The Force Awakens: A New Hope's Feminist Alter-Ego
I haven’t met anyone who’s seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens and not enjoyed it. I don’t attribute this to a brilliant plot or spectacular acting (although I do think Daisy Ridley and Adam Driver were excellent). Rather, viewers seem possessed by a simple, undeniable joy: Star Wars is back. My theater exploded in cheers when the Millennium Falcon first appeared on-screen, when Han Solo and Chewbacca made their appearance, again when Princess Leia (now General Leia) came on…you get the picture. Plain, stupid happiness. And although I’m no Star Wars junkie, I felt it too: a rush of nostalgic pleasure that no amount of skepticism in Disney production could suppress.
Not to give away too many spoilers. Daisy Ridley is Rey, the new (female) Jedi initiate with a powerful intuition for using the Force. In the years following the fall of the Empire, the galaxy has divided into a Republic, born of the old Rebellion, and an evil First Order, formed from the vestiges of the Empire. In one of the many parallels between The Force Awakens and A New Hope, the story begins with a secret map, stored on a droid (BB-8) and spirited away in the nick of time from the clutches of the Order. The droid crash lands – where else? – on a desert planet, where it meets the toughened Rey, a scavenger of junk metal and old machine parts. When the First Order lands in pursuit of the droid and a runaway storm trooper, Finn, the unlikely trio escape on…but perhaps I shouldn’t say.
Like I’ve said, the movie has striking similarities to Episode IV: A New Hope. Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the new Sith apprentice, is clearly a second Vader. Ren has Vader’s ideological propensity for reminding us of the unmatchable power of the force. He also (quite unnecessarily as it turns out) wears a masked, voice distorting helmet. His imitation seems self-conscious; Ren idolizes Vader and, in one scene, communes with the twisted remains of Vader’s helmet. Rey, our heroine of the Light, similarly brings back memories of Luke Skywalker. Rey has a Luke-like intensity and moral fiber, and the Skywalker genius for technology. Like Luke, Rey lives on a desert planet. And like Luke, she has an awesome hovercraft. Yes, Luke’s ship resembled a ‘70s convertible while Rey’s is more along the lines of a bulky hover-cycle. But both convey the same image of young-adult independence and cool.
In addition to the profiles of the main characters, the movie’s narrative arc will also seem familiar. The First Order has created a second Death Star, Starkiller Base, and blowing it up is the order of the day. The movie climaxes with the destruction of Starkiller Base, carried out alongside a rescue mission to save the female protagonist, Princess Leia – I mean Rey, who is being held captive there by Kylo Ren.
But even as it parallels A New Hope, The Force Awakens gives a new twist to classic Star Wars tropes. Megan Garber titled her review for The Atlantic, “Star Wars: The Feminism Awakens,” and I must say I agree. The females of Star Wars past were all distinctively feminine: think of Natalie Portman as Padme. Rey is a sharp break from that line. It’s informative to contrast her with the original series’ strong, female protagonist: Princess Leia. While Leia has a rugged edge, she has a feminine core that is clearly stylized for male consumption. A gentle melody alerts the viewer to her presence throughout A New Hope, and Luke’s first words upon seeing her are, “Who is she? She’s beautiful.” Leia may shout and carry a blaster, but she remains cat-callable – she’s “Princess” to Han Solo, a title he uses like a diminutive. Despite her seeming independence, she ultimately falls for the jocular arrogance and hairy chest of Harrison Ford. And, of course, she can be posed in an iron bikini.
Rey, however, is of a completely different mold. Starting with her unisex name and clothes, she defies traditional gender expectations. For several deliberate seconds after she comes on-screen, it’s still not clear whether she’s male or female; her face is hidden in a hood. This scrap-metal hunter is matter-of-factly confident in a way that Leia isn’t. Rey is genuinely confused when a protective Finn tries to take her hand. When Finn asks her “Are you alright?”, as if she was his responsibility, she shoots him a look of utter bafflement. Finn’s chivalry looks absurd, especially given that Rey outstrips him in courage and fighting ability. As this might suggest, the unfolding relationship between Rey and Finn is very different from any previous Star Wars romance. In fact, it’s unclear whether a proper romance will develop here at all. By the end of the movie, the two share a deep friendship that, for Rey, seems without sexual tension. Her love for Finn is not based on his masculine qualities (he has few), but on their shared experiences and her compassion for his troubled past. This is a far cry from the flirty quarrelling that dominates the Hans-Leia relationship throughout the early films.
Star Wars’ new feminism extends to The Force Awakens’ rendition of the classic Jedi initiation scene. While Luke learns of the mysteries of the Force through the hoary wisdom of a bearded Obi-Wan, Rey is charged with her mission by the gypsy-like barista, Maz Kanata. “The belonging that you seek is not behind you, it is ahead” she tells Rey, urging her to take Luke’s lightsaber and join the Resistance. Their destiny-laden exchange reveals a robust female selfhood that looks to no male authority figure. It goes without saying that The Force Awakens passes the Bechdel test. (According to this tool of gender criticism, one can judge a film’s gender bias by whether it contains one scene in which two women talk to each other about something other than men.) Thinking back to the previous Star Wars movies, I’m pretty sure that they all fail.
Regardless of whether the gender politics excite or annoy you, I’ll say this: If you haven’t seen The Force Awakens, you’ll want to. Wait long enough (although you might need to hold out for the very, very end), and all your favorite characters will come on screen – older, changed, yet delightfully the same. Like the beginning of all great epics, the movie is full of unresolved conflicts and mysterious pasts (who are Rey’s parents?). But that will just keep you hanging on for the sequel.