Seeing The Force Awakens was incredibly exciting, even for someone with minimal knowledge of the franchise. Not only does this marketing behemoth signal the beginning of a brand new trilogy, it features two lead characters unlike those previously seen in other Star Wars films or, some might argue, ANY blockbusters in recent memory. One of them is John Boyega: a young, black, British actor who plays an endlessly charming ex-storm trooper nicknamed Finn (with a super impressive American dialect to boot.) But the other breakout star, whom you’ve probably heard a lot about, is Daisy Ridley.
Ridley plays Rey: a young woman living off scraps earned as a junker on the desert planet Jakku. When we meet Rey, she’s been waiting at least a decade for a family who left her there under mysterious circumstances. She’s resourceful, emotionally guarded and utterly alone. Ridley’s performance is restrained which, one can assume, was intentional. Another Brit, but unlike Boyega, she is in full command of her native dialect which only adds to that keep-calm-and-carry-on English sensibility. She’s actually quite reminiscent of Keira Knightley as Elizabeth Swann in the Pirates of the Caribbean films (similar in feel to Star Wars, if a tad less epic.)
Though Rey sheds a few tears throughout the film, she is essentially pure strength. While Finn’s boyish cockiness gets him into trouble, Rey is coolly confident and sure about her abilities to do…well, pretty much anything. In a particularly obvious “strong woman” moment, she refuses Finn’s hand as they escape the Resistance on foot. Which makes sense, since running hand-in-hand seems more awkward than helpful. Many are hailing both Rey and Ridley for ushering in a new, more feminist age of lead characters. You may have seen cries of “Finally! A female character little girls can look up to,” splashed across your facebook timelines. But the topic requires a bit more unpacking than that.
The term “strong woman” is almost synonymous with modern discussions of feminism, which makes sense from a historical perspective. For a very long time, in almost every culture, women have been openly labeled as physically and psychologically weaker than men. The reasons for this run the gamut but, essentially, this stereotype perpetuated long after science (or just, you know, critical thinking) were capable of disproving it because allowing women to work outside the home was a scary idea. Surely the economy and, indeed, the universe would collapse if men ever took care of children and women earned money, right?
Wrong, obviously. Women in the West, with the help of a “strong woman” narrative, eventually pushed their way into every arena of human life and experience.. But initially, the only way to do that was to adopt conventionally masculine attributes. Amelia Earhart famously cut her hair and began wearing pants and leather jackets to be taken more seriously as a pilot. The examples are infinite. It seemed that women had to ‘borrow’ fortitude from the boys to get anything done.
Daisy Ridley’s performance is certainly an achievement, but Rey suffers the same misfortune that many male movie heroes do: lack of vulnerability. A character who constantly needs help from her romantic interest is boring, but so is one who seems almost unshakeable and unimpressed with the world around her. Every good actor has been told time and time again to be more vulnerable; that’s what audiences pay money to see. It’s cathartic to watch another human being feel all the things you are too scared or too sheltered to feel for yourself.
Hopefully, Rey gets to explore a wider range of emotions in the next few films. But the issue is bigger than her and bigger than Star Wars (if such a thing is possible!) It’s high time that we as a society put our preconceived notions about gender aside. Strength and sensitivity are two sides of the same coin, inherent and necessary in all things. Of course Rey can serve as an inspiration for little girls. She can be that for little boys and transgendered children too. So can Disney princesses or pop stars or firefighters or moms or dads. Trust: children – and adults – will find a way to be inspired, whatever that means to them. It’s not our job to police that inspiration but rather to celebrate and support it in whatever form it takes.