Hearing the words “feminist” and Star Wars in the same sentence might only be believable if the title to what you’re reading is “How Star Wars Completely Diverted From Feminism.” But JJ Abrams, director of the latest installment in the new trilogy, might have finally done right by strong female characters.
In prior installments of the series, creator George Lucas’ attempts to create characters that defied the dominant ideology of the 20th, and subsequently the 21st, century archetypes really fell flat of their intended goals.
Tread lightly for Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers from herein.
Princess Leia — the original trilogy’s only female protagonist of note — began the trilogy quite well. She was resistant, belligerent, independent and modern; a woman who didn’t need to be “rescued.” And yet, her actions are often undercut by the intervention by her male cohorts throughout the eponymous release that later became “A New Hope.” Take off your nostalgia goggles, and Leia starts to look a lot like what Post-Feminists see of their 20th century counterparts; an angry, defensive woman who doesn’t want to be helped, but ultimately struggles and fails without it. Even if untrue, any of Leia’s actual achievements are completely undercut by the entirely unnecessary sexy slave costume that Jabba forced on her, which is, unfortunately, how we were forced to look upon the series’ only female protagonist and even more unfortunately, how we remember her best; just another sexual object in the landscape of science fiction films.
Now, it should be noted, we’re in no way saying that cosplayers shouldn’t wear the “Slave Leia costume for any of the contested reasons related to sexism and slut shaming; just that Lucas’ decision to include that scene in the first place was completely unnecessary in the first place.
And then came the prequels. It did not get better. Padme was a warrior and a politician; she tied up relations between the Naboo and the Gungans; she gunned down battle droids in defense of her planet; she even took a fairly deep laceration to the back after freeing herself on Geonosis (without assistance). By “Revenge Of The Sith,” Lucas gave her a sniffling backseat to everyone else. We saw a strong, warrior-like character melt into a ball of tears, emotion and cheesy romance that wasn’t in any way consistent with the person we got to know all this time. We’re forced to remember her not going out in a hail of gunfire or on the senate floor fighting for democracy against a tyrannical dictator to be, but on a hospital table “losing the will to live” because her husband turned evil. Many things were terrible about the prequel, but that’s just downright unforgivable.
Abrams didn’t have to do much, clearly, to gain the approval of his fans and do right by women. After all, “It’s 2015,” right Justin?
Let’s start with Captain Phasma, one of the quintessential villains. Gwendoline Christie’s character is indistinguishable from other Stormtroopers other than her armor having a different finish. The way she swaggers in from the shuttle carrying her weapon, her stance, everything that is Captain Phasma mirrors every other Stormtrooper on the battlefield. This uniformity underscores the point that soldiers traditionally are soldiers first, individuals second. Were it not for her very feminine voice, we wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.
Christie portrays a captain, a field leader of a whole mess of troopers heading into the fight. With women entering the combat field in the U.S. military (to some reluctance), Captain Phasma has an even more important role to play here; she’s a strong representative of every woman heading into the combat zone as a front lines combatant, and doing a great job of it at that.
Abrams could’ve easily compensated by making Phasma crazed and illogical, overly violent and aggressive, unable to make important decisions, or even more lowbrow with a locker room scene of Phasma undressing. We don’t ever even see her face, much less her body. No flowing blonde hair and blue eyes, or anything. Captain Phasma can effectively be any woman. The fact that Abrams omitted any opportunity to further reinforce that “Yes, she’s a woman, and here are the things that make her so” just makes it that much better.
Following up with Rey, for one thing, she’s the movie’s main protagonist which is huge for science fiction. We could focus a lens on how she tells Finn to stop holding her hand because she “knows how to run,” or how she doesn’t need his help when confronted with three thugs having a much worse time of it than she is, but what makes Rey an even more powerful character is how she treats Finn throughout the film. Rey’s her own individual person who doesn’t necessarily need anyone, but she’s not so cold that she’s learned not to accept a hand up for fear of being perceived as weak. Where Rey relies on her companions, they lean right back on her offering a dynamic partnership between the cohorts rarely seen in previous instances.
To define a secondary character, Maz Kanata played by Lupita Nyong’o, doesn’t just diversify a cast of historically, predominantly, white actors and actresses, she’s brings a uniqueness to the role of a feminine character. We’re lead to believe, prior to her entrance, she’s some hideously deformed alien creature, which is an overstatement in a universe with giant, hedonistic slugs and bug-eyed blue aliens that definitely didn’t shoot first, but the fact that she doesn’t rely on her looks is kind of empowering. This is a character with a rich, intelligent, unique perspective of events presumably as far back as the old Old Republic, and it’s all packaged not in the figure of a beautiful, slender alien woman, but a short, ugly old little creature that has a comforting voice and a witty charm about her.
As for our old friend Leia, she’s a General now, leading the entire Resistance army, and that’s not nothing. This paints a much more favorable picture of the strong and resilient woman we may remember from Hope and Empire. But Abrams, being the stand up guy he is, reintroduced her to her Han Solo to prove she could still melt like butter in his strangely charming, scoundrel arms. Even after realizing he didn’t make it off the somewhat improbable Starkiller base, you don’t hear about Leia resigning her post or crumbling; she’s just as tough as ever, and will soldier on doing what she’s best at as she always has.