When the original Star Wars film opened in 1977, I waited in a line that literally wrapped around the theater. I was enchanted by this epic new world and the characters that inhabited it. Being a 7 year old girl at the time, my view of Luke Skywalker boiled down to two simple thoughts: He had great hair. I wanted to be like him.
Growing up, I was often frustrated that the boys and men were the ones who got the call to adventure in these films, while the girls and women were the damsels in distress. As a little girl, I loved Princess Leia (She also had great hair.) But it's deflating when you are learning what people "like you" (women and girls) are "supposed" to be like, and parts of that characterization don't reflect who you aspire to be.
I won't spend a lot of time recounting the Slave Leia metal bikini or the "Help me Obi-Wan, you're my only hope." I'll just say that those parts of Leia's characterization were disappointing. Of course, Leia was more than a damsel in distress or an object of beauty. She also had moxie. She was strong and effective. I did want to be like her in so many ways.
Leia had traditional female elements to her early characterization, but she also had strong elements that were, for the 70s, progressive. Padme on the other hand! I won't even begin to discuss the disappointment of Padme because I don't think I could do so without ranting. Let's just say, she's not the role model I'd want for my daughter.
Well, we were off to a checkered start, but after waiting nearly 40 years, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has made up for lost time and in no halfhearted way. While watching the female leads in the Force Awakens, my primary reaction was delight and true gratitude that what I'd hoped for has finally been realized.
There has been some talk about the female leads of SW:TFA as being feminists. Though I'm comfortable using the word feminist, it doesn't quite get at the joy I'm feeling watching these women of SW:TFA. Why I am so happy is that the female leads in this film are portrayed as human beings -- not as women, not as stereotype busters, not as anti-feminine. Just. People.
As the first Star Wars film (now referred to as 4) was about Luke Skywalker in the role of the Campbellian Hero called to make the hero's journey, this new film is very much about Rey, a young woman not unlike Luke. (In fact, some gripes about the film say that it is simply a re-telling of that first film.) Rey is a scavenger on the dry, desolate planet Jakku. Our introduction to Rey tells us that she has a physically hard life, but that she is driven by an inner strength and fights to stay alive. We learn that she also has a heart to go with her lean muscles and mad fighting skills.
Rey falls in with BB8, a droid on a mission (R2D2 is to Luke Skywalker as BB8 is to Rey -- sort of). They are joined by a runaway ex-Stormtrooper, Finn. Rey and Finn become fast friends and the friendship is much more one of the love between brother and sister or two lonely people who have found kindred spirits. This is another of my favorite choices the Force Awakens authors made about Rey (and Finn, for that matter). She is capable of making friends with a young man rather the cliched romantic path (a la Padme and Anakin Skywalker -- can we say "Yuck" on that one?). In fact, as Rey and Finn run for their lives on Jakku from the New Order, Finn repeatedly attempts to take Rey's hand to pull her to safety. She rejects that as a character with her past would. She can handle herself. Would Han Solo grab Luke Skywalker's hand as they ran? Finn figures this out and later when running from danger they pull each other by the forearm as friends might.
Later, Finn and Rey meet up with Han Solo and Chewbacca (who, I argue, has the most beautiful hair in this film. Wookiee Roar!). If you are, like me, a big, big fan of the wookiee, or just a fan of the Han-Chewie relationship, you may also have been touched with the way Rey ends up stepping in as Chewie's pilot later in the film. That pilot seat is a big one to fill, so having a female in that role is quite an honor.
Super-likeable and human characters Rey and Finn are joined by another super-likeable character that the internet has been buzzing about -- Maz Kanata. Maz is a strong female -- wise from her 1000 plus years of life as a pirate. Maz is played via motion capture by actress Lupita Nyong'o and was styled after a favorite school teacher of J. J. Abrams. As such, she again takes on an authenticity of a person, not merely a woman assigned to stereotypical female roles. Her wisdom takes center stage as Maz comments, "I have lived long enough to see the same eyes in different people." And who can resist a woman who calls Chewbacca her "boyfriend"?
Speaking of an authentic, non-steroetypical woman, I'd be remiss if I did not give a nod to actress Carrie Fisher and her portrayal of (ahem!) General Leia in this film. I do think the character was handled with grace in the film. But I'm giving more of a nod to Carrie Fisher than to Leia. In this era of transmedia, where we are aware of much more media about Star Wars than merely what's in the film, Carrie Fisher has added a touch of class in her own unique way to this awakening force in film. Many have seen Fisher's priceless interview in which she brought her crazy little doggie with his tongue hanging out to the set of ABC news. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Kh1t2MJDbrs What I love about this interview is how Fisher makes a zany and perhaps subtle commentary on the vision of women on the screen as she teases her swelt interviewer about her parents having good genes.
Fans without a sense of humor would be like a Jedi without a lightsaber. For my part, I love the women of the new era of Star Wars because of their authenticity and humanity. It does my heart good to see where J. J. Abrams took the women of Star Wars. I'm going to mark this as a red letter day in film history: Star Wars: Equality Awakens.