Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review – Feminist Frequency

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review

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Anita Sarkeesian

Executive Director and Buffy the Vampire Slayer Enthusiast

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Back in May of 1980, Darth Vader revealed a shocking secret and left moviegoers to ponder its implications for three long years: He was Luke Skywalker’s father. The truth is that I have a deep, dark secret of my own: I’m not a Star Wars fan. Not having grown up with them, I first watched the original three movies sometime in my early twenties, then again a few years later. Both times I had the same reaction: They were fine. Clearly, they were an important part of cinematic history. But I wasn’t converted to Star Wars fandom the way millions of other viewers had been. So during Christmas, when a friend asked me if I wanted to go see it, I agreed, but was skeptical that I would enjoy myself. Much to my surprise, I did. It’s a fun movie and, unlike the tedious and lifeless prequels, it’s a solid Star Wars film, a spirited and exciting sci-fi adventure.

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Back in May of 1980, Darth Vader revealed a shocking secret and left moviegoers to ponder its implications for three long years: He was Luke Skywalker’s father. The truth is that I have a deep, dark secret of my own: I’m not a Star Wars fan. Not having grown up with them, I first watched the original three movies sometime in my early twenties, then again a few years later. Both times I had the same reaction: They were fine. Clearly, they were an important part of cinematic history. But I wasn’t converted to Star Wars fandom the way millions of other viewers had been. So during Christmas, when a friend asked me if I wanted to go see it, I agreed, but was skeptical that I would enjoy myself. Much to my surprise, I did. It’s a fun movie and, unlike the tedious and lifeless prequels, it’s a solid Star Wars film, a spirited and exciting sci-fi adventure.

By far what I found most appealing about The Force Awakens, one of the most anticipated films of the decade in one of the most universally beloved film franchises of all time, is that its two main characters are a white woman and a black man. This is meaningful not only because it moves Star Wars into a space that better reflects its audience, but because the franchise is huge enough to influence the larger filmic landscape, and potentially nudge Hollywood toward consistently telling more inclusive stories. I also appreciated that women were widely present in this film as military commanders, tavern owners, and fighter pilots. (Female pilots were actually filmed for the climactic space battle in Return of the Jedi, but sadly they were cut from the final film.)

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Rey, the young woman at the center of The Force Awakens, is immediately compelling. She isn’t stoic or emotionless or hardened by violence, and her humanity keeps her from being another example of the tired “strong female character” type we’ve seen too much of these past few decades. She’s resilient and has learned to fend for herself, but she isn’t a loner. She’s competent and capable but also recognizes that she has so much to learn, and she welcomes friendship and support on her adventure. The Force Awakens seems to establish that this trilogy will focus on Rey’s journey in much the same way that the original trilogy focused on Luke’s. From King Arthur to Luke Skywalker, we’ve been taught to associate the traditional hero’s journey with male figures; for a franchise as massive as Star Wars to demonstrate that it doesn’t always have to be this way is hugely significant.

And because Rey is such a winning hero, as the film progressed from one explosion to another and from one massacre to another, I just went with it. Star Wars has previously relegated tremendous slaughter and suffering to the background; in the original film, the entire planet of Alderaan is obliterated but little heed is paid to the incomprehensible loss. In The Force Awakens, too, genocide on an unspeakable scale is just a bump in the road for the only people who really matter–Rey, Finn, and their ragtag bunch of Republic pals. The movies don’t give the audience time to process the actual scale of the war, the actual loss of life, the actual morality or lack thereof on either side of the conflict, and that’s how they keep us enthralled. As one critic points out in this brutally accurate piece, “everything that puts you in the moment, when you’re watching it, falls apart as soon as you turn your brain back on.” However, my job is to always think about these things.

I don’t watch or play anything without thinking about and analyzing the content. And I’m okay with that. Thinking and critiquing and analyzing is what gives us better stories, so as enjoyable as the film was, it’s still just so Star Wars. The relationships were held together by wiring that’s as flimsy as the inner workings of the Millennium Falcon. Rey and Finn care deeply about each other almost immediately? Rey thinks of Han as a father figure after spending a few minutes flying the Falcon together? The film wasn’t the least bit concerned with actually developing its relationships, but rather expected us to fill in the gaping holes. But the portrayal of interpersonal relationships and character development is where film excels. It’s through witnessing connections form, deepen, become strained and renewed that a film can open itself up to us as viewers and let us relate to the incredible, emotional, human experiences the characters are having on their journeys.

Star Wars - Kylo Ren

Along with flimsily established relationships, The Force Awakens also faithfully duplicates another aspect of the earlier films, and it’s the main reason why I will probably never be a huge Star Wars fan: The binary nature of its depiction of good and evil is really reductive. The Rebellion vs. the Empire in the original trilogy, the Republic vs. the First Order in The Force Awakens–it’s all so simplistic that it inevitably becomes a very regressive, deeply conservative narrative.

In Star Wars, people have fates for which they are destined. With a few notable exceptions, good people are inherently good and evil people are inherently evil. When a person does change sides, it occurs completely, without any complexity or ambiguity. History seems destined to repeat itself in this galaxy far, far away: There will always be a Rebellion or a Republic fighting for freedom, and every crushed Empire will be replaced by a new First Order. Narratives like this work to reinforce the mythology that good and evil are clear absolutes that are in constant struggle, and in such a universe, lasting, systemic change is not possible.

Star Wars Group Poster

The Force Awakens had opportunities to subvert, complicate, or at least play with this good vs. evil binary, but didn’t seize on them. I was intrigued by Finn’s resistance to his lifelong conditioning, and his obvious horror at acts of violence and torture. But it took all of a few moments until he was more then fine killing “the bad guys,” even though he had just been one of them. Weren’t they raised from childhood to be cogs in a military machine just like him? Don’t they have the same potential for good that he does? Are their lives so expendable? I was reminded of the cult favourite sci-fi show Farscape and the long process that Aeryn Sun went through to emotionally heal from her from military indoctrination and understand the horror of what she was trained to become. Of course, storytelling in cinema has to be more economical than on television, but The Force Awakens acts as if these moral concerns don’t even exist.

As I’ve said about a trillion times, we can love media and be critical of it at the same time, and I think this film is a grand test of this very mantra. As I watched the film, I was thinking about how fun it would be to cosplay as Rey with my own BB-8 rolling around by my side. But once the ride is over and I’m left to contemplate the substance of what The Force Awakens offers, it all falls apart. Rey’s journey isn’t over yet, though, and there’s opportunity for the next two films to develop the characters in more substantial ways and to complicate the simplistic lens through which the series has always framed notions of good and evil. If they do that, I just might become a Star Wars fan, after all.

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