom Chivers says Morozov is at his most compelling when discussing politics and the dangers of what he terms “technological solutionism”. “He quotes some unsettling statements from various figures in the tech world promising to do for politics what did for books”. Morozov points out that we can’t rate politicians on a five-star scale: politics is a messy business, with no “right” way of doing things. Written as a follow-up to his previous book The Net Delusion, in which he dispelled the notion that the internet was an ally of political freedom, Morozov argues that perfection is neither achievable nor desirable for politics. Chivers, while accepting his argument, criticises his “hyperactive, shouting tone” and says it makes it difficult to trust him: “I haven’t read, or even heard of, half the people whose internet 'solutionism' he decries, but it’s hard to believe they’re the simple-minded fools that he claims; some suggestion that he has taken their arguments seriously would make his own that much more forceful.”

Writing in the Guardian, Steven Poole stresses that although Morozov is quick to attack other “new-media cyberhustlers”, his attacks go deeper than righteous ridicule. “He also interrogates the intellectual foundations of the cyberhustler, and finds that, often, they have cherry-picked ideas from the scholarly literature that are at best highly controversial in their own fields.” Adding that Morozov “admirably and triumphantly” fulfils the purpose of the book, which is to warn against running politics like a start-up based on “big data”,  Poole praises Morozov as “one of our most penetrating and brilliantly sardonic critics of techno-utopianism”.

The Real Iron Lady: Working with Margaret Thatcher by Gillian Shephard

Whether or not you agreed with her, everyone in Westminster recognised that Margaret Thatcher was a force to be reckoned with. Gillian Shephard attempts to reveal the hidden personality of the first female Prime Minister, speaking to everyone from trade unionists to her eventual successor John Major. The Independent’s Sonia Purnell calls the book “clumsily assembled and, at times, repetitive”.

Despite pointing out these shortcomings, Purnell goes on to say that “it paints a compelling picture of how the disrespect of male colleagues in her early days of power contributed to the creation of the warrior-queen version of Thatcher demonised ever since.” First-hand accounts are used to re-construct the dramas of her political life; from the Falklands war through to the miners’ strike.

The Guardian’s Tristram Hunt describes the book as “clumsily written, shoddily edited, and often embarrassingly reverential". Going on to say it is “too hagiographical” and “offers little sense of the ideology of Thatcherism, or a truthful analysis of the breakdown between prime minister and parliamentary party.” He argues that it simply serves as a retort to Meryl Streep’s portrayal of Thatcher as a “dotty old pensioner” in last year’s The Iron Lady and is an act of “beatification for the blessed Margaret.”

Both critics see a pervasive comparison with today’s Conservative-led coalition lingering beneath the surface, as Purnell describes the parallels between Thatcher’s own rise to power and the apparent leadership ambitions of current Home Secretary Theresa May. Hunt believes it to be “a marked critique of David Cameron's premiership”, suggesting that  “everything the heroic Mrs T was in office, the callow Old Etonian is not.”

Israel Has Moved by Diana Pinto

In this revealing portrait of the new Israel, Diana Pinto presents a country simultaneously moving forward and backward, looking outward and turning in on itself. Writing in the Financial Times, John Reed says Pinto “offers broader reflections on shifts in the nation’s psyche, sometimes to brilliant and startling effect”. Reed describes the book as “more travelogue and philosophical musing than reportage”, owing to its author being a policy analyst. The “effect is of enjoying an engaging and trenchant dinner party conversation with an intelligent traveller brimming with impressions from a trip”.

Pinto takes the reader on a journey from desolate, occupied Palestinian territory tocosmopolitan Tel Aviv, a wealthy bubble of business and nightlife, only a few kilometres from the site of conflict.

The Independent’s Linda Grant says Pinto’s strength as a writer is “her penetrating understanding of what lies beneath the surface of the clichés”. Grant praises her ability to “describe a recognisable Israeli mindset which owes nothing to the discourse of post-colonial narratives but rather a unique viewpoint, developed out of centuries of statelessness”. Nevertheless, she finds Pinto's inability to maintain the reader’s interest a serious shortcoming, and wishes the book had instead been “a lengthy article in a magazine like Foreign Policy, for Pinto's ability to think entirely trumps her capacity to describe and engage”.

Margaret Thatcher in 1974. (Photo by Michael Ward/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.