[Spoilers] The Force Awakens suggests that Hollywood is gradually learning that women can be heroes too.
In the run up to the release of the Force Awakens, a video popped up of all the lines from the original Star Wars trilogy spoken by women other than Princess Leia. It lasts barely a minute. The tendency of genre cinema to sideline women is not exactly unique to Star Wars. If you look at the top ten highest grossing films of the year at the US box office from the turn of the millennium onwards it is not until 2012, that a non-comedy with a female lead was among was them. In that year three films made it including the Hunger Games. Its sequel would go on to be 2013’s top grosser. The last time a female lead film managed that was the Exorcist in 1973.
Fortunately, 2012 does not look like an anomaly. The trend has been moving in the right direction for a while now. Star Wars itself was one of the first signs of this. The frankly rather weird golden bikini scene in Return of the Jedi not withstand, Princess Leia was much tougher and more resourceful than the average female sci-fi character. She was allowed to, for example, take charge of her own rescue from the Death Star. She forms one of sci-fi’s triumvirate of iconic strong female characters: the others being Ripley and Sarah Connor. They were important characters not just in on and of themselves but as reference points for future writers looking to create tough female characters – indeed Riply and Alien probably only got made because of the post-Star Wars sci-fi boom. But these three characters were only a first step. They were still tiny minorities in their films cast. And only Ripley was a protagonist; Leia and Sarah Connor still fitted into the traditional love interest/damsel in distress role albeit in a decidedly non-traditional way.
More recently this trend seems to have accelerated dramatically. Women have moved from being supporting to lead characters. They save the day and may be helped or hindered in that mission by male supporting characters. The Hunger Games is probably the most prominent example of this but it extends to its imitators and now even into superhero films a domain in which there’s previously been great resistance to female leads. Ripley no longer seems so singular.
And fittingly the franchise that gave us Princess Leia has now joined that trend. When the Force Awakens begins it doesn’t seem that way. It first looks like Oscar Isaac’s dashing fighter pilot will be the hero. Then it appears to be Finn – the renegade stormtrooper played by John Boyega. But then Rey and Finn meet for the first time and it becomes clear that Abrams and Lucasfilm are doing something else.
Obviously the fact that such a massive franchise has as its two leads a woman and a person of colour is encouraging.* But what caught my attention was the film having a joke at Finn’s expense for mansplaining. He initially spots Rey as she is struggling with two thugs trying to steal BB8 and he rushes over to help. But before he gets there she’s already put her opponents on the floor. Then when stormtroopers show up and start blasting, he grabs her hand to dash away. This leads her to object that she “knows how to run” and it becomes apparent that his holding onto her is actually slowing them down. Then when Tie Fighters start attacking them from the air, she then has to lead him to the ship that will take them to safety!
I liked this scene because of its subtlety. Of late there’s been a lot of talk of ‘Everyday Sexism’. This seemed like an example of Everyday Equality. It wasn’t showy, preachy or given much weight but it nonetheless still made a point about the daftness of a man assuming a woman isn’t as capable as you are. And where better to place that than in a film with a disproportionate appeal to boys!
As the films progresses, it becomes an apparent that Rey is the hero and Finn is the love interest. She defeats Kylo Renn not him and in the final scene she’s the one who goes off to become a Jedi. But apart from the scene I describe above her being the hero and a woman is not really stressed. The film doesn’t high-five itself for having a female lead. It’s treated as normal – as someday it hopefully will be.
Indeed, I would suggest that Rey is excellently placed to be a role model for young fans. In contrast to the heroine of the original trilogy she’s not a princess but a very ordinary person – a scrap metal scavenger in fact – which should make her more relatable. I also imagine that she will ultimately be more impactful in this regard than the Hunger Games’ Katniss Everdeen. That’s partly a function of the fact that Star Wars reaches children whereas the darker Hunger Games is not called ‘young adult’ for nothing. And Katniss is sometimes a difficult character to like – which is both intentional and a valid depiction of someone dealing with trauma. But nonetheless more people are probably are going to wind up dressing up as the more consistently appealing Rey.
My sense is that we’ve now probably reached a tipping point with female heroes. The Hunger Games has demonstrated beyond doubt that have a women in a lead role is not going to scare away audiences. Indeed, surprise surprise if casting choices don’t send women and girls subliminal messages that genre films aren’t for them, then they will start watching them and thereby grow the studio’s revenues. An observation that’s going to become all the more obvious if, as seems quite possible, the Force Awakens goes on to become the highest grossing movie of all time.
I suspect that therefore the battles for feminists going forward will be on slightly different terrain. Firstly, there’s the question of what kind of female heroes Hollywood gives. Katniss and Rey are encouraging examples. But there are more concerning ones. In particular, the year’s other super huge hit at the US box office, Jurassic World took its heroine on an appropriately prehistoric journey. Through confrontations with dinosaurs, children and Chris Pratt’s macho man she discovers that despite her successful career she was a failure as a woman on account of her lack of procreation. Given that the audience probably didn’t notice she was the lead and that the Pratt centric marketing campaign did nothing to point it out to them, this example probably won’t way too heavily on producer’s minds. But nonetheless it is something to be vigilant for.
The next big step will I suspect be to start casting women in a wider and less clichéd selection of supporting roles. There are signs of this in the Force Awakens. We see a woman playing a menacing commander of the First Order and another mo caps the wizened voice of history. And of Carrie Fisher is now playing not Princess but General Leia. Nonetheless, when it comes to roles like villains, soldiers, mentors, thugs etc choosing men still seems to be the reflexive choice of casting directors. As long as that continues we will see many great female characters submerged in otherwise heavily male casts.
Nonetheless, the Force Awakens is clearly a step forward. It creates space for women both in its lead role and in supporting ones beyond those that would traditionally be given to women. And it allows those characters to be proper characters rather than stand-ins for their gender. I therefore think it is not only a good film but a film that will hopefully do good as well.
Note: At the risk of stating the obvious, I’m a man writing about the depiction of women. I don’t think that’s something men shouldn’t do – clearly because if I did I wouldn’t have – but it does mean that even more than usual this post is subject to someone coming along with a better arguments.
*If we count Oscar Isaacs – who’s Hispanic – as the third lead then even more encouragingly it’s a woman and two people of colour.