Some of Disney’s efforts to emphasize the female characters of “The Force Awakens” feel a bit like overreach. Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie) turns out to be a decidedly minor character in the film, rather than any sort of significant villain (and the testosterone-heavy “Star Wars” universe sure could use a great female baddie). Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz Kanata plays a more significant role in the plot, but does so in a limited number of scenes, and I miss Nyong’o herself behind the motion capture.
But J.J. Abrams’s work to make the “Star Wars” universe look vastly more inclusive is clear throughout “The Force Awakens.” There are women and people of color in the cockpits of X-Wings and at battle stations in both Imperial and Resistance facilities. Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher) is still fighting as part of the Resistance, but she’s stepped into a leadership role previously occupied by a number of men. During one climactic sequence when the evil First Order destroys a series of Republic-controlled planets, the extent of what’s happening is communicated through a long shot of a woman of color who is watching destruction rain down on her and her companions. I’ve never seen a major blockbuster that not only focused on a female main character in the way “The Force Awakens” does, but also make such an effort to have women visible in the world around her.
While I found myself annoyed on behalf of Leia and all of us who love her by Abrams’s pre-release suggestion that in his hands, “Star Wars” will no longer be just a guy thing, that thoughtfulness made a difference to me when I was watching “The Force Awakens.” Fans have always had the power to dream themselves into their favorite franchises, but there’s something undeniably special when a director makes those points of dreamy identification easier. And though Princess Leia, by virtue of being my gateway pop culture icon, gave me the great gift of teaching me to expect that in my pop culture, women would always be there saving the galaxy, I found myself touched by Rey in a way I hadn’t really believed possible. “The Force Awakens” gave me a world where women were both exceptional and the rule.
Rey’s role in “The Force Awakens” is fascinating not just because she’s a woman plunked into one of the cockpit seats of the Millenium Falcon, or a girl who happens to be handy with a (laser) gun. Her position as not just a smart, capable and potentially powerful woman, but the person at the heart of the new “Star Wars” trilogy who has great native abilities with the Force, is the only thing about the otherwise fairly conservative “Force Awakens” to tweak one of the franchise’s core concepts.
In previous “Star Wars” movies*, the Force has been not just a religious concept, but a tool for exploring masculinity. Jedi Knights and Sith Lords and the apprentices they both train have almost always been men in “Star Wars” movies. The female Jedi Knights we’ve seen have been minor characters; we haven’t learned much about their journeys or their relationships to the Force. And the boundary between the Dark Side and the Light tends to be demarcated by the moments when traits that are coded as masculinity tip over from admirable into dangerous: forcefulness become aggression, self-defense turns into violent attack, righteous conviction turns into anger and then to hate.
Figuring out how to be a Jedi Knight is proxy for figuring out how to be a good man, whether that means determining how best to stop a would-be Emperor, how to protect your wife during a fraught pregnancy, or how to confront your long-absent and difficult father. And there’s an unnerving moment to that effect in “The Force Awakens” when Kylo Ren — in a gesture made sharper and more unnerving for the similarity of his powers to those of Kilgrave, the rapist, mind-controlling supervillain in Netflix’s “Jessica Jones” series — tries to extract information from Rey’s mind. It’s the second time we see a Sith Lord use the Dark Side of the Force against a woman on screen. In “The Revenge of the Sith,” Anakin Skywalker (Hayden Christensen) uses the Force to choke his pregnant wife (Natalie Portman) in a shocking act of domestic violence. And Kylo Ren’s battle of wills with Rey is sharply demarcated by everything from their genders to the color of their clothing.
So what happens when a woman picks up that lightsaber and that responsibility? What is Rey’s story going to be, now that the Force isn’t a battlefield between fathers (or father figures) and their sons?
When boys find out they’re chosen ones in fiction, the news often seems to confirm something for them, a lingering sense that they were not simply different, but special. But when girls are chosen, it’s a challenge to the existing order that sees us as supporting characters, as the way some man proves his goodness or badness. Grabbing hold of the destiny that someone’s offering you requires a certain arrogance that’s cultivated in boys and crushed in girls.
Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill) wanted to leave Tatooine in “A New Hope,” believing he had — if not a grand destiny — a right to life on a larger scale. Rey spends much of “The Force Awakens” talking about how she wants to stay on Jakku in the hopes that whoever abandoned her there as a child will finally come back for her. She wants to be part of a family, not to be called by the universe. If Rey is to become a Jedi Knight, to save Luke from believing that, like Obi-Wan Kenobi and Yoda before him, he might become the last of an ancient order, she’ll have to embrace not just the wider world she sees over the course of “The Force Awakens,” but her own importance.
It’s for that reason that the final scene in “The Force Awakens” left me breathless in theaters, and has made my heart quicken every time I’ve considered it since. The moment when Luke and Rey first regard each other is remarkable. It’s beautifully composed and shot, and Abrams shows tremendous trust in his actors to communicate without words and in his audience to simply watch them without the diversions of dogfights or flaring blades. And so much happens in that moment: Luke’s shock and wonder, Rey’s fear and perhaps a bit of anger.
There’s a question — I would guess more than one — in Rey’s eloquent gesture, and “The Force Awakens” is wise to let us, and Rey and Luke, linger on it. “The Force Awakens” is, in many ways, a remake of “A New Hope.” But by placing Rey at the center of the new trilogy, Abrams has given us at least the possibility that the Force as we know it is about to change forever.
*Yes, I know, there are female Jedi in other media, but I want to talk about the main event here for a moment. Indulge me.