By Josh Inocéncio
When I was six years old in 1997 and Lucasfilm re-released the original Star Wars trilogy in theaters across the United States, my dad took me to see Episode IV—A New Hope. Right after watching Luke Skywalker take on the Death Star, I imagined I was the young Jedi, donning a Tatooine shawl and gliding down the dimly lit theater steps with a blue lightsaber. In Luke, I could see myself on screen: young, scrappy, adventurous, but also white and male.
Like many heroes in American cinema that “save the day,” Luke is a white man from humble origins (in this case, a moisture farm) who leaves his home on a fate-altering quest. The film takes for granted his whiteness and his maleness, and we’re supposed to view him as an “everyman,” or a “universal stand-in” as theorist Richard Dyer would argue, that represents all humanity (and all species, for that matter).
But this year’s Episode VII—The Force Awakens, far from just tuning our nostalgic heartstrings, is inspiring the next generation by shattering race and gender boundaries in this galaxy far, far away. And while the new film maintains the father-son dynamics of the originals, this is no longer a “boy’s world.” In doing so, director J.J. Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy have fashioned the most feminist Star Wars yet with four significant women characters and a main trio that includes Rey, a young white woman, as the protagonist and Finn and Poe Dameron, two men of color, as the other leading characters. This diverse makeup is a Force-worthy premonition of shifting demographics in the United States, which is crucial for a saga that feeds the contemporary American appetite for myths.[Spoiler Alert] Like her feminist precedent Princess Leia (who saved Luke and Han Solo from Stormtrooper gunfire more than once), Rey doesn’t require much help from men. In The Force Awakens, she’s a resourceful scavenger from the junkyard planet Jakku with prodigious piloting skills and an ability to use the Force. Similar to the original Star Wars (1977), this film ruptures the “damsel-in-distress” narrative when Finn, a black Stormtrooper who has defected from the evil First Order, tries to heroically save Rey from an attack on Jakku. He quickly learns she can handle herself (“I don’t need you to hold my hand!” she shouts); in fact, Finn needs her to pilot them off the desert planet on the iconic Millennium Falcon.
As far as representing other women, there’s General Leia, the Resistance leader; Captain Phasma, a high-ranking general in the First Order; and Maz Kanata, a 1,000-year-old space pirate who educates Rey about the Force in a moment that passes the Bechdel test (unfortunately, the first time Star Wars filmmakers create a significant role for a woman of color, she’s a CGI character). There’s no female tokenism in this sequel; rather, the galaxy is populated with women fulfilling vital roles on both sides of the Force.
Additionally, the only significant white males in this storyline are First Order villains General Hux and Kylo Ren (Han and Leia’s son who was seduced by the Dark Side) and heroes Luke and Han from the previous, and increasingly haggard, generation.
The space for white men to “save the day” is pushed to the outer rim in this new story. We quickly learn the impotence of the major white male characters: After failing to train Kylo Ren, Luke went into hiding. After failing to master the Light Side, Kylo Ren vowed to resurrect grandfather Darth Vader’s industrious plans. And finally, after failing to bring his son back to the Light, Han is murdered by Kylo Ren. But by the penultimate scene, Rey, who is relatively inexperienced in the Force, wields Luke’s long-lost lightsaber in a duel where she narrowly defeats the trained Kylo Ren before escaping a collapsing planet. In short, a woman must now perform the tasks that men have failed to do.
Throughout Hollywood’s history, hero narratives have relied heavily on a surrogate male character whose sacrifices offer salvation for a particular community. However, The Force Awakens suggests that Rey will rescue the galaxy from the Dark Side, thwarting our ingrained expectations of who “the hero” is and what “he” looks like. In the final shots, after Rey has flown the Millennium Falcon to the remote island planet where Luke is hiding, we see her offering Luke his lightsaber, forging a new relationship between the aging master and his apparent apprentice.
By the film’s end, I am certain young girls everywhere are running down theater steps amid John Williams’ score, like I did in ’97, pretending to summon lightsabers, strike Kylo Ren, and fly the Millennium Falcon far from home.