The Badass Women of Star Wars

December 14th 2015

As Jedi superfans across the world count down the days until the Dec. 18 release of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," we've seen scant details about the new sequel’s plot. But there's one thing we do know: The new lead character of Rey is a total boss. And she also happens to be a woman.

Played by 23-year-old British actor Daisy Ridley in her first major role, Rey is a scavenger who lives in a ship graveyard on the planet of Jakku. She’s scrappy, self-reliant, and strong: a woman who “does her own thing and has her own story,” Ridley said in a behind-the-scenes teaser. "I hope that women—and men—across the world can see something they relate to in Rey."

The "Star Wars" epics have had a questionable track record casting diverse actors, though this isn’t the first time a woman has played a major role in the space saga:

1. Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia — who returns in "The Force Awakens" as General Leia — was a groundbreaking character when the first film debuted in 1977.

2. Queen Amidala, played by Natalie Portman, was also known to kick ass in the prequel films.

But the pieces we’ve seen so far suggest the new "Star Wars" movie has moved the saga up the girl-power scale. “I am the beginning of girl power,” Fisher said at a media event. “I got to be the only girl on an all-boy set.”

In "The Force Awakens," Ridley and Fisher share the screen with another strong lady: the villainous Captain Phasma, played by "Game of Thrones" star Gwendoline Christie (even though Phasma was originally cast as a man).

The new "Star Wars" has also made progress in terms of how its female leads are portrayed. Leia was fierce, but some feminists have expressed misgivings about her role in the original trilogy. Take “slave Leia” from "Return of the Jedi": She kicked major butt by single-handedly slaying Jabba, but she was forced by her captor to wear a metal bikini, which turned her into one of the most fetishized characters in Hollywood history (something Fisher joked to Ridley that she should fight to avoid).

In the original "Star Wars," Fisher said in a Rolling Stone interview in 1983, “the only way they knew to make the character [Leia] strong was to make her angry.” In "Return of the Jedi," she got “to be more feminine, more supportive, more affectionate. But let’s not forget these movies are basically boys’ fantasies. So the other way they have made her more female … was to have her take off her clothes,” Fisher continued.

Things are different in "The Force Awakens." Christie’s Captain Phasma costume is about as far as you can get from a metal bikini: She wears full-body chromed Stormtrooper armor. Christie said the garb puts more emphasis on Phasma’s character and actions. “We’re so used to relating to female characters primarily through how they have been made in flesh,” she said. “That’s what I found interesting about the costume. It’s armor, it’s entirely functional, and it isn’t sexualized in any way.”

Fisher said that Hollywood still has a long way to go in terms of its portrayal of women on the big screen. “When you don’t have to ask me that question is when we’ll be OK,” she said in response to a query about whether attitudes toward female roles are evolving.

For Ridley’s part, the younger "Star Wars" generation has already internalized a change in outlook. “[Rey is] brave, and she’s vulnerable, and she’s so nuanced," she said. "That’s what’s exciting to play a role like this. She doesn’t have to be one thing to embody a woman in the film, and for me, she’s not important because she’s a woman. She’s just important."

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