Warning: This post contains MAJOR spoilers for The Force Awakens!
I can’t write a review of The Force Awakens. To me, a review implies being able to see things at least somewhat objectively, being able to critically evaluate a piece of media. And there is no way I can be objective about this movie. Maybe after further viewings I’ll be able talk about things like cinematography and scoring and pacing and whether it borrowed too much of its structure from A New Hope or just enough to make it resonate with fans. But I’ve only seen it once so far, and after seeing it, there was only one thing I really wanted to write about—and that’s what this movie is going to mean for little girls and their playground adventures.
When I was a little girl, I used to play Star Wars on a playground near my grandparents’ house with my two older cousins, both of whom were boys, and my little sister (who—being the adorable toddler she was—always played an Ewok). My cousins had a choice: They could be Han or Luke or Darth Vader or any X-Wing pilot or any Stormtrooper. I could be Princess Leia. I’m not saying that was a bad thing or that I even wanted a choice back then. I think even now—if given a choice to pretend to be any female character ever created—I’d still choose Princess Leia. But maybe other little girls playing on playgrounds wanted a choice. And the only other choice they really had (besides being a dancer in Jabba’s palace—and no one wanted to choose that) was Luke’s Aunt Beru—who dies at the beginning of A New Hope—or Mon Mothma—who gets one exposition-heavy monologue that lasts about a minute and is never really seen again.
Even after the prequel trilogy came out, choices were limited for little girls who wanted to pretend to be Star Wars characters. Padme was a strong leader, but she wasn’t the main focal point of the story. There were some female bounty hunters and politicians, and even some female Jedi—but they never received the kind of focus that made kids really take notice of them in a way that became part of their imaginations and aspirations.
After The Force Awakens, things are different. Little girls have a choice now. They can be General Organa if they want to be a fierce leader of the Resistance, they can be Captain Phasma if they want to play the villain for a little while, they can be Maz Kanata if they want to be a wise alien creature, they can be any of the many female military leaders (on both sides of the conflict) and X-Wing pilots shown throughout the film, or they can be Rey if they want to go on their own hero’s journey.
As I watched Daisy Ridley own every bit of her screen time as Rey, I kept thinking about all the little girls who will see this movie in the coming weeks, months, and years. I thought about the little girl who one day—years after this trilogy ends—will be introduced to these movies by her older cousins and will play out Rey’s story on the playground with them by her side. And when she plays out this story, she will be the hero, and it will be the boys who are part of her story—not the other way around.
I also thought about the kids who finally get to see themselves in Poe and Finn. They have heroes who look like them now—heroes who are amazing pilots and wield lightsabers and have a real story to tell, a story that means something—a story that matters.
The Force Awakens is a lot of things: It’s entertaining, it’s fun, it’s funnier than I expected, and it’s more emotionally affecting than I could have hoped for. It’s also important—but not in that showy way that screams, “I AM A PIECE OF MEDIA TRYING TO CHANGE SOCIETY! APPRECIATE ME!” Instead, it simply gives us three characters in Poe, Finn, and Rey who look nothing like heroes in a lot of movies—especially big-budget blockbusters—and makes them so immediately likeable, relatable, complex, and compelling that we care about them as characters and not just for their social significance. And it makes us care about them as individuals but also as a team. They’re a central trio for a new generation. In their dynamic, we see friendships form between characters of different races, backgrounds, and genders because of mutual respect, acts of kindness, and appreciation for who the other people are beyond what their society defines them as. Poe instantly sees the humanity in Finn; Finn instantly sees the hero in Rey—despite their worlds telling them they’ll never rise above the life they had no say in choosing.
The Force Awakens is a movie about a group of people who become more than they ever thought they could be, a group of survivors who rise above even their own expectations for their lives. Finn gets to help save people, despite being raised to destroy. Even Han Solo gets to be more than who he thought he could be—he dies fighting for the family he ran away from when he didn’t believe he could handle the pain of what had happened to his son.
And then there’s Rey: abandoned as a child and left to fend for herself, resigning herself to a scavenger’s life in the desert while still dreaming of more—just like Luke Skywalker in A New Hope. Yes, this movie borrows much from that first Star Wars film, but I can’t say I minded seeing the main hero’s story in that film directly paralleled in the journey of a young woman who actually proved to be even more capable (and far less whiny) than the young man who came before her. It’s through Rey’s eyes that we experience the sense of wonder that all great Star Wars films should possess. (Her expression upon seeing green grass for the first time moved me so much more than I was prepared for.) It’s through Rey’s eyes that we experience the power of the Force. And it’s through Rey’s eyes that we finally see Luke Skywalker for the first time in 30 years.
When little girls choose to pretend to be Rey, they can pretend to be so many things: a scavenger, an engineer, a pilot, a survivor, and a (soon-to-be?) Jedi. They can pretend to do so many things: fly a ship, shoot a blaster, befriend people (and droids!), use a lightsaber, perform a Jedi mind trick, face down a villain, laugh, and even cry. Rey isn’t just one thing; she feels like a real woman who is given the chance to be and do and feel so many things. She doesn’t have to hold Finn’s hand to run from danger, but it doesn’t make her look weak when she chooses to hold his hand. And—in a genre where many female characters are still being written in a way that equates “strength” with a lack of emotion—Rey’s wide range of emotions and her openness in expressing them matters.
Rey isn’t the only female character in The Force Awakens who’s allowed to feel things besides anger or determination. In this film, we see a new Leia—no longer a princess but a general—who has lived through an endless number of tragedies in her life. Leia is a little softer now than when we last saw her—a little sadder, a little more subdued. She’s still got an edge to her, but it’s an edge that has been believably sanded down by the passage of time and the weight of tragedy.
When Ben turned to the Dark Side, the two people Leia needed the most left her. Luke disappeared, seemingly out of guilt, shame, and heartbreak. And Han went back to his old life of running away from his problems, smuggling and pirating to try to deal with his pain in his own way. But Leia stayed. When the men left because they couldn’t handle staying, this woman stayed. And Carrie Fisher did such an amazing job of showing that Leia carries the weight of being the one who stayed in every moment.
But some of that weight is lifted when Han comes back—you can see it in her interactions with him immediately. Their dynamic was such a beautiful part of this film, glowing with warm affection instead of the heat of the passion they had when they were young, which made it feel profoundly realistic and honest. What’s so special about Leia in this film is that she gets to be a wife and a mother in addition to being a political leader, and equal time is devoted to all those aspects of her life. She’s not a bad general because she wants to embrace her estranged husband in her moment of need. She’s not a weaker leader because she all but collapses when she feels him die through the Force. She’s stronger—because we finally get to see her truly feel every emotion a woman who’s been through what she’s been through would feel: heartbreak and hope and anger and grief and love. And we get to see her continue to fight even when those emotions all but overwhelm her.
Leia feels like a real person in this movie, and so does Rey. Watching them interact was incredibly touching, especially as a female Star Wars fan. When they hugged upon Rey returning to the base after Han’s death, it was beautiful to see two powerful female characters be allowed to seek comfort in each other’s embrace, to lean on each other in a time of tragedy. That’s never happened before in a Star Wars film—two women sharing a moment where they don’t have to be leaders or fighters, where they can just be people trying to find their footing after tragedy strikes.
The Force Awakens also gave us something else that’s never happened in a Star Wars film before: one woman saying to another, “May the Force be with you.” That moment felt like the passing of the torch from one iconic female character to another who will undoubtedly become iconic to a new generation. It felt the confirmation of all that came before it in the film—one last reminder that this is a new world with a new hope. And that hope doesn’t look the same as it used to.
After seeing The Force Awakens, little girls (and little boys) will hopefully feel like they have so many more choices now—not just on the playground but in all aspects of their lives. And I hope that they embrace the message of this film and choose to be the hero of their own story, to embrace what makes them special, and to believe that they can change the galaxy.