Mild spoilers ahead.
In May of 1977, in New York magazine, John Simon reviewed the new George Lucas film, Star Wars. Simon was not a fan. “It is all trite characters and paltry verbiage,” the critic wrote of the much-hyped film, “handled adequately by Harrison Ford as a blockade-running starship pilot, uninspiredly by Mark Hamill as Luke Skywalker (Luke for George Lucas, the author-director; Skywalker for his Icarus complex), and wretchedly by Carrie Fisher, who is not even appealing as Princess Leia Organa (an organic lay).”
An organic lay. It’s a good reminder, by way of a bad joke, of how far American culture has come since 1977—and also of the time that the Star Wars saga has spanned, not just in its own (far)faraway galaxies, but also in the one its viewers share. The original Star Wars was, in its time, progressive; Leia, who was not just a princess but also a rebel and fighter and a leader, was smart and feisty and no-nonsense—a Strong Female Lede for the time before that designation would become a category and a cliché. Leia was also, though, the heroine who squirmed in that (in)famous metal bikini and desperately uttered the line, “Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi, you’re my only hope.” Leia is a great character, undeniably, a model for Katniss and Ripley and Imperator Furiosa; as a feminist one, though, she has been decidedly fraught.
Much less fraught is the heroine of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) has been forged in the comic-book mold of the heroes who have been defined by their separation from their parents, and she is a natural leader who is not at all a princess. She is a soldier, not just by training and circumstance but also by inclination. She is tough, but kind; she is hardened, but human. She is, as Leia—and as, for that matter, the Star Wars denizens Padmé and Rey—have been before her, both a product and a reflection of her times. Jyn is a feminist heroine who is uniquely at home within the feminism of 2016.
First of all, and most obviously: Jyn is the star of this Star Wars story. It is her story, fundamentally: She is the axis around which everything else spins. That’s unique because, while the Star Wars franchise has emphasized and exploited the power of the ensemble, its previous installments have all, in some way, revolved around male-and-female couples: Leia and Luke, Leia and Han, Padmé and Anakin, Rey and Finn. Rogue One has very little of that kind of elemental pairing. There are duos in it, yes—Jyn and her father, Galen Erso (Mads Mikkelsen); Jyn and her one-time caretaker, Saw Gerrera (Forest Whitaker); Jyn and her fellow rebels, Cassian Andor (Diego Luna) and Bodhi Rook (Riz Ahmed)—but none of them define the movie. That is because, simply but powerfully, it is Jyn who defines the movie.
Rogue One also goes out of its way to poke fun at one of the themes that ran through the canonical Star Wars films: the notion of rescuing. “Congratulations, you are being rescued,” the droid K-2SO tells Jyn, as she is thwarted in an escape attempt after being captured early on in the film. “Please do not resist.” It’s one of the few great lines of Rogue One, and it’s great precisely because of its knowingness: Jyn, it has already become clear, is not the kind of heroine who needs rescuing. She, instead, is the kind of heroine who rescues others. She is no damsel; even when things get dire, we do not see her in distress.
We also see Jyn, repeatedly, running and climbing and blaster-shooting and basically doing what she needs to do to complete the mission she and her fellow rebels set out to get done. She does that easily, in part, because her clothes are fit to her purpose. Rogue One reads, among other things, as a rebuke to the costumes of Jyn’s fellow Star Wars women: the vaguely Grecian dresses; the skin-tight white Spandex; the convenient rip in the midriff of the skin-tight white Spandex; the layered robes; the skimpy bikini. These fanciful outfits have been replaced, in Jyn and on her, by an insistently practical uniform: pants that are neither too loose nor too tight, a jacket, clunky combat boots, and a shawl that doubles as a scarf and a head covering. All of them come in drab shades of brown and gray.
It’s a costuming choice that reflects what might be the most progressive element of Rogue One: the fact that the film features almost none of the romantic subplotting that has helped to carry, and add charm to, the canonical Star Wars films. There’s a moment, at the very end of Rogue One, that casts Jyn roughly as a romantic heroine; the brief scene comes almost as a throwaway, though, and ends up scanning more as evidence of shared moral purpose than of attraction or romantic love. Those things, the film suggests, have very little place in this particular Star Wars story. Rogue One, indeed, is an almost asexual movie—not in the oops-the-stars-had-no-chemistry manner of Padmé and Anakin in the Star Wars prequels, but rather in a there-are-more-important-things-to-deal-with-right-now manner of wartime. Rogue One forecloses the possibility of romance; this, too, is progressive. This, too, is suggestive of how far the Star Wars franchise—and how far the rest of us, along with it—have come since the heady spring of 1977.