How many female characters from the first six “Star Wars” films can you name? You’ve got ten seconds; go.
Finished? I’m willing to bet your answers were Leia, Padme, and maybe, just maybe, Aunt Beru. I’m not going to rag on any of those women, but “Star Wars” hasn’t exactly been a female-character-friendly series up until its most recent installment. Featuring Daisy Ridley as Rey, Carrie Fisher returning as General Leia Organa, Gwendoline Christie (“Game of Thrones'” Brienne of Tarth) as Captain Phasma of the First Order, and Lupita Nyong’o as the ancient pirate Maz Kanata in a record-breaking (for Star Wars) four named female characters with speaking roles in one film, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” blows its predecessors out of the water in terms of female representation. But does it measure up in characterization? I went (twice) yesterday and had my expectations pleasantly exceeded, not only by the excellent development of these characters, but by the continuation of the “Star Wars” legacy.
We’re first introduced to Rey early in the film, and her characterization is immediate. Although she doesn’t speak for a good five minutes from first appearance, Daisy Ridley commands her scenes, showing Rey to be an adaptable yet apprehensive youth with a thirst for adventure. A scavenger, Rey lives on Jakku making a meager living tearing old war wrecks apart and selling the pieces for “portions,” servings of food controlled by the merchant that runs Niima Outpost; she is clearly just surviving, but her attitude and optimism about meeting her family again remains undampened. It is here she meets Finn, played by John Boyega of “Attack the Block” fame, and together they team up to help BB-8, the adorable little orange and white droid in the trailers, to complete its mission. Her relationship with Finn develops from mildly hostile to close friendship quickly, as the two are thrust into deadly situations that test even our intrepid smuggler hero, Han Solo, and it never feels like Rey is forced into anything unnaturally by the story. Rey stands strong as an excellent example of a female hero done right, holding her own in fights, avoiding the rank sexualization so many heroines are subject to (Black Widow, I’m looking at you, dear) and truly growing through the events of the film.
Lupita Nyong’o is an absolute scene-stealer as Maz Kanata, the 1,000-and-something-year-old leader of a ragtag group of pirates, smugglers and traders living out of what I can only assume, by its design, is an old Jedi temple. Even as a four-foot-tall, squat-faced alien, Nyong’o upstages even Harrison Ford. We’re never asked to question Maz’s ownership of her little kingdom or her wisdom; instead, she is framed as the wisest character in the film. This has its own issues, with Magical N*gro trope very slightly raising its head, but I think with more characterization in future films, Maz will prove to be more than a stereotype and really come into her own.
Captain Phasma and Leia have more brief appearances and are mostly characterized by their interactions with male characters, although Leia does have a moment with Rey that reinforces her compassionate nature, letting the audience know that war hasn’t changed our beloved princess. Many of the speaking roles of unnamed or minor characters are also held by women, matching the men almost 1:1. There wasn’t a single moment while watching when I felt repulsed by a female character or when I wondered where all the women went. Through and through, the film stayed true to the sci-fi genre’s diverse roots.
While the film passes the Bechdel test, its real strength lies in its overall treatment of its female characters. It’s one thing to avoid talking about shopping or men, but it’s another entirely to disallow women from driving the plot of the film. Fortunately, the only woman in the film who does not have a hand in its direction is Phasma, and she’s one of the bad guys. Leia, Rey and Maz all make decisions that have direct effects on the plot and the success (or failure) of other characters, specifically the male characters. Without these three’s input, the men wouldn’t have gotten anywhere, and that’s more important to me than topics of conversation.
The film in its entirety is just plain fun, sending the audience on an emotional rollercoaster ride across new frontiers, battles and heart-wrenching reunions that could make even the most stone-hearted “Star Wars” geek shed a tear. There are no Jar Jar Binkses to groan at — even BB-8 manages to keep it funny without resorting to childish antics — and I never once wondered why a character even existed; everyone is important, and everyone holds their own on-screen, even with the titans that are Carrie Fisher and Harrison Ford. The film suffers only from its introduction of a reused plot device that temporarily cripples its storytelling capabilities, falling back on the “Star Wars” laurels of oversimplifying an incredibly complex concept. Some could complain it feels a little too much like “A New Hope,” but they would be missing the individuality of our new cast of youths meant to take the torch from the older generation who make the film stand on its own as part of the “Star Wars” series. Alongside the strong women of “The Force Awakens” stand Finn, Poe Dameron (a Resistance pilot, played by Oscar Isaac) and the Dark-side antagonist Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), and none of them overshadow their female counterparts, instead supporting and enhancing their performances.
“Star Wars: The Force Awakens” situates itself among the greats of sci-fi, and its women are distinguished by their strength, individuality, courage and devotion to whatever causes they support. If you were worried about someone getting fridged or being forced to play second fiddle to one of the boys, you can rest assured that’s not the case in this film. “The Force Awakens” is an exceptional modern return to the beloved “Star Wars” universe, one that this nerd will probably be seeing another couple times in theaters.
If you’ve seen the film and have something to say, say it in the comments, but don’t forget to mark it with spoilers! If you haven’t seen the movie yet, it’s in theaters, so get your butts down there and have a watch.