Luke Skywalker has vanished.
In his absence, the sinister
FIRST ORDER has risen
from the ashes of the Empire
and will not rest until Skywalker, the last Jedi,
has been destroyed.
With the support of the REPUBLIC, General Leia Organa leads a brave RESISTANCE.
She is desperate to find her
brother Luke and gain his
help in restoring peace and
justice to the galaxy.
Leia has sent her most daring
pilot on a secret mission
to Jakku, where an old ally
has discovered a clue to
Luke’s whereabouts . . .
In itself this title sequence more than provides the exposition. It sets up a new kind of story with a shift in who gets to be front and center.
Luke is gone. In fact, he won’t be the hero-leader of the story at all. All of the other characters will make a new narrative and show what they have to contribute, front and center. The second paragraph introduces “General Leia Organa” – no longer Princess Leia and not Mrs. Leia Solo either. She is the active one as she organizes the search, while Luke remains passive, waiting to be found. In fact, Luke doesn’t have a single line in the film, only waiting as active Rey sets out to find him, much as Princess Leia waited the first time around. “Leia is in need of finding in A New Hope, so Luke is in need of finding in The Force Awakens” (VanDerWerff). In the book, Rey’s thoughts provide a fun callback to this switchover:
His hair and beard were white, and his countenance was haunted. He did not speak, nor did she.
Remembering, Rey reached into her pack and removed his Lightsaber. Taking several steps forward, she held it out to him. An offer. A plea. The galaxy’s only hope.
All this sets the scene for a far different Star Wars universe, one that’s been changing for a while:
There has been a noticeable increase of prominent women in Star Wars; most notably with Ahsoka and Ventress in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and Hera and Sabine in Star Wars Rebels. But in these cartoons they are still supporting players in Anakin and Ezra’s stories. They are most certainly included, even at times emphasized, and in the case of Ahsoka receive a great amount of development, but they are never the character who’s central to the story. (Moran)
Certainly, there have been strong women in Star Wars (well, two of them) with more in the less-popular television shows and novelizations. However, women’s roles in the franchise have always been sidelined. Certainly, Leia was bold and powerful in her time: When attacked by Stormtroopers in her first scene, the senator in modest white with giant hair buns snatches a blaster. She even shoots first. Unleashing her powerful tongue while imprisoned by the Empire, she mocks them all with “Darth Vader, only you could be so bold,” “Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash. I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board,” and the memorable, “Aren’t you a little short for a Stormtrooper?”
Billie Lourd says, “When I noticed the movie for the first time, I noticed my mom was not only as confident and strong as the men, she was one of the most confident characters in the entire film. It made me realize women are just as powerful as men and that we can truly do anything they can (if not more)” (“Billie Lourd,” 52).
While Han Solo shirks responsibility and Luke Skywalker fumbles around with his evolving, boyish perception of the hero, Leia gets things done. When her own rescue goes awry, she grabs the blaster herself and finds a way out. She’s not just a princess but a radical fighting for freedom under a tyrannical empire.
“She had contempt for and worked with men, and I liked that,” Fisher says. “There was something human about her. It showed that she could do whatever she needed to do, and if she could do that, then everybody could do it. People identified with her. She’s like a superhero.” (Woerner, “Women”)
Nonetheless, she’s the goal of the story for Luke – the princess needing rescue, not the hero growing in power. Of course, her most problematic moment is watching her lie there on display in her gold bikini to please Jabba and the male audience. (In Leia’s prequel book to The Force Awakens, she refuses “a two-piece brown swimsuit adorned with gold braid” and insists on dressing more modestly in a joking homage) (Castellucci 132). Her romance is less problematic, conducted between fellow fighters basically equal in power (most of the time she outranks Han but they’re on his ship and neither intimidates the other).
Meanwhile, she values her fighting ability and perception but uses neither to become a Jedi knight. J.J. Abrams notes that he, co-writer Lawrence Kasdan and even George Lucas had discussed this issue together but decided against it:
It was a great question, and one we talked about quite a bit even with Carrie [Fisher]. If there is ‘another’ why not take advantage of this natural Force strength this character had? And one of the answers was that it was simply a choice she made, that her decision to run the rebellion and ultimately this Resistance, and consider herself a General as opposed to a Jedi, it was simply a choice that she took. Not that there isn’t any regret that should could have and didn’t. But clearly we’ve seen and we do again, she is clearly Force strong. (Abrams, “Why Didn’t”)
In the new story, she leads the Resistance, but only behind the scenes.
Like Leia, Padmé starts strong but then fades away, literally. On Tatooine she proves able to explore the desert world and take care of herself, though she only makes feeble protests at Qui-Gon’s high-handedness. Episode two, the queen fights for her life in a gladiator pit, but also has her clothing artistically slashed through the revealing white fabric. A great deal of time is spent lounging in gorgeous, impractical outfits while Anakin protects her from scary killers. The third is the worst:
Amidala gives up everything, including the will to live, when the love of her life (Anakin Skywalker) turns to evil. She physically dies of a broken heart while cry-birthing Luke and Leia Skywalker. Padmé doesn’t even get the glory of living on as a political martyr; her whole story is swept under the rug so Darth Vader can take the stage. (Woerner, “Women”)
All this is why Rey is such a shakeup. Obviously, she’s completely strong and capable in every scene. In fact, Star Wars not only makes big strides at putting a female front and center, but also at not dwelling on it. No one calls her “princess” or implies she’s too sheltered – which she isn’t. In fact, she’s the first female character growing up outside of privilege – scavenger rather than ruler or senator. “She feels very modern,” Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy says of Rey. “I think she will be relevant to audiences today, she embodies that sense of self-reliance and independence. I think that’s who she is” (Woerner, “Women”).
Yet it isn’t until she meets Finn (John Boyega) where we get to relish watching her defy gender stereotypes. Within minutes of screen time, she disarms Finn with her spear, hides them both from stormtroopers, rescues him — no more hand-holding! — and flies the Millennium Falcon. Just like that, Finn is forced to abandon those quaint, traditional gender-role ideas that were programmed into him since birth by the dictatorial First Order. (If only Earth could adapt as quickly.) (Sperling)
On their first meeting, Finn strides in to rescue her, only to see her outfight all the goons attacking her without any help. Working on the Falcon, Finn is helpless with tools and Rey must direct him in another gender-flip. When he infiltrates the Starkiller Base to rescue her, he finds she’s already saved herself. Likewise, when he takes on Ren with a lightsaber, Rey is the one to win the duel, then save Finn after. The only one Finn actually rescues is the male Poe.
“I hope Rey will be something of a girl power figure,” Ridley says proudly. “She will have some impact in a girl power-y way. She’s brave and she’s vulnerable and she’s so nuanced … She doesn’t have to be one thing to embody a woman in a film. It just so happens she’s a woman but she transcends gender. She’s going to speak to men and women.” (Howard)
There are other flips on traditional gender roles. Though it’s kept family friendly, Kylo Ren violates Rey’s mind, and she fights back, violating his in response and reclaiming her power. She reveals him as a scared little boy playing Vader-dress-up rather than a real supervillain.
Rey thus stands out as a shining role model. One critic relates:
Leaving the theater, my girls felt as empowered as their brother usually does after seeing one of the many blockbusters built for him. They never commented on how pretty Rey is. They never had to flinch because Rey was a sexual object to some man in power. They just felt strong. Equal. I can only imagine how the film will feel to girls in parts of the world where women are not allowed control over their own bodies or hearts or minds. Imagine a generation of both sexes, growing up believing that girls are powerful. Imagine the force of a billion girls realizing that, one day, they can rule the galaxy. (Sperling)
Another noticeable change is how the women suddenly appear everywhere. Maz and Leia ensure that Rey isn’t the only woman in the galaxy – a problem Leia always had.
The rest of the women in the Star Wars prequels and originals were sidelined to cantina bar stools or Coruscant hallways, banished as background players or imprisoned dancers, with the occasional exception of a Mon Mothma cameo (“Many Bothans died…”). This list becomes only more frustrating when compiled with deleted scenes from Return of the Jedi that revealed footage of multiple female rebel pilots attacking the Death Star. Sadly, most of the lady rebels wound up on the cutting-room floor, save for one pilot whose small line was dubbed over with the voice of a man in the finished film. (Woerner, “Women”)
This time, “Abrams acknowledges the past while fashioning his own pluralistic future filled with a female hero, female generals, and even Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), the galaxy’s first female villain,” added Marlow Stern in The Daily Beast. She concludes: “In this Star Wars, the Force that awakens is woman” (Howard). On Jakku, the first villager who pulls out a blaster to defend them all from Stormtroopers is a woman. Female faces casually appear with Jess the fighter pilot, Rebellion Doctor Kalonia, and some of the aliens on Jakku and Maz’s bar. There’s K-T, the pink companion for R2-D2. Even Leia’s biographer droid Peazy has a female voice. Niima Base itself is named for “old Niima the Hutt herself” (Fry, Rey’s Survival Guide). Carrie Fisher jokes, “It’s good to have a little help. I liked being the only one when I was 19…now I need some backup” (Breznican, “The Force Awakens” 84).
The Bechdel test (named for comic strip creator Alison Bechdel) insists that a film or show must meet the following criteria:
- It includes at least two women
- who have at least one conversation
- about something other than a man or men
This is not the only criteria for a feminist film, and it certainly has its flaws as a theory, yet it also emphasizes how many women in films take the role of sidekick or girlfriend whose only purpose is to aid the hero on his quest and worry about his problems. Famously, the first trilogy, with only Leia beside a few shots of Aunt Beru and Mon Mothma, does not pass, despite Leia’s strength.
The prequels, however, do, at least somewhat. Episode I has Padmé and Anakin’s mother, Shmi, discussing politics. Episode II watches Padmé and the queen discuss whether the Naboo people should leave the Republic. Episode III, however, does not pass, thanks to a lack of conversation between female characters.
More problematic is these heroines’ purpose in the stories: Leia is the inspiration for Luke and Han’s heroism as they fight to save the princess. Padmé, likewise, is the great catalyst of Anakin’s life, fueling his descent into evil. The women’s own desires are sublimated under the heroes’ struggles and the become only the Anima, the woman who guides the hero to understand his undeveloped feminine side.
Rey, meanwhile, makes her own choices and drives her own narrative. Han, Chewie, and BB-8 appear more to aid her story than their own. While Rey barely encounters Leia onscreen, Maz fills the role of mentor and aids her through the Bechdel issue.
“Star Wars was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads could take their sons to. And although that is still very much the case, I was really hoping this could be a movie that mothers could take their daughters to as well,” Abrams said during a November appearance on “Good Morning America.” (Howard)
Maz and Older Leia’s roles certainly wave to the mothers as well as daughters. While Yoda is a power fighter in Attack of the Clones, Maz’s strength seems to derive from quietly surviving, observing, and advising, seeing much that others do not. She’s a grandmotherly figure in homespun, unusual in the galaxy and certainly unique to action films.
Maz is in many ways the new queen of the franchise: The symbols on the flags outside her castle include Boba Fett’s Mythosaur skull, Ziro the Hutt’s Black Sun tattoo, the Broken Horn from Star Wars: Rebels, pod racer insignia, and Hondo Ohnaka’s pirate symbol. There’s also the 501st Legion, international fan-based organization that builds and cosplays armor from the franchise. This subtly suggests that women, even grandmothers, can be fans too – this isn’t just a world for teen boys.
There’s also the return of Leia, no longer an action girl and young romantic heroine as she used to be, but a loving mother and wife (or at least conflicted ex-wife). Though she’s not a nineteen-year-old action heroine, she still gets moments of romance:
Leia: You know, as much as we fought, I always hated it when you left.
Han Solo: That’s why I did it, so that you’d miss me.
Leia: I do miss you.
In the novelization, she’s shown making more important choices, from sending a representative to plead with the Senate to determining her son’s future:
“[Snoke] knew our child would be strong with the Force. That he was born with equal potential for good or evil.”
“You knew this from the beginning? Why didn’t you tell me?”
She sighed. “Many reasons. I was hoping that I was wrong, that it wasn’t true. I hoped I could sway him, turn him away from the dark side, without having to involve you.” A small smile appeared. “You had— you have— wonderful qualities, Han, but patience and understanding were never among them. I was afraid that your reactions would only drive him farther to the dark side. I thought I could shield him from Snoke’s influence and you from what was happening.”
Her voice dropped. “It’s clear now that I was wrong. Whether your involvement would have made a difference, we’ll never know.”
Along with her relationship with her rebellious son (described but not seen onscreen) she takes a motherly interest in Rey, the new romantic and action heroine. Of course, Rey is likely either her daughter or her niece – many viewers wondered if before Leia’s embrace and farewell, Leia imparted this information. She sends Rey off with “May the Force be with you,” symbolically passing the torch of adventuring to the next generation. As the mature princess and love interest, she’s another character unusual in this sort of film.
Another twist is that Phasma, the “Chrome Trooper” played by Gwendoline Christie, was originally designed as male.
After The Force Awakens unveiled its first cast photo, featuring only one new female character, online media outlets (including io9) criticized the male-dominated cast—and it turns out this was a major factor in their decision.
“Everything was happening simultaneously,” [writer Lawrence] Kasdan told Vulture. “When the idea came up to make Phasma female, it was instantaneous: Everyone just said, ‘Yes. That’s great.” (Lussier, “Gwendoline Christie”)
While this Stormtrooper captain role would generally be taken by a man, the more interesting fact is that she never removes her mask – only her long ponytail and voice identify her as female.
“What feels so modern about Captain Phasma is that we are used to forming our immediate relationships with female characters, conventionally, due to the way they are made flesh,” Christie told io9. “So for us to form our immediately and initial relationship with this character, who happens to be a female character, who happens to be Star Wars’ first female villain on screen, I felt that was really modern. That we respond to her through her character and her actions initially rather than the way she’s made flesh.” (Lussier, “Gwendoline Christie”)
Her appearance emphasizes that the Empire and its splinter groups have women (and perhaps have always had women no one has seen) Likewise, the First Order has seemingly shed the speciesist philosophies of the old Empire, since now their leader Snoke is an alien. In a universe where aliens represent people of color, this is a clear shift in the metaphor. No longer are the Aryan Nazis preying on the Wookies and other marginalized races.
More directly, people of color are now scattered through the universe, along with women. Casually in many scenes, there are more Blacks and Asians among the Resistance or in the gangs that board Han Solo’s ship. Leia’s second-in-command is the Asian Admiral Statura. With Poe (whose actor, Oscar Isaac, is Guatemalan), and Finn (John Boyega) front and center, the universe has a lots more diversity all of a sudden. Finn’s unmasking in fact suggests the Stormtroopers might be any race now, unlike their sameness in Attack of the Clones. Thus the universe is being rewritten in a way that allows fans of all races and genders to join in the fun.
Of course, there are still barriers to fight past onscreen. Helen O’Hara, provocative author of “Star Wars Hero Poe Dameron: Is Disney Brave Enough to Make him Gay?” writes: “The time would seem to be coming where we could and should have a hotshot X-wing pilot who happens to be gay.” She adds:
When reunited after believing one another dead, Poe runs towards Finn and throws himself into an embrace; if Finn were a woman, we’d be in little doubt that that was enough to signal interest. Should we doubt it just because they’re both men? The Force Awakens radically put a woman and a black man front-and-centre; why not add a gay man and complete a trifecta of the underrepresented?
Certainly, Poe and Finn are close, and Poe isn’t seen caring for Rey or any other woman onscreen or in his books. The actors played with the issue in an interview while leaving everything open:
“I think it’s very subtle romance that’s happening; you have to watch it a few times to see the little hints. At least I was playing romance; in the cockpit I was playing romance,” joked Oscar Isaac on Ellen the day before the movie came out.
Boyega agreed, “I was playing romance,” – though it wasn’t clear that he was talking about the same scene, or that he was any more serious.
Isaac finished by saying, “I won’t say with which character. It could be a droid.” (O’Hara)
If you enjoyed this, it’s an excerpt from a longer book. A Rey of Hope: Feminism, Symbolism and Hidden Gems in Star Wars: The Force Awakens
http://www.amazon.com/Rey-Hope-Feminism-Symbolism-Awakens-ebook/dp/B01A6OP99Q The book is for sale in paperback and ebook, free through Kindle Unlimited. Also, check out We’re Home: Fandom, Fun, and Hidden Homages in Star Wars: The Force Awakens http://www.amazon.com/Were-Home-Fandom-Homages-Awakens-ebook/dp/B01A59W4XQ/
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