Dogs and Dads: Male Melodrama in The Force Awakens
With Rogue One out this week, I decided to take a look back at last year’s Star Wars offering, The Force Awakens. While both new Star Wars films have been both celebrated and attacked for championing ‘minority’ characters, they’re still very much focused on Fathers and the passing on of power, which shows that patrilineage is still king. Patrilineage means the ways that we keep track of, and idolize, biological fatherhood. And nothing has preserved patrilineage quite like domesticated dogs – where would we be without man’s best friend? Probably still figuring out farming.
So first, a little introduction will do nicely. Melodrama as a genre has historically also been known as ‘the women’s film’. Melodrama is a collection of thematic conventions – tension, repression, impossible desires and similar. These tend to go hand in hand with some technical conventions like sweeping, grandiose music, long takes with sparse dialogue (staring out a window/into a mirror particularly) and vivid painterly colour. The Male Melodrama is heavier on the thematic side, the technical conventions tend to differ from what we tend to call melodramatic. Male Melodramas are almost always crises of masculinity. The Force Awakens slots Rey into the arc of a Male Melodrama, casting her as an active and dynamic protagonist while still satisfying the conservative side of the fandom. This is classic Disney; reaching for the stars with one foot firmly tied to the ground.
Consider how Rey and Finn are introduced in the film. Finn is a Stormtrooper, so he is the embodiment of repression. We’ve known them as faceless, conscienceless droids. When we first meet Finn he’s wearing a helmet, which keeps us at an emotional distance. But through his blocking and breathing noises, we start to empathize. When his helmet gets smeared with blood, it’s one of the most beautiful, touching visuals in the film. This distinguishes Finn from the other Stormtroopers and the Dark Side. It’s important to note that Finn is parentless. He’s been raised collectively as nothing but a number. We’re encouraged to judge him singularly, rather than by where he’s from.
Then with Rey, she’s shown scavenging in a decrepit ship for several minutes before we’re shown her face. In fact, the scene begins with her barely visible, an insignificant speck. It’s no accident that they both appear masked before being revealed, this lends weight and surprise to the fact that the film’s protagonists are a black man and a woman. But beyond that, it smoothly introduces the themes of the film in an implicit but no less powerful way.
In Classic Melodrama, staring into mirrors is a technique leaned on by many to show crisis of identity. In TFA we have masks instead; Finn’s mask claims him as part of a collective he wants to escape. Rey’s mask indicates nothing – she belongs to no one.
How do Dogs fit in?
Because the Star Wars films are sci-fi, not all ‘dogs’ are dogs, strictly speaking. What I mean by this is that the companionship between Luke and R2D2, Han Solo and Chewbacca, Princess Leia and C3PO and Rey and BB-8 are all designed to mirror relationships with dogs. Historically, the domestication of wolves to dogs has preserved patrilineage; we wouldn’t have such large populations and tall family trees if we had never joined forces with dogs. The Star Wars films use ‘dogs’ to mark out the main Good Guys, implying that they’ll be protected and making these characters sympathetic (if they show kindness to a simpler creature, that shows positive morality. Han Solo is a morally dubious guy, but that big two-legged Afghan Hound seems to like him, so he can’t be all bad).
This marks Rey out as the main protagonist of TFA. She is chosen by BB-8, and since the little ball of cuteness is the only one in the universe with any knowledge of the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker (bar Luke’s dog, who spends the majority of the film in a deep state of mourning very similar to those stories we hear of loyal dogs waiting on graves for their owners to return), it perhaps holds clues to her patrilineage.
The preoccupation with Dads is the most conservative aspect of this film, and the Star Wars franchise as a whole. It’s maybe a little sad that with a whole universe of possible themes to chose from, masculinity in crisis is still what we go for.
People who have never seen any of these films can usually still spout “Luke, I am your Father”.
The Force Awakens explores the tension between father figures and biological fathers. Kylo Ren and Domhnall Gleeson both volley for the attention of Emperor Snoke throughout the film, committing morally outrageous acts to impress him. Then of course, there’s this powerful image;
Then there’s his actual father; Kylo Ren explicitly states that he cannot move on without Han Solo’s help, and those of us who know what happens next will realise the weight of his words. Thematically, the fact that he can’t make this next step without shedding his father first is significant. To fully embrace Snoke, he has to clear the space. Combine all this with the fact that Luke Skywalker lost a hand courtesy of his own father and it all gets a little Freudian.
But since Rey is the main protagonist of The Force Awakens, let’s move on. Aside from the Dad drama, Rey takes the traditionally Male part in the Melodramatic relationship with Finn. He appears smaller than her in most shots because he is further from the action. She repeatedly saves him which is joked about in the dialogue. But if TFA really wanted to amp up their melodramatic potential, it would create a love-triangle between Rey, Finn and Poe Dameron (who also places Finn in the traditional female role of a melodrama by giving him a nickname and a coat to wear). But instead, Rey just reads stoic to me, although many see sexual tension between her and Loren. Considering she’s trying to share his Dad, I don’t want to go there!
Speaking of, Kylo Ren explicitly says to Rey “You feel he’s the father you never had”, referring to Solo. He’s not wrong. Rey spends a chunk of the film bonding with Han and quietly delights in gaining his approval. She is validated by his attention in ways she seems starved of, before that she was reluctant to leave her planet and anxious to return on the off-chance that her family might come back.
Then there’s Rey’s less obvious father figure, Luke Skywalker. Absent for the majority of the film, his presence still lingers over all the main cast. Skywalker’s lightsaber specifically seeks out Rey, and her journey in the film is complete only when she finds Luke and tries to return what’s rightfully his. I could get really lofty and talk about passing of the phallus etc. but I’m sure we can all appreciate the subtext.
Similarly, Rogue One puts Jyn Erso on a quest where she has to meet her surrogate father in order to find the whereabouts of her long lost real father. This is what I mean by Disney innovating with one hand and smoothing things over with the other, no matter how much the franchise is seen to be experimenting.
In the next film, I wouldn’t be surprised if Rey’s father is revealed, maybe even with a few red-herrings. In all the hype for the next episode, that’s the most burning question fans have. Because in Star Wars, Dads are the most important thing.