In the new Star Wars, the Force is with all of usCreated by the young English woman Mary Shelley with her novel Frankenstein, modern science fiction has never belonged to the exclusive circles of young and mostly American white men so often stereotyped. Still, it has taken decades for women and non-white fans to be taken seriously by the producers and creators of science fiction and fantasy film franchises. Star Wars: The Force Awakens heralds a move towards inclusivity, both because of, and despite, its mythic origins.
George Lucas was greatly influenced by Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces as he wrote the original Star Wars. The latest iteration of the saga, The Force Awakens, which was not written by Lucas, joins the same deep appreciation of the traditional hero’s journey with a willingness to meet the needs and expectations of a modern audience, a formula that led to its huge success. But as the recent and generally disliked Star Wars prequels proved, The Force Awakens was not a guaranteed hit for fans or critics. The stakes went beyond the billions of dollars invested by Disney when they acquired Star Wars and its production company, Lucasfilm. “Jedi,” the ancient spiritual organization that the fictional heroes of Star Wars belong to, has become an accepted religion option on several international census forms. Star Wars fans’ dedication goes far beyond simple entertainment.
To director J.J. Abrams’s credit, The Force Awakens earned great reviews and now, with over $2 billion earned at the box office and the loyalty of legions of fans new and old, there is no denying that the movie represents something special. As the new head of Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy, explained in an interview in the magazine Vanity Fair, it took a “good year” of early development to understand the values and mythology that has made the original Star Wars so important to generations of fans. “People get teary talking about Star Wars. How often do you sit and talk with someone about a movie and they get teary?”
It is the combination of mythic resonance and new ideals that makes The Force Awakens work so well. The main hero of the film is Rey, a scavenger who discovers her Jedi powers throughout the movie. Daisy Ridley, the British actress playing Rey, is joined by British-Nigerian actor John Boyega as ex-Storm Trooper Finn and Guatemalan-American actor Oscar Isaac as the rebel pilot Poe Dameron. The cast choice demonstrated that the heroes would be as diverse and complicated as fans themselves and the new trio were an instant hit, with everyone from little girls to grown men heralding them as essential to the franchise as the original Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, and Princess Leia.
Within The Force Awakens’s heroes and villains we see the dichotomy of old and new so favored by filmmakers. Our hero Rey has lived alone on a desert planet since she was a young girl, with no friends or allies to speak of, paralleling the original Star Wars hero Luke Skywalker. She waits every day for years for her family to return and save her. They never do. But her spirit is not broken: instead, she demonstrates the kindness and generosity she has never been shown, even to those she barely knows. The strength of her heroism lies in her innocence, marking her as far more traditional than the cynical and sometimes cruel heroes we see in many modern films. It is exactly because of her characterization, her inherent innocence, that Rey is the most beloved of the new Star Wars characters. She is a hero of old, brave and true, but given one modern twist: she is a woman.
Her adversary, the villain Kylo Ren, is a tortured young man played by Adam Driver. Kylo Ren grew up with everything Rey did not—a loving family, knowledge of his powers, and a willing teacher—and rejected it all to join the Sith, the evil antithesis to the Jedi. Kylo Ren works with the fascist First Order to complete the genocide of the Jedi started by Darth Vader, the villain defeated in the original trilogy, and is so obsessed that he even dons a mask to parallel his hero. Not only is he willing to murder to fulfill his chosen destiny, but he is also convinced of his own mastery and experience of the Force far beyond his true abilities. Everything innocent and relatable in Rey is absent in Kylo Ren: He is the dark side of experience, a villain so convinced of his righteousness in following another’s evil path that all hint of innocence and individuality is shed by him on purpose.
As we follow the arc of innocence and experience in The Force Awakens, there is a spin to the real-life story not found in the movie: Disney expected Kylo Ren, the tormented villain, to be the star of the new trilogy, and not the hero Rey. Given Darth Vader’s popularity, it isn’t surprising that they had high hopes for Kylo Ren. But when toys were released, it was clear how misguided that assumption was: There was an abundance of Kylo Ren products and almost none of Rey. The toy makers had even gone so far as to have Rey photoshopped out of her scenes on several toy boxes, replaced by male characters.
This was no accident. A whistleblower who attended meetings between Lucasfilm and toymakers described to the website www.sweatpantsandcoffee.com how “the product vendors were specifically directed to exclude the Rey character from all Star Wars-related merchandise … ‘We know what sells,’ the industry insider was told. ‘No boy wants to be given a product with a female character on it.’” Of course with the popularity of Rey, it’s clear that those producers did not know what sells. High demand for Rey toys was followed by online protests underlining the public’s dismay at Rey’s erasure from her own film. John Marcotte, the founder of the organization Heroic Girls—dedicated to empowering girls by advocating for strong role models in alternative media—explains, “[Disney] put a huge investment into marketing and merchandizing the Kylo Ren character. They presumed he would be the big breakout role from the film. They were completely surprised when it was Rey everyone identified with and wanted to see more of. Now they’re stuck with vast amounts of Kylo Ren product that is not moving, and a tidal wave of complaints about a lack of Rey items.”
Why did Disney expect Kylo Ren to be the star, not the protagonist Rey? The answer probably lies in the assumption, common in Hollywood, that what had been popular once must be again, as well as in a fear of embracing the new. Ironically, in Rey’s adventures as the new Star Wars hero, being a woman is never a problem.
But escaping into the imaginary to leave real-life problems, to be a part of a larger story no matter how fanciful and monetized it may be, is a path that science fiction and fantasy fans have long chosen. Movies like Star Wars let us travel down the path of the hero. It’s a voyage that never seems to grow old. And now with characters like Rey, Finn, and Poe, we all get to be heroes, regardless of who we are.
That is a triumph no villain can defeat. ♦