This post contains spoilers for The Force Awakens, but frankly, if you’ve not seen it by now, you’re not going to, are you?
Ages ago, I expounded on the topic of Leia Organa as a solid female role model – a rare commodity, as it happens. It was my hope that The Force Awakens would hew more closely to the kick-ass female lead of the original trilogy than the increasingly hapless Padme Amidala. Turns out, the film does more than that.
How do I think the character of Rey holds up? On the whole, really well. She’s (mostly) likeable, (certainly) capable, and a solid part of the ensemble that makes up The Force Awakens. What reservations I have about Rey are nothing to do with her self-sufficiency or her character’s depth, but spring from the fact that she doesn’t really have a struggle to overcome. Yes, she has the whole ‘I can’t leave Jakku’ thing, but that’s set aside so lightly (In fact, does she even set it aside herself? What with the kidnapping, and all), that I’m not sure it counts. Finn, Han and Kylo Ren all have daemons to confront, but Rey? Not so much. I guess you can argue that Leia didn’t have a daemon in Episode IV (although I’d argue that Darth Vader is more her personal adversary in that film than he is anyone else’s), but because Leia is the face of the Rebellion, the destruction of Alderaan and the attack on Yavin 4 feel about her.
However, this is a minor quibble, and less about Rey’s character than where The Force Awakens puts its focus. Or, if you want it tersely: Rey’s great, and I think she’ll only get better. More like her, please. Captain Phasma? Not so great. Actually, not remotely great. I’d go into details as to why, but Aaron Dembski-Bowden’s already covered it off quite nicely, so go read his thoughts instead.
It’s hard to overstate just how important it was that Rey came out this way (and Finn too, for different, but similar reasons). For as long as I can remember, pundits and critics have judged movies by a simple standard: is this the film that will be this generation’s Star Wars? What’s truly awesome (especially after the disappointing prequels) is that this generation’s Star Wars is, in fact, Star Wars. That The Force Awakens also breaks Hollywood tradition by putting a woman in one of the central roles (arguably the central role) is a powerful symbol. And you know what? It’d have all been for nothing if Rey was a token woman (Hi, Tauriel!) in a film full of men.
Earlier this week, I saw someone propose the following notion: if a fictional setting discriminates against women in a way true to its lore, the setting isn’t actually sexist – it’s just behaving in a consistent way. Or, to put it another way, if the society is conceptualised in such a way that the menfolk have to do all the meaningful stuff, and the women hang around off-screen cooking, breeding and wotnot, then it’s not the setting’s fault, it’s just how that society functions, right?
It’s a fascinating idea. Sci-fi and fantasy aren’t always about perfect societies – most of the time, they’re not even about desirable ones. No one pretends Palpatine’s New Order was founded on equality (although that particular Empire was all about non-human bias – or to paraphrase Terry Pratchett, black and white living in perfect harmony and ganging up on green). But then Palpatine was the bad guy. Does it follow therefore that unequal or prejudiced societies can only exist if they’re the bad guys?
Can sexism, racism or any of the other negative ‘isms’ (we can probably let vegetarianism off the hook – swivel-eyed broccoli-munching loons though its adherents are) be justified through a setting’s lore?
Yes and no.
All societies – all real societies, let alone fictional ones – have flaws, prejudices and foibles. It’s not only right and proper that fiction has the same texture, it’s inevitable. On the other hand, it’s all about scale and frequency. If I had a setting in which all the factions were exclusively male-dominated, or functionally male in form and appearance – I’d be asking myself why. Same goes if all the scientists were always shown to be unethical nutcases, or all the religious types were certifiable loons. Or the only skin tone was white, for that matter. I might have background reasons. The conformity might be the driving force behind the narrative… but I’d still want to stop and think about it. A lot.
Fantasy and sci-fi settings don’t spring, full-formed, from some kind of artistic ether. They’re originated, developed and set down by people. In that sense, it really is possible for a setting to be hugely unrepresentative, without that setting being intrinsically bigoted – but were I the setting’s guiding hand, I’d want to have a long, hard look into my soul. I’d want to think about the unconscious prejudices that might be guiding me (hell, I might have to admit to a few conscious ones along the way – we’ve all got ’em, no matter how we might wish otherwise) and whether or not that’s really the bit of me I want to put on display, or to be the legacy I leave behind.
For example, if you’re creating society after society in which women serve only a decorative role (or no role at all), you’re the creator, you’re responsible. If you’re comfortable with that, then I guess that’s okay. It’s not for me to tell you how to live or think, but be honest about it, with yourself and with others. Don’t cite sales of male toys versus female, don’t claim social conspiracy. If it’s your preference, stand by it. If it’s that important to you – if that’s your art – it should be your legacy. Just don’t be shocked if the crowd thins around you. You never know, they might come back. Wait for the wheel.
Go count the women in the original Star Wars trilogy: outside of Leia, I recall Aunt Beru, Mon Mothma, a couple of dancers, a comms operator in Echo Base, a cabaret singer, and a couple of women in the Mos Eisley cantina. Nine women. Of course there’ll be others filling out the odd shot, and probably other ‘named’ characters I’ve forgotten (and ewoks), so let’s take that number and double it to eighteen. Well, at least they now outnumber the pilots making the doomed attack on the Death Star at the end of A New Hope. Speaking of which, notice how women don’t get to fly X-wings until The Force Awakens? Or be Stormtroopers? This last bit is huge. The First Order is evil, the Resistance is good, but women fight on both sides, removing the simplicity of progressive/good, patriarchy/bad. In fact, notice how there are non-white human characters now? Memory serves, the original trilogy had one, and he shopped Han and Leia out to Darth Vader.
Until The Force Awakens, Star Wars was a universe dominated almost exclusively by white men. I don’t for a moment believe it was a deliberate choice – it was just the way things were done then. Hell, it’s still how things are done now, more often than not, but the world has moved on, and Star Wars has moved on too (well, on screen, anyway – the merchandising is famously lagging behind). We can argue as to whether or not it’s come far enough, but it has moved on.
Best of all, the evolutions in the setting aren’t gimmicks. Rey’s the (literal) poster-child for a fundamental shift within the Star Wars setting. And you know what? The Force Awakens is still Star Wars. It’s not diminished in any way. Someone took a good, hard look at the setting and decided to unpick some of its unconscious prejudices and recognised them for what they were: values from an earlier era of our world, not a galaxy far, far away.