It is the year 2016, and most big-budget action films still pander to a primarily male target audience, lack powerful female characters and a balanced female representation. Wonder Woman and Black Widow, who are strong characters in their own rights in the comics they are derived from, can only be peripheral supporters to the story of a male hero in the action films releasing this year. Leia, Hermione and Natasha, are important to their stories, but are also secondary to the hero’s journey. Female characters are often sidelined into romantic interests. In the Avengers sequel, a major portion of Natasha’s screen time is devoted to a burgeoning romance with Dr Banner. Even Hermione, who is a brave and powerful hero, is ultimately fitted into conventions of beauty, with none of the frizzy hair, bad posture, and large teeth that made the complex witch in the books so endearing.
Therefore, when the most anticipated, and highest-earning film of the year 2015, Star Wars : The Force Awakens, casts in the lead role, a female character, it becomes a matter of great importance. And Rey, the scavenger-turned-Jedi, is a character as powerful as can be. She fights better than everyone in the movie, she is a competent pilot, she is strong and muscled, independent and fierce, is as taciturn as every action hero out there, and has no romantic trappings. Her costuming must also be noted : her armour is entirely practical and shapeless, with none of the tight-fitting spandex that seems as flimsy as it is ridiculous.
In a film franchise that has spanned over three decades, Rey is vital, as a balance not only to the Force, but to the gender dynamics in the Star Wars movies, and the movie industry at large. Young girls who watch Star Wars finally have a protagonist they can look up to and identify. No more do they have to force themselves to tussle with the fact that as women, they will never be a part of the heroic universe unless they are unattainably attractive, and that there is very little else for them to do. Young boys who watch Star Wars will finally find a female protagonist they can respect. The Force has awakened, or at least, has taken a step towards being awakened.
Rey is not the first important female character in Star Wars, however. In the first episode, A New Hope, released in 1977, Princess Leia was indeed, a new hope, in the science-fiction film world, which seemed to be by the men, of the men, and for the men. Here was a woman, who was as stern and authoritative as she was powerful and able. She too, was dressed in a decidedly non-provocative manner, and even her distinctive hairstyle showed no signs of wanting to be attractive. The first Star Wars movie is essentially the story of a brave young hero setting off on a quest to rescue a princess from an evil captor. This immediately creates a rescuer-rescued dynamic, with the rescued being on a weaker plane. But Leia proves to be brave in the face of her captors, a trait uncharacteristic of a damsel-in-distress, and shoots more Stormtroopers than Luke and Han combined. She instinctively takes the lead, and argues with Han instead of following him passively. She even snatches the blaster from Luke, and shoots the grate off the garbage chute to dive in. She is the only one who has the experience to realize that their escape from the Death Star was too easy ; they were let off intentionally.
All the good Leia does for female protagonists in the first film, is slowly unravelled in the subsequent episodes. This, perhaps, has to do with meeting studio expectations : at the time of it’s release, the first film was relatively obscure, which would explain why a female character was allowed to be so revolutionary. But as the film attained runaway success, producer, as well as society pressure forced the young princess who fought evil unwaveringly to be changed into a shadow of her former self, and at her lowest point, a pin-up. In The Empire Strikes Back, Leia becomes basically useless, is stereotypically scared of flying gnats, and requires rescuing within the first half of the film. But the most problematic element is her romance with Han : the leader of the Resistance who shunned romance and men in the first film, has a complete reversal in character, and is backed into a corner by Han, who captures her hands and practically forces himself on her, in one of the most unsettling moments of the films. The implication of this scene : that intimidation and coercion is attractive. Then follows the infamous scene, in which Leia is forced into a metal bikini, a move entirely intended to establish her as a pin-up, and the image of her lying chained at the foot of a captor, Jabba the Hut, a walking-talking embodiment of a phallus, as a strong male fantasy is one of the most disturbing images to come out of the franchise.
The sequel trilogy was a chance for the makers to redeem the flaws in female characterization. Unfortunately, the development, or lack of development of Padme Amidala completely destroyed the gender balance in one fell swoop. There is very little that is noteworthy in Padme : she served primarily as a love interest for Anakin, succumbs to Anakin’s alarming love interests, is a convenient device to allow Anakin to rescue her, and finally, dies because she sees no purpose to life without Anakin. This highlights the starkness of a galaxy that is primarily run by men, and when we do see female characters, they are more and more frequently inconveniences.
Thus, Rey is a necessary protagonist : a 20-something equivalent of Luke Skywalker, a powerful Jedi. This is evident in the first few scenes : when Finn attempts to aid her, she snaps, “I can run without you holding my hand!’ This line is JJ Abram’s humorous nod at everything that was wrong with the first films. Rey proves to be stronger than Kylo Ren, both physically and mentally. But the most memorable scene will remain her interaction with Han, when the old, intrinsically masculine fighter is juxtaposed with this brave pilot, Jedi Knight, and warrior, who is incidentally a girl.
Star Wars’ original reckless hero Han hands her a blaster ahead of a battle:
Han:You might need this
Rey:I think I can handle myself
Han:That’s why I’m giving it to you
The most positive aspect of the movies is that Rey is not the only strong female character in the films. There is Leia, who is now a tough and warm mentor, with grey hair, who has been allowed to age naturally. She functions perfectly without either Luke or Han, and has moved from the sister and love interest to an authoritative leader. There is also Maz Kanata, a tiny Yoda-like figure, who is the voice of age-old wisdom and advice, and whose scenes with Rey enable the film pass the Bechdel Test.
Cinema is only representative of its times, and while the Star Wars movies have evolved, perhaps its collective audience has not evolved as much yet. Carrie Fisher has been criticised for aging on screen, and this stance has been justified by claiming that she only got where she has by leveraging her look. She hit back, by pointing out that “What I didn’t realise – back when I was this 25-year-old pin-up for geeks – was that I had signed an invisible contract to stay looking the same way for the next 30 to 40 years. ” Also significant is the absence of Rey action figurines, just as Black Widow figurines were conspicuous by their absence. An audience that did not find it difficult to believe that the diminutive Yoda could fling planes around with his mind, found it improbable that Daisy Ridley did her own stunts. The actress retorted by uploading a video of herself weightlifting 80 kgs.
The character of Rey evens out the playing field for women, but also speaks on a deeper level to women in the workplace who must deal with patronising incompetence, to little girls who want a hero, and to young people like me, who have finally found a place for themselves within a universe they have adored for years.
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