Women in Star Wars & The Force Awakens

Wednesday, 3 February 2016

Let me start by saying now that this post will contain spoilers.  If you haven’t seen The Force Awakens yet and you don’t want anything to be ruined for you, then stop reading and come back when you’ve seen it!  You’ve been warned…

The Force Awakens has been a long time coming – it’s been around a decade since the last Star Wars movie came out, but it’s been way longer than that since there was a movie that fans were, by and large, fully satisfied with.  I’ve seen other people and even critics describe Episode VII as the movie fans have been waiting for since Return of the Jedi, and I agree.  It’s the movie I dreamt of as a child, and not just because everyone else likes to say that the prequels were pants.

In a single movie, The Force Awakens has included more strong, female leads and more ethnic minorities than all of the previous films combined.  Leia was an iconic and progressive female role model for her time – she was the first self-rescuing princess who even saves her friends too, and she was savvy with a blaster as well as an intelligent and kind leader – but even with all of these positive points, it’s impossible to deny that she was used as fan service and as a love interest and that she didn’t drive the plot in the same way as the other characters.  After her came Padmé, who started out as an admirable and strong child queen and later politician who was driven by her compassion for her people, but who ultimately fell flat on her face as a decent female character when she died of a broken heart after her hubz turned evil and she popped out her two babies.  In the space of one movie, she essentially becomes nothing more than a plot tool for Anakin’s angst and a womb to produce the next generation.  All other female characters, although compelling and powerful in the Expanded Universe (may it rest in peace), are just background noise in the films and are still lacking even in the prequels by comparison to the newest instalment.

The Force Awakens has the female characters that I needed as a child – characters that could prove that actually, girls could be Stormtroopers and Jedi and villains.  In addition to the multitude of women and people of colour featured in the background of all of the scenes (female and POC Resistance officers and pilots, as well as First Order staff and soldiers for example), the new movie presents a grand total of four relatively major characters in Rey, Leia, Maz Kanata and Captain Phasma.  That alone has already doubled the ladies that actually got decent screen time in the first six movies.

Phasma, although I found her role to be a little bit disappointing having expected a bit more from her (here’s hoping she made it out alive and into the next episode for revenge), is the first villain so far that is extremely intimidating, a woman, and doesn’t suffer from cleavage windows or other female armour wardrobe malfunctions.  She’s a lady who commands an army and is scary enough to make Finn quake in his boots and later relish the situation when he’s the one with the power for a change.

Maz Kanata appears to be our new alternative to Yoda – a Force sensitive, but not Jedi, oracle of wisdom that has lived for what’s suggested to be hundreds to thousands of years.  Although she runs a space pirate outpost and clearly deals in things that aren’t exactly by the books, she’s good natured, humorous and guides the other characters to help them achieve their new potential.  And apparently she has a thing for Chewie; who wouldn’t?  I look forward to learning more about her and hopefully more appearances from her in the other movies.  The only thing that I found disappointing about her was that they chose to cast Lupita Nyong’o, one of the most beautiful and notable black actresses in the world, as someone who was entirely CGI.  Smells a lot like they thought Finn was enough colour for the main cast and like they didn’t need a visible woman of colour, too, but I have at least read that Lupita was actually quite excited to play a less body-focused role after her part in 12 Years a Slave.

Leia returns to the new movie not as a princess in need of rescuing, but as a military general who does the rescuing.  While Han goes back to smuggling after the disappearance of Luke and the fall to the Dark Side of their son, Leia goes back to her old role as a leader of the Rebellion, now Resistance.  Although obviously highly ranked and highly respected, she’s as warm and approachable as ever, a stark contrast to First Order commanders like Kylo Ren and General Hux.  In a way, Leia almost makes up for the disappointing demise of Padmé – unlike her mother, when Leia lost a loved one to the Dark Side and her relationship with her lover ended in sadness, she moved on, went back to her roots and kept doing what had been driving her all that time in the first place.  Despite the love that she and Han shared, her new role in The Force Awakens makes it clear that her love for Han didn’t define, limit or pigeon hole her.

And finally, we have Rey, who we now know to be the heroine and the Luke Skywalker of this new generation’s story.  She’s the ‘strong female character’ in a major movie that everyone had been hoping for but that until now was just a long forgotten dream; the woman who is kind and compassionate, who has faced struggles but hasn’t hardened or grown icy, who confidently asserts her own ideas but accepts help and advice from friends and elders, who is intelligent and capable and physically strong but still has much to learn that the audience will no doubt learn with her.  I’ve heard whining that she’s a Mary Sue – that she’s too good at everything and learns too quickly – but for a start, compared to the other characters, she’s had nearly her entire life of living alone to pick up skills (spurred on by her own hunger and survival, which are powerful motivators for learning), and beyond that, Force sensitive characters usually have it ‘easy’ enough to seem ‘too good’ at things.  If we’re going to dismiss Rey as a decent character for daring to be a woman who seems to be good at a lot of things, then we need to dismiss Luke and Anakin and Obi-Wan and nearly all the other Jedi in the universe because they’re basically all Mary Sues by definition.  But that’s a rant for another post!

Rey is the heroine that I’ve been waiting for but had long since given up hope of seeing.  She’s a heroine who is spurred on not by trauma or sadness, but by adventure and her own courage.  She’s suffered, sure – she was abandoned by her family and left to fend for herself, counting the days she’s been alone – but she’s not been broken by emotional pain or by abuse like so many other powerful women in the media.  She wasn’t forced into anything, she’s instead a heroine who steps up and after some encouragement from others and finding strength and love in new friendships, begins to forge her own destiny.  The Force awakens in Rey not because she suddenly became damaged goods and earned her strength through hurt and loss like so many other female characters, but because it was always there; she simply made the decision to answer it.

There are people who staunchly deny that the saga isn’t inclusive of female characters because of the Expanded Universe and they’re right, to an extent.  The books and extra media do all contain powerful women and I grew up reading the Young Jedi Knights series and looked up to Jaina Solo, the now non-canon daughter of Han and Leia who, with her twin brother Jacen, was trained to be a Jedi by Luke.  But not only were the books never truly canon, but they aren’t mainstream media.  Jaina and Tenel Ka and other women I grew to love in the Expanded Universe were never on television, never in the movies.  Besides myself and one of my best friends growing up, no one else knew about them.  To everyone else, when we played games I couldn’t be Jaina the Jedi Knight or Jan Ors the intelligence agent, I couldn’t be a Stormtrooper or a bounty hunter, a rebel pilot or a smuggler, I could only be Leia or – when the prequels came out – maybe Padmé.  Now, girls can be all of those things and more.

It excites me to know that there are little girls who are experiencing Star Wars for the first time through Rey and the women in The Force Awakens, who were staring up at the big screen in front of them and seeing exactly what women can be in all of their different forms.  When Rey used the Force to call Luke’s lightsaber to her, I found myself choking back tears; bathed in the blue glow of the weapon she defiantly holds in the face of Kylo Ren, coming to the defence of her fallen friend, she represents everything I wanted but never had as a girl who loved Star Wars. 

The Force Awakens has given us a whole new world in which women actually play an equal part, and I for one can’t wait to see not only where Rey’s journey takes her, but where her impact on movies and science fiction takes us all.

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