Star Wars: The Force Awakens probably would have made $1.5 billion even without its female lead. But it’s only fair that a female character get her due when she plays such a central—and compelling, thanks to actress Daisy Ridley— role in one of the most enduring and culturally-defining movie series in generations.
In response to fan outcry around the hashtag #WheresRey, Hasbro this week announced they would re-release Monopoly: Star Wars to include Rey, Ridley’s character who wasn’t part of the original game. Retailers are scrambling to stock enough Rey toys to satisfy demand—especially Target, which left Rey out of a set that included only the male leads from the movie.
This outcry didn’t come as a surprise to director J.J. Abrams. “I’ve been to enough Comic-Cons to be well aware that Star Wars has a wonderful and enormous female fan base,” he told USA Today. “But a lot of the approach to marketing has been to sell to boys.”
The StarWars audience traditionally skews heavily male, though Rentrak reports the audience was just 66 percent men on opening weekend. Sci-fi has proven a feminist-friendly storytelling genre, perhaps because it encourages wild imagination, but Star Wars is in some ways its own category: accessible sci-fi for the masses. Letting a woman carry the torch for the Force is still somewhat radical.
Some are calling Rey the “female Luke Skywalker,” a backhanded compliment that acknowledges despite being—gasp!—a woman, she might also be a Chosen One. Similarly, Ridley’s obvious beauty is considered “beside the point” in Star Wars; like other female characters, her costume doesn’t draw attention to her body or draw out sex appeal. These are characters not eye candy.
Rey’s ability to be beautiful and also a fully realized character shouldn’t be remarkable to us—but in an industry that so often short-shifts women’s roles, we’re still celebrating that a Star Wars movie finally passes the Bechdel test.
Slate’s Laura Bradley goes further, labeling the movie “feminist”:
The movie’s feminist bent shines through most in its humor. When Finn (John Boyega) and Rey first meet, he intends to save her from a couple of would-be thieves whom she quickly dispatches. Then, she chases him down and beats him up. And later, when he comes to after being briefly knocked out, he asks if she’s all right as she’s helping him up. When Rey gives him a bewildered look and mutters, “Yeah,” it’s clear the joke is not only at Finn’s expense, but also stereotypical gender expectations as a whole.
Bradley is right that there are some wink-wink jokes that play off Rey’s gender and the “damsel in distress” stereotype. But she’s wrong to suggest this describes the context of the Star Wars or larger sci-fi universe. In the original trilogy, Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) was a strong, fully embodied woman, and still is in this movie (although her appearance drew unfortunate commentary).
In fairness, Leia is also one of the only memorable female roles in any of the past Star Wars movies (sorry, Natalie Portman’s Padme doesn’t count as a robust female character in my book). Despite being part of the action, Leia’s legacy is as the center of a romantic triangle and one half of one of the greatest couples ever caught on screen...and also as the wearer of that gold bikini.
Rey “doesn’t have to be one thing to embody a woman in a film,” Ridley toldThe Daily Beast, of her character. “It just so happens she’s a woman but she transcends gender. She’s going to speak to men and women.”
Many writers have gone on about the potential for Rey to empower girls, but she may have more value to the boys at the target of StarWars marketing. Boys are rarely encouraged to relate or root for a female character, especially at young ages. Sci-fi does offer some strong female characters with universal appeal; Furiosa (Charlize Theron) in Mad Max: Fury Road might be one, though hardly a good choice as role model for the younger generation.
Even with a character like Rey, it’s a cultural challenge to get boys to admire women as role models, though girls regularly look up to figures of both genders. We haven’t done much to challenge these instincts in the church, either, as biblical heroines like Esther, Ruth, even Rahab typically only get showcased relative to their relationships with men.
Rey’s story may turn out to be similar. The next movie or two will explore the mystery of her parentage and why she is strong in the Force. Based on StarWars history, we can assume her father will have a significant role in explaining her powers. Fortunately, another StarWars theme is the limits of heritage. Just as Luke became a very different man from Darth Vader (spoiler!), expect Rey to be a very different woman from whomever her father turns out to be. Her powers likely come from a man, but she will make her own destiny.
Throughout the series, Star Wars has shown us a chosen character grappling with how to use his unmerited gifts. It established the pop culture expectation that a young man has the right to choose his own path. Now perhaps it’s time for an iconic coming of age tale about a young woman. It is particularly encouraging — particularly for the mothers taking daughters — that for once, a female coming of age story in popular culture might not involve a messy sexual awakening, but her own search for power, agency, and calling.
Although Rey will learn from men (Han Solo was already portrayed as the father figure she never had in this movie), expect her development to follow the Star Wars pattern: She will be presented with more than one path — and held responsible for her choice of which one to follow. Now that’s what I call empowerment.