How does “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” represent women?
The Star Wars franchise has produced a timeless legacy filled with heroes, villains, creatures and droids of each gender. The majority of its star characters have been male - from Han Solo, Luke Skywalker, Darth Vader and Yoda in the originals to Obi-Wan Kenobi, Qui-Gon Jinn, Anakin Skywalker and Chancellor Palpatine in the prequels. However, in Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015), the newly released seventh installment, we have been introduced to a new variety of female characters. The women in The Force Awakens are not merely politically correct additions to the series but appear to have a far more dominant role to play, which may grow even more significant in Episodes VIII (2017) and IX (2019). While there are inevitably potential criticisms of some female characterizations, we might argue that Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the most appealing Star Wars film so far due to its gender representation. By conducting character analyses of our three primary new additions—Rey (Daisy Ridley), Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o), Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), and General Leia (played for a fourth time by Carrie Fisher)—we can examine the representation in the film, as well as ask whether these women are merely cross-gender recreations of previous heroes and villains or more original personalities.
Although the last two Star Wars trilogies have centered primarily on male protagonists fulfilling their missions or moving toward their destiny, there have been strong females alongside them that supported and were essential to those quests—notably, Leia in the first trilogy and Padmé (Natalie Portman) in the prequels. We have a new female lead in Episode VII, Rey, who appears central to the entire sequel trilogy (or at least we can predict so far) with a journey similar to that of hero Luke Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode IV - A New Hope (1977). We follow Rey and her discovery of the wider scope of the galaxy where her destiny becomes entwined between the Resistance and the First Order. Some criticisms of The Force Awakens have been due to its recreating plot elements from A New Hope, but director J.J. Abrams may have addressed the political correctness of female representations in science fiction cinema. Speaking of her role, Daisy Ridley told the Daily Beast, “I hope Rey will be something of a girl power figure. She will have some impact in a girl power-y way. She’s brave and she’s vulnerable and she’s so nuanced… She doesn’t have to be one thing to embody a woman in a film. It just so happens she’s a woman but she transcends gender. She’s going to speak to men and women.”
Although we also see Finn (John Boyega) transform from an enslaved Stormtrooper to a redeemed fighter of the Resistance, Rey’s story still gets primary attention. The Force Awakens may be the most satisfying Star Wars film to date for female audiences, as we see Rey spring into action under pressure and emerge as the hero of the story. After she pushes off Finn’s instinctive attempts to hold her hand and “rescue” her when Finn’s the one more in need of help, we see her pilot the Millennium Falcon out of dodge on Jakku from the First Order. After she, Finn and BB-8 meet Han Solo and Chewbacca, Solo immediately acknowledges Rey’s talents with quiet appreciation. From that point on, Rey’s potential power appears to excel into that of a potential Jedi, or at least a highly Force-sensitive individual. Her unique Jedi mind trick against a Stormtrooper (Daniel Craig in a cameo role) while under the interrogation of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) is a crucial moment from a feminist standpoint; it shows her potential ability to follow in the footsteps of Jedi Masters like Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Obi-Wan Kenobi (Alec Guinness/Ewan McGregor) and Yoda. Later, Rey wields Anakin/Luke’s lightsaber and defeats Kylo Ren, suggesting she possesses an even stronger power with the Force than Kylo without ever training.
While we remain unsure whether a romance is blossoming between Rey and Finn, her character could never be called the “love interest” or even supporting character, as women in the previous Star Wars and science fiction films have often been portrayed. She is a woman who fulfills her destiny as the story’s main protagonist. She has heroic wonders that we’ve not seen before, and she just so happens to be a woman. It’s something new to the franchise, and where Rey’s path continues will be an exciting journey in Episode VIII.
The Force Awakens also introduces new supporting characters that contradict a sense of feminist power. Maz Kanata, for example, is a CGI character played by Academy Award winner Lupita Nyong’o through motion-capture performance. Just as Rey is arguably a female version of Luke, Maz can be viewed as a similar recreation of Yoda in feminine form. Her central power is her wise knowledge of the Force; she has her own castle with residing citizens; she is much shorter than the leading protagonists and has supposedly lived for almost a thousand years. Just one tenth of her life is around the entire timeline of the Star Wars saga so far, from Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi meeting Anakin Skywalker in Star Wars: Episode 1 - The Phantom Menace (1999) to the destruction of the Emperor and the second Death Star in Star Wars: Episode VI - Return Of The Jedi (1983). Plot-wise, in The Force Awakens, Maz appears to be a central figure in illuminating what’s happened to the galaxy since Return Of The Jedi. Within those thirty years she (somehow) came into possession of Luke’s blue lightsaber from Star Wars: Episode VII - The Empire Strikes Back (1980), which also previously belonged to Luke’s father Anakin before he became Darth Vader. The most relevant question here, though, is whether Maz’s gender has any special significance. She could simply be a female update of Yoda to provide fan satisfaction. But perhaps her character’s powers will be revealed to more interesting and unique from Yoda’s, as we come to learn how she retrieved the lost lightsaber. She says in Force Awakens, “I’m not a Jedi, but I know the Force.” Could this suggest that a master of the Force need not necessarily belong to the Jedi order, and if so, could the true nature of Maz’s supremacy be unveiled in VIII or IX?
Another female character that represents a sense of feminine power in The Force Awakens is Captain Phasma, a Stormtrooper played by Game of Thrones (2011) actress Gwendoline Christie, making Phasma the first female Star Wars villain. Typecasting Christie makes Phasma an automatically badass character, but why is Phasma female? Her silver metal costume may be a symbolic standout feature of her femininity. Speaking about her character at the San Diego Comic-Con, Christie said, “I found it exciting that there was a female Stormtrooper, but it was also this opportunity to explore a female character that’s not totally about the way she looks.” She considered that audiences can now look past how women appear in Star Wars, and judging from the reception of the new characters in The Force Awakens, she seems to be correct.
Selecting a female Stormtrooper may have appeared surprising, as most previously assumed that Stormtroopers were only males—perhaps an unexamined gender stereotype. However, former Stormtrooper Finn revealed that innocent people are enslaved to become Stormtroopers by the First Order. This storyline imparts moral complexity and humanity to the Stormtroopers, but Phasma adds a gender balance, too. Considering the gender implications of slavery, it’s possible that as an innocent girl kidnapped and subjugated into becoming a Stormtrooper, she may have faced special or sexual wrongs in addition to what the males experience. The background of her name is unknown—perhaps, like Finn’s name, “Phasma” evolved from an originally more impersonal numeric label. But the fact that she is named, rather than numbered, underlines her status. Phasma has risen to a high post as commander of the Stormtroopers; in Force Awakens, we don’t encounter anyone superior to her other than Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis), General Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) and Kylo Ren/Ben Solo (Adam Driver). We could even argue that it’s a step forward for the agents of the Dark Side to be so accepting of female power to recognize Phasma’s talents. In terms of screen time, though, Phasma has almost nothing to do in The Force Awakens. This may have been disappointing for audiences, as she was marketed and described as a similar figure to Boba Fett, but Christie will reprise in VIII. Will we be able to see more of Phasma at her strongest and most dangerous? It would be satisfying to see females more represented in Star Wars’ antagonists, who have so far all been male, and a fight against Rey would be pretty epic.
Of course, with a new installment for a new generation, the original Star Wars heroine had to return, both for fan satisfaction or relevant continuation of the series. Carrie Fisher reprises her role as Leia, the first time she has appeared in the role in the 32 years since Return of the Jedi. The passage of time is significant in the gap between VI and VII. We all knew her as Princess Leia when she was at a very young age. However, now that Fisher is in her late 50s, her character has become General Leia. One could argue that the abandoning of the “princess” label promotes stereotypes about age and youth, suggesting that Leia is no longer a princess due to her age, and only a young beauty can appropriately be viewed as a princess. At the same time, Leia is represented in The Force Awakens as a woman of great achievement rather than special birth, who has graduated from priness to general. According to the Daily Beast report, Carrie Fisher said “I had a really great time on the first one (A New Hope) but I was the only girl, except for the continuity, hair, makeup, and wardrobe teams. It was definitely a boys’ club.”
Leia, as the young woman of the Star Wars original trilogy, was forced at times to play the stereotypical damsel in distress and, particularly in her gold bikini in Return Of The Jedi, a sexual object. She ultimately became an accomplished hero, and that is where Leia left off. By the time of The Force Awakens, she is considered the most authorised figure in the Resistance. Her mission for X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) kickstarts the whole plot, while her plan to destroy the Starkiller Base shows her wisdom and resilience to destroy it. From a personal standpoint, Leia, now a mother, shows emotional strength in her determined belief that her son Kylo Ren/Ben Solo can return to the Light Side once more. Little background of her parental life is revealed in The Force Awakens, but we get significant hints from Fisher’s performance, and we hope to see more details for ourselves in Episode VIII.
So, through these four central women, what exactly does Star Wars: The Force Awakens tell us about its representation of women? It doesn’t show the typecasting stereotype of overtly objectifying female characters for sexual gratification or casting them as vulnerable damsels in distress, as we saw for Leia in the original trilogy. However, it shows that women appear to have a stronger sense of power and wisdom than the male characters do. This does not necessarily degrade the new and returning males, but ultimately is an awakening (pun intended) to how women should be resiliently portrayed in cinema. Interestingly, the evident superiority of the female characters may itself be a problem for some audiences, given the argument that in order to have truly feminist representations of women onscreen, our female protagonists must have flaws. Therefore, if Rey is perfect in every way, she is establishing yet another impossible female standard. On the other hand, though, if Rey were a more flawed, struggling hero, this would not put forward the same “girl power” role model that she currently provides.
In any case, the series’ new female additions prove that their characteristics, skills, and qualities have become more important than the audience’s visual gratification through their bodies, revealing costumes, or romance plots. While The Force Awakens may be a film that touches upon feminist issues or might even be termed a “feminist film,” J.J. Abrams may not have intended the film as such. His primary goal may have been to show us something original and new, and these new female characters could have been born of that creative impulse. Ultimately, though, we cannot deny the breakthrough in the increasing power and variety of the women populating Star Wars, and it is refreshing to encounter so many strong representations of people who happen to be women.