I grew up with Star Wars. Star Wars and The Empire Strikes Back hit theaters when I was way too young to appreciate them (or even be able to sit still long enough to be taken to a movie), and Return of the Jedi came out when I was just starting school. Digging through those early childhood memories, I don’t remember actually seeing the movies for the first time, they were just always part of my pop culture. What I do distinctly remember was how impressed I was by Princess Leia. Her character permeated my playground games, but since there was only one quality female character in Star Wars and often more than one preschool girl, my friends and I would fight about who got to be Leia. Snagging the role of the strong-willed princess was a coveted position.
This past month, in preparation for the much-hyped The Force Awakens, my 15-year-old daughter and I watched the original trilogy. She was much less impressed with Princess Leia. Leia may be an important figure in the Rebel Alliance, but for the most part, she’s either in need of rescue (from Darth Vadar or Jabba the Hutt) or she's standing at a console directing the X-wing fighters. Leia has some shining moments—like when she figures out how to escape the Death Star's dungeons (never forget the the line “Into the garbage chute, fly boy!”), and when she succeeds in strangling Jabba—but she’s rarely engaged in a one-on-one battle.
Since Star Wars first debuted, Strong Female Characters in teen-friendly action movies have evolved. My daughter came of age watching Katniss Everdeen and Tris Prior in The Hunger Games and Divergent. These young women didn’t stand behind consoles while the men engaged in the action; they jumped into the fray. She saw them taking action in ways that were visible and, for a younger viewer, understandable. None of this behind-the-scenes work for them! For her, Princess Leia seemed to exist as the love interest for Han Solo and Luke Skywalker (at least until Luke realized their family connection). For younger me, Princess Leia was opinionated, mouthy, and didn’t back down—a sharp contrast to the Disney princesses that I had been watching till then. Leia’s arguments with Han were reflective of the gendered power struggles facing women in the 1970s and 1980s (and beyond) who tried to assert leadership. Of course, this wasn’t something I analyzed as a preschooler, but as I look back, I realize I found it fairly normal that a woman would try to assert herself, get blown off by the men around her, and have to argue her point. But for my daughter, coming of age over 30 years later, these arguments seemed simply annoying and unnecessary.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m always going to remember Princess Leia as a badass. After all, she commanded the Rebel Alliance! But watching that first trilogy through a 21st-century lens made me realize just how much more we’ve come to expect of our female characters in action-packed films. If they’re going to command battles, they do so while actively fighting the baddies, not from behind a console. But in that first trilogy, it’s still Luke and Han (or Lando Calrissian) who save the day.
On the opening weekend for The Force Awakens, my daughter and I got up bright and early to see the film. Enter Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, who is one of the two main protagonists of the new film, along with John Boyega's stormtrooper Finn. I was impressed by Rey's toughness—we first meet her as a scavenger on the unforgiving desert planet Jakku, where she survives on her own wits and know-how while hoping for her long-lost family to one day return. But despite the tough-girl exterior, we also see Rey's kind and caring side. When she hears a strange droid's bleeps of distress, she rescues it from a kidnapping and probable dismantling. When two bigger scavengers try to gang up on her and steal the droid in the crowded marketplace, she proves she’s no damsel in distress—wielding a staff, she fights off both of them, eventually knocking them both out. She’s a Girl Who Needs No Saving. When she has to escape, she knows how to pilot a ship, even a model that she’s never flown before. Her knowledge of ships, their mechanics, and their technology matches that of both Han Solo and (presumably, because we never quite know what he’s saying) Chewbacca.
For my daughter, however, Rey fell squarely into what she’s used to seeing on the big screen—the hard-as-nails (white) girl who is also soft, caring, kind, and who saves the day. She’s seen it before in other movies and, for her, it was never a question as to whether Rey would be able to take care of and defend herself (and anyone else who needed it). It's what she expects from her big screen heroines. For my daughter, raised on smart and self-reliant heroines, Rey doesn't seem like that big of a deal. On its own, that's progress.
Maybe in the sequel, we'll find a truly boundary-pushing heroine who will make my daughter sit up and take notice. (And for her mama, maybe we'll find a few boundary-pushing women of color in main roles as well.)