“Hope is not lost today. It is found.”
SPOILER ALERT! THIS REVIEW CONTAINS SPOILERS.
Let’s talk about Rey.
For those of you who haven’t yet managed to see The Force Awakens and have also managed to avoid all spoilers ever for the film (many congratulations if you are among these heroic few), Rey is the heroine of this seventh Star Wars film, a scavenger orphan from the desert planet Jakku who turns out to be strong in the Force. She’s brave, independent, strong-minded and desperate; she fights her own battles; she’s not gullible or credulous; she is, in a word, awesome.
What makes Rey’s existence, as a heroine of Star Wars, remarkable is that Star Wars as a franchise is completely obsessed with patriarchy; with fathers and sons and husbands and uncles; with a specifically male line of inheritance. The original films centre, after all, on a father-son drama, with, conveniently, no mother to complicate matters. The women of Star Wars, such as they are, are mostly there to produce sons or to reveal something about Our Heroes: look at how the initially unattached Princess Leia is gradually pulled into a familial relationship with both the major male leads of the original films, so that by the end of Return of the Jedi she is defined chiefly in relation to the men of the films, as sister and lover (she began, remember, as politician and fighter). (We note that Leia, unlike her brother, never gets to face down her father; the films never even allow us to consider the possibility that she might be able to.) Or look at how Padme, in the prequel trilogy, moves in a similar trajectory: from determined politician and queen to lover and (dead) mother, an arc designed solely to tip Our (male) Hero Anakin into tragic despair and set up the original trilogy’s father-son drama. Or look at how the prequels, again, are more interested in the lack of a father for Anakin than in his actual living breathing mother; that is, they are literally more interested in a cipher than a woman, and in the end Shmi gets killed anyway, again in order to facilitate Anakin’s story arc. Mothers don’t last in the Star Wars films; mothers don’t matter. They’re only there to facilitate male inheritance. Fathers, on the other hand – fathers are vital.
There are layovers of this patriarchal framework in The Force Awakens, and it’s interesting to see how they operate around Rey, who is something the earlier films could never contemplate: a woman who is important in her own right, and not because of what she can tell us about Our Hero. It’s certainly significant, for instance, that the film, and the marketing materials in particular, play the revelation of Rey-as-Jedi as a surprise: Finn, the ex-stormtrooper who runs into Rey on Jakku, is the one we’ve always seen holding the lightsaber in the posters, while Rey gets a pointy stick. And notice how, even after the revelation that Rey’s the one with the Force, the film still constantly tries to set her up as damsel-in-distress: there’s a frame which I just cannot find on the internet at the moment, when Kylo Ren, the film’s villain, captures Rey and carries her unconscious into his spaceship of doom. At this point, Finn is our point-of-view character, and the moment smacks of fridging, compromising Rey’s independence in order to reveal something about her love interest Finn. True to romantic-interest form, Finn jeopardises his life, and the entire Resistance, to rescue her from Kylo Ren, only to find that somewhere gender norms have exploded, and Rey is busy rescuing herself, thank you very much. A similar thing happens towards the beginning of the film: Rey and Finn are both running from some evil soldiers, and Finn catches Rey’s hand, because he thinks female characters have difficulty running or something. Here’s the thing: Rey calls him out on it. It’s almost as if there are two narratives working here: Finn’s patriarchal narrative, which says that women need rescuing; and Rey’s counter-narrative, which says that women can do whatever they like.
That it plays the counter-narrative as surprising could be read as sexist (“Look! Women can do stuff too!” Yeah, thanks, J.J.); but I’m more inclined to read it as a comment on the misogyny of the franchise as a whole: we don’t expect to see women with agency in the Star Wars universe because they’ve never had it before. It’s interesting that The Force Awakens does actually include a father-son conflict of the kind which informs the original trilogy: Han Solo is Kylo Ren’s father. They meet, good on one side, evil on the other, on a bridge aboard
the Death Star Starkiller Base; they talk about their issues; and Kylo Ren kills his father. It’s a shock, but as many fans have commented, it doesn’t feel important to the film. Neither Han nor Kylo are point-of-view characters, which means that this quintessentially Campbellian moment is muffled, the old patriarchal struggle shunted quietly out of the limelight in favour of – what? There’s a lovely moment, afterwards, when Rey and Finn have escaped Starkiller Base, and Rey runs off the Millennium Falcon straight into a grieving Leia’s arms: two women, both stripped of the old bonds of patriarchy (Rey, we remember, has no family; Han is dead, and Luke has literally disappeared off the face of the map), finding solace in each other. (It would be easy to see Finn as romantic interest comforting Rey, and it’s pretty awesome that Abrams doesn’t go down that route.) It is, potentially, a symbol of where the new trilogy may go: to a world in which it’s matriarchies that matter, female friendships and relationships taking the place of patriarchal conflicts.
All this is not to say that The Force Awakens doesn’t have its issues; it does. Although it passes the Bechdel test, it does so on the strength of about two conversations, and it certainly never seems to consider the fact that maybe there could be more than one woman in its Trio of Awesomeness (Finn, Rey and Poe). Or that its villain could be a woman. Or that its central romance could be anything other than heterosexual. But it may be a sign that mainstream culture is finally beginning to catch up to the fact that women can be more than mothers and lovers and sisters.
Also, Rey is awesome.