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The Force Awakens for a New Feminist Generation

Jan 6, 2016

My first memory of going to the movies was with my dad. I was in kindergarten. We went to Highland Movie Theatre in St. Paul to see Star Wars. It was there I fell in love. 

I fell in love with movies, with Han Solo, with wanting to be Princess Leia, with the big screen. I fell in love with popcorn with butter seeping through the paper bag my mom had given us sneak into the theatre.

It was then that I wanted to combine Han Solo and Princess Leia and be a skilled fighter, a rebel leader, and ruler of the galaxy. In the 1970s, there weren’t many options for strong, feminist characters for little girls in popular culture. I grew up admiring super heroes or those women who possessed super-human powers; Wonder Woman and the Bionic Woman were two of my favorites. But, there weren’t many young girls on the big screen or even in the books I read that had the feminist qualities that I was drawn to. Princess Leia, who was always snarky, sassy, and mad, was someone I admired, but she always seemed older than the nineteen year-old in the film. And, if you wanted to find a Princess Leia action figure, good luck, they were nowhere to be found.

So, when they announced a new Star Wars Trilogy, directed by J.J. Abrams, I was cautiously optimistic. Like many fans, I was disappointed with the trilogy of prequels, but I hoped that the newest films would bring back the excitement I had as a child.

I bought tickets for The Force Awakens as soon as they went on sale, and my son and I went to the first Macomb showing. Although he was a little older than I was when I went, I was excited to bring him and share an experience I had shared with my dad. I was not disappointed when I left the theatre. In fact, if I could have, I would have stayed and watched it again.

Rebekah Buchanan
Credit Rich Egger

Rey is the feminist hero I wish I had when I was my daughter’s age and first saw Star Wars. The beauty of The Force Awakens for me is how strongly feminist and female-centered it is. Rey is a future Jedi. Rey can take care of herself, forage for food, and survive on her own. Rey is an expert pilot. She is not considered “good for a girl.” Instead, it is just accepted that she can out fly anyone and survive on her own. And, she continues to let us know this about her throughout the film.

Much of Rey’s backstory sets us up to see where she has learned her skills. Rey is a scavenger; orphaned on her home planet of Jakku, she has learned how to survive through scavenging metal and junk to trade for food, fighting to make sure that she survived the night on the lawless planet. She has been well prepared for the battles that are ahead.

Rey learned to fly from practicing on an old flight simulator and it shows. She flies the Millennium Falcon so expertly that even Han Solo wants her to co-pilot with him. And, in no way does he critique her flying of being good for a girl or saying that he can give her tips. Instead, he notes her skill as what it is, skill.

Han gives her a weapon to fight because he knows she can handle herself. She is respected because of her skill and no one is arguing that she should not be skillful or that she should not be taking center stage.

Rey is young, she is still raw and in some ways unskilled, but throughout the film we see the similarities she has with another young Padawan, Luke Skywalker. She is able to use her raw, Jedi ability against Kylo Ren. She doesn’t know it yet, but the powers she possesses will make her a powerful Jedi in the future.

There is a great deal of talk about how Rey is a Mary Sue—a character in fandom that is too perfect to be real. But, I would argue that the notion of Rey as a Mary Sue comes from critics who are afraid to let a female character exist at the center of the latest trilogy. The Star Wars boys club (not that there ever really was one), will be no more.

Writers, Lawrence Kasdan, JJ Abrams, and Michael Arndt have done for the series what Lucas could not do, they moved women to the front.

Although Carrie Fisher was asked to lose weight and Hollywood still struggles with allowing women to grow old gracefully, Leia did return, putting her effort into leading The Resistance and being the same strong female I loved when I was five. After first seeing Leia almost 40 years ago, it was exciting for me to see her grow old and still be causing problems for the First Order. In the same ways that Rey is a symbol for a new generation of young feminists, Leia continues to be one for those of us who grew up with the the series, and Fisher plays her well. Fisher deserves credit for returning to the role and showing what happens to the future Leia, and if you ask me, the future looks good. Who wouldn’t want to be leading an army of rebels?

Then there is the female Yoda, Maz Kantana, who helps awaken the force in Rey. Although she only briefly appears in The Force Awakens, she is a guide and a voice of reason. She is intelligence and wisdom. A Yoda for a new generation of female Jedi. She can guide them toward the force in fabulous ways. Hopefully she will play a larger role as the trilogy continues.

I am excited that The Force Awakens is smashing box office records every time I turn around. It means that there is a whole new group of young people who will have fond memories of a female Jedi they loved when their parents took them to see Star Wars and share in the love of a franchise that spans generations (and galaxies).

Rebekah Buchanan is an Assistant Professor of English at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcomed and encouraged.