I like to say that being a geek was inevitable for me as I was born the same year as Star Wars. (Now you all know how old I am! 🙂 ) Growing up in the ‘80s, strong female role models were few and far between, so when I discovered Princess Leia, she (of course) became my personal hero.
What I loved about her was, naturally, what endeared her to many fans. Leia was a strong, powerful woman – not only a princess, but the leader of the rebel alliance. And even though the first Star Wars film – Episode IV: A New Hope – opened with Leia needing rescuing (“Help me Obi Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.”), Leia proved to be a self-rescuing princess, taking over her own prison break from the inept hands of Luke and Han.
Although Leia is most often commemorated by cosplayers as “slave Leia,” a sexy look designed to appeal to the male gaze (actually in the film it’s to demoralize the rebel leader and reduce her to an object), what’s worth mentioning is that Leia also rescues herself from her “slave master” – Jabba the Hut – strangling him with her own slave bindings while wearing that gold bikini. (Take that Jaba!)
What I loved more than anything about Leia was that she got to “play” right alongside the boys. Leia was not only part of the team for most of the way, she also often led the charge, firing her blaster on the front lines right beside her brother Luke and future husband Han Solo.
And if that wasn’t reason enough to adore her, check out this internet meme that’s been going around lately (and which I’m loving):
And now, here we are, 38 years after Episode IV. 2015 brings us Episode VII: The Force Awakens, and along with it comes a new heroine just as perfect for a new generation. Even as Leia advanced ideas about female roles in the ’80s, Rey takes those ideas even further.
The Star Wars films aside, I have long lamented that films starring women tend to be branded “chic flicks,” no matter if the film is a superhero or action movie or a rom com. On the other hand, movies with male leads are just, well, movies. And I’ve also generally followed that up with the idea that gender equality will never really be a thing until our pop culture actually reflects women as equal “players” – essentially, until movies are no longer “chic flicks” just because they are about a character who happens to be a woman.
Well, I think that day may have finally arrived! This movie – The Force Awakens – is no “chic flick.” It’s Star Wars! As much designed for a perceived male audience as a female one. And yet it stars a woman; Rey is clearly the protagonist of the film.
And speaking of being a protagonist, although Leia will always hold a prime spot in my heart, the protagonist of the original Star Wars trilogy was Luke, not Leia. Episodes IV-VI were about Luke’s transformation into a Jedi and his confrontation with the darkside in the person of his father. Episode VII, however, is all about Rey.
Further, what really stands out to me about her role in this film is that it never seems to matter that she is a woman. Although the film isn’t entirely without moments that seem to approach commenting on Rey’s female-hood, those moments actually comment more on maleness than femaleness. For example, when Finn first encounters Rey in the marketplace, she is attacked by several males. His first instinct is to try and rescue her from the attack, despite his own lack of fighting skills. However, by the time he reaches her, she’s already taken out all her attackers. Finn reacts to this with a bit of startlement, but it’s Rey’s reaction that’s really telling. Rather than respond with a line that says, “I’m a strong female,” such as something like, “I don’t need you to rescue me,” she instead gives him a look that just reads as a simple, “Why?” As if the idea of having someone step in to rescue her would never even occur to her as being a thing.
And never in the film does it ever matter that Rey is a woman. It’s never commented on, never mentioned by any of the characters that she might not be able to do something “because she’s a woman.” The only time her gender is even referred to is when Han advises Finn to stop lying to Rey about his identity because women always uncover the truth.
Further, what’s even more brilliantly done is that Rey’s strength never emasculates the male characters in the film, which tends to be a pitfall of many super-heroine storylines. This could easily have happened with Rey’s teammate Finn, who – a couple of times – was rescued by Rey. But just as Rey is discovering her powers with the Force, Finn has his own battles to fight and his own demons to confront. One doesn’t take away from the other. Nor does it stop Rey from being emotionally vulnerable with Finn and benefiting from his friendship and support, even as she doesn’t require his more traditional “male physical might” to protect her.
Not only was I thrilled with the movie (I awaited it with quite a bit of nervousness, wondering if I could still even call myself a Star Wars fan if this new trilogy turned out to be as bad as the prequels – sorry to all you prequel fans out there), I am also very excited about this new turn in movie-making itself! And so happy to have lived to see the day when female characters are taking the stage in leading roles in major blockbuster films. Films made for everyone – not just for women. (And I also can’t wait for more! Wonder Woman, Captain Marvel, maybe Black Widow? . . .) Very excited to see more of Rey, and here’s to hoping they keep up the trend in Episodes VIII and IX.