By Sotiris Petridis.
The Star Wars saga is an internal and important part of popular culture since its first filmic text back in 1977. Apart from the films, there are comics, novels, television series, and a plethora of merchandising products that interact with our everyday life. So, gender representation in this filmic universe matters because it unknowingly influences hundreds of thousands of people by establishing or breaking stereotypes. The first six films, created by George Lucas, are divided into two trilogies – the original and the prequel. In October 2012, Walt Disney agreed to buy Lucasfilm and announced a new trilogy, which would be a sequel to the original, with Star Wars Episode VII to be released in 2015. My first reaction to this announcement was excitement and joy, but when I took a moment and let the news sink in, I started to be worried about the new characters and a possible gender bias.
The original trilogy is admittedly a man’s world, or more accurately, a man’s galaxy. Except for Princess Leia, which is a positive and a feminist representation, there are not a lot of women in the first three films. As a matter of fact, there are only three other female characters in Episodes IV, V, and VI who have any dialogue – Aunt Beru, Mon Mothma, and an unnamed Rebel official at the Hoth base. In other words, in a total of 386 minutes, apart from Leia, the female speaking time is only 63 seconds! The representation of Leia was an attempt to balance things and, in some ways, it was successful. We understand that she is a princess who doesn’t give up without a fight, and even if Han Solo and Luke Skywalker rescue Leia from Cell 2187, she is the one that saves them later on by blasting a hole into a vent that leads to a garbage chute.
The prequel trilogy tried to follow the formula of the original by creating only one strong, female representation, but it failed. Padme Amidala starts as a strong political figure, but in the end, she gives up everything, including the will to live, when the love of her life, Anakin Skywalker, turns to the dark side. As Meredith Woerner points out, “she physically dies of a broken heart while cry-birthing Luke and Leia Skywalker. Padme doesn’t even get the glory of living on as a political martyr; her whole story is swept under the rug so Darth Vader can take the stage.” The romantic involvement of Padme and Anakin becomes central to this trilogy, unlike Leia and Han’s, which remains a subplot to the original films. Sadly, we witness a transformation of a strong female character with leadership skills and political background to nothing but Anakin’s character development. This could be a perfect example of what Laura Mulvey meant when she argued that in a film a woman is the bearer of meaning, not the maker of meaning. Padme and Leia have been important figures in the Star Wars universe, but they are not protagonists and, in a way, the narratives marginalize them.
So, before Episode VII was released, the question of which path the narrative will follow still remained; was it going to follow the steps of the original trilogy by creating a strong female protagonist, or was it going to fail by trying like the prequels? Luckily, neither of these happened, because the new film chose a new way or representing women in a galaxy far, far away. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is full of powerful, female characters that help the narrative progression, which can be used as a positive message to its audience. Even its director, J.J. Abrams admitted that even if Star Wars was always a boy’s thing, he tried to create a film that would attract more female viewers, and that he wanted mothers to bring their daughters to see the film.
Rey – A Revisionist Protagonist
First of all, we have the character of Rey, portrayed by Daisy Ridley, who is the equivalent of a female Luke Skywalker – an orphaned scavenger girl alone on the desert of Jakku. She is the basic character of the narrative and, hopefully, of the whole trilogy. Of course, this happens for the first time because the previous films had males as their central characters (Luke in the original films and Anakin in the prequels). As Patricia Karvelas points out, “the character of Rey is a game changer for the little girls around the world who have been disgracefully ignored by the Star Wars Empire for decades. She is the real deal – smart, formidable and loyal.”
She transforms in front of our eyes into a remarkable pilot and fighter that does not need any male help or approval. She is an active character and has nothing to do with the passive female archetype that Mulvey described. The dialogue in the scene in which Han gives her a weapon is an example of the way the whole narrative treats her. Han say to her, “You might need this,” while she replies, “I think I can handle myself.” Then Han answers, “That’s why I’m giving it to you.” Furthermore, though Finn is with Rey for most of the narrative, he is not the male figure that “saves the day.” Instead, Rey is the one that keeps saving them. When Rey tells Finn she “know[s] how to run without you holding my hand,” her directness and confidence makes the audience fall for her. And above all, Rey is the future of the Jedi knights. Even if Leia was strong with the Force, even if she had the same background as Luke, she never used a lightsaber. She could be a glorious Jedi, but the narrative never gave her the chance. On the other hand, Rey can fight back and even win against the strongest antagonist of the film. One of the best moments regarding the positive representation of women is the fight scene between Rey and Kylo Ren. Even if she has zero Jedi training, she is determined and capable of winning.
Rey is a feminist character that has a three-dimensional structure and a lot to give to the audience. Ridley said in an interview, “I hope Rey will be something of a girl power figure. She will have some impact in a girl power-y way. She’s brave and she’s vulnerable and she’s so nuanced… She doesn’t have to be one thing to embody a woman in a film. It just so happens she’s a woman but she transcends gender. She’s going to speak to men and women.” This is why Rey is so important to a feminist view – she proves that a female character, by just being herself, can be a lot more powerful than a statement or a demonstration. Megan Garber comments that, “Rey’s feminism is not insistent; it is not obvious. It is, instead, that most powerful of things: simply there.”
General Leia, Maz Kanata, and Captain Phasma
That there are also numerous women throughout that help the narrative progression is another innovative aspect of this film. As Katherine Cusamano comments, “Star Wars’ peripheral characters, and even non-speaking parts, became exponentially more diverse in The Force Awakens. People of color and women populate cockpits and space ship crews.” Three distinctive examples are Genera Leia, Maz Kanata, and Captain Phasma.
First, we have Leia thirty years later, played by actress Carrie Fisher. She has been allowed to age on screen – an unusual thing for Hollywood, and become more awesome in the process. The character had the feminist background from the original films, but the new narrative found ways to increase her activeness and the ultimately positive outcome to the audience. She is not a Princess; rather, she is the General of the Resistance. As Rebecca Hains explains, modern princess culture implies that physical beauty is a girl’s greatest asset – not intelligence, strength or courage. So, the change of the title is important, in order to show to girls that there is life beyond being a princess. Apart from the title, the representation is even better than before because all the good is under the commands of a female character. Even if the original films notoriously lacked female representation, their sequel constructs a matriarchal figure that is leading the Resistance. Meg Heckman comments that, “General Leia is a seasoned leader with just a hint of the spunky, fearless teenager who once jumped into a Death Star garbage chute.” She is a middle-aged mother, more powerful than when she was a Princess, and with no man to boss her around.
Apart from Rey and Leia, there is another female figure that plays an essential role for the light side of the force, Maz Kanata. Maz is a fully CGI character played by the actress Lupita Nyong’o via motion capture. She is the ancient female character that awakens the force in Rey and is represented as a standout symbol of power and wisdom, making her some sort of a female Yoda. According to Han, Maz is over 1000 years old, which makes her one of the few characters of the saga that has lived through the events of every film, and this is why she is represented as especially knowledgeable.
So, in this film we have a new protagonist that tries to learn the ways of the force, a political figure that leads, and a wise figure that inspires – all played by women! And the narrative does not stop there. There is another female character that has an important role, but this time is coming from the dark side. Captain Phasma is the first female villain in the whole Star Wars franchise, played by Gwendoline Christie. Phasma is serving as a Captain and commands the stormtrooper forces of the First Order. She wears a reflective suit of armor similar to that of a Stormtrooper but capable enough to help her stand out. The fact that we had to wait through many years and seven films to see the first female villain of the saga just proves Abrams’ argument about Star Wars being a boys’ club.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens is obviously a work of feminism, but the richness of its feminist traits, especially in contrast to the prequels, makes it unique. It has three-dimensional female characters on both sides that are integral parts of the narrative progression. Many articles have been written in support of the idea. Glynnis MacNicol argues that, “in The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams has taken the most powerful Hollywood franchise ever created, a veritable religion for the generation that grew up with it, and placed it in the hands of a woman. Or rather, women,” while Kate Bennion comments that even the male characters of this film support feminism. In another article that dealt with this issue, Laura Bates tries to establish the notion that this film is important because it proves that a film doesn’t have to be about feminism to be feminist and, at the same time, it shows that films with strong female leads can succeed at the box office. Finally, the following words of Marlow Stern describe what this film is all about: “Abrams acknowledges the past while fashioning his own pluralistic future filled with a female hero, female generals, and even Captain Phasma, the galaxy’s first female villain. In this ‘Star Wars,’ the Force that awakens is woman.” Episode VII brought a balance to the force regarding gender representation and we hope that this will continue in the next installments of the franchise.
Sotiris Petridis is a Ph.D. Candidate in Film Studies at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki, Greece, and has been awarded a scholarship from Onassis Foundation for his doctoral studies. He holds a bachelor’s degree in Film Studies (Aristotle University) and a master’s degree in Art, Law and Economy (International Hellenic University). He is currently teaching Film Theory and Film History at the Institute of Vocational Training in Thessaloniki. Contact: firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Woerner, Meredith. “The women of ‘Star Wars’ speak out about their new Empire.” Los Angeles Times, December 04, 2015. http://www.latimes.com/entertainment/herocomplex/la-ca-hc-the-women-of-star-wars-the-force-awakens-20151206-htmlstory.html
 For more information, see Mulvey, Laura. “Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema.” Screen 16:4 (1975): 6-18.
 Karvelas, Patricia. “Star Wars is a game-changer, awakening the feminist force in little girls everywhere.” The Guardian, December 30, 2015. http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2015/dec/30/star-wars-is-a-game-changer-awakening-the-feminist-force-in-little-girls-everywhere
 In Yamato, Jen. “‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Cast on the Film’s Feminist ‘Girl Power’ and Diversity.” The Daily Beast, July 12, 2015. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/12/07/star-wars-the-force-awakens-the-cast-on-the-film-s-feminist-girl-power-and-diversity.html
 Garber, Megan. “Star Wars: The Feminism Awakens.” The Atlantic, December 19, 2015. http://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2015/12/star-wars-the-feminism-awakens/420843/
 Cusumano, Katherine. “How ‘The Force Awakens’ Heralds A Feminist Future For Star Wars.” Bustle, December 22, 2015. http://www.bustle.com/articles/131420-how-the-force-awakens-heralds-a-feminist-future-for-star-wars
 Hains, Rebecca. “Princess Leia is a general now. But why isn’t she in more toy stores?” The Washington Post, November 17, 2015. https://www.washingtonpost.com/posteverything/wp/2015/11/17/turning-princess-leia-into-a-general-isnt-a-feminist-move/
 Heckman, Meg. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens to Feminism.” USA Today, January 07, 2016. http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2016/01/05/star-wars-force-awakens-feminism-column/78265780/
 MacNicol, Glynnis. “The New ‘Star Wars’ Is Feminist AF.” Elle, December 23, 2015. http://www.elle.com/culture/movies-tv/a32836/the-new-star-wars-is-feminist-af/
 Bennion, Kate. “Resistance, Caring, & “Mask”ulinity: The Feminist Message of the Dudes in The Force Awakens.” The Mary Sue, January 19, 2016. http://www.themarysue.com/masculinity-the-force-awakens/
 Bates, Laura. “5 things Star Wars: The Force Awakens has taught us about feminism.” International Business Times, January 08, 2016. http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/5-things-star-wars-force-awakens-has-taught-us-about-feminism-may-contain-spoilers-1536755
 Stern, Marlow. “Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Feminine Mystique.” The Daily Beast, December 17, 2015. http://www.thedailybeast.com/articles/2015/12/17/star-wars-the-force-awakens-feminist-mystique.html