Part 2 in our series on Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If you missed Part 1, you can read it here.
I didn’t want to believe in Star Wars. Not again. Not after growing up young enough to be enchanted with The Phantom Menace and coming of age to the growing horrors of Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. And Disney was doing it — not something that inspires confidence in me. I resisted looking at the news, and I kept a maniacal grip on my cynicism.
Then the first trailer came out — the one that put the Falcon back in the sky. Real robots, a vast desert, fantastic use of the music, but I still clung to my cynicism. So it looked right? So what? What did it mean? Hell, the prequels are pretty. I kept my heart removed, held away from the galaxy far far away.
It was the poster that broke me.
Specifically, Rey at the center of that poster.
All my carefully withheld enthusiasm, my doubts and the feigned indifference evaporated. She was going to be the hero. I couldn’t pretend I wasn’t invested. I didn’t know that she would be our Jedi (I hoped!), and the trailers were careful to spread attention across the ensemble, but it didn’t matter. There was a girl, a woman, at the center of a Star Wars poster (she wasn’t even the only woman!) and I was a bouncing bubbly mess of fear and squee from then to the premier (deepest thanks to my friends and family for dealing with that…).
We went to an early showing and it’s possible I was hyperventilating just a little bit. The opening looks like Star Wars — the inside of the hut, the people, the X-Wing and BB-8 are all on point — but I didn’t relax until Poe’s first line to Kylo Ren. Fabulous smartass in the face of evil. I missed that — Leia talking calmly back at Darth Vader.
In my group of friends we got a pretty even spread when it comes to favorite new characters — a good sign for the staying power of the narrative. We have a strong showing for team Finn and team Poe. I’m team Rey. No surprises there.
There are dozens of little moments in The Force Awakens that show a conscious choice to make Rey a hero while gently mocking the narrative paths that might have diminished her. When Finn first sees her, we get his heroic impulse to help followed by admiration for a woman who can take care of herself. We get “stop taking my hand” and “I’m the pilot!” and the generally mutual enthusiasm of the three new protags whenever they pull off something cool.
I look at these moments and see the commentary they make on stories where the guy meets the girl by saving her — for every time the hero leads the way with the woman behind him, clinging to his hand. And as satisfying as that is for me, it’s not the best part. The best part is the kids that might see Rey as a pilot, only a pilot, instead of the way I rejoice at seeing her as a pilot and a woman. For me, seeing Rey at the center of the poster was novel — what it must become is normal.
The first time I watched The Force Awakens there was a part of me that was uncomfortable with Rey as de facto heir to both Luke and Han. It nagged as excessive — a touch gratuitous. I got over it when I realized it wouldn’t have felt strange if ‘she’ were a ‘he’. My expectations for what make a hero are as warped by cultural repetition as anyone’s.
Having Rey as the lead is a step by itself (sort of an obvious one at this point, but I’ll still take it), having her as a hero that’s easy to identify with is a whole other thing (and a huge step!). Her gender isn’t an issue — the plot isn’t built around it. Han looks at her and Finn and asks where the pilot is. When her gender does come into play, it’s in things like her scene with Kylo Ren on Starkiller Base. There’s an added threat to the sequence because of the genders involved. Not that mind-rape isn’t pretty fucking scary no matter who is involved. There are also moments between her and Finn where it matters, but that’s to do with the orientations they seem to be playing.
I’ve seen some people objecting to The Force Awakens because it’s a retelling of A New Hope, rather than a sequel. To which I say: we tell the same stories — over and over. There’s only a few stories, that matter, really — love and death and choices. That’s why representation matters — not because we haven’t heard the story before, but because we haven’t heard it this way before. It is a retelling. And the “how” we retell it for this generation, for now, matters a great deal. Whose eyes we see through and where the stories start and end. The issues with this movie — and yeah, I have a few* — don’t matter. It doesn’t matter because as much as I adore A New Hope, we needed The Force Awakens. We needed Rey with the lightsaber and at the helm of the Falcon. We needed the galaxy’s background filled with aliens and women and color and grit. We needed the affection between Finn and Poe. BB-8’s expressive sadness and thumbs up. We needed Han looking at the younguns and knowing his time was ending.
Beat for beat, it’s the Originals again. From the desert planet, to Han’s fall, to Kylo Ren trying to turn Rey to the Dark Side. It’s the same story. It’s always the same story. Over and over. The magic is in the how. Light side and dark side, putting down the blaster or pulling the trigger. Acting from anger and fear and love and compassion. It’s a simple story about a hero.
Star Wars will be dismissed because it is the engine for a marketing monster, and it’s simple and it’s an homage. But the obscene amounts of money that will be made, the massive amount of plastic sold, none of it matters as much as Rey pulling Luke’s lightsaber past Kylo Ren and into her hand.
*My main issue was the choice to go with a bigger, better deathstar and the casual destruction of a planetary system. I think the end should have been smaller, and given Poe a human drama to revel in rather than leaving him to the vague galactic one.
Continue reading about more of our Force Awakens feels here.