SPOILERS ALERT!! If you have not seen Star Wars: The Force Awakens please do not continue reading until you do. This post has major and significant spoilers that will ruin your enjoyment of the film.
It’s a busy time of year for us, but we (me and my oldest) managed to see the new Star Wars film twice already–once on Thursday night and again on Friday. It will be awhile before I have time for in-depth posts, but I didn’t want too much time to pass without getting a chance to share some of my thoughts.
First, the movie is great! The story is loving and good, respectful of the past and yet clearly in control of the future of the franchise. I loved the IMAX-3D experience, and felt that it really added to the visual perspective J. J. Abrams gives us. Space ship movements are fantastic and, unlike too many movies, the action is framed in a way that you can understand what is happening. The whole thing was memorable, to say the least.
One of the most surprising parts of the film about the movie was the consistent and varied attempt to make it feminist, or gender progressive. This was so consistently and deeply done that I think it has to be intentional. In any case, it deserves some discussion.
Here are some examples:
First (and this one is hardly the most significant or stand-out, but it was so big that it ranked first in my thinking), there is a primary character droid that is gender nondescript. BB-8 is called by it’s name throughout (unless I missed something, which is possible). R2-D2 and C3PO have always been “he” in the movies, even when R2 expresses no conventional gender. C3PO is not only gendered male, he is, of course, also an effeminate male. This was easy comedy in the 20th century, but (rightly) suspect to a new cultural generation where we do not read homophobia as all that funny. BB-8 is a reflection of this, I think. So, we have a new hero droid, and it is not he or she! Warmed my heart.
The central character in the film is Rey, played by Daisy Ridely. She is a self-reliant person. She can defend herself, she is mechanically-skilled, and she is powerful in other (to her largely unknown) ways. She does not need a man to save her, which is a point actively made in the first act. The point is made so intentionally, that it actually is a line of comedic relief during the action. When Finn first sees Rey she is being accosted. He is about to go and save her from attack until he realizes she has her own. When she beats up her attackers, he looks around at how everyone else hasn’t been doing anything to help her either, calling into question his initial masculinist ideals.
Soon after, Rey yells at Finn for taking her hand as they run from trouble. “I can run faster if you stop holding my hand!” This is yet another way we are being made to be aware of the traditional gender bias of the action movie (with the “savior male”) and how they are working in a different (gender) reality. When they both fall after an explosion, she comes to quickly and goes to check on him. Finn asks her “Are you alright?” She looks at him, confused by his question, before answering “Yes” in a matter of fact way. It was all so subtly acted and so great to see.
I don’t want to suggest that men being flawed and petty and dumb is inherently “feminist.” I do want to suggest that it is inherently “true.” This movie depicts men as they are historically–human, flawed, and imperfect. Why is that important? Because the traditional action movie usually gives us idealized men (hypermasculine or almost too-male-to-be-true) to serve as our aspirational end goal. This movie does not.
There are three primary female characters in the film–Rey, Maz Kanata, and (General) Leia. All three are leaders, strong, independent, and powerful. They show emotion as people do, but not overly so. They are the model characters of the film. They are the ideals. (There is a female Stormtrooper, Captain Phasma, who serves as the exception. This helps to further the cause of the other women characters by offering a suggestion of the span of women overall in the “good-bad” spectrum. That diversity (though only minimally suggested in the film) is a statement of their humanity, overall.)
Every other character–the men–are imperfect heroes, if they are heroic at all. They are liars and/or committed to participating in the actions of war, actions that are portrayed as patriarchal (oppressive “boys games”). War is not glamorized in this film. It is judged, even acting as the motivation for one character to change sides. This is an important part of the film. When it is celebrated, some of us in the audience felt the tension that comes from the silliness of having fun with death. For example, when Han Solo steps up and shoots (and kills) a trooper without looking, it is comical and out of place. I felt like it was a small scene doing two things: giving us one more bit of Han Solo and, yet, calling into question our love of the fighting we are seeing. Another example was when Finn admires Poe’s flying during battle. In that scene, in that moment, I think the film passes judgement on him. There is death all around you, you might get killed, and you are literally stepping out to admire another guy’s flying? I felt like it was passing subtle judgement on the entire culture of war.
The one exception, I think, is perhaps the Max Von Sydow character, although his only role is to act as a futile conscience for maleness gone amok. Which I know turn to…
Dad and Son
The big surprise of the movie–the identity of Kylo Ren and the death of Han Solo–is a clear instance of the Father/Son dynamic (the patriarchal fantasy) bing flipped upside down. In that way, it mimics the movie overall. We don’t know why Kylo/Ben turned. We can think it has something to do with Luke but, as in the past, the blame a teacher takes is rarely true as much as the human flaws in the individual. We do not Leia chose for him to train with Luke and we do know that Han feels like he did something wrong as well. In any case, the son killing the father is the perversion of the traditional action movie that is so vital to this film. The threat of son killing father is part of the Star Wars canon; it is what Luke is told he is going to have to do. It is what Luke ends up not doing. Here, it happens.
Rey and the Force
Rey’s use of the force is a very key part of the feminist character of the film. Rey always has it together and is seemingly always in control of her destiny, except in two key scenes. One is when she meets Kylo for the first time and he stops her in combat and then makes her pass out as he takes her hostage. She has met somebody who has a power she does not have (she thinks) and that knowledge (communicated so brilliantly in Daisy Ridley’s face) defeats her easily. Then, moments later, in their interrogation, she assumes her power and is able to fight back.
That power comes, first, by her seeing that Kylo Ren is nothing but a man. Daisy Ridley’s face in that scene is intentional and perfect. She is surprised when Kylo takes off the mask, as if he has lost some power over her by being just a person, a man. His traditional attack of her is patriarchal in the largest sense. He threatens a kind of rape, really, even though that’s not what he is literally talking about (maybe). It is what he is symbolically talking about: “You know, I can take whatever I want.”
She fights back by doing the opposite of what he does. In fact, every time Rey harnesses the force in this movie it is through centering herself, looking within, and finding peace. When she is emotional, flustered, fearful, angry–when she is like almost all the male characters of the movie–she can not use her real power. He success with the force comes after these anger mistakes.
Maz and Leia
Both are idealized and “perfect” people who do all we want from leaders. Leia is perhaps the best. She is not a hurt woman who wants a man (Han) back. She is a mother and the stronger (always) of the two former lovers. She shows strength and compassion. She’s the best. It is all a symbol of leadership being real, good, and non-male. Even when the battle is won, she is the leader not celebrating the victory of the boy’s game.
Maz and Rey have a discussion in the movie that might make this the first Star Wars movie to pass the Bechdel Test. Maz is knowing and powerful. When she talks to Rey in the tunnel she does not use her tricks, her glasses. She speaks from her small-eyed self, speaking truth. It is brilliant.
When Rey and Kylo fight she wins, she does so by striking him down and NOT killing him (an alternative form of victory, a non-male form), and she cuts down a whole bunch of trees. That last one made me laugh with such delight. Her first strike with the lightsaber is striking down a phallic symbol of a tree trunk. It is a symbolic statement if I ever saw one. Their battle ends when the ground opens up between them. She standing stronger, he weakened and confused. Need I say more?
There are a whole bunch more, but I wanted to at least get out the big ones as you prepare for your next viewing. I can’t wait to watch more of the franchise take on gender is such a rich, and knowing way. As you do, look out for the more substantive examples of the intent here.
And let me offer this: the key is that The Force Awakens is trying to do this by doing more than just swapping out the male lead for a female one. When it comes down to it, women occupying the traditional role of the patriarchal (violent, stoic, controlling and powerful) male is not exactly progress when it comes to gender/feminism. Films that commit to subverting those traditional gender roles, as well as their effects, are much better. That’s the difference between Sigourney Weaver in Aliens or Linda Hamilton in Terminator 2 and what we have here.
Being gender progressive in a film (and, more importantly, anti-patriarchal) isn’t about making women into men or about making men into evil idiots. In this case, at least, it’s about dismantling the conventions of the traditional action movie and helping us call into question our assumptions and past behaviors. It’s about giving us human characters of all genders, but also using our expectation for a hero for something more than the tired, old stories of the past.
And, ultimately, it’s about giving young girls the same kinds of exciting possibilities as young boys when making a new generation of action/Sci-Fi films.