This piece does not contain spoilers for “The Last Jedi.”
The latest movie in the Star Wars universe opens this week with a woman in the starring role.
This is huge.
With Daisy Ridley’s charming portrayal as the swashbuckling Rey in “The Last Jedi,” female fans get to be the hero. For generations, women have been expected to empathize with characters who don’t look like them.
It’s a cultural shift that goes beyond “Star Wars.” Earlier this year, Patty Jenkins’s “Wonder Woman” was a box office smash, pulling in $821 million. It sends a message: Women like to see themselves in movies, too. It challenges the myth that women intrinsically dislike sci-fi or superhero movies. It’s that filmmakers never tried to connect to us.
While Princess Leia is undoubtedly a deity in Star Wars fandom, the original movies were ultimately Luke Skywalker’s journey. It’s Luke who fulfills his destiny, not his twin sister. “The Force Awakens” is evidence to Hollywood that the “hero’s journey” can be gender neutral (and that it can make a lot of money).
In film, the “hero’s journey” is frequently depicted as a male experience. You know the archetype when you see it. The hero gets a call to action to go on a grand quest, they refuse it initially but eventually rise to the occasion with the help of a wise mentor. George Lucas has said over the years that he used this framework to structure his films. Along with Luke Skywalker, other reluctant heroes include Frodo Baggins, Harry Potter and countless others. Rey is proof to Hollywood executives that the “hero’s journey” formula draws massive commercial appeal regardless of gender, and a woman can carry a major (and established) franchise.
Hollywood’s shift from focusing on yet another man’s experience to a woman in a leading role of hero is a hard pill for some men to swallow.
While “The Force Awakens” netted positive reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, Rey’s character was not without criticism from some fans, primarily because she is too good (how dare she). We watch Rey fly starships, use the force, and repair the Millennium Falcon. Rey’s undoubtedly talented at many things, which has some fans dismissing her as a “Mary Sue,” fandom’s terminology for a character in fiction who is unrealistically perfect.
In the grand sexist tradition of female characters being under greater scrutiny than male characters, some fans think it’s suspicious for Rey to be so capable. Ridley rightly pointed out in an interview with MTV that Luke is depicted as similarly competent and doesn’t get scrutinized the same way.
“The Mary Sue thing in itself is sexist because it’s the name of a woman,” Ridley said. “Everyone was saying that Luke had the exact same [capabilities].”
Rey certainly echoes Luke Skywalker. “The Force Awakens” sets her off on her hero’s journey. After initially refusing the call to action, Rey answers the call. By the end of “The Force Awakens,” she has channeled the force more than once and literally picks up Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber. If the trailers for “The Last Jedi” are any indication, the next movie will see her fulfill the next step of the hero’s journey: meeting her mentor and continuing on her quest.
While it may be difficult for some men to see women taking on the role of hero, they will have to deal with it like women have always been expected to do.