Grwing up in the ‘90s and early 2000s, before the advent of smartphones, my childhood friends and I played an awful lot of pretend. Every Sunday after church, the auditorium transformed into a backdrop for our favorite charades — “Peter Pan,” “Indiana Jones,” and, on occasion, “Star Wars.” Of course, each of these games eventually hinged on the token girl being captured by pirates or Sith Lords, and the rest of the group — the heroes — coming to the rescue. Ever slow on the draw, I lost many games of nose-goes over the years, winning the role of “captive girl” on a fairly consistent basis. I have vivid memories of lying underneath the church pew we’d designated as the prison, waiting behind an imaginary armed guard for my Jedi friends to save me.
It wasn’t necessarily that we believed girls couldn’t be heroes — we were just modeling what we’d seen. Women in movies got in trouble; men swooped in to save the day. Apparently, that’s what made a good story. But in “The Force Awakens,” the long-awaited return of the Star Wars franchise, director J.J. Abrams defies that cliche. He offers the little girls of the world Rey, a scavenger with a mechanical mind, a loving heart and a strong sensitivity to the Force. Like the girls who will look up to her, Rey “knows all about waiting” — for her family to return to her desert planet and save her from the oppressive monotony of her life. But as her character develops, she learns to stop waiting.
Some critics complain that “The Force Awakens” is, at its core, nothing more than an elaborate remake of “A New Hope”— and it may be a fair criticism. Comparing the two films beat-for-beat, it’s hard to ignore that they follow the same outline. However, this similarity makes the points at which J.J. Abrams’ take deviates from the original that much more striking. Here’s my favorite example:
In “A New Hope,” once Luke Skywalker and Han Solo have infiltrated Vader’s Death Star and disabled the shields, weakening the battle station for the coming attack, they move on to their ultimate task: the rescue of Princess Leia. And they do rescue her — they find her lounging in her cell, asking a little flirtatiously whether Luke is too short for a stormtrooper. Leia goes on to brandish a blaster and hold her own, but the narrative doesn’t allow her to save herself. Until help arrives, she’s forced to wait.
“The Force Awakens” gives us a parallel scene. Han and ex-stormtrooper Finn invade Starkiller Base and disable its shields before turning their attention to Rey — their Leia, the girl they’ve come to save. But before they can even begin their search, they’re shocked to find her wandering the corridors of the base, having already mind-tricked her way out of her captors’ restraints. In the new galaxy, girls don’t have to wait for men to rescue them. This narrative establishes Rey as her own hero.
I’m excited about Rey’s impact on our expectations of female protagonists, about her beautiful combination of genuine strength and deep sensitivity. I’m excited that the highest-grossing film of all time champions a young woman as its hero. But more than anything, I’m excited for that little girl laying under a church pew somewhere, the girl who’s been captured by imaginary Sith Lords. These days, I don’t think she’ll wait for her Jedi friends to show up — she’ll know she’s more than capable of saving herself.