Photo courtesy of gannett.com | Campus News Editor By Hannah Paige Michels analyzes the impact of strong female leads in the Star Wars films.
In a galaxy far, far away — also known as the year 1975, Luke Skywalker was briefly written as a female character. Even 40 years ago, “in a (pathetically) different time,” George Lucas realized that his draft for Star Wars was wrongfully dominated by male characters, which caused him to briefly change Luke’s gender. While this change was temporary, it did lead to the creation of Princess Leia and ultimately paved the path for Rey in The Force Awakens and Jyn Erso in Rogue One.
Rey and Jyn are seen as victories for female representation in the Star Wars universe and were met with great praise from fans and film critics alike. But some say that Star Wars was feminist all along, that these reboots were merely carrying on themes from A New Hope that were well-established by Princess Leia.
After all, though Leia was a damsel in distress before Han Solo and Luke Skywalker came to her rescue, it was Leia who ultimately saved the gang by taking matters into her own hands and blasting a hole through the garbage compactor. Leia is a consistently feisty and strong-willed leader, characteristics embodied by her royalty and her actions as she helps plan an attack on the Death Star.
But is this really enough? Especially when compared to her male counterparts who aren’t serving as enslaved toys while wearing a metal bikini or uttering the famous words, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope,” (which go over her brother’s head when all he can acknowledge is her beauty instead of the fate of the galaxy).
In the Ted Talk “How Movies Teach Manhood,” Colin Stokes poses a question wondering what his 3-year-old son is taking away from the story of Star Wars.
“Is he picking up on the fact that there are only boys in the universe except for Aunt Beru,” Stokes asks, “and of course this princess, who’s really cool, but who kind of waits around through most of the movie so that she can award the hero with a medal and a wink, to thank him for saving the universe, which he does by the magic that he was born with?”
Princess Leia was a good start, but her role in the Star Wars universe was never really enough.
And Padmé wasn’t really much better. Despite adding another female character to the frontline — one with Leia-esque spunk, a heaping dose of compassion and enough badassery to take back her throne in Naboo — Padmé’s ultimate role is to be abused by her brooding antihero husband and die while birthing his children.
And then came Rey and The Force Awakens — or, as some have come to call it — The Feminism Awakens. Rey is depicted as an independent, tough and brave character. As a scavenger, Rey clearly has been taking care of herself for quite some time. She even tells Han Solo, “I think I can handle myself,” when he offers a blaster before a battle. And Han, knowing fully well that Rey is beyond capable, tells her, “That’s why I’m giving it to you.”
Rey was the hero we thought we needed but not necessarily the one we deserved. We deserved better. Rey is a defense against Finn’s inappropriately timed chivalry, saying, “I know how to run without you holding my hand.” She is a gutsy pilot at the helm of the Millennium Falcon. She took up space as a complex protagonist in a blockbuster film without being simply a token female character. She was the realization of a fanbase, and ultimately a society, that craved a female character who was real and powerful and inspiring.
Rey was a good start, but she was not enough. Then came Jyn Erso.
“First of all, and most obviously: Jyn is the star of this Star Wars story,” Megan Garber of The Atlantic says. “It is her story, fundamentally: She is the axis around which everything else spins.” Garber says this is unique because “previous installments have all, in some way, revolved around male-and-female couples: Leia and Luke, Leia and Han, Padmé and Anakin, Rey and Finn.”
Even when Rey made strides in The Force Awakens, there was something truly special about Jyn’s role in Rogue One as her own person. While there is nothing wrong with buddy-buddy movies or promoting the lessons of loyalty, respect and trust as depicted through a wonderful friendship or relationship, Jyn is undoubtedly the center of her own story. Garber says that, in Jyn’s story, there is not a dynamic duo that defines the movie. “That is because, simply but powerfully, it is Jyn who defines the movie.”
Much like Rey, Jyn is not in need of saving. “She is no damsel; even when things get dire, we do not see her in distress,” Garber says. Much like Rey, Jyn is dressed in clothing that she can actually fight in (i.e., not a white dress or metal bikini) and is a fully realized character made with grit, kindness and direction.
However, in terms of Jyn’s carrying on of Rey’s legacy in forging a path for women in a male-dominated galaxy, Rogue One barely passes the Bechdel Test. This test, named for cartoonist Alison Bechdel, requires that a work of fiction feature 1. at least two women 2. who talk to each other 3. about something other than a man.
Rogue One nearly fails this test because conversations between women are practically nonexistent. The original trilogy fails the test in all three movies, but the prequel trilogy actually passes the test in each of its films — which is possibly its sole crowning achievement.
Despite these technicalities and shortcomings, The Force Awakens and Rogue One are making amazing strides in telling the stories of women as authentic characters with depth, complexity and purpose. Far gone is the tokenism of females from the original saga and the exploitation of these characters at the hands of the sausage party surrounding them.
Rey and Jyn Erso are incredible characters whose stories are inspiring tales of heroism, bravery and compassion. These are the stories we need to be telling, and these are the characters who should be telling them. While there is plenty of room for more diversity among these heroines, the last two installments in the Star Wars world are, without a doubt, steering intergalactic stories in the right direction. And while the progress may not be moving at hyperspeed, we may not be that far, far away.
By: Hannah Paige Michels ~Campus News Editor~