5 Reasons Star Wars: The Force Awakens Is Not Actually That Feminist
As The Force Awakens rockets through hyperspace toward the record books and box office domination, feminists have rejoiced. The heroic journey of Rey, who picks up the lightsaber wielded by the original trilogy's hero Luke Skywalker and the prequel trilogy's anti-hero Darth Vader, marks a first for Star Wars. As Laurie Penny notes in her piece at the New Statesman, "Rey picks up her weapon, and everything changes." In her article "How Rey and The Force Awakens Could Change Star Wars Forever" for The Washington Post, Alyssa Rosenberg states that the movie "reminded me just how powerful it can be to see yourself as the hero of a story that you love." The Guardian convened a panel of prominent feminists to discuss Episode VII as a game-changer.
As a cultural critic whose feminism can be ascribed directly to lessons learned from Star Wars and who has struggled with the sexism embedded in the franchise, I knew the re-launch of Star Wars movies had the potential to mark a turning point for the franchise and the fans. In fact, I began blogging about that possibility in earnest at my Star Wars-centric site FANgirl when the Disney acquisition of Lucasfilm was announced.
And while I really enjoyed The Force Awakens, I am not convinced — yet — that it has changed the game of storytelling or that it is truly feminist. Here's why:
1. Rey Is a Game-Changer — But So Were Leia and Padmé Before Her
If I were to mark down a checklist of the things I want from a strong female heroine, Rey accomplishes most of them. Rey has engaged adults and children alike. Fanboys in my theater hooted with exhilaration as the lightsaber landed in her outstretched hand, and while girls needed a superheroine in the movies, I have seen countless examples of boys who want to be Rey in their backyard play. Girls and women have learned to relate to all types of character in stories, but Hollywood has resisted the idea that boys and men, particularly white men, can empathize with anyone that doesn't look like them. As Mike Adamick points out, "Rey is a role model for boys."
Yet if you listened to men talk about Leia from A New Hope in the What Princess Leia Means To Me panel at this year's Celebration Anaheim, a Star Wars convention, you would have heard them say the same thing. In the Guardian's roundtable, Rebecca Carroll, who fell for Star Wars at the age of 10, described Leia as a "badass boss b°tch" and Rey as a "next-generation" version that Leia could be proud of. Like Rosenberg, Leia was my "gateway pop culture icon," and I have many friends who describe Padmé as their gateway.
In the rush to celebrate Rey, the current cultural narrative forgets how truly game-changing both Leia and Padmé were in their respective introductory movies, as well as how their stories faltered in the later episodes of their trilogies. While the franchise's stumble with Leia as a feminist icon can be easily tied to Return of the Jedi's storytelling and a costume decision (including its post-movie use in marketing and merchandising), Padmé often gets overlooked because her strongest feminist portrayal happens in the least well-received movie of the saga. In The Phantom Menace, Padmé is decisive, compassionate, and determined. She shoots straight, scales her own palace walls with ascension guns, and leads her Royal Guard in retaking her throne through a scheme she masterminds. As an introduction of a strong female heroine, Padmé hits the marks with the same force as Rey. In Attack of the Clones, she is objectified in the same scene that delivers on her vulnerability and agency. By the time Revenge of the Sith concludes, Padmé's story is a mess of tropes that undermine women and her death is so befuddling and lacking agency that io9 lists it as one of the 10 most undignified deaths in science fiction and fantasy.
Each female lead in Star Wars has been a game-changer. Leia, Padmé, and Rey have brought in a new generation of female fans who can see themselves the hero of a Star Wars adventure. We can't discuss the future of Star Wars without remembering the past: the franchise's biggest failings in regards to female characters, which was never about establishing them. It would be folly to presume that Rey's story isn't also in peril of failing to live up to its great start.
Rey may be the new lead hero of Star Wars, but you might not know it by the merchandise sitting out on the toy shelves. After incidents with the female heroes of The Clone Wars, Star Wars Rebels, and Marvel's Avengers movies getting sidelined, Disney once again allowed their licensees to ignore important female characters. The #WheresRey hashtag sprung up on Twitter around The Force Awakens toy launch back in September, and it has regained steam after movie-goers went to stores to buy products with their new favorite heroine and came up empty.
Just this week, the omission of Rey from the board game Monopoly has garnered enough publicity to reach outlets all over the Internet. In their response to Legion of Leia, Hasbro suggests the mystery surrounding The Force Awakens impinged on their ability to include the movie's lead. Yet the toy company, which has repeatedly come under fire for sidelining female characters, chose to include Luke — a character excluded from the movie's poster and entire marketing campaign because his role was the movie's mystery.
Hasbro can't use mystery as an excuse for excluding Rey from the Millennium Falcon set, either. Her piloting of the famed freighter has been known by fans since July's teaser reel revealed by J.J. Abrams himself at San Diego Comic-Con, and it was a core part of the escape from Jakku sequence in the script long before that. While Hasbro has taken a lot of heat for their choices, every licensed product is reviewed and approved by Lucasfilm. What message does it send to allow a licensee to include Finn, who is only a gunner and passenger in the Falcon, but exclude Rey, who sits in the pilot or co-pilot's seat for three different sequences in the film?
Even Disney has short sold their heroine. Rey figure sets sold out within hours of being released on the Disney Store website, leaving a considerable demand unmet by supply. While Kylo Ren, the First Order Stormtrooper, BB-8, and Captain Phasma have MagicBands for the Walt Disney World parks, Rey doesn't. If Lucasfilm and Disney are afraid to put Rey front and center in the toy aisle and the theme parks, their commitment to delivering on her character arc in the movies may become equally suspect.
3. Who Is Rey?
The biggest unanswered question about Rey is who she is. The story should be applauded for crafting a Star Wars character that people love for who she is onscreen, as opposed to whose child she is. In that regard, The Force Awakens succeeds admirably.
But the choice to hide Rey's identity is steeped in cultural double standards. Leia's last name was never spoken onscreen in the Original Trilogy. In the Prequel Trilogy, the heroine starts her journey as a split identity, either a handmaiden of one name, Padmé, or Queen Amidala. Rey, too, has no surname. Historical patriarchy and oppression of women have created a pattern where women are named for their fathers and then renamed for their husbands. Until we see more of Rey's journey, it is impossible to know whether withholding her surname is a judgment call based in a double standard, a fixation with an ongoing mystery, or something else. In the meantime, however, Rey's single name clearly has hindered the character's ability to be searched and shared online and in social media in the same way changing last names can hinder real-life women in their professions.
The decision to hide that it's Rey picking up Luke's lightsaber, which had a trickle-down effect to toys and merchandise, only compounded the situation. The only reason that moment comes as a surprise is because she is a female character accepting a Jedi call to adventure in a Star Wars movie. The marketing played with our own cultural biases in revealing Finn with the lightsaber instead of Rey. It's fair to ask, would they have made the same choice if the protagonist had been a man?
4. The Father Quest
Back in 2011, after the Star Wars Expanded Universe storyline of Jaina Solo, daughter of Han Solo and Leia Organa, started out strong and then spiraled into oblivion in favor of focusing the narrative arc on her twin brother Jacen's fall from grace, I argued that converging hero and anti-hero arcs was the next natural step in Star Wars storytelling. Some of the same building blocks that existed in Jaina and Jacen appear in Rey and Kylo Ren. While Rey is the hero awoken by Kylo Ren's own fear, the narrative of her heroic rise in The Force Awakens slows down to languish on the climactic moment of the antagonist's father quest.
In doing so, The Force Awakens continues the Star Wars legacy of playing out father issues and sidelining the roles of mothers, unless they are there to die. Because the movie plays coy with Leia, it is impossible to tell how her role will pan out in Episodes VIII and IX. The danger is that the later movies become all about Vader and Luke, their redemption, their family, their destruction, and rebirth of the Jedi Order.
Yet The Force Awakens also contains the potential to tell a truly groundbreaking story with female characters in Star Wars. Rey and Kylo Ren could become equals in the next-generation conflict, unlike the original trilogy twins, where Leia was sidelined to serve Luke's father quest. Likewise, Leia finally could be given a role and legacy worthy of her bloodline — she is Anakin's and Padmé's child just as much as Luke is, and mother of the fallen Ben. Star Wars can rehabilitate the legacies of Leia or Padmé by the stories they choose to tell, or they can undermine them far worse than they already have. Disney has chosen Colin Treverrow, a director who received considerable criticism from feminists for his storytelling choices in Jurassic World, to helm the conclusion of Rey's journey.
5. Production Values
Which brings me to the movie production itself. If feminism is the advocacy of women's equality with men on all levels, the story creation process doesn't measure up. In an interview with Fortune, Kathleen Kennedy revealed that her first camera operator job came from an equal opportunity initiative, and she certainly made it a goal to bring women into the story process from the outset of her tenure at Lucasfilm, with six women on the eight-member Story Group. The Story Group has been tasked with taking a cohesive approach to story across all mediums. Unfortunately, so far it hasn't been able to prevent sexist tropes from entering Star Wars stories, with female characters dying to serve the male protagonist's arc in both Heir to the Jedi and Dark Disciple.
While Kennedy told Fortune that women haven't been banging down her doors to direct Star Wars, nor would she seek after female directors who weren't enthusiastic to make a Star Wars movie, she was willing to personally make the effort to change the mind of J.J. Abrams, who previously had stated his lack of interest publicly and privately, and convince him to direct Episode VII. The movie's development was well underway at that point, with head of the Story Group Kiri Hart, Kennedy, screenwriter Michael Arndt, producer/writer Simon Kinberg, and screenwriter Lawrence Kasdan tasked with creating a vision for the franchise's future, starting with the launch of the sequel trilogy. The recently released book The Art of The Force Awakens reveals that a team of artists were tasked with guided visualization that included pitching ideas and concepts for the movie. The book reveals how few women were called into this inner circle as Episode VII further unfolded. Abrams' department heads included a string of notable industry names, very few of them women either. For the most part, the storytelling was in the hands of men.
Although The Force Awakens did much better with the representation of women, it wouldn't have had nearly the female star power on the red carpet without the gender-swapping of Gwendoline Christie's character that happened in the wake of the backlash to the first cast photo. BB-8 had been initially a female droid, but changed some time during production. Leia's female droid PZ-4CO is reduced to a few seconds of screen time and an intercom name drop. The role of Korr Sella, played by Maisie Richardson-Sellers, was mostly left on the cutting room floor, her only scene to look up in the sky as the Starkiller rains down destruction on the Republic Senate. Lucky for Abrams' friends Simon Pegg and Greg Grunberg, however, they were handed speaking roles and ensured action figures and parts in future tales. Although female characters had a few one-liners and quick character shots throughout the movie, other scenes in the movie were dominated by men, such as the pirate raid of Han's freighter, where not one lady pirate can be found in the bunch, or in the Resistance planning session where Lost veteran Ken Leung plays Admiral Statura. According to Geena Davis's Two Easy Steps To Make Hollywood Less Sexist, there was plenty of room for improvement.
We Should Celebrate – and Keep Talking
The Force Awakens gets a lot of things right about women and storytelling. As far as where we are with women having an equal place in Star Wars and the broader cultural impact it has, though, the franchise is in the middle of that breathtaking maneuver performed by Rey as she pilots the Millennium Falcon at the end of the movie's first act. As a Star Wars born feminist, I am holding my breath and waiting for the belly gun to make the winning shot against the TIE fighter. This is only the start of Star Wars' journey toward gender parity, and it's time for feminists to keep talking about our expectations for the franchise rather than assume it has locked in the coordinates for the jump to hyperspace.
Tricia Barr is author of the award-winning space opera Wynde and Ultimate Star Wars and is a featured contributor for Star Wars Insider magazine. She cohosts the popular Star Wars podcast Fangirls Going Rogue. Tweet to her @fangirlcantina!