By now most of you have probably seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which opened on December 18th. My daughter has been pretending to be Rey nearly constantly since seeing the movie, and my son has spent all day today telling everyone he comes in contact with that he is BB8. (At three, I think the robot BB8 is actually the character he identifies with most strongly.) Learning proper light saber usage (can you say Christmas presents?) has suddenly become very important in our household!
I have to be honest—I was careful not to get my hopes up about this one. I watched the original trilogy as a teen, and saw the prequels as a young adult. Practically everyone everyone agrees that the prequels were highly problematic on a variety of levels—and a disappointment to many fans. I’ve been a Star Wars fan since my first introduction to the franchise, but I held onto the originals as the golden standard and feared the new movie would likely land in the same category as the prequels. I was wrong.
I didn’t know until I was sitting in the theater that the main character was female. It wasn’t until several days after I’d seen the movie that I realized that during the entire film, no one said anything about the female lead’s appearance. Wow.
In the originals, Leia was competent and capable and became a role model for generations of girls, but all three films were filled with hot princess comments. Han and Luke immediately squared off to compete for her in the first movie, Lando Calrisian immediately commented on her appearance in the second, and in the third she was enslaved and dressed in chains and a bikini.
In the prequels, Padme was also competent and capable, but it often seemed that her entire purpose in the films was as love interest for Anakin. Her accomplishments as queen and then senator were dwarfed in comparison to her role as The Thing That Turned Anakin to the Dark Side. In the first movie, child Anakin told Padme she was beautiful, and in the second movie adult Anakin immediately fixated on Padme’s physical appearance.
And here was Rey, running around and kicking ass for an entire movie and no one once commented on her appearance. While I don’t know what age Rey was meant to be (or what age Leia or Padme were meant to be, for that matter), the actress who played her, Daisy Ridley, was actually older than both Carrie Fisher (Leia) or Natalie Portman (Padme), suggesting that the refreshing lack of objectification in The Force Awakens was not about the character’s youth.
There are other things to like about the new film’s portrayal of Rey as well. Unlike either Leia or Padme, Rey never needs rescuing. As commenter Megan Garber explained at The Atlantic, “Rey has neither the luxury nor the burden of being a damsel in distress; she is too busy surviving.” When we first meet Leia, she is a prisoner on board the Death Star; as the movie progresses, she is rescued by Luke and Han. When Rey is imprisoned in a similar situation, she doesn’t need rescuing. Instead, she gathers her wits and her ingenuity and finds a way to free herself.
And of course, there are other things to praise about The Force Awakens more generally, such as the movie’s black co-lead, Finn, and its resurrection of the earlier spirit of Star Wars that so many fans found so captivating in the originals and so missing from the prequels. There are other female characters and characters of color as well, including Poe Dameron, Captain Phasma, and Maz Kanata. A variety of other authors have covered these aspects of the movie and more.
I’ve been ruminating on this movie in glorious detail since seeing it last week, and I’ve binge-read articles about the film in the last few days. There is much to think about and much to talk about, but I keep coming back to that one thing—that not a single character commented on Rey’s looks. Instead what mattered was Rey’s actions. Her abilities, her tenacity, her realistic vulnerability combined with her strong will to survive—these were the things that mattered. Rey was seen, first and foremost, not as a woman but as a person.
I just finished re-watching the original trilogy with a group of family and relatives, and there were numerous moments where I cringed, wondering what was being communicated to my daughter. What do girls take away from scenes or moments where Leia is judged or valued primarily on her looks, I wonder? Leia is competent and capable in many many ways, but that she is also sexy and gorgeous is critical to her character’s interaction with the men around her—and their perception of her.
The Force Awakens’ portrayal Rey turns all of that upside down. Here is a character who is competent and capable without having to also be sexy and gorgeous. Here is a character judged on her abilities and her drive and not on her looks. And there is something absolutely beautiful about that.