In an early scene in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Han Solo and his newest protégé, Rey, prepare to fight a collection of Storm Troopers. Han hands her a blaster. “You might need this,” he says. Rey shoots him an are-you-kidding-me look. “I think I can handle myself,” she says. Han shoots back: “That’s why I’m giving it to you.”
Aaaaaand there it is. With that brief exchange, the big questions about the new Star Wars and women—would there, uh, be any? Would the film find a way to update Leia’s (in)famous bikini? Would the franchise, under J.J. Abrams, give audiences a female character they can finally feel un-weird about liking?—got its answer. Rey, the tantalizingly de-surnamed woman played by the Hollywood newcomer Daisy Ridley, may have been dubbed “Star Wars’s first female protagonist,” but that isn’t strictly correct: The franchise has had its Leias and its Padmes. What Rey is, however, is Star Wars’s first feminist protagonist. No distressing damsel, she’s instead a fighter and a survivor and a nurturer and an all-around badass. She may fit the trope-happy cliches of Hollywood lady-ry—the “empowered woman,” the Strong Female Lead—but she’s also something both simpler and more meaningful: a fully realized character. Rey is a woman who refuses to be defined as one.
(Some discussion of minor plot points follow.) When audiences first meet Rey, she’s living on Jakku, a desert (and mostly deserted) planet. She’s a scavenger—she trades scrap metal for rehydratable bread—and a pilot. She is clothed (and remains clothed for almost all of The Force Awakens) in typical apocalypse chic: pants and a tunic made of sun-bleached fabric, bands that extend the length of her arms, thick-soled boots, a leather belt looped several times around her waist. She is, all in all, vaguely feral. (In an early scene, she eats some of her barter-bread in a way that makes clear she’s been on her own for a very long time.)
And then: Through dumb luck (or, this being Star Wars, maybe something more), Rey encounters a droid, BB-8, who holds the secrets to the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker. And then, via BB-8, she encounters Finn, a former Storm Trooper who (through desperation and dumb luck) has escaped conscription to the First Order. They end up, with Han Solo (more dumb luck!), teaming up with the Resistance. Which is also to say: They all end up fighting a lot of baddies.
And Rey proves herself to be, in extremely short order, extremely adept as a fighter. She is brave. She is smart. She is resourceful. She is a pilot of Soloian skill. She has a ninja-like command of a bow staff.
The plot of The Force Awakens, in fact, revolves around—relies on—Rey’s martial abilities. It also gently mocks the characters who would doubt those abilities. Finn, in particular, repeatedly attempts to inject chivalry into situations where chivalry is drastically out of place. During a fight the pair has against the First Order troopers, he runs over to Rey in an attempt to rescue her—only to realize that her attackers have already been neatly dispatched with. When Finn grabs her hand as they flee, she snaps, “I know how to run without you holding my hand.” (A few moments later: “Stop taking my hand!”) When Finn asks her, after another battle with intergalactic baddies, “Are you okay?” she shoots him a why-wouldn’t-I-be look. She replies, simply, “Yeah.”
They’re good jokes, but also loaded ones. Rey, after all, has been surviving all this time not just without her family—they left Jakku years ago, and she’s waiting for them to return—but also without, for the most part, a society. And extreme self-sufficiency has a way of putting social conventions into relief. The broader joke embedded in all these small ones is that all the stuff that makes for chivalry (and inequalities, and patriarchy, and if you stretch things only a teeny bit, maybe even gender itself) is itself extremely contingent. It would never occur to Rey that she would be in need of chivalry’s attentions. She has neither the luxury nor the burden of being a damsel in distress; she’s too busy surviving. She fights alongside men and women and droids, superficial matters of identity—clothing, appearance, even gender—all subsumed under bigger questions that come down to, basically: “Can you fight?”
Her styling, too, reflects all that. Rey, whose name evokes suns and kings and friendship, wears no (visible) makeup. She keeps her hair slicked back. Everything about her appearance, besides the stuff she can’t help, is designed to accomplish one thing, and one thing only: survival. Rey is beautiful (this is Hollywood; there is at this point no other choice for a blockbuster heroine), but her beauty is presented as merely incidental. It is, in the Star Wars universe, very much beside the point.
And that, in its way, is the point! Star Wars heroines will always, on some level, reflect the feminism of their times (though, granted, the sample set here is pretty much three). Leia, clad alternately in a flowing muumuu and a metal bikini, reflected the social upheavals of the women’s movement. She fought and she fawned. Padme, clad in thick robes and a mid-riff bearing white shirt, did pretty much the same thing. She embodied an era that wasn’t quite sure whether feminism and femininity could peacefully co-exist.
Previous Star Wars films went out of their way to empower their ladycharacters, to make them strong and self-sufficient and generally badass. They, like Rey, know their way around a blaster. And yet: They are also damsely! And pretty awkwardly needy! They operate at extremes, vacillating between strength and helplessness, between objectification and empowerment. They spend very little time in the middle. It’s no accident that one of the lines that’s endured from the original trilogy is Leia’s “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You’re my only hope.” It’s also no accident that Padme, a queen and a senator, has been dubbed one of “Hollywood’s Five Saddest Attempts at Feminism.”
Rey, however, is a character for a time that is coming to a new peace with feminism. A time that is replacing feminism-as-a-movement with feminism-as-a-way-of-life. Rey’s feminism does not protest too much. It is not insistent; it is not obvious. It is, instead, that most powerful of things: simply there. Rey, tellingly, is not an archetype, but rather a fully realized character, subtle and nuanced and human. She, as a character, luxuriates in her own subjectivity.
Look, again, at that costume. It’s a testament to hardship and practicality—the kind of thing Katniss Everdeen and Imperator Furiosa and probably also Jessica Jones would wear, were they to find themselves trying to make a go of survival on Jakku—and yet it also has little nods to femininity. The belt, emphasizing Rey’s waist. The tunic, crossed over she shoulders, recalling Greek goddessery.
And! It’s a costume, of course, that is extremely similar to one Luke Skywalker’s.
At one point in The Force Awakens, in full fan-service dudgeon, Han mentions the Force: “a magical power holding together Good and Evil, the darkness and the light.” You could say something similar about the feminism of 2015: It gets much of its power from tension, from opposing ideas that feed off each other, productively. It embraces the notion that genders can be different, but still equal. That women can be empowered, and yet subject to forces beyond their control. The Force Awakens’s treatment of its Strong Female Lead reflects that nuance. Rey is beautiful, but that isn’t fully the point. She is strong and skilled—but that, too, isn’t the point. She is a good person: That, ultimately, is the point. “I hope Rey will be something of a girl power figure,” Ridley has said of her character. She added: “She’s brave and she’s vulnerable and she’s so nuanced ... She doesn’t have to be one thing to embody a woman in a film. It just so happens she’s a woman, but she transcends gender. She’s going to speak to men and women.”