[Editor’s note: Though we’ve tried to stay away from too-obvious spoilers, there are some plot points discussed. If you don’t want to know . . . don’t read on. You’ve been warned!]
I’ve officially become a Star Wars fan. Thanks to my husband initiating me to the stories (and betrayals of George Lucas) these past few weeks, I felt that I was ready for the much-anticipated film The Force Awakens, which broke the record for the biggest preopening in history. It beat out Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows—Part 2’s $43.5 million, bringing in a whopping $57 million. That huge number will only continue to skyrocket today as countless people across the globe will be seeing the seventh installment—the first Star Wars episode since Lucas sold the franchise he created to Disney.
Old fans will of course revel in the reappearance of several of the original cast plus the breakout stars in Daisy Ridley and John Boyega (about whom I have to say: what a breakout role—more please!) and the franchise’s signature special effects. But what I really found myself mulling over during the film was how it portrayed women.
Thus far in the Star Wars saga, the main women of the galaxy were Leia and Padmé. Both women had independent natures and fought bravely among the men. Aside from a couple trite female depictions, these women are cast in a pretty badass light. But they always took a backseat to the men who were the real stars of the galaxy.
In The Force Awakens, the main character Rey (Ridley) is the first female to headline a Star Wars film—and is a Jedi. In other words, she’s the first female in the series that we see up close who is not in a leadership role but in a fighting one—the first female, in other words, to hold a lightsaber.
I’m sure there will be plenty of critics. As I watched, I could hear the snarky think pieces forming: “Oh, yes, what we need in films is more political correctness; more women not needing the help from men in battle; more women saving themselves or saving the men while they’re at it. How novel!” We see this early in the film when Finn (Boyega) instinctively grabs Rey’s hand, as if to protect her from the attackers as they start to run because, you know, any normal woman wouldn’t be able to herself.
But I thought the film managed a lighthearted and nonmilitant handle on the topic of is she or is he doing the saving. There was no sense of blame attributed to Finn for offering to help Rey; instead it was viewed as humorous. It was kindhearted and well-meaning of him. He just didn’t realize this was a woman who had fended for herself for at least a decade and had learned some self-reliant skills during that time. I don’t think it’s to suggest that no woman would reasonably need help.
As she’s played, I found Rey’s self-reliance to be a strong plot point, not a pure ideological women-in-combat fire starter. Rey didn’t have anyone protecting her, so she learned to protect herself. Self-reliance is a good thing. Similarly no one would say that a woman today should refrain from taking self-defense courses or carrying mace. One hopes we never need them, but in a real world, a woman’s gotta do what a woman’s gotta do. It’s true in Star Wars, and it’s true in real life.
And of course Finn does help Rey throughout the movie; the help goes both ways. And the more she gets to know him, the more she receives it. They’re a team. And it’s delightful.
But perhaps what is most thought-provoking from the film is a question that is likely on the minds of both longtime Star Wars fans and new ones alike, and that is: How in the world did Rey end up getting Jedi skills with no training?
Without giving too much away, Rey finds herself in deep trouble at a certain point in the movie (c’mon, you already knew that was going to happen), but she somehow gets herself out of it with surprise Jedi mind-trick skills. Skills that she has never been trained in. No 10,000 hours with a Yoda-like master; no relentless chastisements to “focus, my young Padawan”; no nothing! Long live The Force—deus ex machina plot device extraordinaire! Or some might say.
Maybe such criticisms are true. Maybe J. J. Abrams’ first take on the franchise is keeping in tradition of Star Wars films having many plot holes. Or maybe he’s telling us something different. We won’t know for sure until the next film comes out, but it was likely on purpose. Maybe we haven’t seen a training-less Jedi before in Stars Wars because we haven’t seen a female one up close yet. We know that males carry certain advantages in combat—physical strength being one of them. Women’s gifts may be different but no less important. At one point Han Solo chastises Finn because he hasn’t told Rey the full truth of his origin. Solo enlightens him: “Women always figure out the truth. Always.” The theater erupted in laughter because it rings true. There’s something powerful and real—and perhaps something Abrams used to shake things up: a little thing called female intuition.