I was so excited for the Women’s March. The rare chance to stand in unity with millions of others fighting bigotry while listening to some of the most influential feminists, from Gloria Steinem to Angela Davis. But that idea of unity and collective liberation was quickly shattered.
As Angela Davis delivered her speech, I kept hearing women behind me complain about how there were too many speakers and they wanted to march already. I turned around to find a pack of irritated women, clad in Princess Leia T-shirts which stated, “A Woman’s Place is in the Resistance.” As adorable as the shirts were, I was shocked how easily these women could ignore the civil rights icon in front of them, while celebrating a fictional princess as a feminist symbol.
And it didn’t end there. To this day my social media is still flooded with snarky pictures of the Star Wars rebellion logo, dozens of “Fight Like A Girl” cartoons featuring our favorite movie heroines, and the Guy Fawkes mask from V for Vendetta.
Don’t get me wrong. I adore all these films, and the strength of the characters in them. But they are just characters, and these fictional leaders shouldn't represent the real struggle against systemic oppression when they as characters haven't truly faced it.
It is easy to look to films to portray the fight against bigotry. These characters are perfect to us. They can do everything, stand for everything, fight for everything. However, where they be wise as Wonder Woman or strong as Furiosa, we only get to know our on-screen heroes over the course of 90 minutes in a simple framed narrative that we can always support them in. So it is easy for them to inspire us. It is easier to make gods out of a character written to be flawless rather than admire our real life leaders we may always agree with.
Real people are flawed. And no activist, politician or heroine has ever been as perfect as we want them to be. Obama deported millions of undocumented immigrants. Caitlyn Jenner once stated on Ellen that she did not support same sex marriage. Gandhi was a sexist and a racist who thought Africans were “savage”. They have all done things that may cause us to lose respect for them, things that make it difficult to love them despite the positive work they do. So instead we turn to fictional characters, people who will always be perfect because they were written to be.
Our real life champions are complex, and the longer we know them, the more time we have to see their flaws, their inconsistencies, their questionable attitudes, or where their values may not align with yours. But it is because people are as complex as the issues we are facing. If we escape into pop culture we will lose those nuances of reality that still need to be reconciled. Fictional pop culture figures helps us narrativize issues we see in real life, but can sanitize the hard realities of resistance, by splitting the world into only good or bad.
Princess Leia, no, General Leia will always symbolize the rebellion against the Empire. But taking out the Death Star didn’t kill the Empire. And dumping Trump won’t end oppression.
Real progress requires us to acknowledge that there is no single “resistance” or good side, but rather groups of marginalized peoples who must be allies, which is easier said than done. It's acknowledging that it is possible to be the most progressive in some issues while problematic in another.
I am not saying we should ignore someone we disagree with or disregard someone’s flaws, but to have those discussions,and be critical of someone’s actions while admiring their achievements. Until we are able to discuss intersectionality, collective liberation, and all the other difficult questions that may not have a single right or wrong side, we cannot move forward and neither will our progressive ideals. And that’s not possible if we use pop culture icons to define a movement.
It is important, now more than ever, to recognize the people who have been sacrificing themselves to lead the fight against systemic oppression at every level. Angela Davis, John Lewis, Gloria Steinem, Sheila Kuehl, Dolores Huerta, Tamika Mallory, Winona LaDuke, Alicia Garza and so many more. If we want to understand what it will take to dismantle the systems which have created the rampant inequity we face, we need to look to and learn from those who understand them and fought them. And no, they probably will not be perfect. But no person, or movement, ever was.