“Would it help if I got out and pushed?”

Why stories are important

What do we mean when we say a character has ‘agency’? We want to know if a character’s internal decisions move the plot or if the characters are passive with the plot being something that happens to them.

Consider Leia. In A New Hope, she grabs the blaster and directs the team’s escape into the trash compactor. She firmly tells Han she’s now in charge and she clearly knows her way around a briefing room. 

But does she have agency? 

~ Princess Leia, grabbing a blaster and assisting in her own escape. Star Wars (A New Hope) 1977

In that first movie, she is reaching out for help, listing her father’s connection as the reason General Kenobi should listen to her plea. 

Later, after she’s tortured and her world is destroyed, her grief is brushed aside in order for her to comfort Luke who has lost his home, but who seems to be mostly grieving for Ben – a mentor he’s had for the past couple of days.

In the second movie, she becomes the point of a possible love triangle between Han and Luke – the two main male characters the audience is meant to identify with. To add fuel to that “she must belong to someone” streak, Empire Stikes Back also gives us some flirty banter with Lando. It’s never clear to me if Lando flirted with her because he flirts with everyone or if he saw her with Han and wanted to take something from him like Han took Lando’s ship – I imagine it was a bit of both and either way reduces Leia to an object rather than a person. She’s a known leader of the actual rebellion and yet Vader doesn’t even bother with her – other than using her as bait. While she is granted a scene in which she’s once again brandishing a blaster, her role in this film is clearly that of the love interest.

She’s a known leader of the actual rebellion and yet Vader doesn’t even bother with her – other than using her as bait.  

Throughout the first two films, while she’s clearly positioned as a prop for the main protagonists, the objectification of her character isn’t too overt. There’s the story Carrie Fisher told of how George Lucas didn’t think women in space would wear bras, but that topic aside, she’s often dressed rather demurely. So demurely, in fact, that she is dressed all in white more than once (sans bra, we assume). In Empire Strikes Back she’s dressed in similar gear as other soldiers on Hoth, or in flowing robes when she’s on Bespin. 

~ Leia Organa, onboard the Millennium Falcon wearing Hoth uniform, Star Wars (The Empire Strikes Back) 1980

It isn’t until the third movie that her character becomes highly sexualized. The objectification is rather blatant with the slave outfit. This isn’t a costume she chooses to wear to go undercover – that choice was very different (see Boushh, a bounty hunter). The skimpy slave outfit includes an actual chain. Yes, she uses that chain to kill Jabba and goes on to participate in the guerilla attack on Endor, but do either of those threads show her having agency? Her actions are determined by the plot, her actions are not driving the plot. Participating in the attack on Endor was something that was happening and the plot wanted her there.

~ Leia Organa, disguised as the late Boushh, standing before Jabba the Hutt. Star Wars (The Return of the Jedi) 1983. Image from https://starwars.fandom.com (aka Wookiepedia)

Outside the movies, the Star Wars Universe is full of other storytelling. Books, comics, video games, animations, shows, additional movies, etc.  But in the first set of stories, in the first trilogy, I contend that Leia wasn’t afforded the same characterization and focus as Luke or even Han. She was a supporting character that strengthened both their stories. 

This isn’t a complaint, per se. Nor is it a new analysis – this is not something too many would bother arguing about. The Original Trilogy was about Luke, he was the hero of that story. And on that point, I find them enduring and endearing – I have a great love for Star Wars and his ‘hero journey’ makes for a satisfying tale.

Leia was considered one of the strongest female characters in media and pop culture for years. This is the role model we had as young girls. A character I am fond of and still admire – flaws in the narrative and all.

She was smart. She was beautiful. She was capable. She was brave. And she was still not important enough to become the hero of her own story.

Clearing webs from the hovel*

Last week I attended an outdoor concert. I didn’t realize how much I’d missed live music until that fist chord came over the speakers and a hush went over the crowd.

It was the Indigo Girls (https://www.indigogirls.com/), who I’ve seen live before – although it was years ago.  Like me, they’ve aged a little. Which made everything all that much more comfortable. The Indigo Girls songwriting and performances are a rich style of storytelling that feels a bit like having drinks with an old friend. Both in hearing stories you’ve heard before and in having a few new ones to share.

The duo sang familiar tunes like *Hammer and Nail (1990) which focuses on not being overwhelmed with everything wrong with the world but rolling up your sleeves and getting to work and Shame on You (1997) which criticizes attitudes about ‘illegal immigration’. One source says the song was inspired in part by a documentary ‘Displaced in the New South’ – I can’t vouch for that, but watched parts of the film and it’s a plausible connection. https://www.folkstreams.net/films/displaced-in-the-new-south

They also performed songs from their new album that was released in 2020. An album I had somehow missed, but have spent the last few days catching up on. One of the songs I found particularly interesting and relevant to this blog – The song is ‘Shit Kickin’ (let’s be honest, the title is catchy as well). It touches on family history and delving into the past while advising you to be honest about it.  

Granddaddy was a preacher
Built that church from the sign to the steeple
I didn't know him except by his journaling hand
If you can find him you can love him
But girl you gotta be honest about him
You'll be fightin' them weeds for the rest of your days

Another one they performed from their new album was ‘When We Were Writers’, which feels like the bit where they are telling their origin story. In it, I heard how going down memory lane is all good and well, but that there’s still a fire that burns inside and this life isn’t over yet.

I sometimes find their discussions and write-ups about their music to be nearly as impactful as the music itself. They had this to say about their latest album:

Look Long considers the tremendous potential of ordinary life and suggests the possibility that an honest survey of one’s past and present, unburdened by judgement, can give shape to something new – the promise of a way forward.”

https://www.indigogirls.com/bio

The opening set was performed by Lucy Wainwright Roche (https://lucywainwrightroche.com/). Her performance was interspersed with commentary and tidbits – small stories about her family or her dog. I enjoyed her music and she has an incredible voice. 

The video below is not from the concert I attended, but Lucy Wainwright Roche has been touring with the Indigo Girls before – here she’s performing one of my favorite IG songs with them.

Overall a wonderful evening spent outdoors on a lawn chair. It reminded me to slow down, breathe, and listen. And enjoy the music.

Slam Poetry & New American Best Friend

Last year I went on a few book buying binges. In one of my hauls, I purchased a book of poetry called ‘New American Best Friend’ by Octavia Gatwood

I like poetry, but don’t read it often. Every time I do, I think I should read more because I enjoy it.   Poetry feels much like music – the “story” tends to be in snippets of emotional impact, often without the form or structure of a chronological story.  It’s not comprised of facts. It’s not deprived of facts. You have to sit with poetry a bit, digest it slowly before it can be realized. 

The majority of the poems in ‘New American Best Friend’ revolve around a coming-of-age theme. Such stories are popular in a lot of fiction no matter the audience age. They are the demonstration of how a person came to be who they are and ultimately help us understand ourselves, which is the key to any good story. Even if the tale being told resembles nothing like our own life, becoming a person is something we can all relate to.  I’ve always found that if a coming of age story has good bones, it will likely resonate. 

I recently read some reviews (aka. Goodreads comments) that criticized Gatwood’s work, calling it ‘period poetry’ and that no one thought it made her special.  I have to wonder what makes other women so angry about a poem to feel the need to leave a review like that. 

While unsurprising, it saddens me to think we still have a such a stigma about female bodies and that the thought of those bodies growing from childhood to adulthood is somehow shameful or gross. The misogyny colliding with the objectification of women is so routine and so ingrained, that it hardly makes a ripple. 

If the idea of period poetry is abhorrent to you – have you considered why?  I’m not talking about a casual dismissal where it’s simply not interesting. I’m not particularly interested myself, but it doesn’t disturb me to read about it. It doesn’t offend me. And questioning why it’s embarrassing – well, that isn’t new either.

So yes, the first poem in this collection might’ve turned off some readers. I cannot imagine that wasn’t intentional. I applaud the poet for putting it right out there in front. It’s like saying ‘if you can’t handle this, you can’t really handle me’. Forewarned is forearmed and you can’t say she didn’t warn you. 

One of the poems is ‘Ode to My Bitch Face’, which I had first encountered while browsing poetry slams on YouTube – a pandemic hobby of mine which is the thread that brought me to this book. This poem reignited in me all the anger I’ve ever felt when someone says “why don’t you smile” while simultaneously letting me know I’m not alone in feeling so judged and on display- under surveillance. There’s a sisterhood out there and we can commiserate. 

Parts of ‘Ode to My Bitch Face’ remind me of that famous quote attributed to Margaret Atwood that ‘men are afraid women will laugh at them, women are afraid men will kill them’. Whenever I mention that quote, I know some feel I’m being overly dramatic – but it’s a hard truth and this is the society we really do live in. Women do spend an incredible amount of energy to maintain a feeling of safety in every day life. 

While I’m not sure I can wrap up on a happy note, nor can I say I particularly enjoyed all the poems, they did leave an impact.

They made me consider and reflect.

They made me angry, they made me laugh, they made me feel a little sad and a little less alone. 

And isn’t that the point of poetry anyway?

Stories and Songcraft

Music and stories are two of my ecclectic hobbies. Because they can often share the same mental space, I freely admit that I still make mix-tapes and build stories around songs in my head.  It’s since migrated to playlists on Spotify, but as it’s something I’ve done since I can remember, I doubt I’ll quit any time soon.  It’s led to some interesting video editing hobbies and introduced me to some good friends. 

While I don’t come from a traditionally musical sort of family, music has always been a part of my life. My mother was fond of John Denver (to put it mildly) and other folk artists like Joan Baez – so that musical style was very influential to me. I was encouraged to learn to play both the piano and guitar and although I was never very proficient at either, the study gave me an appreciation for music.

I am a fan of many musical genres, but have a special fondness for the what is today called ‘Americana’1. Overall it’s a combination of folk and rock that feels soulful to me in ways that modern country doesn’t. 

Every now and then I come across a song that resonates in a way that is hard to articulate. That’s what happened in 2008 when I first heard ‘The Story’ performed by Brandi Carlile.  As both her music has grown and as I’ve grown, my favorite Brandi Carlile song has shifted with time, but ‘The Story’ holds a place in my heart for being the first. This site is loosely named after a phrase from the song. 

Yes, I chose the web site name from a phrase in a song.  

I spent some time considering the choice, worrying that it would seem cliche or cringe-worthy.  And then I spent some time unpacking why I internalized this concept that musical inspiration was hokey (that’s possibly another post entirely).  

It wasn’t until this past month when I listened to her audiobook, Broken Horses, that I realized ‘The Story’ was actually written by bandmate Phil Hanseroth2. While Brandi Carlile may not have written the lyrics for ‘The Story’, her voice is the one to tell it. And no one is an island, etc. etc. 

One industry insider 3 put it like this: “Brandi, Tim and Phil have the natural ability to put into words the emotions we all feel, but find difficult to articulate. Their writing and Brandi’s music and voice are intimate and raw. Their talents will stand the test of time…”

I agree.

In addition to heartfelt and cathartic music, Brandi Carlile has used her voice to raise awareness for humanitarian efforts, like War Child International and actively works to elevate women in the music industry. 

She’s also a fan (and a friend) of Dolly Parton, and listening to them sing together just makes my heart glad.

  1. rollingstone.com (I acknowledge that, like other areas of the entertainment industry, the genre has had issues with diversity and representation)
  2. secondhandsongs.com (Phil Hanseroth)
  3. variety.com (Troy Tomlinson, chairman and CEO of UMPG Nashville)