Star Wars’ “The Force Awakens” Female Heroine

Jane and Kimberly revisit Star Wars, a forever love of Kimberly’s and a discovery of a female heroine for Jane, to ask, “Just what is awakening in The Force Awakens?”

(Summary without spoilers)  Star Wars: The Force Awakens turns an ordinary girl into a female hero desperately needed to face a new threat of evil thirty years after the defeat of Darth Vader and the Empire. Rey, a lowly scavenger eking out bare survival by trading old wreckage parts for food on the planet Jakku comes upon BB-8, a Droid dumped off in Jakku. Adorable rolling BB-8 secretly contains a map showing the whereabouts of the long lost Luke Skywalker. Rey, along with a rogue stormtrooper and two smugglers, is thrown into the middle of a battle between the Resistance and the daunting legions of the First Order headed up by the dastardly Kylo Ren. Under siege, they escape Jakku on – you guessed it – Han Solo’s abandoned Millennium Falcon and will, of course, meet up with (an older) Han Solo and (never aging) Chewbacca.  A lot of adventure, special effects and prevailing of good over evil follows.  Rey learns on the run, finding powers she didn’t know she had and gaining connections for a future she never imagined.   

KC:  I’ve loved Star Wars since I’ve been a kid and I’ve watched every episode.  I’m delighted you’ve come over.  Let’s talk about Rey in The Force Awakens

JAS:  Okay.  I still have my reservations about Rey as a new feminine hero because she’s not been created with female writers or director.  Still, Rey did, as character and actress, get the green light from a major woman producer. Of course, I can’t speak to Kathleen Kennedy’s purposes for bringing strong female characters into the new franchise, but I liked what she said about Daisy Ridley, the real woman actress who brings Rey to life, “Actress Daisy Ridley exudes physicality, self-confidence, optimism.”  That’s a start.  As you can imagine, I was looking for what makes the Rey character tick and how she adds something new to a Star Wars decades-old narrative focused on masculinity.  After watching the movie, I came away really liking Rey’s character. The first notable thing about Rey is that she’s a scavenger, abandoned as a child by her parents.  That’s a variation on the male myth of the orphaned hero but with a twist. She’s in charge of her own survival, born to be a gleaner, not an adoptee with a hidden pedigree.  Rey turns leftovers into a meal. There may be something metaphoric there. Her age is a little hard to determine but she’s more like twenty than fourteen. It’s a nice beginning for a hero charged with guarding the missing piece of a puzzle that’s critical to the well being of the world around her. When BB-88, the Droid (with the missing piece), picks her to follow, I naturally agreed with him.  Good idea!  Rey’s got her wits about her.  What about you?  What’s interesting to you about Rey?

KC: Well, here’s the thing.  Even though we meet Rey in the midst of a hard life, I didn’t feel any victim energy from her, ever. You may laugh at this but, for me, she’s a bit like all the girls next door that you knew growing up, that you don’t realize how badass they really are because they are not trying to get attention or be the most popular. They are basic and get overlooked.  But they are often the ones holding a secret inner source of strength. I never got a sense from Rey that she didn’t think things would turn out all right.

JAS: She’s an optimist.  Okay, that’s something to wonder about.  Where does that come from? 

KC: Yes, she certainly has every reason not to be. I feel like The Force Awakens is kind of like the kundalini rising journey, the acceptance and allowance of inner strength to uncoil itself from a dormant power inside.

JAS: Interesting.  A kundalini rising journey.  That feels a little different than the hero’s journey. I haven’t read about characterizations of the force in Star Wars but yours has a life-long quality that goes beyond a ‘coming of age’ interpretation that I like. 

KC: It reminds me of our discussion of the book Circe. Circe had a dormant energy and the minute she found it she realized herself instantly to be a witch. I saw that with Rey, her power was brewing inherently within her already.  

JAS: In the exchanges for food?  In her realization that it was not a good idea to sell the Droid?  Something to wonder about again — where does that intuitive decision making come from? Are her ‘smarts’ waiting to be recognized by some outside decider like Obi-Wan Kenobi or – like in Circe – are they there, within, waiting for discovery?  When the lightsaber jumps into Rey’s hand instead of Kylo Ren’s, what does it mean?   It’s definitely a startling moment for both of them…and us. It evens a playing field we thought was rigged!  But what’s happening?  When the lightsaber leaps into Reys’ hand, is she being chosen by ‘the force’ or she is seen, acknowledged for an awakening happening within her?  Rey being a chosen ‘one’ fits with the Star Wars tradition. But perhaps this is a new recognition and reconnection of inner and outer forces…without regard for gender?  This moment of ‘the force’ bypassing a man for a woman opens fresh questions.  It felt a lot to me like the lightsaber was putting itself in the hands of someone who knew how to use it. 

KC: The meaning of the “force” still allures me. I viewed it as a sort of life “chi” – a spirituality we are all born with, that we all contain within us. Yet how many of us really access that or even learn to harness its power? In Buddhism, there is that saying, when a student is ready, the teacher will appear. I think Star Wars is a grand testament to that idea. It’s all about students who find the force when they are ready to engage it. I don’t think there is anything inherently “different” about Rey, other than her capacity to access what lies dormant in us all.

JAS: But in Star Wars tradition, isn’t the force seen as coming from the wise old man, in this case Luke, who Rey connects with at the end. It is left undetermined what will take place between the two of them, yet we realize the course of her life is now forever changed. She’s been drawn magically to this meeting.  Star Wars, regarded as a myth of masculinity, seems to be bringing in a feminine archetype to an historically male heroic tale. To see girl power coming from Rey as something for men to encounter is new twist for Star Wars.  They may, like Kylo Ren try old methods of fight and compete, but my guess, the encounters will change them.  Princess Leia is an idealized source of inspiration, the muse, but Rey is a woman of action. There’s that early moment in the movie when Han Solo is impressed with her ‘smarts’ when she manages to get his junky spacecraft up and running on her own.  I think she’s going to want more than a job! 

KC: Yeah, the snarky playboy Han is gone, replaced by the new older, less macho Han wanting to lend this girl a hand.

JAS: A notable quality about Rey is her ability to meet each situation as it comes, a very present minded way of being in the world, no doubt cultivated from her past as a scavenger. She learned to make the most of what each new day would bring.  It reminds me of the daughter in Leave No Trace who learned to live off the land and take advantage of opportunities that came her way.  We’re getting a bit of a theme here.  Circe, Rey, Tom…all figuring out how to make the most of what is, not wasting time on what isn’t?

KC: There truly is something important about having access to one’s strength inside, and believing in it.

JAS: We’re beginning to see more stories about women figuring things out. It’s an affirmation of an intrinsic quality of strength in women that’s emerging in films and society. Said a different way, there’s encouragement for a woman to honor her feminine core not only to protect herself but to choose wisely – for herself.  We see this in the film when Rey is able to conjure a shield of safety against Kylo Ren. She protects herself from being invaded against her will and she protects a knowledge she wants to carry to its rightful place. 

KC: There’s also something to say about a person like Rey who has grown up without a lot of external authority to guide her. She meets situations head on because she doesn’t know the “no.” Right, from the minute she meets the droid who holds the “key” she sets out on a mission to not only protect the droid’s passage but also the world, without a second thought. 

JAS: Nice insight.  We are seeing the freedom to say ‘yes’ to values conventionally dismissed as feminine mirrored in society now. There is a huge population of women around the world rediscovering the strength of the divine feminine in the arts and culture. A scavenger with her own ideas of survival may be sneaking into Star Wars.      

KC: It’s always been there though.

JAS: Yet, it’s new.  New to Star Wars for sure and we still don’t have a Star Wars written and directed by women.  The Rey character is still primarily a male projection, not a female character developed by women filmmakers and far from presenting cinematic encounters of mature men and women – although, perhaps, there’s a Droid in the wings with the key.  Remember the young woman in Ex Machina?  After escaping her Bluebeard maker, she’s standing on a street corner figuring out which direction she wants to go in.  Maybe she’ll choose Star Wars!  

KC: At the end of The Force Awakens, the male characters do realize that it is the feminine that came in and helped put their puzzle back together.

JAS: I’ll take it as a beginning. Characters like Rey help lend weight to our theory about a new feminine archetype making its way into the culture at large.

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