When we first see her in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, she is covered head-to-toe in desert gear, goggles hiding her face, as she rappels into the vast hollow of an abandoned starship. It’s impossible to tell, just then, if Rey is a man or a woman. It’s reminiscent of Princess Leia’s entrance in Return of the Jedi, when she’s disguised as a bounty hunter to attempt the bold rescue of Han Solo. But unlike Leia, Rey is not shoved into a metal bikini and relegated to the sidelines for the rest of the film. The character played by Daisy Ridley is, indisputably, the hero of The Force Awakens. And while Marvel and D.C. are still years away from placing a woman in a starring role (Wonder Woman is slated for 2017, Captain Marvel for 2019), Star Wars has just delivered the female superhero we’ve wanted all along. [Warning: Force Awakens spoilers]
Rey’s dominance in the new Star Wars story comes as somewhat of a surprise. In teaser trailers and on the poster, Ridley’s co-star John Boyega was the one wielding the lightsaber, while Oscar Isaac stood up to Kylo Ren’s Force-torture and flew an X-wing into battle. Rey, on the other hand, seemed to be more of an observer, seen staring longingly into space, or fearfully into the distance, or crying over an unseen body. At best, it appeared that she might be the movie’s Luke Skywalker, the desert-born ingénue who learns the ways of the Jedi — but who will never be as cool as Han Solo.
Little did audiences suspect that Rey would turn out to be a perfect hybrid of Han and Luke: resourceful, stubborn and fiercely independent, while naïve in the ways of the world and mysteriously strong with the Force. In her early scenes, she rescues the droid BB-8 from being sold for parts and expertly flies ex-Stormtrooper Finn (Boyega) away from danger in the stolen Millennium Falcon. Rey is the character who bonds most closely with Han Solo after she proves her skill at piloting and repairing ships. She also fights the film’s climactic lightsaber battle, long after Finn is down for the count. There is nothing passive about her. Nor does she fall into the typical traps of women in a science fiction or fantasy film: She doesn’t fuel a love story or take off her clothes, and she never functions as a simple cheerleader for the men around her.
This is starting to sound like Rey is one of those characters inserted into storylines to check off the “strong female character” box. Thankfully, this isn’t the case either. Rey is not a generic female action character. She has a sense of humor, an indispensable role in the plot, and a backstory that explains exactly why she’s good at ship mechanics and hand-to-hand combat. Sure, her mastery of supernatural Force skills (including telekinesis and mind control) comes a bit too easily, but Rey makes plenty of mistakes on her journey — and as effective as she is with that lightsaber, her technique is still that of an amateur. Abandoned for years by her family, Rey is both hesitant to trust people and desperate to let them in. Her character is flawed, and better for it.
And here’s why she’s allowed to be a three-dimensional character, while many other genre heroines fall short: Rey is not the only woman in the galaxy. The most radical thing that The Force Awakens has done for female audiences is to establish an onscreen world that has as many women as men (or close to it). There are female villagers, fighter pilots, medics, bar patrons, First Order commanders, and Rebellion officers. Princess Leia is a high-ranking general (the highest-ranking, as far as we know). The wise old man Yoda has been replaced, in spirit, by the wise old woman Maz Kanata (Lupita Nyong’o). The star Stormtrooper is a woman (Gwendoline Christie) — though one hopes that her role will expand in future films. The Rebel base encompasses female soldiers of varying races, ages, and even body sizes.
None of this should be radical, but it is an enormous departure from convention — a convention that was established, in part, by the original Star Wars, with its single major female character (plus two other women who spoke in one scene each, a ratio that actually got worse throughout the trilogy and the subsequent prequels). Leia, for three movies, was the only woman fighting on the front lines. And so it continues now, in the countless blockbusters that give one or two women a voice, while others seem inserted as afterthoughts. Even when those women are superheroes (Black Widow in the Avengers movies, Mystique in the X-Men films, Wonder Woman in the upcoming Batman v Superman), they’re still too often the solo female onscreen. That Rey is the new hero of the Star Wars universe is indeed revolutionary — but the real game changer is that she’s not the only woman along on the journey.
Watch the ‘Force Awakens’ cast demonstrate how to play with their action figures: