Star Wars: The force Awakens – Looks like we might have a female Jedi. (Film review)
Please note – there are no spoilers in this review. However, it contains a comparison between one aspect of the latest film with the first Star Wars that may be construed as a spoiler in some circumstances. Consider yourself warned.
It’s almost as impossible to ignore Star Wars: The Force Awakens as it is to ignore the unrivaled nostalgic lure a well made Star Wars awakens in our white culture. We’re over that post-film-school angst Spielberg’s Jaws and Lucas’ Star Wars gave serious cinefiles as they watched the duel influence of marketing strategy and business strategy move in like an Imperial Cruiser to create a filmic Dark Side and against the pure force of new-wave progression relied on prior. Not only do we accept, but relegate said films to the genre “pop-corn movie” and have thrilled to the better contributions from the oeuvre, forgetting how their influence affected us at the time. We love us some Star Wars now, and have worked out our own mini rebellions against its enormity, that allow passionate film folk to sit back and enjoy with a clear conscience.
For women, the Star Wars franchise has always been another reinforcement of bloke values despite our willingness to be thrilled to the spectacle along with our men. Women are relegated to the sidelines in Star Wars, our only access to the joy and spirit of the thing via becoming team Harrison or team Mark. Jedi Knights were men, and even Leia who has the force, was only ever a standby in case Luke didn’t work out. Why no one thought it was a good idea to train up both twins to fight their father is presumed to be the preservation of male ego, further reinforced in the awkward and unsuccessful attempt to sexualize Leia in Return of the Jedi when she spends a quarter of the film in a Barbarella outfit. Women were exempt from the joys of inspiration, motivation and the construction mythic role model; only allowed to be princesses, immobile deities and in the case of Padme later, wives dying in childbirth. While Luke is blessed with a spiritual rag to riches narrative that serves to inspire millions of young boys, girls are left with being born into a position, such as princess, as their only chance to become a leader. Of the siblings, Luke’s back-story is the only one we see, and at their birth Obi-Wan moves to Tatooine to watch over Luke until he is strong enough to fight Darth Vader. Leia is subsumed to safe keeping.
As all the hype surrounding the current Star Wars offering by J.J. Abrams states, we have our first female Jedi Knight in Rey, performed by Daisy Ridley. At the surface it appears to be a step in the right direction for the big monied female audience. Rey is strong and bares much of the feisty nature of the early Princess Leia. She need not be rescued, can fight for herself and others with precision, still has a heart (in the budding of a rather cute interracial affair) and above all else, an inner wisdom that implies Jedi material, something never afforded Princess Leia. What is missing with Rey, is the back-story that gives hope and inspiration to young (and older) women to be better and reach higher. The first fifty-five minutes of Star Wars, prior to Obi-Wan and Luke entering Mos Eisley, is devoted to a back-story for Luke. Despite the plot surprises of the future films, we see what frustrates Luke as an angry young man. We see the groundwork for his future struggles with his identity laid and the weaknesses that will make him susceptible to the Dark Side. We see his devotion to the only family he has, and misunderstood longing for a life outside of his world, too strong to hold him to his farming existence. His heroes journey if you will. It’s the perfect set up for the cameras loving caress as he endures his training at the hands of Yoda in The Empire Strikes Back.
With Rey, we have no such back story. We are given her circumstances – poor, fending for herself, possibly abandoned by a family she believes will return, and part of a down trodden civilization – but there is nothing about her personality. No frustration exhibited with her current surroundings, just a cranky compliance. She has no ambition, no motivation to find her family, nor internal justifications for why she does not. No friends no loved ones. She is just another poorly written female character, tokenistic, shallow and pretty. She offers no real inspiration to women, because we know nothing about what she fights for, nor can we relate to how she might feel about her circumstances. Interesting is the absence of dependents, something with which a woman of such personal power would be saddled (and was part of the success of Katniss Everdeen). There is no notion of an inner world for a woman to grasp and say to herself “Yes! That is me. And I can use my inner drive to get me through.” Conversely Luke Skywalker is presented in the midst of this battle in the lengthy exposition about his internal struggles. Rey is plonked into a world and filmed reacting to it, spending much of it running away. Even the implied spiritual connection she makes with BB-8, the cutesey Disney redimade toy-in-a-film, is so thinly realized it seems tacked on. It’s no surprise that Lawrence Kasdan, principle writer, rushed off to write a Star Wars spin off about a young Han Solo. His frustration over creating a thrilling female character is palpable resulting in the ankle-deep shallowness of Rey. One can imagine the sequel will gloss over her training rather than making it essential to the narrative drive as it did for Luke.
Not that there isn’t plenty to enjoy in this latest addition to the franchise if you are a Star Wars fan. No doubt much of its immediate success is due to it not being similar to the notorious follow-up trilogy from George Lucas at the start of the century, but Star Wars: The Force Awakens follows it’s earlier paths in bringing something we’ve all grown up with to the screen in a way that justifies its big budget. Women are getting better at sensing being sidelined by cultural narrative, and they’re getting better at demanding more from our writers and film makers. Star Wars: The Force Awakens reveals just how out of touch the old guard of screen writers are in their assumptions about their female audience and how challenged they are writing strong immersive female characters. If there is one consistent message to women in Star Wars, no matter which of the franchise you watch, it is grab a gun and act like a man and you will be ok. And that will not be enough for much longer.