Power and Romance in Three Timeless 80s Films

It is impossible to understand patriarchy without first understanding social hierarchy. That presents a challenge to egalitarian ideologues, because innate hierarchy is inconsistent with Marxist ideals of social organisation. The utopian “equalness” of hunter-gather societies is almost certainly a fantasy dreamed up by left-wing radicals in an attempt to subvert what is, in fact, a biologically based system (Harris, 1998; Pinker, 2002; Wright, 2009). It seems that you can get any two people, place them in a room together without any explicit task, and social hierarchy will tacitly begin to arise.1 The more people available, the longer the hierarchy becomes, and also the more powerful. Hierarchies are readily observable in almost all animals, including sharks and fish, and the vast majority of species are dominated by males. The reader should not take this statement as in any way condoning or vilifying patriarchy in human society. Such judgement belongs to Saint Peter. Rather, the observation of pervasive male dominance in the animal kingdom serves to highlight the atavistic quality of patriarchy, which precedes the invention of language, and indeed, the invention of bone marrow.2 The emancipation of women requires a working understanding of the raw materials from which patriarchy is formed. In turn, socio-cultural factors can be better understood, and a theory may develop to bring about collective behaviours that are more consistent with our moral values.

Group power lies at the heart of hierarchies of all kinds. Group processes, therefore, become the key to understanding patriarchy. As social animals, humans form power units that protect the individual and improve their chances of reproductive success. Groups do not merely compete over resources, but act as conduits for the transmission of knowledge – an elementary fabric from which we derive our identities. The leaders of groups are invariably privileged, but also become responsible for collective success and failure. Not even a despot can sidestep this social contract. We naturally submit to powerful leaders whom we perceive as serving our own interests, and spurn the tyrant who becomes the target of the brave Robin Hoods of our imaginations. A quick perusal of a thesaurus for the words “good” and “bad” shows how leadership qualities intertwine with notions of superiority and morality.

This essay will examine the construction of hegemonic masculinity in the growing imagination of children. Specifically, three films will be used to relate patriarchy to group-level zero-sum games, and how the “ownership” of women becomes a corollary. The construction of patriarchy in youth will be explored through “Stand By Me” (Reiner, 1986), a coming-of-age adventure where four boys seek heroic identity, but instead find personal transformation. The transcendent nature of heroic masculinity and male idealisations of romance will be explored in “Conan the Barbarian” (Milius, 1982). Finally, the ownership of women as a corollary to the patriarchal order will be illustrated through the relationship between Han Solo and Princess Leia in Irvin Kershner’s (1980) classic “The Empire Strikes Back.”

The Hero and the Villain

Renowned social psychologist Muzafer Sherif was a teenager in 1919 when Greek troops invaded his home in Turkey (Myers & Smith, 2007). A young Sherif was struck by how the Greek soldiers engaged in wanton killing, and wanted to understand why such an event could occur. The battlefield is a vivid example of a zero-sum conflict where the stakes have escalated and reached a type of zenith, or plateau. The wanton destruction of human life is condoned and even considered virtuous, and it is not uncommon for the loser to become subject to indiscriminate mass murder. In its most primitive form, the hero is the master of such a zero-sum situation, and combines the group into a power unit capable of negotiating the absolutely real dangers of intergroup war. Such a theory accounts for the almost universal popularity of the violent Hollywood hero, an anachronism in a society somewhat removed from its violent past3 (Keely, 1996).

To better understand the experiences of his youth, Sherif (1966) conducted a now classic study into the dynamics of group conflict. Twenty-two prepubescent boys were randomly divided into two groups: the “Rattlers” and the “Eagles.” The two groups camped about a kilometre apart in Oklahoma’s Robber’s Cave State Park, and they shared a ball field, unaware of each other’s existence. After one week, the groups became aware of each other, and were encouraged to engage in a zero-sum competition for the ball field. The competition soon escalated, and eventually the boys were ransacking cabins and engaging in fistfights. Most interestingly for the present paper, the boys vilified outgroup members, but described ingroup members as heroes: “brave,” “tough,” and “friendly.”

It may be no coincidence, therefore, that popular narratives associate primary evil qualities with the leaders of outgroups, and characterise ingroup leaders as thoroughly self-sacrificing and virtuous. This type of chauvinism manifests as social constructions, perhaps rooted in purely amoral aspects of group dynamics. However, as outlined in Joseph Campbell’s (1949/2008) influential “The Hero with a Thousand Faces,” notions of good and evil convey universal human truths of self-discovery that illuminate one’s place in society, and therefore social hierarchy. Human inter-group conflict does not operate on purely barbaric principles. Interestingly, however, the beloved hero narratives of antiquity contain a confusing mix of transcendence and barbarism, perhaps because the hero’s journey was discovered long before religion became infused with universal ethical principals (Wright, 2009). Hero narratives naturally conflate the ingroup with virtue, and the outgroup with nonvirtue, because this reconciles a desire for personal rectitude with the primitive processes underlying group cohesion.

One final point needs to be made regarding hero narratives, but only because of a pervasive misunderstanding in assessing their place within culture. The hero is not someone to personally identify with unless the individual sees themselves as having the chutzpah to lead the group to glory. Feminist literature commonly links hero narratives to a broken masculinity burdened by unrealistic notions of power and perfection. According to this theory, the hero figure titillates society, but also leaves an unmistakable mark of inferiority on the male consumer. The hero is seen to act on behalf of the social world, however, his superior moral and physical prowess inhibits a genuine intimate connection with the society he serves, and leaves the identifying male in an isolated world with unrealistic notions of what it means to be a man (Spielberg, 1993).

In her book “The Hero in the Mirror,” Sue Grand (2010) suggests that we should cease our fascination with these extraordinary figures, and instead adopt a more spiritual aspiration for the ordinary hero within. While this aspiration is undoubtedly noble, the hero figure serves a purpose beyond titillation and personal inferiority. He is a focal point for the hopes and fears of the group, and ideally, the hero creates a field upon which the collective feels superior (an equally disturbing problem). Heroes will always be gods in human form with the mana to bring us glory. For example, I wonder how many Canadians felt inferior or superior when watching their sporting heroes compete during the 2010 Winter Olympics. The collective identification with narrative heroes relates directly to the collective identification with sporting heroes and other real world heroes, such as Sitting Bull or Ghandi. The hero binds society together, and shapes its direction. As if we were a school of fish, we are programmed to submit to their authority, for our own good, as part of the unfolding human drama played out large.

The Search of Heroic Identity

The human story starts in childhood. As we grow out of infancy we become part of peer groups where we learn to become successful individuals. As any parent knows, children are not passive receivers of adult thought. Although children absorb information from adults, they have their own minds and opinions, and begin to co-create their very own culture. A well-intentioned attempt to pierce this cultural divide may be met with the rebuke: “creepy treehouse.” Studies in behavioural genetics suggest that parents have a very limited influence on the personalities and behaviours of their children, when compared to genetics and socio-cultural factors (Turkheimer, 2000). It seems that the most important socio-cultural factors are co-created with a child’s peer group (Harris, 1998). Parents are frequently surprised when they first observe the process of growing up as an outsider - an event that often dispels child-rearing myths. There is a very sophisticated mechanism that trains the social mind of a child in a community of its peers, improving the autonomy, and thus eventual reproductive success of the next generation.

Children frequently use hero narratives in unstructured play (Dyson, 1996) and universally identify altruism as a defining heroic trait (White & O’Brien, 1999). There is, however, little research on the impact of hero stories on young children (Tucker, 2006). In one East San Francisco Bay K-3 school, the hero narratives of young boys contained an ideological assumption of male physical superiority (Dyson). It is plausible that the roots of patriarchy are already in place at this age. Superior physical prowess has obvious implications for escalating zero-sum conflicts - especially in the absence of modern weaponry. However, the girls at the school rejected the assumption that physical power belongs to males, and maintained that it was still fun to be a superhero. While physicality is related to dominance, it seems that social hierarchy is more complex than bicep diameter.

The movie “Stand By Me” (Reiner, 1986) illustrates how children might construct a social hierarchy and develop within a society of their peers. Four young boys seek heroic identity and local celebrity by setting out on an adventure to discover a dead body. Death is a key theme in a coming-of-age story that explores the poignant and intimate relationships experienced in prepubescent society. The writer of the story narrates the biography of the last summer he would spend with his childhood friends, before the commencement of Junior High School. The catalyst for the story is the death of a fellow child whose eventual discovery symbolises a loss of innocence.

The gang is introduced inside a treehouse - a private world with a secret knock - where the four children engage in the serious business of growing up: smoking, playing cards, cursing, and jockeying for position with each other. Chris is the gang’s leader. He is a natural alpha male, combining extroversion, physicality and social skills with a genuine concern for the integrity of the group. Though sometimes resistant, the other boys follow Chris because he is capable, and best able to resolve intragroup and intergroup conflict. Sometimes that conflict is physical, and Chris’s superior size and prowess gives him an advantage. Chris is superior to the others in many ways; however, social or physical, power is deployed only when required and not as a means to an end. Chris makes a believable character, because we all knew someone like him when we were a child. The most successful member in a peer group always embodies the confluence of desirable characteristics, including a natural inclination to lead and fulfil their end of that social contract.

Ace Merrill is the villain of the story, and predictably, he is an alpha male characterised by nonvirtuous qualities. He leads a gang of thugs. These older boys follow Ace for the same reason that the younger boys follow Chris: Ace is perceived to be best able to resolve intragroup and intergroup conflict. Therefore, the hopes and fears of each group lie with Ace and Chris. They must be the masters of zero-sum conflicts - a situation that puts them on an inevitable collision course. As is typical for fairytales, the conflict between these two characters becomes a representation of the eternal struggle between good and evil. The audience is invited into the ingroup of the narrator - the gang of young boys. Therefore, the older boys must necessarily manifest as fundamentally unwholesome and the story cannot be resolved until they receive their comeuppance. Morality and superiority are key aspects to hero narratives, which illustrate the “good” that should be valued, and the “bad” that must be ridiculed and fought, even if one must pay the ultimate sacrifice for the benefit of others. This aspect of the hero narrative is introduced when Ace steals a keepsake from the narrator and is then challenged by Chris. As if he were channeling the archetypal bully straight from the collective unconscious, Ace uses malicious violence to induces compliance from Chris. The audience is left in no doubt as to who should be respected, and who should be held in contempt.

Human Value Is Not Discovered Where It Is Sought

“Stand By Me” starts with the fantasy of four young boys - a delusion of grandeur where they discover a dead body and then collectively leave their mark on society as local heroes. The boys risk a thrashing from their parents but push forward anyway, in an attempt to assert their dominance over the landscape, and by proxy, society. The journey turns out to be a far more serious matter than they originally anticipated, and their visions of glory are dashed. However, each boy finds human value in a deepened experience of himself. The boys depend on each other to surmount personal obstacles, and co-create their masculinities together. Their most important task is to practice the power politics of group dynamics – a process of learning how to be a successful member in a society. As such, their mutual bond is an intimate form of friendship that only exists as an island in time for any human being.

Gordon, the writer and narrator of the story, comes from a family bereft of an older son. Separated from family love, Gordon’s brother is dead and his parents have descended into a spiral of grief. Adding insult to injury, Gordon’s father wishes that he had taken his brother’s place in the grave. Introverted and sensitive, Gordon finds human value in the adventure by coming to terms with the death of his brother. In the climactic scene, the children discover the dead body, and Gordon exclaims, “It should have been me.” He then connects more deeply with his personal loss.

Chris also has family problems, but of a different kind. He must find his own identity by seeing the emptiness in the projections of other people. Everybody “knows” that Chris is going to turn out bad, because he comes from a bad family. His personal challenge is framed by a gun that he brings on the adventure – a dangerous and serious object brought by an “unruly” child. However, the audience is left in no doubt that Chris will transcend the unfair projections of others. In an intimate scene he discloses to Gordon that he stole some milk money, but then put it back. Chris was punished anyway, because a corrupt adult kept the money for herself. Tears stream down Chris’s face as he relates this story to his best friend, demonstrating that even though he asserts dominance, the hegemonic male can still have a confidant. In fact, it is through the intimate nature of their connection that Gordon submits to Chris - an act of intelligence to a natural superior. Emotion and tears fail to challenge Chris’s authority in this inter-relational context. Chris’s character is liked by the audience from beginning to end. Far from turning out bad, the narrator relates that Chris grows up to make the “best of any situation” and pays the ultimate price in a tragic attempt to quell an argument between two strangers.

“Stand By Me” constructs masculinity kindly, but is not devoid of misogyny. The boys swear by their mother - a taboo that is easily broken. Women are considered holy, yet at the same time they are used to frame insults. For example, in their second confrontation, Chris tells Ace to “go home and fuck your mother some more.” Chris subordinates and debases Ace’s mother, thereby reducing the sanctity of Ace’s existence. These two alpha males engage in the most dangerous zero-sum game that nature has burdened us with - they are leaders locked in intergroup conflict. The tacit message of the insult is that women may play this game if they dare, but women are asked to opt-out because they are more precious than men. However, if a woman demands to be a man, she may be deemed not so precious after-all, and then the gloves come off. Such a dynamic places the “ownership” of women as a corollary to men being masters of inter-group zero-sum conflicts. Therefore, the emancipation of women may require the construction of a female “general” identity that is perceived as being equally capable and dangerous in conflict situations.4

The events of “Stand By Me” are larger than life, a quality expected from an exciting story. Nonetheless Rob Reiner aims to remind the audience of their own youth. The salient point of the story is what makes the narrative so touching: the boys create a society all by themselves as they explore the world - an experience we all remember. Parental guidance is notably absent, and for good reason. As unrealistic as some of the narrative events are, it nonetheless gives due credit to the impotence of society’s prescriptions and proscriptions for children. The interpersonal dynamics of the boys are captured beautifully as they create hierarchy in the absence of parental interference. In a timeless process, the hegemonic male develops himself through a remarkable performance from River Phoenix as Chris. This phase of human development must be studied carefully because it seems to have direct consequences on the eventual construction of patriarchy as children grow into mixed-sex social groups. Perhaps the best qualities of inchoate patriarchy can be cultivated and turned towards solving our problems.

The Mythic Search For Invincibility

While “Stand By Me” uses believable characters to construct a recognisable hegemonic masculinity, John Milius’s (1982) “Conan the Barbarian” is a flight of fantasy that explores themes of masculine invincibility. Thoroughly boring, I have an irrational love for this movie, not least because of its striking footage and arresting soundtrack. Conan was the creation of pulp author Robert E. Howard who trail-blazed heroic fantasy in the 1920s. Both then and now, Howard’s intended audience was mainly men. The character Conan does not exists as a conduit for male wish-fulfilment, but rather, Conan is an idealisation of hegemonic masculinity that can be admired from afar. Perhaps this archetype can be imagined to manifest in the real world in positive forms, tapping into codes of submission in men who will combine together to form a power unit. Conan is the logical conclusion to a fantasy that harkens from the primitive mind, and may demonstrate a type of masculinity that will always be attractive.

As a young boy, Conan’s father teaches him that his life’s journey is to discover the “secret of steel.” Heroic fantasy would be nothing without a trite spiritual journey that must be explicated with absolute sincerity. Conan must discover the mystery of steel’s “discipline.” Conan’s father relates that no man, woman or beast can be trusted - but steel can be trusted. Fundamentally, this is a search for self-contained invincibility.

As a young boy, Conan’s fortunes turn sour when his family and people are exterminated by a cultish band of warriors that fight under a standard with two snakes coming together over a crescent moon. Conan is enslaved, and the search for invincibility initially takes the form of authority over the self. Through pushing a millstone, Conan grows into a mighty man, if but one that lacks interpersonal skills. His owners recognise the value of his stolid spirit, and train him in the martial arts. Masculinity’s charisma is linked to raw physicality, and strength of spirit, of which the apotheosis is Conan who is “bred with the finest stock”: other slaves equally gifted but lacking in authority over their person. Conan comforts his prospective mate in a scene that is perhaps more amusing than intended. We see a gentle and fair streak to Conan, which ironically normalises the subordination of women. The slave woman is presented as a gift to Conan, who is undeniably in charge of the cage that he inhabits. These two prized slaves are at the bottom of the social pyramid, but she is beneath him because of his hulking power. Hierarchy is created as thoroughly masculine, and predominantly through raw physicality and martial efficacy.

As the narrative unfolds, a guard takes pity on Conan and sets him free. His first revelation follows shortly, when he discovers the tomb of a long-dead king. In a scene reminiscent of Ozymandias, everything living has turned to dust. The former power and invincibility of the king is reduced to a pathetic shadow cast by a propped-up skeleton. However, the king’s sword remains beautiful and unchanged by the passage of time. Steel is clearly a mystical and undying source of strength.

The barbaric quality of Conan stems from a virtuous core that has not been debased by civilisation - a philosophy reminiscent of Rousseau. Masculinity is unambiguously equated with self-contained power. Looking after his own interests, Conan directs that power towards revenge for his murdered family and people. The target of his revenge is Thulsa Doom, a cult leader with magical abilities. Doom once searched for the secret of steel before abandoning barbaric purity for something apparently more powerful. He found invincibility in controlling the minds of other people, and built a powerful cult that symbolises the disgrace that civilisation brings to human nature. The cult members have no will of their own, and are subordinated in a spiritual quest that binds their souls to Doom. Demonstrating his absolute superiority over Conan, Doom signals one of a dozen beautiful girls to throw herself to her death at a whim, and declares “That is strength boy! That is power. The strength and power of flesh. What is steel compared to the hand that wields it.” Thulsa Doom manifests as an egomaniac – a super-ape – seductive and utterly evil.

In the climatic showdown between the two, Conan is armed with his sword, and Doom with his mind. Conan appears free to kill his nemesis, but Doom first attempts to cast a spell. Conan seems meek and vulnerable when assaulted by Doom’s intellect. But the depravity of civilisation cannot touch barbaric virtue, and Doom is executed in a ritual that reaffirms Conan’s self-contained invincibility.

This type of hegemonic masculinity stands invincible without anybody or anything. Although Conan has intimate relationships and dependable friends, his companions are always servile to his heroic identity. Therefore, Conan draws his heroic identity and hegemonic masculinity from self-efficacy rather than some ultimate concern for others. He adores his love interest, Valeria, who is also his sidekick, and an extension of his masculinity. Nonetheless they share a certain idealisation of love that transcends death. True to conventional gender roles, Valeria martyrs herself for her love. She gives up her own life to bring Conan back from the dead and thus declares: “All the gods they cannot sever us. If I were dead and you still fighting for life, I would come back from the darkness, back from the pit of hell to fight at your side.” Conan never directly reflects back this depth of feeling, and he does not seek to reciprocate Valeria’s gift of life when she dies. This turns Valeria into a projection of Conan’s ego, relegating her to a male fantasy of epic love. She has a woman’s desires, but nonetheless understands a man’s world and is successful in it. However, rather than a soulmate in an equal partnership, Valeria’s devotion allows her to be absorbed into Conan’s heroic identity, where she serves to augment his invulnerability. In the climatic battle with Thulsa Doom’s henchmen, Conan is fighting for his life, and is saved by a timely deflection from a resplendent apparition. Valeria returns from the dead to save Conan’s life. Ever the saucy angel, she meets his amazement with the rejoinder: “Do you want to live forever?” In the end, Valeria becomes a protector spirit that looks out for Conan from the pits of hell: a beautiful trinket that augments his invincibility.

The almost universal appeal of Conan-like characters may lie in the depths of the masculine psyche. Civilisation always exists under the threat of imminent collapse. When the world ends, a strong male archetype must emerge as a lightning rod for male martial power, and then guide the collective through intergroup conflict. The mythic search for invincibility traces through a fear that one day one might need a cellar full of food, and a loaded gun at the ready. You will not find Conan walking about this world in its current form, but he is nonetheless alive in the primitive consciousnesses’ of men. This dream will always be popular, because it lies just beyond the thin veil called civilisation.5

The Ownership of Women

If the primitive mechanisms of patriarchy relate to the execution of martial power, then these mechanisms must also interact with constructions of femininity. Epic romance is explored in a story that Joseph Campbell described as a reinvention of mythology for the contemporary viewer (Campbell & Moyers, 1988). The Star Wars trilogy from the 70s and 80s attempts to recreate folk wisdom passed down from antiquity. An adventure of such epic proportions would be incomplete without a romance constructed from classic traditions. Entering stage left, we see the desirable Han Solo, a rogue and a seducer, taking on the pure and noble heart of an equally desirable princess. The mating pattern begins with Han’s relentless pursuit of Leia. Han is forthright with his desire to conquer Leia, and he persistently needles her to admit that she fancies him. This bardo peaks at the start of “The Empire Strikes Back” (Kershner, 1980), in a scene where Han believes that Leia has conspired to keep him close:

Han Solo:“I think you just couldn’t bear to let a gorgeous guy like me out of your sight.”
Princess Leia:“I don’t know where you get your delusions laser brain.”
Chewbacca:[laughter]

Is Han projecting, or is Leia in denial? It seems that something more complex is unfolding between the two, as articulated by laughter from Chewbacca - Han’s animal familiar and alter ego. In this construction, men seek and women choose. Therefore, masculinity must be constructed to take rejection on the chin. Besides, a woman is allowed to take a long time to make up her mind. After trading some more insults, Leia is at least gracious enough to make Han jealous by kissing Luke Skywalker. Her brother unbeknownst, Luke is the only person as virtuous as Leia. The contrast between Han and Luke is a signal to Han that he must evolve as a person to be worthy of the princess.

But Han and Leia are all business when they are called upon in their roles as heroes. Particularly at the start of “The Empire Strikes Back,” on the ice world Hoth, Carrie Fischer creates Leia as a believable general figure - but classically feminine nonetheless. Her performance of femininity makes Leia a participant in patriarchy, but not a powerless one. In fact, Leia knows how to navigate a man’s world, and is a deadly “rogue-like” warrior: stealthy, perceptive, and handy with a laser. When a fight breaks out, she defers to the authority of the men about her, and does her part as a good foot soldier. But if the men about her flounder, she might stage an insurrection and order them down a garbage disposal pipe. Yet, somehow Leia is also the classic damsel in distress: young, beautiful, and pure. She always relates to people as a woman, and so the romance between Han and Leia has a traditional fairytale quality about it, with manly influence complemented by womanly insight.

Somewhat predictably, Han cannot disclose his feelings to Leia directly. Instead, he chooses to express his attraction by getting her to admit she likes him. Here we see masculinity constructed to never leave itself open to defeat. Rather humorously, this behaviour is both vulnerable and invulnerable at the same time. Leia discloses her love when all seems lost, and Han is about to be encased in carbonite.6 Ever the invulnerable scoundrel, Han merely responds “I know.” Interestingly, he beseeches his animal familiar to take care of her. A man can entrust the protection of his woman to another man. The “ownership” of women is clearly constructed. Leia will do what Chewbacca tells her, in exchange for his protection - a corollary to men being masters of the most dangerous zero-sum games.

However, more is going on between Han and Leia than a mere agreement of mutual attraction. Han Solo is the unscrupulous antihero straight from the American frontier. He is manly and daring, but also brash and arrogant. Han is a natural leader with a deep affection for the people he orders about, and he is also a creative genius in complex zero-sum situations. Leia often aggravates his doubts in tight situations; however, she still submits to his authority. And sometimes Han even surprises himself. Harrison Ford constructed a hegemonic masculinity that has almost universal appeal to both men and women.

But the question on Leia’s mind is: will he commit? Firstly, she wants him to commit to the rebellion, so that she can see that he has sustained loyalties. Han also needs to give her more space, so that she knows he is recognising her - giving her space to be herself. So while they repair the Millennium Falcon in the body of an asteroid, Leia refuses to admit that she likes Han when he presses her. She calls Han a “scoundrel” and says she that likes “nice men.” In a scene that cuts a line between seduction and coercion, Han tells Leia that she likes him because he is a “scoundrel.” In this scene, Leia repeatedly says no, but is betrayed by her body as Han seduces her. I do not think it is particularly helpful to be moralistic about this behaviour; however, it should be understood clearly so that women can enforce their boundaries, and men also perceive them.

Han does end up giving Leia space to be. In particular, he accepts Leia’s mysteriously intimate relationship with Luke Skywalker. Masculinity is constructed to be magnanimous in the pursuit of love, and femininity as introspective and real. The moment Han promises Leia that he won’t compete with Luke, is the moment Leia openly accepts him: a man who has evolved beyond the loner mercenary. This is the power to choose, thereby creating life, a very feminine quality that places Leia fundamentally in control because she has the wisdom to see what is really happening. This theme is explored in “Return of the Jedi” (Marquand, 1983), when Leia reflects back Han’s rejoinder from the scene where he was frozen in carbonite. In the climatic events of the film, the rebellion is about to be defeated while Han and Leia desperately attempt to break into an imperial base on the forest moon of Endor. Outmanned and outgunned, Leia is wounded and slumps to the ground. In a do-or-die moment, she covertly prepares a laser to ambush some imperial troopers. At this point, Han looks deeply into Leia’s eyes and professes his love. Leia merely responds “I know.” In fact, she is saying that she always knew he loved her - the whole time. This interpersonal superiority is constructed directly into classic femininity7, and creates a thread that runs throughout the entire construction of their courtship. Han and Leia share a silver-screen romance where men and women are constructed as owning each other, but in their own particular way.

It is plausible that nature designed men as strong and expendable - natural warriors with a psyche to match (Wilson, 1975/2000). If this is true, then it is plausible that women are designed with an equally important complementary nature - perhaps a glue that binds society together. Whatever the case, men and women share the same cognitive machinery, and can be equally efficacious as leaders. There is no one-size-fits-all construction for emancipated femininity, because on any measure, the difference between populations means is far less than the variance of individual men and women. So we might see characters as diverse as Princess Leia and Ellen Ripley. Although none of them are perfect examples, they seem to point the way toward an enigmatic femininity that is at once part of patriarchy and also entirely free from it.

It seems that young boys relish in physicality as a male preserve, and consider it important when delineating social hierarchy (Dyson, 1996). Patriarchy may have biological aspects that manifest vividly in the development of young boys. Although human nature is not infinitely malleable, social constructions seem to have the final say on the world that we create. We have successfully manifested a hierarchy in Western democracies where martial power is subordinate to parliament. Therefore, it is possible in theory, that martial power in the form of atavistic male tendencies may one day find itself in the servitude of social constructions that augment our collective will. Nobody knows what those social constructions might look like, because the underlying human condition remains mysterious. Besides, it is probably impossible to direct the next generation towards any particular constructions that we think useful. Nonetheless a deep investigation of the natural origins of patriarchy may illuminate why women have historically been cut off from positions of power, and paint a roadmap towards an equitable creation of ourselves that is also consistent with who we are.


Endnotes

1 It is the ambiguity of such a newly forming hierarchy that may account for the bystander effect.

2 Merlin Stone (1976) popularised a fictitious history in her book “When God Was a Woman.” See Eller (2000) for clarification.

3 Even accounting for two world wars, the probability of dying from violence was about an order of magnitude smaller in the 20th century than in even the most peaceful hunter gather societies. This includes so called “peaceful” societies such as the !Kung San of the Kalahari desert. The canard of the peaceful savage was popularised through faked studies that were generated by “right-thinking” anthropologists (Pinker, 2002). A critical reading directly challenges the notion that modern violence is the result of degraded American culture.

4 Perhaps such an identity can be found in fictional character Elizabeth Lochley from Babylon 5.

5 This is an absolutely real fear when considered on evolutionary timescales. There is a lot of redundancy in our design, with developed and primitive parts always in operation, and always together.

6 Cryogenically frozen.

7 Perhaps related to women’s biological advantage with empathy (Pinker, 2008).


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© 2010, Aaron Michaux