They Have a Choice Now: Thoughts on The Force Awakens

TFA poster

Source: starwars.com

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.

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21 thoughts on “They Have a Choice Now: Thoughts on The Force Awakens

  1. Awesome Katie! I really like your take on Leia. I did notice that she and Han were more tender with each other rather than passionate. I do hope that future films tell us a little more of what went down with them and their son. Im not sure if or how that may be possible other than Leia talking about it, but it was hard for me to understand what made Luke and Han give up and run instead of stay and deal with the issues. In any case, i really enjoyed your insights as always.

    • Thank you so much! I’m sure we’ll get more information on what exactly happened with Ben in the next two movies—there’s so much to tell, and I could see Luke (or my preference, Leia) relaying that information to Rey because if she’s going to face him again (and we know she will), she’ll need to know how he got to be who he is now. And hopefully in explaining that, we’ll get a little more information on what happened in the aftermath, too.

  2. Enjoy reading your thoughts on the new Star Wars movie. Rey is one of my favorite characters in the film. Her strength, her compassion, her tragic yearning for the family that left her behind, and her growing ability to access the Force to the point in which she was able to reverse mental probing on Kylo Ren. I look forward to seeing more of her in the next movie.

    I noticed you have said very little about Kylo Ren aka Ben Solo. What did you think of him as a character?

    • Thank you! I love hearing how many people love Rey. She’s going to be even cooler as she develops throughout this trilogy, and I can’t wait to see her story continue.

      As far as Kylo Ren goes, I’m a little torn on the character. I thought it was a great twist to have Han and Leia’s kid be the villain and not the hero, but I want to know so much more about his story—especially what he knows of his grandfather. Does no one but Luke know that Vader died doing something heroic, an act born of the Light Side and not the Dark Side? I’m just still confused about why he wants to finish what his grandfather started when Anakin Skywalker died telling Luke he was right to believe there was good still in him.

      With all that being said, I think this character is going to become more interesting to me as the saga continues. I did appreciate the fact that he wasn’t in control all the time. His temper tantrums made him feel younger, which made his story feel more tragic. I’m eager to learn more about him and his descent into the Dark Side, and I’m looking forward to another showdown between him and Rey.

  3. I can’t find the right words because I literally had tears streaming down my face the entire time. This was me in a nutshell. Always wanting more females. And the fact that my future daughter can have such excellent choices on the playground warms my heart. This is my favorite article you’ve ever written and I have no words, but thank you. Thank you for doing this movie justice. Thank you for putting this together so beautifully and eloquently. You’re an extraordinary writer, and this artcile truly showcases your strengths as a woman as well.

    • And now it’s my turn to cry. This means so much to me coming from you. I respect you as a writer and a fangirl and a woman so much, so I’m beyond thrilled and honored that you think so highly of this piece—especially this piece. This was me sharing a huge part of my fangirl heart and soul with the world, so the fact that it resonated with you is just EVERYTHING to me.

  4. Katie, your writing is wonderful and thought provoking as usual. You always offer such a fresh and unique perspective that makes me think about the subject in a new way. What I really loved about “The Force Awakens” is that it didn’t make me feel like the old characters were being shunned for the new. I grew up with the trilogy of Episodes IV, V and VI and nothing will probably ever top my love for the characters in them….especially Luke, Leia and Han. I saw “The Force Awakens” as a great re-telling of Episodes IV and V with engaging characters that I grew to care about. I didn’t feel resentful that they were taking over the story; I just saw their stories as the natural continuation of the originals. We learned that Luke (like Obi Wan, before him) lost an important battle in teaching a special student with a great talent with the Force. As I almost expected, Luke became the “hermit in the desert”, isolated and probably mourning what could have been….perhaps wondering what he could have done differently, and where he went wrong. We also saw a young hero living in the desert, feeling like her life is on hold. How like Luke before her, who wanted to begin his life by going to the academy with his friends. Rey and Luke both found a purpose in their journeys and I loved seeing how all their lives reflected each other.

    I am so excited for the Episode VIII! It reminds me very much of my anticipation of Episodes V and VI, just waiting for the films to be made and released. I love that a new generation in this world gets to have that experience too!

    • Thank you so much, Jennifer! I can’t imagine the excitement you must have felt between Episodes V and VI. There wasn’t quite that same sense of anticipation between the prequels, so it’s nice to feel a heightened level of excitement for what comes next after this movie.

  5. Hi Katie,

    As usual your review is fantastic and insightful. I have deliberately avoided reading or watching any previews / reviews of this movie. I grew up with the original Star Wars, spent countless hours and coin in the game arcades playing the first wire frame X-Wing game as you attempted the trench run on the death star. I played almost every Star Wars game ever released including the best Star Wars game ever Tie Fighter.

    When this movie finished I felt a little underwhelmed. Mind you there were some wet your pants moments, the first time you saw the Millennium Falcon, Han Solo. Yet I just didn’t get the whole plot point of the multiple map segments to the location of Luke. Why would anyone create the map, surely not Luke cause he disappeared and didn’t want to be found.

    By the end of the movie I felt that Rye’s story had been shortchanged, perhaps in the editing room. I wanted more Rye. Instead what I felt was a rushed job to introduce new characters and an attempt to find screen time for old beloved characters. The Supreme Leader had me thinking of 3rd Rock from the Sun and Kylo Ren just didn’t ignite any passion. Ensemble movies are hard as there is a fine balance between giving enough screen time to develop each character and moving the plot. I can’t help but think, what would Joss Whedon have done? For me JJ Abrams has a hit and miss track record. The abysmal Lost that meandered without any real direction for 6 seasons to the superb Fringe.

    Perhaps after watching this movie again I’ll come to view things differently…

  6. Katie, I am so glad you wrote about this movie! I don’t know if it’s because I saw it basically a week after it premiered, but the couple of places I went to be excited about the movie and hear other fans’ opinions didn’t seem to have anyone who wanted to just be excited without any caveats, so thank you for being my fandom safe haven right now.

    You made me so emotional with this post. I agree with everything you said about Rey being the lead and how much that means, especially to young girls. That “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” is so important. And the fact that kids who don’t normally get to see heroes like themselves can see that in each character of the main trio is so wonderful, especially because of how big this series is in pop culture today.

    I definitely choked up when Leia and Rey hugged at the end, partially because I love those two so much but also because I had a realization in that moment that we have two female characters who are central to this story and interacting with each other. TWO. That is so rare in any sort of action or sci-fi or fantasy movie, and it just hit me hard in that moment. I really hope we get to see more of their interactions in the next movie.

    I loved the parallels to the original movies, to be honest I don’t even care if it was too much, if it was too similar for some people. Maybe I’ll change my mind when I see it again but I loved the little nods to things old fans would know, and for me it felt nostalgic in the way that I wanted, it paid homage to this universe. Seeing some of the parallels between Rey and Luke made it feel powerful in a way, like they were saying “look, here is your hero.” And when Rey was fighting Ben in the snow-covered forest, there was a moment where one of the classic Star Wars themes starts playing, and I got all choked up because it was basically passing the torch to her starting to come into her own as a hero, as a Jedi, like it was saying “here is your new Luke, here is your girl you get to love and cheer for and fight the dark side with for the rest of the series.”

    I loved this movie so much, I had several moments in the theater where I got so delighted that I covered my face with my hands a bit in a sort of “I have so many feelings I’m just going to clutch at my face because I can’t handle it” way lol. I am so excited for this series to continue and I’m so glad that we get to spend more time with this new trio.

  7. I FINALLY saw it! Which means I FINALLY got to read your review. I think this was a great way to set up the next franchize, and they have great potential with the new set of characters. If I have a main complaint, that would be it. It was a lot of setup and a lot of trying to work in some closure for the old characters, without making much of an effort to make things stand on their own. But, I also think I am spoiled in the fact that when I watched the original trilogy, I could watch them as a set, one after the other. This journey is just going to require some patience I am not used to in this universe.

    When the movie first started, and that yellow text started to scroll, I was downright giddy. It was familiar but new, and that pretty much carried through the entire film (sometimes in good ways, sometimes less so).

    I saw it with my Dad, who took me to see the original movies, and he really liked it. He also thought it was a bit retready, but I think he really enjoyed having Han and Leia and Chewie back. Personally I could have done with less of Han. I thought for sure Chewie wasn’t going to make it out of this movie alive, and I was actually relieved it was Han that didn’t instead. It worked well dramatically, and I felt like Harrison Ford’s performance screamed of him not really caring if he was there or not, so I think removing him was good for everyone.

    Even if I think they spent a little too much time on Han, I do appreciate the uniqueness of this movie in the way both Harrison Ford and Carrie Fisher are way beyond the age of action heroes you would see on the big screen, and this is probably the only movie that could get away with featuring them so prominently, so that gets my thumbs up.

    I loved the light saber fight in the snow, and the unpolish with which both Rey and Finn fought. The way Rey kept trying to jab with the lightsaber made me happy, it was one of many details that made the final Act of the movie work so well. And I loved that the dreams Rey was having were actually visions of where Luke was the entire time. (really I enjoyed pretty much everything after Han died). I also love that the special effects weren’t overdone. They felt like a believable continuation of the original trilogy in a way that the prequels failed.

    I do wish they would have given Finn a better ending. There was a group of young black boys next to me at the movies that were so excited to see Finn, and you could just feel their disappointment at the end when they didn’t get anything more than him taking a face plant into the snow and then ending the movie unconscious on a table. So for as great at it was as a woman to see Rey take center stage, I think there was room to see her share that ending with Finn in a more dramatic way.

    Regardless of the movies shortcomings, it was great to see the excitement that this movie brought out in people. It’s been a long time since there was a piece of media that became such an event for a large portion of the population. I love seeing people excited, regardless if I am experiencing the same level of excitement or not.

    All in all, there were some really great moments for our new characters even if they were scattered within the framework of a familiar story. On its own it wasn’t the most satisfying thing in the world for me, but this was never a movie that was meant to stand alone, and I am looking forward to seeing the next adventure (and then maybe the happy ending can stick for at least a generation?)

    Side note: my biggest unanswered question, where are the ghost Jedi masters?! It would have been helpful if ghost Annikin just showed up to tell his grandson he was being stupid.

    • I really liked your comments! I watched the movie for a second time yesterday, and finally caught that the dreams that Kylo Ren was pulling from Rey’s head were visions of where Luke is: “I see the ocean…I see the island.” I was also so wrapped up in Han’s death and all the character reactions to it in the first watch, that I’d forgotten that KR was shot in that scene.

      I’m pretty certain I will see it one more time in the next week or so. I like going back and catching things I missed or forgot about.

      I hope people aren’t too discouraged about Finn’s ending in VII…Han got a similar ending in Episode V. We had to wait until the next movie to see what happened to him. Star Wars usually likes to leave a few threads hanging for the next movie.

      I wasn’t too surprised at Han’s death after it happened. In commentary for the first three movies, Ford mentioned that he thought it would be a good idea if Han died in Episode V, but Lucas was against it. I think he wanted to leave on a heroic note, but I’m glad we got to see him interact with his son. He had hope for Ben, and that was nice to see in him. I’m sure Ben must have been named after Obi Wan. Leia seemed to have great trust in him in Episode IV.

      This movie is still making me think. I just love these characters.

      • I have to admit that I didn’t know I harbored any kind of negativity towards Harrison Ford until this movie. He’s never been shy to make it known that he doesn’t have much attachment to the character and I think it got to me. I love him in the original trilogy, but here I felt like I was seeing was Harrison Ford, not Han Solo. I will see the movie again, and I am hoping that I can look a little harder at his performance without my personal dissapointment with his comments getting in the way of my enjoyment of the character.

        I never thought about Ben being named after Obi Wan, but that makes perfect sense! There is just such a huge chunk of time we missed in all of these characters stories!

        Also, I didn’t mention much about Leia and Rey in my original post, because Katie pretty much nailed everything that was great about the two of them in this movie. I also absolutely loved the embrace between the two of them at the end, and the complexity of both of their stories.

        Upon first watch, this was definitely a movie that had my brain in overdrive, and I think it kinda overshadowed my emotions. This same thing happens when I watch a movie based on a book. My brain goes straight into analysis and comparative mode and its hard to enjoy the movie for what it is on its own, but I almost always enjoy them more on second viewings once I have gotten all the comparative stuff out of my system.

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  9. Hmm…I just found another call back to Episode IV in The Force Awakens. Princess Leia was being held in cell block 2187. Finn’s name as a storm trooper was FN 2187. I know that 1138 had a significance to George Lucas. THX 1138 was his first film and 1138 is referenced as the cell block from which Chewbacca is being transferred in.the samr scene in Ep IV.

  10. I’m know I’m late to the party . . . but I’ve just now seen this. I wanted to wait until the crowds had thinned a bit. (I don’t like being crammed into a theater.) I’ve always been a Star Wars fan — especially of the original trilogy. I can’t remember the first time I saw it . . . it was something I’ve always seen. I’ve always known these characters. I watched this with a great deal of nostalgia. I enjoyed the echoes of and variations on the original. It’s great to read a piece on this that loves this world. I love, LOVE your points on Rey. (Insert official “you go, girl” here.)

    I was struck by your comment about the fun. This entry recaptures the sense of fun and adventure that the original trilogy had. Star Wars was developed, in part, as an homage to the Republic serials that used to run in theaters — hence the opening crawl. (I always liked that we started with Episode IV — jumping in the middle of the story.) I think this is why it resonated so much with kids (as well as adults). Star Wars was our Buck Rogers.

    We could all pretend to be these people in this world

    We were bold and brave.

    We had swagger and sass.

    We were heroes with powers that allowed us to move things with our minds (while making light-saber noises).

    We were snarky princesses who could lead rebellions. 🙂

  11. Yay! I finally had a chance to read this! I love how you describe everything that Rey is, all the ways that little girls can play at being her. That whole paragraph ❤ And I loved this bit: "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."

    I enjoyed the movie. I enjoyed the way it felt a lot like A New Hope. That came out when I was very young, and I watched Empire Strikes Back with my Dad in the theater when it came out. I didn't much care for the prequels and tbh I'm not actually sure which ones I've seen. I'm going to watch them now to catch up with the backstory, but honestly I doubt I'll like them. I'm skipping the first one altogether.

    Tangentially related: I just saw a little girl on the news who had written to Hasbro to complain that Rey wasn't in the Star Wars Monopoly game. They apologized and claimed they didn't want to spoil the movie for anyone, which I support, and they said she'd be for sure in the new game coming out later this year.

  12. There is a short story by Ursula K. Le Guin called The Pathways of Desire. In it, three anthropologists from Earth are studying a society called the Ndif who are a lot like humans but who inhabit a moon in another solar system. The young women of the Ndif are all hypersexual beauties–seductive, uninhibited, eager to please the men of the tribe. The stuff of male fantasies, basically. Later on in the story, the anthropologists figure out that that is *exactly* what they are–that the entire world of the Ndif is a physical manifestation of the elaborate fantasies of a teenage boy dreaming away back on Earth.

    I’m telling you this because your comment about Leia feeling like a real person strongly reminded me of this story. There is a part there, before they realize that they are in a teenage dreamer’s world, where one anthropologist observes that the older, middle aged women of the Ndif somehow feel more substantial, more real, than the younger ones. Past what their society considers the prime of their beauty, these women are relaxed in their own bodies and no longer frantic about their sexuality. They smile with imperfect teeth and laugh deep belly laughs instead of enticing giggles, and even their language has evolved to have a richer, more expressive vocabulary than the younger ones use. When the anthropologists find out about the dreamer, they realize that the difference between the young and older women of the Ndif may be caused by the fact that a teenage boy’s fantasies are focused on the youthful beauties–and once a woman ages, she is no longer the focus of that attention and can thus grow out of it, grow into more.

    I wonder if the same thing might be said of Leia? Now that Hollywood no longer feels compelled to use the character to cater to the male audience’s fantasies (there is an Amy Schumer sketch on youtube about Hollywood actresses being relieved to be considered “unfuckable” after a certain age), I wonder if that allows Leia to feel more substantial, more real. Not that Rey doesn’t feel real, and thank God she isn’t hypersexualized, to give the movie credit–but I am struck with the difference between Leia now and the Leia in the original trilogy. The Leia of before felt like a character in a fantastic story with spaceships and aliens and adventure. The Leia now feels like a real person who happens to live in a world where there are spaceships and aliens and adventure.

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