Star Wars: Analyzing the Female Characters of The Force Awakens
Why it's an important time for women in Star Wars and how The Force Awakens took the first step.
This article contains Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers. This article originally ran on Jan. 4, 2016.
A new era has dawned for the Star Wars franchise, not only in terms of continuity or ambitious film release schedules, but in inclusivity. Since Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012, Star Wars has welcomed a more diverse cast of characters, many of which are women. In fact, women headline the first two big screen entries in the post-George Lucas era.
Star Wars has sometimes shot itself in the foot when it comes to female characters. That’s not to say the franchise hasn’t had its share of powerful women. Princess Leia was revolutionary for her time. Padme was the queen of an entire planet and a skilled negotiator in The Phantom Menace, and Ahsoka Tano is an accomplished Jedi in Rebels and The Clone Wars. However, the male characters have always been in the spotlight. That changes in The Force Awakens, in which Rey takes her place as the hero of the Sequel Trilogy.
Leia and Padme were both relatable and important to a lot of women, but they were pushed aside as their respective trilogies went on. Padme’s own character was diluted as the script veered away from her in favor of Anakin, whose own fear for her life drove him to the dark side. By Revenge of the Sith, Padme had become more of a plot device than an actual character, pretty much written out of the movie on a whim by story’s end. The Clone Wars brought us Ahsoka, Anakin’s apprentice, but while rich stories could be found in The Clone Wars at times, her story skipped over what could have been some of her greatest moments of development. She’s put to good use in Rebels, though, where she helps guide a crew led by yet another strong female character, Hera Syndulla.
And now we have a whole new era of films, with a new status quo for its female characters. The Force Awakens had a chance to, not only add to the existing roster of great female characters in Star Wars, but also bring them to the forefront of a galaxy far, far away.
We’ve seen evidence of this shift in the last year. The movement for a more female-inclusive Star Wars was championed by Lucasfilm President Kathleen Kennedy, who made sure to point out at Celebration Anaheim 2015 that fans would see more female characters in the saga. Not only is Rey the star of the Sequel Trilogy, but Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) is the main character in Rogue One, the first Star Wars standalone film. And let’s not forget that Carrier Fisher made headlines for her advice to Daisy Ridley not to let others dictate whether she should be put in a slave outfit during the film.
Is this shift fully realized in Star Wars: The Force Awakens? In the film, Rey becomes a very capable member of the new Big Three, while Leia, Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), and Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o) shine in smaller roles. Not to mention that the cantinas, junkyards, and the war rooms of both the First Order and the Resistance contain female characters in the background, something that was often missing from similar scenes in the Original Trilogy. We even get a new, mysterious female bounty hunter named Bazine, one of the many miscreants at Maz Kanata’s palace. You can hear more about her in the short story “The Perfect Weapon.”
So how were these characters used, and did they live up to expectations? Head below for a spoiler-y breakdown of each one.
From the moment Rey said “I’m no one” in the film’s only trailer, her fate was sealed. As fans had guessed, Rey is the everyman hero of The Force Awakens. Like Luke Skywalker, she’s drawn from obscurity—this time as a scavenger on Jakku instead of a farm boy on Tatooine—into an adventure. While we don’t learn her family history in the film, her missing parents mean that she could be a Skywalker or, less likely, a Solo.
With the movie riding on her shoulders, Daisy Ridley had a big job. Luckily, she succeeds, creating a character who is tough, charismatic, and humorous. She expresses uncertainty as to whether she can fly the Millennium Falcon, but does it anyway. At first, she retreats from the call to become a Jedi, but by the end of the movie, she has embraced it and defeated Kylo Ren in a lightsaber duel. In the movie’s ending, Rey is poised to become Luke’s next apprentice—and to grow just like he did in The Empire Strikes Back.
If there is any problem with Rey’s character, it is that she walks a strange line between being too secretive and too well-understood. Finn partially has this problem too, since we still don’t know whether either of them came from families important to the Star Wars saga. Rey is reluctant to leave Jakku because she doesn’t want to miss her family if they ever return for her, but it’s a bit unclear as to whether she remembers anything more about them than the glimpse she sees in a vision. As for speculation, she could be a Skywalker, since Luke’s recent history is somewhat mysterious…but that mystery is all we have to go on.
Rey’s introduction to Finn is also a bit strained by the gag in which Finn insists he hold her hand as they run. There have been fan theories aplenty about this, most of them seemingly trying not to present Finn as a patronizing savior. Maybe he’s starved for human contact himself, they say. Maybe stormtroopers don’t have much of a concept of personal space. (I like that one—it reminds me of the brotherhood of the clone troopers.) The scene is still a little uncomfortable for me, as Finn insists on holding the hand of the woman who had single-handedly taken down two assailants moments before. And even while she fights, Finn watches her in awe.
Both of these scenes are based in part on the idea that her capable behavior is a surprise, on assumptions about Rey and Finn’s interactions, which come off as gendered, even if they weren’t mean to be. All the scenes did were re-establish Rey’s abilities, which we had already seen for ourselves minutes before. Rey turns that around, though, when she reaches for Finn’s hand after he falls during the TIE fighter attack on Jakku. She regains power in that scene, and as a whole, it wasn’t a bad beginning for the pair.
A questionable beginning lead to an enpowering story, though. As Rey grew in power and showed herself as the hero of the movie, her abilities become less a curiosity and more a plot device just like anyone else’s. But as Rey grows, the inevitable “Mary Sue” topic comes up. There has already been a lot written about whether Rey suits the term, which originated in fan fiction to mean an over-powered avatar for a female author. It’s an accusation leveled at a lot of female characters, and one that has become more meaningless over the years—no longer specific to fan fiction, it’s been tossed around and used to dismiss any female character that seems to have the spotlight.
There are useful conversations to be had about writers who make all of their characters perfect or give them no traits except strength. That isn’t the same conversation though, and calling Rey a Mary Sue more often just serves to shut her out of the same hero-space in which Luke and Anakin Skywalker reside. Rey is strong, but she isn’t perfect. She struggles to do a Jedi mind trick or to fly the Falcon. When she fights with a lightsaber, it is with the same kind of movements she practiced with her staff. And Luke, too, showed extraordinary leaps in talent in A New Hope. He outright states that he’s going from shooting womp rats to taking down the Death Star. Not to mention that he grasps the first hints of his Force abilities about an hour into the movie. Rey isn’t over-powered compared to the other hero characters in the same universe, and she isn’t a carbon copy of J.J. Abrams or Lawrence Kasdan. Therefore, she isn’t a Mary Sue.
Rey is a complete character with a complete journey—from obscurity to rejection of her destiny to acceptance of it—but some of her history is as much a mystery to the viewer as it might be to her. I think it is when we definitively learn who Rey’s parents are that we will really be able to see where she fits in the larger Star Wars mythos. But for now, her role in the film’s finale is a triumph.
Once a princess, now a general: Leia Organa is in charge of the Resistance, the splinter group of the New Republic dedicated to fighting the First Order. She is often spotted in a control room similar to that on Hoth in The Empire Strikes Back.
Leia is critical to the story of The Force Awakens, sending Poe Dameron to Jakku to find the map to Luke Skywalker. She takes a back seat from there, though. We see her in a couple of illuminating conversations with Han, in which the two reveal that they have been separated (geographically at least—we’re not sure about legally) ever since their son turned to the dark side.
She presumably coordinates the attack on Starkiller Base, but we don’t see much of her there. The embrace between Leia and Rey at the end of the film is great, but the relationship between the two of them is never really explored. When did they become close? What might Leia know about Rey? It would have been nice for Leia to get an action scene, but as the leader of the Resistance, she still called all of the shots.
She’s also critical as a member of the Skywalker-Solo extended family. Her hug with Rey speaks of a closeness between them that comes out of nowhere, and could be either a sign of a deleted scene or family ties. (Concept art shows Rey and Leia having a conversation alone in the Rebel base.) In the film novelization, at least, we get an extended scene before Rey leaves for parts unknown to find Luke in which Leia tells Rey she’s proud of the young hero.
Leia’s key moment in the film involves her immediate family, though, as she advises Han to go after Kylo Ren, not to fight him, but to bring him back to the light side. This to me felt like Leia’s real peak in the film, the real moment when we got to see a little bit from her perspective and see what she thought beyond what she sent her army to do. Perhaps that is a weakness in her arc itself. We never see the weight of the war on her except during Han’s death. The novelization mentions that she has now lived through two catastrophes on a planetary scale, but we don’t see much more of her thoughts about the Hosnian System than we did about Alderaan.
However, Leia’s advice to Han presents an interesting parallel to the Original Trilogy. When she advises Han to bring Ben back, she is giving the exact opposite advise that Yoda gave Luke in The Empire Strikes Back. She tells Han to believe in his family ties, to go rescue the one he loves. This is the opposite of what Leia tells Luke in Return of the Jedi after he reveals that Darth Vader is their father and that he has try to save him from the dark side. Leia’s reaction is to tell Luke to run away from Vader. It’s an interesting juxtaposition, one that shows clear growth in Leia’s character.
In The Force Awakens, the decision to try to rescue someone also ultimately ends badly, with Han’s death and Kylo Ren’s final fall to the dark side. (This, also, rests on Leia’s conscious.) Leia was the voice of hope, but her prediction was wrong, and she lost Han because of it. She lost Han because he trusted her. What does that mean for a generally optimistic series?
I hope that this plays out somehow in Episode VIII and beyond. Let Leia take on a larger role now that Han is gone. Let’s see what she thinks of Rey, of the new, darker Ben. Her son’s fate might be in her hands one day, after all. This Leia, the one who has seen planets destroyed, still had hope in The Force Awakens, but their inevitable confrontation will undoubtedly have a much darker tone.
Star Wars does have a bad history of sidelining its female characters more and more as the trilogies go on, but I hope that isn’t the case for Leia in the Sequel Trilogy. She was wrong about Kylo in The Force Awakens, and I’m ready to see her be right in the sequels—or to explore the ideas of hope and heroism in a completely different way.
Every Star Wars movie has its high-profile, one-off villain. From Grand Moff Tarkin to General Grievous, the Star Wars films tend to use secondary villains to further the cause of the first. These usually don’t get out of the movie alive. The Prequels showed this most clearly, with Darth Maul and General Grievous serving as one-shot villains with cool looks who were ultimately just pawns in Darth Sidious’ game. Where those villains had Darth Sidious, Captain Phasma has Supreme Leader Snoke and General Hux. This villainous role is one that has never been filled by a female character in a Star Wars film before. I’m glad that her gender didn’t matter, that it could have been anyone in that suit. On the other hand, seeing the imposing Gwendoline Christie in a fight scene would have been awesome.
Gwendoline Christie’s towering chrome trooper didn’t have a huge role in the movie. After she’s established as Finn’s superior officer, she returns basically to be part of a joke, as Han Solo, Chewbacca, and Finn capture her and…maybe?…shove her down a garbage chute. We don’t learn a lot about her character, but it’s clear that she’s loyal to the First Order and was fed up with Finn’s inability to shoot civilians on Jakku. Phasma is a big, scary den mother, but she doesn’t actually get to really demonstrate this.
Christie compared Phasma to Boba Fett, and after the release of the film it became more and more apparent that she was right. Like Fett, Phasma has a fan following but only a few minutes of screen time and an ignoble exit. The more I think about and watch the movie, the more I think she is poised to take her place as a character who lived longer in fans’ hearts than they did on screen. With her buzzing, filtered voice and imposing presence, Phasma was a colorful character. We know she will be returning in Episode VIII, and I hope that she has more to do, even if it is just establishing how exactly she feels about the immature, sorcerous Kyo Ren or fanatic disciplinarian General Hux.
At best, she’ll have her own set piece fight, and maybe her own special weapon. I’d root for Phasma with a jet pack.
Lupita Nyong’o plays Maz Kanata, a pirate and keeper of Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. This is another type of role which we’ve never seen a female character play.
Maz Kanata has her own hive of scum and villainy, a bit classier than Jabba the Hutt’s, but she also has a sagacious angle to her criminal life. She has the ability to read people and can identify their connections to one another through their eyes. Gangster or mentor? Maz Kanata is a bit of both. Nyong’o brings a warm, commanding voice to the little alien.
She was originally intended to have more scenes in the film. One from an early trailer, in which she gives Leia Luke’s lightsaber, was cut, as was the entire idea of Maz going to the Resistance base. The scenes were removed because, as Abrams said in an interview, Maz would simply have had nothing to do in the later scenes, and I don’t necessarily think that was a good reason to keep her out. Even showing her once would have answered the question of where she went after her castle was destroyed.
As presented, Maz is delightfully quirky, and I think that Abrams and Kasdan did her character justice. Yoda, after all, never went back with Luke to the Rebellion. However, it would be nice to see more of Maz in a mentor role going forward. It would be a disservice to have her simply shuffled off the stage, especially if she still has things to teach Rey about the Force. Early drafts had her using the Force to lift rocks in the collapsing castle, but even if she can’t use the Force actively, she’s clearly in touch with something spiritual, even if that thing is just a philosophy of her own making.
Like Phasma, Maz Kanata’s role seems independent of her gender, and that, I think, will be its ultimate success. The plot treats her as a character first, regardless of gender, with her own oddities.
Star Wars has always had sweeping, universal stories of good and evil. The Force Awakens had the chance to make even more female characters the core of those stories. While Leia, Phasma, and Maz had smaller roles than I expected, Rey is unequivocably the hero of this story. When she took Luke’s lightsaber in hand, I knew that the movie had done exactly what I wanted it to do—made a woman its hero.
Megan Crouse is a staff writer.