If you’ve lived a good life and spend way less time on the internet than I do, the chances are that most of the extremely loud but relatively minor backlash to Star Wars: The Last Jedi has passed you by. Between the Reddit riots, the MRA cuts of the film that aren’t in any way sexist, and the Twitter chaos that seems to follow the mere mention of the movie, it’s safe to say that we’re all a little exhausted. Even those of us who truly loved the film - and going by the reviews and box office receipts, that’s a hell of a lot of us - are tired of having to defend it at every turn. Some people just won’t take no for an answer, which explains why the film’s director Rian Johnson has had to up his social media game to keep up with the trolls. Most of the fury just made me roll my eyes. Even the nit-picking over minute canon details of what the Force can and cannot do held no interest for this geek. However, there was one element of the backlash that stuck with me, one that highlighted a stark gender divide in the problem, and one that inadvertently dismissed one of its heroine’s great pop culture precursors.
In a crucial scene, the Resistance’s lead ship is fired at by a TIE Fighter, and Leia is shot into space. Most viewers gasped, assuming that this would be the last time the late Carrie Fisher would be seen in the saga, floating amidst the wreckage of her ship with a serene expression on her face. Unexpectedly, she harnessed the Force and managed to make her way in zero gravity back to the other ship, where she quickly became comatose and spent most of the film in the sick bay. For me, this was a beautiful scene, a moment where we got to witness more of Leia’s Force abilities than we’d been privy to in earlier movies. For others, it was a silly bit that made no sense. The phrase I kept hearing be used was ‘Leia went full Mary Poppins’.
Nobody seemed to say the phrase with much earnestness. It was clearly intended as an insult, a symbol of how daft they thought the scene was. The implication was that you should laugh at such nonsense, because it was comparable to a magical nanny in a Disney movie. They didn’t see this moment as badass: They saw it as childish.
I love Mary Poppins. I’d argue that it stands as one of the true masterpieces of Walt Disney Studios. It’s an easy film to take for granted, particularly if you’re one of many generations of kids who grew up watching it on video or every Christmas it seemed to be on TV. Some watch it and perceive it to be a quaint little film from that era in the 1960s where musicals were plentiful in quantity and epic in scale. Everyone’s heard the songs and you’re probably whistling one of them right now as you read this piece. Mary Poppins is a film that’s just always been there for so many of us, and as such, it’s one that is frequently dismissed or derided as a frivolity. It’s for kids, after all. Cracking gags about Leia’s Force floating and photo-shopping in an umbrella emphasises the opposition’s belief that these characters aren’t truly powerful or even worthy of power. What they do isn’t all that impressive, and they don’t even think they should be able to do that much. Leia isn’t a general or a Jedi or a powerful leader: She’s a nanny.
It’s a dismission rooted in misogyny, of course, but it also exposes gender dynamics in genre fiction. Women aren’t leaders, and when they are, their power is tossed aside or seen as a minor example of what the dudes can do (think of the amount of trolls who think Vice Admiral Holdo was incompetent despite that entire arc being about the dangers of hot-headed macho leadership). Memories of the slave bikini and braless white dress are still what come to mind for too many Star Wars fans when they think of Leia. She’s always a princess before she’s a general, and all that entails. Poppins is a caregiver, a domestic figure whose rank on the pyramid is closer to the ground than the sky. When she shows her power, it’s more perplexing to some than impressive. It’s a children’s parlour game rather than the clout of Mr. Banks.
Like Leia, Mary Poppins has those who doubt her strength, but there are also swaths of people who adore and support her. They know her abilities and celebrate them, calling for her help and guidance when it’s most needed. They are women in the worlds of men, serene but stern, empathetic but authoritative, and sometimes, they just have to get the dudes to calm the hell down. They are underestimated, but only by those who stubbornly refuse to acknowledge the power they already had. True heroes know Mary’s a badass: Even Yondu knew!
For many women my age, older and younger, Leia and Mary are two sides of the same coin. When you spend your childhood consuming pop culture and looking for role models that aren’t the boys who lived or chosen ones of recycled lore, you latch onto fierce women with near desperate force. The kids in the playground talked of swords and lasers and brute strength, but you always knew Mary Poppins could demolish them all and do it while hitting the high notes. Now, as we see the end of General Leia and we await the arrival of Emily Blunt as a new generation’s Poppins, I think of those heroines and how their soaring through the skies lifted my heart and showed power beyond limitations or expectations. Call it silly if you want, but sometimes you just need your heroes to take flight.