Yesterday I took my on to see the new Star Wars film (I feel obliged to point out that what follows may contain spoilers).
I didn’t feel any great urge of my own to go and see it, but he had been caught up in the excitement. I’m glad I did: it’s a great film. I’m not exactly a Star Wars fan: the last time I watched one of the films from start to finish was when I went to see Return of The Jedi in the cinema. I guess that one of the most striking things for people like me is the original actors reprising the same roles, more than thirty years later, a sort of epic time-lapse cinematography. I think movie characters linger in our imagination as some sort of immortal figures –even when they die on screen- so there was something unsettling for me about the way the normal ageing process had continued after the original films had ended. Usually when I’m sitting in the dark in the cinema with the images up on the big screen I’m not so aware of my own presence, or my own age. Then there was the fact that I was there with my son, who was watching the film at roughly the same age as I was when I went to see Return of The Jedi.
I wouldn’t say the film is a family movie, though, and that’s a good thing. One of the themes of the film is the way the expectations of family life, its established norms and roles, can prove too great a burden for people to bear. Han Solo and General Leia may not have meant to send their son the way of the Dark Side, but they did, and Kylo Ren has found it hard to resist the lure of the old-style hats and coats and patriarchal lineage that his mother appears to have rejected, but which is now promised by the First Order.
Meanwhile, Rey, the main protagonist, is rooted to the site of the disappearance of her parents in the hope that they will return, and is unable to proceed with a life of her own. For her the decisive moment of personal liberation comes when she realises they won’t be coming back. But she has also grown up unburdened by the baggage of family history and expectation that turns Kylo Ren into a monstrosity. Whereas Kylo Ren seeks the imprimatur of patriarchal power, she is self-reliant. As “scavenger scum”, she has lived outside the patriarchal family structures that traverse both the First Order and the Republic. No-one has ever trained her to think that flying a starship is beyond her or not for her. Kylo Ren gets sent to the equivalent of a posh military finishing school (training with his uncle, a Jedi knight) to set him on the straight and narrow, and he worries he will never be as strong as his grandfather Darth Vader.
Rey (incidentally, the word for ‘King’ in Spanish), on the other hand, is effectively an orphan who has lived free of what Simone De Beauvoir calls the ‘mysterious prestige’ of the father, or the ‘demands, rewards and punishments’ administered by a mother in the father’s name. Whatever ‘The Force’ might be, it is no longer something passed from father-figure to adoptive son. At the end of the film I found myself hoping that the sequels do not seek to introduce Rey’s long-lost parents. They would ruin everything.
Maybe these things would not have resonated with me so much if I had not been subjected, along with the rest of the audience, and, I imagine, a great many other audiences in Ireland, to an advertisement that preceded the film. It’s for a private health insurer.
There’s a woman who’s up before dawn. To get the breakfast, to clear and wash and work and tend and play. A woman who works all day and returns home to put in another shift. And then takes the time to read a story, or listen to yours. There’s a woman who will sit up all night with a sick child and will not rest until the fever is broke. Who waits at the school gates, rain, hail or shine. Who feeds the pets, makes the beds, puts the candles on the cake, and makes your wishes for you. There’s a woman who spends all her time, all her money, all her love, on the things and the people that matter. And through every hour, she will always feel that she is not giving, not doing enough. Mothers: you do enough. Now let us do something for you. Mothers – you’re amazing. GloHealth. My cover, my way.
In The Anti-Social Family, Michèle Barrett and Mary McIntosh and observe that ‘many of the catch-phrases of conservative politics – individual choice in education or in health care ‘…’ mask a defence of paternal as against social responsibility and authority’. This ad, with its gravelly masculine voice, with its implicit suggestion that all these domestic tasks are the sole preserve of women, its suggestion that the “we” who must now do something for you are the men who are in control over everything else in the world and that basic health care in exchange for money is the epitome of generosity, would appear, right after watching the movie instead of before it, like something from a First Order broadcast. That is, if the First Order had such a thing as television stations. It isn’t just in the landscape of the Skellig Islands that The Force Awakens resembles Ireland. Our celluloid dreams might well consist of the abolition of the family, but on Earth we are confronted, still, with an order demanding travail, famille, patrie.