The Significance Of (Finally) Seeing Yourself In ‘Star Wars’
When Rey makes her first appearance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, she is noticeably a lot of things that female characters, especially in action-driven flicks, are often not: tough, capable, self-sufficient, alone and seemingly OK with that. When Finn and Poe Dameron make their first appearance, they are similarly a lot of things people of color in films are often not: skilled, strong, capable, nuanced.
The very existence of these characters is revolutionary. But they’re more than just present; they’re a presence, felt and fully fleshed out. This representation is significant in big-picture ways — maybe now, for instance, Hollywood will recognize that non-white-men can get top billing in a blockbuster without threatening its box office prowess. Moreover, and equally significantly, this representation is significant in personal, even visceral ways; if you cried watching this film, stirred by a character you’d never had the opportunity to see in a movie like this before, you’re not alone.
Here, five women speak out about the importance of watching The Force Awakens and seeing, for the first time, themselves.
Star Wars wasn’t the first sci-fi movie I ever saw as a kid (that honor goes to E.T.), but it was the film that made me fall in love with sci-fi. My brother and I watched our VHS copy of A New Hope so many times, we killed it. Twice.
Return of the Jedi is the only film my sci-fi-loving father ever took me to see in the theater. Princess Leia’s white dress from A New Hope was one of the last costumes my mother ever made for me before MS took away her ability to sew. I idolized Leia’s strength and determination, even in the face of her homeworld’s destruction. I loved how Han Solo’s veneer of aloof toughness actually masked a brave and honorable nature. And I related deeply to Luke’s journey from an idealistic farmboy dreaming of adventure to a battle-worn man carrying the burden of countless responsibilities. Star Wars was my refuge through a painful adolescence marked by the death of both my parents, and a young adulthood struggling with what I didn’t realize at the time was depression.
Yet with a few notable exceptions, like much of the sci-fi and fantasy I loved and grew up with, Star Wars was a refuge utterly devoid of anyone who didn’t appear to be a white man (or alien).
Frankly I didn’t expect The Force Awakens to be that much different than the previous movies in terms of diversity (I was at least hoping it wouldn’t repeat the egregious racist caricatures of The Phantom Menace, but that was a low bar to clear). I knew about Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron, and was thrilled that the new trilogy’s heroic triumvirate consisted of two men of color and a white woman. But I had no idea how far The Force Awakens was going to extend that attention to character diversity.
At first I was just pleasantly surprised to see plenty of white women and POC among the First Order, the doomed Hosnian Prime inhabitants, and at the Resistance base. By the time we got to Ken Leung’s appearance as Resistance Admiral Statura, I was ready to pump my fist in the air. When I saw Jessica Henwick’s X-wing pilot Jessika “Testor” Pava (the first Asian woman with a visible role in the Star Wars movies) as part of the squadron attacking the First Order’s Starkiller base — and then saw her live — I almost cried. I’d had no idea how desperately I craved visual proof that there was, in fact, a place for people other than white people (and Lando Calrissian) to be heroes, to be allowed to exist in the Star Wars universe.
So while Adult Me has critical opinions about how The Force Awakens feels too derivative of the original trilogy and relies heavily on the appeal of nostalgia, this is the Star Wars I’m thrilled will be the entry point for new generations of fans. And I wish this was the movie 5-year-old Me had a chance to grow up with. Because as much as I’d loved Star Wars over the span of nearly 38 years, no matter how hard I tried, I could never fully escape into a universe that had said in so many ways, “This world is not for you.”
This is why I’ve gotten blisteringly angry with the various pronouncements that Star Wars has become so commercialized that it does nothing to challenge or inspire audiences, and at the dismissals that of course The Force Awakens was going to do well no matter what, therefore it’s not really that big of a deal that it features marginalized people as its central stars. The number of fans howling over the inclusion of a black Stormtrooper and the portrayal of a young woman as just as capable — if not more so — than Luke Skywalker before her, speaks volumes to the ability of Star Wars to challenge cultural norms. Rey, Finn, and Poe Dameron are, in fact, “a big deal.”
I firmly believe that everyone’s allowed to like and dislike Star Wars as they choose — Star Wars doesn’t have to be liked by everyone to have value. But it takes a certain amount of willful ignorance and gross self-centeredness to dismiss just how essential it is for a movie of Star Wars’ cultural and commercial capital to not only give us a story featuring marginalized characters on all levels, but to succeed beyond expectations.
It’s easy to turn one’s nose up at the shattering level of popularity The Force Awakens has garnered, and to sniff that Star Wars no longer deserves cultural influence, when you’ve never had to hunt (often fruitlessly) to find some reflection of yourself in not just the stories you love, but the stories loved by the world around you.
Yes, it’s nice to have “proof” of what many of us have never needed convincing of — that stories starring marginalized people can and will sell, so long as they’re given well-written stories, engaging characters, and proper marketing. After all, marginalized fans have never required anything more than that in order to love the countless sci-fi and fantasy stories starring white (and mostly male) characters.
But that’s not what makes The Force Awakens a success in my book. What makes The Force Awakens a greater success than I could have hoped for is that it’s a Star Wars movie in which more fans than ever can soar with the Millennium Falcon through the deepest reaches of space, become lost in sweeping vistas of alien desert planets littered with the husks of Imperial Star Destroyers, and follow with the adventures of two young heroes struggling to find their place in a galaxy on the brink of war. And we can be confident that we, too, can be destiny-touched Jedi, honorable smugglers, dashing pilots, venerated leaders, or even villains still yearning for the light. We can finally see ourselves as part of Star Wars, because at long last, Star Wars has begun to acknowledge that marginalized people can and do exist, even in a time long ago, in a galaxy far, far away.
Annika Barranti Klein
I don’t need Rey. I already see myself every time I watch Star Wars, because I have Leia, who is such a boss that she takes over her own rescue when she realizes that Luke is an idealist with no experience and Han is only in it for himself.
My daughter Grace, who turned 6 less than two weeks after The Force Awakens hit theaters, does need Rey, though. Until right around release time, she had shown almost no interest in Star Wars, declaring it “boring.” But we recently re-watched the original trilogy together, and while we watched, I talked about everything I saw in Leia. And she suddenly was interested, because suddenly it wasn’t a story about boys.
Here is something you should probably know about Grace: when she found out that Fisher-Price doesn’t make more female superhero toys for their Imaginext toy line because it’s marketed to boys, she took a large pillow into her bedroom and proceeded to punch it while calling the men who run Fisher-Price every bad word she knew. She was 4. My girl does not have time for your sexist double standards and exclusion. I have managed to avoid the toy aisle with its incredible lack of Rey toys so far, but she is going to figure it out sooner or later, and I am worried about the safety of Disney executives, Hasbro and Lego directors, and everyone else whose terrible decisions led to this problem.
When we took Grace to see The Force Awakens — and I saw that Rey was already a fully actualized, capable character — I cried, because it would have been so easy for her to be helpless or naïve. And while she had some naïveté, she was also perfect. Male characters get to start out capable all the time, and it’s so important to me that Grace see the same in female characters.
While I was writing this, I decided to ask Grace some questions. Specifically, I asked Grace’s permission to write down her answers to some questions — but I did not tell her ahead of time that the topic was Star Wars.
Do you prefer movies about boys, girls, or both?
I think Luke is really cool and I think Rey is really cool.
What do you think of Star Wars?
It’s pretty cool in some [of the] movies. Most.
How did you like seeing The Force Awakens in the theater?
It was pretty good! Some parts are scary. Some parts are funny that I liked, like the storm trooper part. And some parts are just a little boring.
Who was your favorite character?
Do you think Rey is going to become a Jedi in the next movie?
Maybe, but maybe the movie after that.
Anything else that you want to tell me?
Let me guess. You already typed that I really like BB-8. I told you that yesterday.
So there you have it. Rey and BB-8. I hope Disney releases some toys with Rey included before Grace finds out.
I was eating with my kids at a local diner when a woman suddenly stopped and approached us. “Have you seen the new movie yet? Is it any good?” She looked about 70, and was exceptionally tidy and prim in her wool pea coat and leather gloves. She didn’t specify which movie she was talking about, but since three of the four of us were wearing Star Wars shirts, it wasn’t hard to guess at it.
“The Force Awakens? Yeah, we saw it opening night and loved it. Are you a fan?” She sighed heavily and with meaning and said, “Oh yes, I loved them all. I taught high school science and math and I always saw them as soon as they came out.” My teenage daughter and I reassured her that the movie had been worth the wait, and that if she had loved the others she would really love this one.
“The hero is a woman,” I said. I’d say it was weird how she grabbed my arm solemnly and just nodded her head, but I knew what she meant. Finally.
“Well now I am definitely excited, and I’m making him take me tonight!” she eyed her husband waiting patiently at the door.
Two days before, a woman walking her dog had stopped in front of our house to admire our Darth Vader and Yoda Christmas inflatables. We talked for an hour, breaking down character development, gender roles, and critical race theory as it relates to both the original and the new movie. This middle-aged woman with the tiny dog looked like the unlikeliest Star Wars expert, but she knew her shit. I shouldn’t have been surprised, because I am also a middle-aged woman who knows her shit, but I was. Society has conditioned even me to not look too far outside the traditional nerd box.
From those women, to me, to the older African-American woman in a Star Wars shirt who we stood in line with for hours on opening night (she’d brought a little stool to make the wait more comfortable), we are our own quiet and neglected demographic. We are not the Mountain Dew-drinking 18–25 year old males so highly sought after by advertisers and moviemakers. Which is dumb, because we have money to spend and we are happy to spend it on things that we value — which partly explains the breathtaking amounts of cash being made by The Force Awakens.
As a kid, I named my only doll Baby Luke Skywalker, and I referred to myself in the third person as Darth Vader. As fans, we are nothing new. We are just now being noticed because we are older and we are louder and we make them notice us. My daughters are going to get to grow up with Rey, a fully realized hero that the original female fans of Star Wars have waited a long time for. Like the woman in the pea coat, all I can think is, Finally.
Growing up, I didn’t like most princesses. The Disney breed didn’t loom as large as they do now, but a few of them were around. I couldn’t relate to them; they were beauties, and I was not. Worse, they were usually passive (even sleeping) women who had things done to them. I was not passive, not even as a girl. I played baseball with the boys, and cried and yelled and laughed a lot, and spoke my mind to adults, and generally got myself into trouble.
Then, suddenly, there was a princess who I did like: Princess Leia, who is technically a Disney princess now, too. I don’t remember our first encounter, since I was 3 when Star Wars came out, but she must have always been in the background throughout my childhood. When I was about 9, I finally noticed Leia and realized that she was a princess who wasn’t so far away from me: beautiful, brunette, one of the guys, and crabby as hell. I still wasn’t beautiful, but I otherwise qualified. Leia was different from the other princesses. She took action. She set plans in motion. She was her male companions’ equal. She got mean when angry or frustrated. She seemed to be constantly impatient. I was the same.
Looking back now, I can see that I’d spent so many years looking up to men: Jesus, Batman, the A-Team. To be clear, I don’t find that sad. The quest for representation of all kinds of people in our culture is a good one, but we forget that it’s possible to see yourself in someone who’s not just like you. Perhaps we’ve confused the desire to see characters more like ourselves with an insistence that we can only respond to those who are like us. But I was happy to see some elements of myself in every Star Wars character. I had (and have) Luke’s impetuousness, Han’s wry self-regard, and C-3PO’s anxiety. I even have the Emperor’s selfishness. These connections are not closed off because I am not a man, or a pilot, or a droid . . . or the face of evil.
But for all my logic above, I know there was something special about finding Leia. Instead of being merely entertained by her, as I was by the other characters, I was inspired, too, seeing that it was OK to be a real human woman with a variety of emotions, and that I could have better things to do with my life than waiting for the animals to dress me so my prince could come.
Leia’s back in The Force Awakens, a general now, still a little mouthy, smart as a whip. There’s a great moment at the end of the movie when she embraces the new protagonist, a young woman named Rey. Their hug arises from deep loss, but also from a sense of kinship, I think, as Leia sees who she once was, and Rey senses who she might become. It’s a nice grace note in a movie where things explode a lot. Perhaps it’s meant to be a passing of the guard.
I’m glad that kids today have Rey to watch. I’m especially excited for little girls who are like I was, who do or don’t like pink, who do or don’t like sports, who do or don’t have a lot to say. They now have Rey and Leia, both flawed and occasionally annoying, both princesses without that title, bookends of what smart, sharp, thoughtful women can be.
I can lose myself in any genre of movie or book that is character-driven. So, naturally, I have never been that into Star Wars. The first six episodes — however you describe their order, by number or release date — have memorable characters, sure, but the movies rely heavily on GASP! moments, special effects, and plot twists that are predictable for anyone who speaks German. (Apologies to Anna Kendrick and Pitch Perfect.)
And then there are the female characters. Sorry, character.
I love Leia. Not as much as I love Carrie Fisher, but I definitely dig her ability to hold her own and speak with authority. Let’s get real, though: Leia is a plot device. She’s defined entirely by the men in the movie — something the writers of The Force Awakens were stuck with this far into the story, so it largely continues to be true. In Episodes I-VI, she’s a sister, an unrequited love interest, then a love interest, and a savior of the male characters. She’s stereotypically treated as though her strengths make her high maintenance and bitchy. Leia’s character exists to complicate Luke’s journey and soften Han Solo’s gruff exterior, so the moviegoer can love him if they so choose. In The Force Awakens, she’s a general — the commander of men, a mother, a wife, a sister, a daughter, a widow. She’s there because she has to be; she embodies perpetual endurance.
Leia is not her own woman — but Rey is.
Rey’s character is fully developed almost from the moment she appears on screen. She has a backstory and independence, heart and skill. When we meet Rey, she’s alone. We get to see her whole day and therefore what her life is like — and it’s hard and unfair. She’s resilient and ingenuitive. I was attached to her immediately.
By the time she runs into a wayward First Order defector, we’re rooting for her hard. A lost droid has attached itself to her, apparently convinced that she’s the human it’s looking for. The audience has begun to wonder how it is that she speaks droid, but she doesn’t seem to be thinking about it. Her hidden talents develop naturally over the course of the movie, allowing her to be surprised, but without questioning her abilities. She can fly almost anything and repeatedly picks the right corners to turn — an uncanny sort of intuition, it is.
Somewhere between saving Finn’s ass and schooling Han on his own broke-ass aircraft, she became one of my favorite movies characters in ages. Rey isn’t a straight-up hero — another thing that makes her so human and relatable. She spends most of the movie trying to get back to her planet and hopefully her family, continuing to aid the Rebellion only reluctantly.
Rey doesn’t need her identity explained to her, coming into her power without a sit down from Mother/General Leia. Even as she goes to train with her uncle, we get the sense that Leia didn’t pressure her and she didn’t have to; deciding to explore her roots and her destiny are her call. I can’t wait to see where she takes herself next.