Grace Duffy: The Active Players

(Part 1)

“Waste your summer praying in vain/for a saviour to rise from these streets.”

There is a heroism in self-sufficiency. It’s the narrative I’ve chased my entire life. Growing up in a low-income home and moving several times before I was fourteen, stability is the thing I’ve craved. All I’ve ever wanted was to stand on my own two feet. To find a way to provide for myself without relying on anyone else, knowing that despite all which may come I could rely on a true hero in myself.

It’s hard to be your own hero. I’m sure it sounds exalting to even say that. But when the world beats you back and opportunities slip through your fingers, there’s no real comfort to be found in looking at other people. You are the product of your own circumstances, and you have to reclaim and reorder them if you want things to change.

This is an ideal that’s become elusive as I’ve grown older. In pursuit of stability, I’ve found myself compromising. This isn’t unusual. I’m sure we all do it. But I’ve worked long and hard to build a fort about my life, ensuring that after years of unemployment and financial strain nothing could ever again drop me into that rut. Jobs may come and go but I can be careful with myself, and even if the worst happens it’ll never be as bad as it was.

To do this, you have to sacrifice a lot. Quite a lot. The kind of dreams and ambitions you’ve been clinging to your whole life. The aspirational, lofty ones that everyone says are unrealistic. The ones that get chipped into nothingness by adjectives like ‘unrealistic’, as the voices of a hundred others swiftly start to sound like your own. Your voice, your inner architect, starts to sound unreasonable and you convince yourself it’s better to ignore it.

Yet its words linger. They don’t go away. They just hide down there and wait to be heard. You bury them under layers of practicalities, but you can’t blot them out altogether. One day, you wake up a few weeks into a brilliant new job and realise you actually hate it with every fibre of your being. Your lovely housemate gives you notice to move out after two years, and your carefully ordered life starts to tremble again.

You start to wonder what was so bad about listening. You start to wonder. It doesn’t have to be this way. You look outside yourself again. This year was filled with so many stories which shook you right to your core. They were just fairytales, rapturous immersions in other worlds with morals and meaning that don’t hold true in reality.

Or were they?

Were they not so much more than that?

“We are not things.”
“Our babies will not be warlords.”
“We’re not going back.”

It began with Mad Max: Fury Road.

At this stage, I don’t even remember what it was like to live in a world without Fury Road. In a year filled with enduring female heroes on film, Fury Road was the most radical, unapologetic, devastatingly feminist work there was. Its subversive and powerful depiction of female heroism and friendship blew me away, reminding me exactly how trailblazing cinema could be when it really set its mind to it. These women (yes! There were MORE THAN ONE) were capable, human, tough and resilient. They were the authors and heroes of their stories, and it all began with a decision to rediscover and reclaim their individual voices. They were the stereotypical princesses in the towers, but they smashed down the walls themselves.

Furiosa is the de-facto lead in Fury Road. Her quest to return to the Green Place where she was born is the catalyst for the film’s plot. She’s as tough and shrewd as you’d expect an iconic female action hero to be, but Furiosa immediately breaks the mould in her humanity. She’s not the only female hero in this film. Her strength isn’t just used in the service of her own story, but that of a group of women seeking to flee a hellish life and rebuild their world anew.

The film’s depiction of Immortan’s Five Wives is revolutionary. It would have been very easy to portray them as weak-willed captives, taken as bargaining chips by Furiosa or Max in their flight from the Citadel. It’s a narrative we’ve come to expect in many ways, with women characters portrayed as too meek or retiring to challenge their bonds. The Wives of Fury Road are anything but. They’re courageous, defiant and spirited. Immortan keeps them locked in a sunlit chamber behind a thick steel door. It’s set up as some kind of Elysian paradise, a sanctuary from the grim realities of his empire. Yet these women don’t just try to escape – they openly defile that sanctuary before they leave. They etch graffiti across the walls, bold leering cries of “who killed the world?” and “our babies will not be warlords”. When Immortan charges towards their minder Miss Giddy, demanding to know where Furiosa took them, Giddy – an elderly woman – unhesitatingly points a shotgun in his face and yells, “she didn’t take them, they begged her to go.” The camera zooms in on her quickly, revealing the righteous anger in her face and the clear and potent words “we are not things” printed on the wall behind her. The women’s presence is indelible before we ever even see them. These are not the fragile, whimpering creatures helplessly bound to a fight greater than they. They’re playing the game, taking charge and manipulating it to their advantage, and in so doing reasserting an agency Immortan has long sought to deny them. They not only rediscover their voices but use them. They cry foul all over this alleged safe haven so that Immortan isn’t just deprived of his so-called treasures, he’s made to hear their wilful, screaming voices everywhere.

This was the first part of Fury Road which got me. The depiction of women as more than participants: as active players. It’s more than just a rediscovery of a voice and a refusal to be broken or silenced. It’s a loud, insistent demand to be heard. It reminded me of something my therapist said, of a need for inner wishes or desires so long suppressed to not just be adhered to but acknowledged. To stop warring with instinct, and let it take its course.

The scene when Max first comes across the Wives and Furiosa in the desert is equally pivotal. At this stage, he doesn’t know what’s going on at all, and the last thing he expects to see when he bumbles round the rig is a group of glowing women in white robes. Before he can even adjust to what he’s seeing, Angharad, the heavily pregnant would-be leader of the group, raises her head, juts out her chin and warns him: “we’re not going back.” In a scene many films would have used to sexualise the Wives – they’re wearing skimpy clothing, washing themselves and cutting off chastity belts – Fury Road takes the immediate opportunity to give them power. To show defiance. The group band together quickly as Max holds a gun on them. He demands the boltcutters to cut a chain from his head. The Dag approaches gingerly, reminding them discreetly of the motorcade on their tail, and fumbles with the boltcutters for just long enough for Furiosa to make her move. Max is upended and overpowered, and had his gun been functioning properly he was dead. The male, ostensible hero of this franchise could have been ejected from it barely half an hour in during his first encounter with its women. Furiosa and the Wives are working as a symbiotic group, but each individual player knows her part.

Furiosa’s reunion with her tribe, the Vuvalini, is bittersweet. She tearfully embraces kinswoman The Valkyrie as the latter emotionally asserts, “this is our Furiosa.” This statement contrasts with an earlier one by Immortan Joe, when he points at Angharad’s pregnant belly (as she uses her body to shield Furiosa) and screams “that is my property.” The Valkyrie’s assertion of ownership in her moment with Furiosa represents recognition, belonging and familiarity. It is not an assertion of power or dominance or entitlement. The tribe recognise not only who she is but what she’s had to go through to get to them. Yet, Furiosa’s Green Place is not the haven she expects. It’s become sour and rotted, and she realises with horror that it’s the very bog she and the others travelled through the night before. The sun has quite literally set on her idealised sanctuary, and this becomes the catalyst for the film’s second journey – the return to the Citadel and the attempt to reclaim that pinnacle of oppression for their own.

This is the other key message of Fury Road, and one that may be more resonant. Put simply: you cannot run away to find peace. There is no dream without reality. In the cold light of day, ideals have to be realised, and you cannot attain them by denying the parts of yourself you don’t like. On the other side of the world, you are still the same person within. You can’t change anything without first accepting what is, by looking inside and dragging all that festering pent-up anger and frustration out into the open. It won’t be pleasant. It might hurt. It’ll be “a hard day”, as Max euphemistically puts it in the film. But it’s a necessary evil, lest you build a beaming new version of yourself on a rotting foundation.

There is a wilderness in our internal narratives and it’s one that needs tending if we are to endure. At the end of Fury Road, The Dag escapes with the Vuvalini’s collection of seeds. One of the tribeswomen carried around seeds for fruit, trees, plants – all symbols of growth and fertility, the building blocks of abundance. Fury Road may be an action movie, but at heart it’s a movie about hope and courage and what it takes for that to flower. In a time I didn’t know I needed it, it was a breathtaking reminder of the power of individual will and the responsibility each of us bears for ourselves, even when circumstances around us seek to deny that. It reached out and winked at a voice I’d long tried to suppress, and if this was the film that shook me up, 2015’s concluding cinematic triumph showed me my first steps.

(Part 2)

“It’s always been there. It will guide you.”
“Who are you?” “I’m no one.”

Much has been written about Rey. Beloved Rey, the hero of our new Star Wars saga. She’s inspired a slew of beautiful think pieces; each infused with joyful, delighted emotion at what the franchise has finally managed to do for its women. In Rey, we have a capable young woman who doesn’t need to be rescued. We have a hardened scavenger who can defend herself. We have someone who built her own speeder, learned to fly and fix ships and picked up multiple languages along the way. She is completely independent and worthy, and a welcome role model for little girls.

But she is lonely. Rey, for all her ability and resourcefulness, is a loner. She’s an abandoned child, deliberately marooned on a barren planet to scavenge a living with no clear indication that anyone will come back for her. She is entirely by herself. Until she meets BB-8 and then Finn, inadvertently getting drawn into the adventure of a lifetime, she lives in isolation; her only trusted companion is herself and her intuition. I knew Rey as soon as I saw her, and she hit me right where it hurts.

I never see much of myself in characters onscreen. I doubt anyone really does. The human experience is too vast and intricate to be distilled into any one character. But watching Rey go back to her plain little home in The Force Awakens, I felt an ache. Because I recognise it. I recognise everything. I know her little rituals. I know her daydreamer’s life. There’s a little doll in a Rebel Alliance outfit. There’s a pilot helmet outside on the sand, one she pulls on eagerly as soon as she’s finished eating. In the corner, there’s the makings of a crude bed. It’s not dirty, but her little home is sparse and austere – quite literally carved from the innards of a downed AT-AT war machine. Rey offsets its harshness by outfitting it with tiny symbols of hope and adventure. She sits outside on the sands to eat, pulling on her helmet and gazing up at the sky. In the quiet of a desert twilight, she takes a moment to be free, her thoughts drifting away from her daily fight for survival and into imaginings of discovery and wonder. She believes in fairytales. Her family may have left her here, but they’ll be back. Someday. A saviour will come down from the sky and take her away from all this. It will all make sense when the ship arrives and whisks her away to her true home. 

Rey clings to her dreams, pushing away sadness and solitude with the poignant light of imagination. In these moments, she is me. She’s so intensely me that it breaks my heart. When Maz Kanata tells her later on, “You already know the truth. Whomever you’re waiting for, they’re never coming back,” she bursts into tears. She knows deep down that her longing is in vain, yet it’s the only thing steeling her against the bleakness and deprivation of her life. I know what it is to feel so lost and alone that you cling to whatever imaginary ideals linger in your head. I know what it is to bind all your hope for this world to an illusory saviour, believing without question that once they arrive in your life things will be better. Deep down, you understand it’s not real and you know it can’t save you. But when the world around you seems so openly hostile, this is your only oasis. You have to fill it with something resembling faith. 

There is no more crippling indication of failure than finding yourself trapped in the same rut you fought to escape your whole life. When the opportunities you’ve built for yourself begin to dry up, the safe haven of your imagination feels like the only place you can turn. There, you can dream a better life. One to hide in while the real world passes by. It keeps you safe for years, the only thing that’s secure and unchanging as life, people and circumstances tear bits out of you. But it backfires, too. It’s so unchanging, it makes you intransigent. You only know this one version of you – the one that’s sad and hurt and forlorn, weighed down by a depression so searing it sinks every attempt at getting better. You dismiss your once glorious plans in favour of routine and familiarity. But you’re not really living. You’re existing. You’re going through the motions of a tired, wasted mind, and then you wonder when you find yourself looking around and asking “is this it?”

In 2015, in films like Fury Road and The Force Awakens, I saw – as many others did – a part of myself acknowledged and understood. I understood Rey’s instinct to run from her path, but I almost cried when she called that lightsaber to her. On repeated viewing, I do cry – every single time. The woman sitting beside me sat up and exclaimed “GURRRLLL”. The music swelled up and the entire cinema seemed to shiver. The moment seemed that real, that stirring, and that important – and I think it shook a long-neglected part of me into life. Suddenly, I saw what these films were telling me. I saw what these characters represented. They weren’t just women; complex and capable women with passion and endurance and humanity. They had come on a journey. One from loss and deprivation, through sadness and setback, and found faith, hope, and courage. They found the strength to change their lives and only then realised that they were never no one after all. They didn’t need a saviour to come down from the sky or a family to return to be set free. They themselves were enough. The power had been inside them all along.

Our most precious allegiance in life is to ourselves. “The belonging you seek is not behind you. It is ahead.” There once lived a bright-eyed little girl who, despite fright and uncertainty and innocence, was able to dream of something better. She mapped out her life as a series of grandiose adventures and never once stopped to consider the dark forces, within and without, which would seek to hold her back. That bright-eyed little girl deserves better than forts and surrender and settling. She remembers what it was like to dream. She’s been in there this whole time, through ruin and rot, and through the magic of the stories she saw this year she’s found a courage she didn’t know she had. This year, she’s going on an adventure. One she planned a long time ago, when all she needed was opportunity to make it happen. It’ll be a hard day. It’ll be a hard year, or many, before it happens. But if it works out, it could be something wonderful. It could be so much more than that.

“This is for long-forgotten light at the end of the world.”

“These are your first steps.”

Grace Duffy is a pop culture devotée and sometime film critic currently catching up on her classic sci-fi. You can read more on her Tumblr or catch her TV liveblogs on Twitter.

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