Among the many demographic lessons from this past year, one of the most important has been that white women in the United States are not a unified political front.
Their votes did not carry Hillary Clinton into the White House, nor did the disturbing allegations of sexual predation against Alabama Senate candidate Roy Moore stop a majority of white women there from voting for him.
But the two biggest cinematic events of the past year — “Wonder Woman” and now “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” — tell a different story.
Anchored by unflappable female warriors who function as the beating moral hearts of worlds corrupted by male hubris, both films reaped the financial rewards of aspirational images of white female leadership that are self-congratulatory and easy for the political class to embrace. Clinton recently received the Wonder Woman award from the Women’s Media Center and even compared herself to the ageless Themysciran in an e-mail to supporters.
But as products of consumer culture removed from political realities, the heroines in these movies are distorting the truth for Americans.
They gratify audiences by mirroring their own beliefs back to them — depicting white women as heroic paragons of virtue crusading for righteous causes — which, in turn, licenses viewers to avoid having either to acknowledge the more complicated role white women are playing in our politics or to consider what other forms of racialized womanhood these heroines are occluding. So, while these films may trade on a widespread desire for transformative change, they are also replaying cultural scripts that seem on the verge of exhaustion, in the process foreclosing more transformative artistic and political possibilities.
This isn’t the first time in the history of American popular culture that a work whose white heroine was tasked with saving an entire social order met an unprecedented consumer demand and, as a result, had its political afterlife severely compromised.
Indeed, this cultural construct can be traced back at least a century and a half, when the U.S. public worshiped at the altar of another fictional white girl from a work even more divisive than “The Last Jedi” is proving to be.
The character was/is Evangeline St. Clare, and the work, “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Published in 1852, Harriet Beecher Stowe’s debut novel was the first global literary blockbuster, selling millions of copies worldwide. A contemporary reader called Stowe’s sweeping epic of slaves, fugitives, Southerners and abolitionists in the antebellum United States a national “epidemic” — everywhere he went, people were talking about “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.”
Although the novel’s most infamous legacy has been the uses and abuses of its eponymous hero, the character who won the hearts of its 19th-century audience was the angelic Evangeline, better known as Little Eva.
The daughter of the languid slave owner Augustine St. Clare, Eva is the flaxen-haired image of antebellum Protestant piety. Pale and pure, she is a Christ figure passed through the Victorian cult of the child. Everyone she touches — white and black — experiences her unconditional love, which, in turn, awakens their own more tender feelings. And her inevitable death — by consumption, naturally — promises the redemption not just of her immediate family but potentially of an entire nation.
Eva’s death in many ways represented the apex of antebellum sentimentalism, an aesthetic and philosophical movement that privileged feelings as a viable path to the good (and even to God).
The novel was so popular that Uncle Tom merchandise flooded the nation within months of its release. These “Tomitudes” included poems, songs, ceramic figurines, card games, dinner plates and spoons. One observer lamented that “Uncle Tom’s Cabin” had infiltrated the “drawing room, nursery, kitchen, library.”
As a result, Little Eva quickly transformed from a character into a commodity. She was a capitalist Eucharist for a sentimental public, soothing with saccharine — and usually offensive — models of white femininity and race relations. While Stowe had intended Eva to exemplify the power of interracial tenderness, she congealed over time into a schmaltzy synthesis of whiteness, innocence and Christianity.
Sentimentalism was not as politically inert as Little Eva may make it seem, however. It could do cultural work.
Stowe’s novel galvanized abolitionist sympathizers, unnerved slaveholders and maybe even softened a few hard hearts. Nevertheless, Little Eva’s post-novelistic life as a commodity still functioned, in the words of one of her most severe critics, as an “introduction to consumerism.” Like other sentimental consumer products of the era, Eva responded to desires and beliefs consumers already had.
Thus, according to historian Robin Bernstein, while Eva emerged as the pinnacle of pious white innocence, the novel’s black characters (especially Uncle Tom and the slave girl Topsy) were marketed to consumers as odious cultural stereotypes from which we have yet to fully recover.
There are many ways in which the supernaturally gifted white heroines of 2017 differ from the consumptive Eva. Besides being older, both Diana Prince (Wonder Woman) and Rey are fighters whose physicality is foregrounded. They also, unlike Eva, did not need to die to activate sympathies.
But beneath their super powers and death-defying acrobatics, with their stoic resolve and religious asceticism, these fictional women continue to stand as avatars of an unblemished white womanhood that clings to the old sentimental dream that they may still perhaps make their fellow characters — and the audiences witnessing them — feel the correct feelings.
It is virtually impossible not to be stirred by Wonder Woman’s fearless, slow-motion advance through No Man’s Land or Rey’s balletic lightsaber dual against her fanboy antagonist. But however moved we might be, these scenes are still designed to flatter sensibilities rather than challenge them.
According to eBay, Wonder Woman and Rey were the most sought-after fictional female characters this past year. The force of consumerism, at least, remains strong with them. Thus, just as it did in Stowe’s era, white femininity continues to be sold successfully as a moral compass for mass culture. This, for better or worse, papers over the moral ambivalence of the voting patterns and affiliations of actual white women in the U.S.
Despite all that is genuinely inspiring about these films, their narratives continue to turn on the notion that cultural salvation is the work of white women, which implicitly sidelines the political contributions, moral influence and daily efforts of women of color, not unlike Little Eva’s dramatic death and sudden rise to literary prominence did in 1852.
If the events of the past two years have taught us anything, it’s that our conventional narratives of political change are impoverished.
Perhaps, then, our current crop of cinematic heroines is not aspirational enough, too hindered by the demands of a market. For all the plaudits African-American women have gotten from the left in the wake of the Alabama Senate race, it is still not they who are reaping billions of dollars at the global box office. Maybe the release of the tentpole film “A Wrinkle in Time” this spring, with its young black female lead, will prove to be the much-needed corrective. Ava DuVernay, you’re our only hope.
Grant Shreve writes about race, religion and culture and is currently finishing a book on secularity, religious diversity and the rise of the American novel. He wrote this article for the Washington Post.