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.)