This post contains spoilers for The Force Awakens.
Back in elementary school, I occasionally played Star Wars with a gaggle of like-minded 7-year-olds. There were about 10 of us, girls and boys. It always began the same—choosing parts. One boy would say he wanted to be Han Solo and get informed that that he couldn’t be Han Solo because Han Solo had to be cool. Whichever boy was deemed the “nicest” that day got to be Luke Skywalker. This one kid with an impeccable roar always played Chewbacca. But for the girls, the casting process was just a waiting game. We all knew who we were going to be: Princess Leia No. 1, Princess Leia No. 2, Princess Leia No. 3 … Unless you wanted a bit part as Mon Mothma, which none of us was particularly jazzed about, there was no other option. Of course with the prequels we got Padmé, but even then, it was comparatively slim pickings.
When I saw The Force Awakens this past Thursday, I was blown away. Not just because of the skilled direction and solid acting and adorable droids (although those were all great). Of everything I took in and stupidly grinned at during the movie, I was most excited about what this movie offers the franchise’s female fans.
This is not to say that the original trilogy is bad. Star Wars is a product of another time, with different standards for representation, and as far as female heroes go, Princess (now General) Leia rocks—even in the controversial bikini. I love these movies, but they are flawed—especially when it comes to representation of anyone not straight, white, and male. The Force Awakens is clearly a step away from that legacy. It takes the best parts of the original trilogy—the quips, the hammy but earnest dialogue, the grimy, worn-in aesthetic—and leaves behind the less-enchanting parts. And J.J. Abrams has made the Star Wars universe a lot more interesting by putting plenty of minority actors and women in starring roles.
In this movie, we have a central female heroine, Rey (Daisy Ridley) who quickly becomes a crucial part of the fight against the Dark Side. Fascinatingly, there’s also a woman in power on the other side of that fight—Gwendoline Christie’s wonderfully played Captain Phasma. (Hopefully we’ll see more of her in the future, as for now her part did feel very underused.) Lupita Nyong’o’s barkeep, Maz Kanata, functions almost like a Yoda stand-in for Rey. And to top it all off, there’s even a female Resistance pilot. Some of these parts are bigger than others, but there are a whole lot more speaking roles than before.
The movie’s feminist bent shines through most in its humor. When Finn (John Boyega) and Rey first meet, he intends to save her from a couple of would-be thieves whom she quickly dispatches. Then, she chases him down and beats him up. And later, when he comes to after being briefly knocked out, he asks if she’s all right as she’s helping him up. When Rey gives him a bewildered look and mutters, “Yeah,” it’s clear the joke is not only at Finn’s expense, but also stereotypical gender expectations as a whole. Although in the beginning it seems like either the very goober-y Finn or Oscar Isaac’s wise-cracking Poe Dameron will inherit Han Solo’s legacy, Rey actually proves to be the most intuitive and gut-driven pilot. She takes Han’s place at the helm of the Millennium Falcon, with Chewie’s support, and in the very end we see her approach Luke Skywalker himself, lightsaber in hand. As she hands it over, it’s clear Rey is positioned to carry on the legacy of not one but two originally male protagonists.
In that moment, I thought back to my elementary school playground and smiled. Even as Leia No. 4, I always had a blast. I can’t imagine the adventures little girls will have with the Star Wars universe to come.