Star Wars: The Force Awakens provides the kick-ass female lead we’ve been waiting for

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Star Wars has a female lead! The main male character is her sidekick! The villain is an angsty young dude who throws raging mantrums because she’s better than him! The lightsaber fights are amazing! Did I mention THERE IS A FEMALE LEAD?!?

*Warning: Review contains minor spoilers*

As you’ve probably already heard, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has excited and surprised audiences and critics alike with a fun, fast-paced romp through our favorite galaxy far, far away. The film returns to the spirit of the original, A New Hope, but with fresh faces and a feeling of expansive possibilities.

There is a repetition of familiar motifs, which are very Star Wars: Rey, a plucky kid orphaned and abandoned on a desert planet called Jakku, has little understanding of the impending war above but is thrown into the thick of things through a chance encounter. She is a lonely young woman who lives in the old, abandoned shell of an imperial walker and spends her days hunting for salvaged parts amid giant industrial structures, now silent and forgotten. But unlike Luke Skywalker’s desert home planet, Jakku has a post-apocalyptic feel to it, full of dusty scavenger inhabitants à la Mad Max. There is also BB8, a droid who purrs like a cat when excited but looks like a cat toy, who rivals even R2D2 in its beepy robotic cuteness. Soon after she meets BB8, Rey meets Finn, an escaped Storm Trooper. When Rey asks him if he’s part of the Resistance, Finn replies in a way revolutionary women will recognize: “Yeah, I’m in the Resistance, baby. Let’s be comrades.”

Finn is immediately smitten with Rey. Yet, thankfully, their relationship skips the romance and unfolds as a friendship instead. Rey is clearly the main character and our destined-hero for this trilogy, though Finn is an interesting counter-balance to her “chosen one” arc. He’s just your average storm trooper who snapped one day and didn’t want to be a soldier, anymore — a cog in the machine who suddenly stopped spinning properly because of a random kink. He doesn’t seem to have “the force,” and there’s really nothing much special about him. In fact, he just wants to get away. It’s Rey who wants to stay and join the Resistance, and his friendship with her is what pulls him into the fight.

Speaking of fighting, my GOD! The lightsabers sizzle with a sense of danger and palpability that makes you remember just how cool the concept of a laser sword really is. The climax of the film is a gorgeous duel in the snow. This movie is not to be missed, if only for that one scene.

That gnawing commitment to feminist justice that prevents you from enjoying most malestream media will feel pleasantly calm for the duration of this film. Maybe Hollywood is starting to notice that feminist characters and storylines in action films, such as Mad Max: Fury Road, actually work really damn well, because Star Wars: The Force Awakens feels as if it actively tried to avoid lazy sexism. Aside from the main aspects, such as a female lead who isn’t a damsel in distress, there are also more subtle moments where sexist stereotypes are averted.

For instance, we are provided with a classic Star Wars bar scene, full of bizarre aliens, drinking and carousing. The camera pans over to a big fat alien with an attractive humanoid babe lounging against him, and we immediately recognize it as the sexist Jabba-the-hut-with-lady-slave trope. However, the humanoid babe isn’t in a bikini; she’s actually in a cool black and white cape ensemble. And soon she walks off to a secluded area, in order inform The First Order that she’s spied something of interest to them in the bar. In a subtle bait-and-switch, the sexist trope we expected was skipped, and the woman became a subject actively participating in the story’s events, instead of a sex-object contributing only to the background decoration.

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It’s also refreshing to see Leia as a powerful older woman. We encounter her once again as a badass general leading the Resistance. While C3PO did throw in a misogynist-sounding jab about her to Han Solo — “Princesses!” — which read like, “Bitches, am I right?!” *eyeroll* Star Wars is largely absent of the standard woman-hating that interrupts our enjoyment of so many films.

One scene, however, does include an obvious subtext of sexual violence, which has been referred to as “that bondage mind-rape sequence.” In it, Rey is held captive by the villain Kylo Ren, in full-body restraints, while he attempts to extract information from her. “You know I can take whatever I want,” he says to her, huskily. There is then some grunt-filled “force-wielding” with sexual undertones. But it is not gratuitously done, as our shero fights back! Thankfully, throughout the film, Rey is never sexualized.

Naturally, the character of Rey is facing backlash online. On Twitter, Reddit, and other places men go to to complain on the Internet, Rey has been accused of being a “Mary Sue.” In online media criticism-speak, A Mary Sue describes a trope — a thinly-veiled self-insertion character with excessive power, shoehorned into a fictional world, usually for the purpose of wish-fulfillment. In short, they’re claiming that Rey is way too cool/perfect and doesn’t have enough character flaws/weaknesses. But while Rey is a natural at almost everything she puts her hand to and is a powerful fighter, her character isn’t any more over-the-top than your average superhero or “chosen-one” we see in these kinds of movies that follow a main character, destined for greatness. Writer Tasha Robinson from The Verge makes a good point on the Rey as Mary Sue debate:

“Back in 1977, were we wringing our hands over whether Han Solo was too suave and funny and cool, or whether Luke’s access to the ‘powerful ally’ of an all-connecting, all-seeing, all-powerful Force that ‘binds the galaxy together’ made him way too overpowered? Are all the male superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe boring because they can summon lightning or smash buildings? Every time a slick, enjoyable action movie like John Wick comes out, do we have to pore over whether the protagonist’s reputation is too amazing, or whether his fighting skills are so unbelievable that they ruin the movie? Is anyone whatsoever complaining that Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible character should be needier and more helpless, with bigger, more obvious, more telling weaknesses?”

The answer is, of course, no. On closer inspection, it appears the Mary Sue trope is, itself, (at least in part) a result of misogynistic receptions of female characters. Though female critics have created a male version of Mary Sue (called Gary Stu), the label is rarely applied to male characters. It seems that when male action-heroes are naturals “with all the luck and all the skills” we don’t bat an eye.

All in all, Rey is a triumph for girls looking for a heroine to admire. Finally, we have a female Jedi who kicks ass!

Susan Cox
Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.

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