December 19, 2015
There are no major spoilers in this post about The Force Awakens, including anything about the Wookie-Ewok wedding at the end of the film.
Now that the long wait is over, I can reveal what makes The Force Awakens perhaps the best Star Wars film of the series. This opinion is greatly influenced by the fact that I am now the father of a little girl and have a vested interest in the world being a fairer and kinder place for females.
When the first Star Wars film came out in 1977 I was a 13-year-old boy waiting in line for the first screening at the Lefont Tara theater in Atlanta. The word was out among comic book and sci-fi fans that this was a different kind of space movie. I bought a program that listed all the actors who would soon be icons. When that giant Empire ship moved across the opening scene, all our jaws dropped. I don’t remember any girls in the audience but there must have been a few.
Later that year, at the Atlanta Comicon, I entered a costume contest. We didn’t call it “cosplay” yet. In honor of the Marvel Kiss comic book, I went as Paul Stanley. I was beat out by a Jawa and a Sand Person. Star Wars had taken hold of the universe.
When the third Star Wars film, The Return of the Jedi, came out in 1983 I was a 19-year-old college boy (I saw it opening day at Phipps Plaza in Atlanta). This is the film where Princess Leia (Carrie Fischer) is enslaved by the grotesque Jaba the Hut and forced to wear a bikini with a chain around her neck. The image was featured prominently in the movie posters and promotional materials and is the only thing a lot of fanboys remember about that film. I should point out that badass Leia ends up strangling Jaba with that chain in what could be viewed the greatest feminist metaphor in all film history. (Similarly, I’m sure some claim Game of Thrones is feminist because a few of the many rapists on the show get beheaded. Um, no.)
But that image has remained iconic among the sci fi boy world. Not the killing of the slaver but the eroticizing of the slave. Carrie Fischer has said how much she resented director Richard Marquand putting her body on display in that scene. But how many boys wanted a slave Leia of their own? I’m willing to bet that 99% of comic conventions have at least one “Slave Leia” cosplayer in attendance with Jaba the Hut-like boys getting wood right and left. Even Kim Kardashian has worn the outfit. So there’s that.
I try not get sucked into the pop culture hype machine (Adele, meh.), but I would be lying if I didn’t say my 13-year-old self was reawakened by the fact that J.J. Abrams was doing the next chapter of Star Wars, the follow up to The Revenge of the Jedi. Besides the cool Star Trek/Star Wars link, Abrams is just two years younger than me and has the same reverence for the Skywalker mythology.
And a mythology it is, deeply rooted in the most ancient heroic tales. If you’ve never heard religion scholar Joseph Campbell (The Power of Myth) discuss the links between Star Wars and the ancient myth of the reluctant hero, you should. It’s a life-changing analysis. These are old tales. But they are typically stories about boys and men.
That’s why The Force Awakens is such an absolute joy. Yeah, it’s great to see our old heroes rolled out of the prop closet. (Harrison Ford looks only a bit more rusted than C-3P0.) But our reluctant Skywalker hero is now a female named Rey, played genderlessly by newcomer Daisy Ridley. The nearly all-male cast of the original has been expanded to include plenty of amazing female actors, including Fischer, Game of Thrones star Gwendoline Christie, and Oscar award winner Lupita Nyong’o.
The cast is also much more ethnically diverse, including Finn, the other reluctant-hero, played by black Brit John Moyega, and a Latino X-wing fighter named Poe (Oscar Isaac). This made my Mexican wife very happy but of course it infuriated racist trolls and Donald Trump supporters who lamented the “political correctness” of the casting and mounted a pointless #BoycottStarWarsVII campaign on Twitter.
Having a female hero like Rey surely means a lot to the scores of female fans. When Finn tries to hold her hand during an attack by the bad guys, she rips her hand away and assures him that she can take care of herself. And that’s the sub-plot of the film. What at first appears to be a “damsel in distress” scenario gets turned on its head and here comes our girl to the rescue. (Sorry if that’s a spoiler.) Even Han Solo recognizes her badassness. She’s ultimately a Skywalker-Solo hybrid who drives a giant movie on her never uncovered shoulders.
There’s sort of a sad test to measure the “feministness” of a film called the Bechdel Test. Do two women in a movie have a conversation about something other than a man? Lots of “chick-flicks” have a female heavy cast but the dialogue is often about their men (i.e. every Jennifer Lopez movie ever made). The Force Awakens has several scenes that pass including one with (now) General Leia Organa and Rey.
J. J. Abrams has a teenage daughter so I have to think he thought of her and how her experience sitting in a theater would be different than a girl sitting in the theater in 1977. Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy have given us an epic tale that puts a female protagonist at the center for at least three films (Star Wars 8 and 9 are scheduled for 2017 and 2019). Along with this year’s successful Mad Max film, it serves to rewrite the narrative that boys like action and girls like romance. (The other side of ledger would be films that deal with the romantic emotional lives of boys and men. Where is this generation’s Woody Allen?)
When we think about movies and video games that are targeted at boys and boyish men, there are usually lots of explosions, chases, shooting, and scantily clad women who need to be rescued. It’s a male-driven narrative. The Force Awakens has plenty of those tropes but seriously tweaks the primary one and that may be a game changer for a generation of fanboys and their sisters.
Like 1977 (and 1980 and 1983), I was in the theater Thursday for the opening night of The Force Awakens. I had our tickets months in advance. I could barely contain myself with excitement as I fell through a time hole to my adolescent self. And like 1977, the theater audience was 90% male. (Do these guys have wives or girlfriends? Some brought Star Wars toys, though. That may be part of the puzzle of patriarchal pop culture.) When the John Williams score started and the Star Wars logo appeared on the screen, we all screamed with approval (as we did whenever any of the original cast of characters and spaceships appeared). The film was wonderfully loyal to the original trilogy in all the important ways, but was a huge departure in one very significant way. Hopefully that evolution continues. Carrie Fischer made it clear to her young female cast mates, “Avoid the slave girl costume.”
Andrea and I always have a good conversation after a film and it was immediately clear how important it was to her to have a female protagonist in such a massively hyped film. She loved having a hero that looked like her. It was a subtle message buried inside an epic tale that all those boys in the audience will hopefully digest without even thinking, Oh, the main hero was a girl! That’s how change happens. After our post-film analysis, Andrea excitedly said, “I can’t wait until our daughter is old enough to show her this movie.” Me either.