My daughters, who are 10 and 12, have never been that into the Star Wars franchise. Princess Leia and her braided buns — and Padme Amidala with her ceremonial headdresses — didn’t interest them, even when their brother was busy snapping together the LEGO Millennium Falcon. But after I saw the The Force Awakens, I insisted that all three of them come with me to see it again because of one character: Rey.
Played by newcomer Daisy Ridley — a 23-year old British actress who vaguely resembles Keira Knightley circa Bend it Like Beckham — Rey is many things: a survivor, a scavenger, an isolated figure looking for community, a pilot, a mechanic, a warrior… and a girl. But her femininity isn’t a weakness. It isn’t a strength, either. In fact, it isn’t a thing. That is not only remarkable, it’s what makes Rey the most revolutionary thing about Star Wars: The Force Awakens and hopefully the thing that translates best as this phenomenon travels the globe.
When we first meet Rey, we are introduced to her loneliness, her resourcefulness, her patience. We also immediately discover her goodness, especially when — MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD — she refuses to give up BB-8 for a mountain of food rations that will keep her from starving. Yet it isn’t until she meets Finn (John Boyega) where we get to relish watching her defy gender stereotypes. Within minutes of screen time, she disarms Finn with her spear, hides them both from stormtroopers, rescues him — no more hand-holding! — and flies the Millennium Falcon. Just like that, Finn is forced to abandon those quaint, traditional gender-role ideas that were programmed into him since birth by the dictatorial First Order. (If only Earth could adapt as quickly.)
She proves to be as smart and as daring as Han Solo, though with a layer of deep sadness that he never possessed (until this episode, that is). But it’s Kylo Ren who discovers how powerful she is, that she is his superior both mentally and physically, and it scares him. (She’s also much less prone to fits of rage, which has its benefits.) In Ren’s last-ditch effort to lure her over to the dark side we feel his desperation at being outmatched. Their final battle, in the snow, is all about good and evil. It’s never about physical strength, and it’s never about gender. Did anyone in the audience doubt for a second that she could defeat him? That she wasn’t capable? Now that’s radical, and my girls felt it immediately.
“A girl Jedi!’ my 10-year old wispered to me. “Finally!”
My 12-year old was far more interested in analyzing Rey’s look. Her beige tunic, relaxed pants, and muslin wraps around her arm — all perfectly practical for the life of a desert dweller — are destined to become iconic. Girls have been dressing up as Princess Leia for 40 years in an attempt to emulate the sole female Star Wars character that mattered, but Rey’s appearance helps compensate for the hair buns (whoever had locks long enough to pull that one off?), the white gown, and that awful copper bikini. Her outfit doesn’t sexualize her, and her hair — already nicknamed the Three Knobs — is simple, realistic and messy. “All the girls are going to want their hair to look like hers,” my daughter said. Fine by me. Unlike the Girl on Fire, Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen, it doesn’t require an entire glam squad — or the fear of impending death — to achieve it.
Leaving the theater, my girls felt as empowered as their brother usually does after seeing one of the many blockbusters built for him. They never commented on how pretty Rey is. They never had to flinch because Rey was a sexual object to some man in power. They just felt strong. Equal. I can only imagine how the film will feel to girls in parts of the world where women are not allowed control over their own bodies or hearts or minds. Imagine a generation of both sexes, growing up believing that girls are powerful. Imagine the force of a billion girls realizing that, one day, they can rule the galaxy.