Forceful Females: The Women of Star Wars

NOV / DEC 2016: BY RACHEL SEXTON

The science-fiction genre has long been a source for the Strong Female Character on movie screens. Ripley in the Alien franchise, Sarah Connor from The Terminator, and the Tomb Raider herself are just a few examples. Other types of film could take a cue from sci-fi about how to elevate women’s roles, particularly with regard to the amount of screen time in which they get to do some action. Even when details that aren’t true to our reality make up part of the story, these characters can feel very authentic to viewers and act as inspirations for girls in the audience. There is one film series that has excelled at presenting its leading female characters: Star Wars. Whether they are endowed with the abilities of the Force or not, the women in the Star Wars saga exhibit moral strength and physical courage.

Star Wars began in 1977 with the release of Episode IV: A New Hope. Princess Leia Organa, played by Carrie Fisher, is covertly aiding a Rebellion against the tyrannical Empire and must ensure that vital information reaches her comrades when her ship is boarded by the henchmen for the Emperor, led by Darth Vader. This kickstarts the plot of the entire story, and throughout what follows, Leia never backs down. She will pick up a blaster if need be, she will deliver a scathing set-down to an Empirical flunky, and she will exercise her smarts at every opportunity. She even enjoys a bantering romance with a mischievously charming pilot, Han Solo. The Empire Strikes Back in 1980 and Return of the Jedi in 1983 continued the narrative, and Leia remains a woman to be reckoned with. There are very brief hints that Leia could have a tendency toward the Force (which is basically a connection with the energy emitted by everything that can be used to accomplish things). However, unlike Luke, the brother she finds out she had, Leia never really trains in this discipline, so this tendency only manifests itself as a bad feeling when people she cares about are in trouble. Leia is definitely someone you want on your side in a fight.

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The creator of Star Wars, director/writer George Lucas, decided to go back and tell the part of the story before A New Hope, so Episode I: The Phantom Menace was released in 1999. The principal female character turned out to be Leia and Luke’s mother, Padme Amidala, played by Natalie Portman. She is introduced at 14 years old as queen of an entire planet. Naboo is a world that always has an adolescent queen so a commanding presence is probably not new to Padme, but she goes even further than just supervising the governance of her people. As the story unfolds, the viewer learns that Padme has been using a decoy and has accompanied two Jedi on a mission that involves Naboo. She doesn’t sit by and let other people determine things that are important to her. In the next installment, Attack of the Clones, Padme is still an active person and is a senator for her planet now that she is no longer queen. She falls in love and acts on it despite obstacles in the way, and she also doesn’t hesitate to do what she needs to do to defend herself. During a battle scene, she doesn’t really need anyone to rescue her. Padme also stays true to her conscience through the emotional turmoil of her husband, Anakin Skywalker, turning into the evil Darth Vader, in Revenge of the Sith. Though she has no abilities connected to the Force, Padme is a character who engages the audience’s emotions and their sympathy.

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In the hands of other filmmakers, the tale of the Skywalker family was continued in 2015 with Episode VII: The Force Awakens. Characters outside the family also take central roles, though, and the most significant of these is Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. She is a young woman who has had to be very self-sufficient for most of her life, without a family. She is more than capable in a physical altercation and is good behind the controls of a spaceship. Due to various events, Rey is startled to realize she has the Force within her and she tentatively begins to use it. She is also the first main female character to spark up a lightsaber and duel a bad guy with it. Rey interacts with Han and Leia and especially new character Finn, and the dramatic events that connect them provoke in her realistic reactions the moviegoer can relate to. The fact that Rey is female hardly even registers in the story, which is a mark of progress that should be celebrated.

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The first film set in the Star Wars universe that doesn’t focus on the Skywalker family, Rogue One, was just released. It details how a Rebel team stole the plans for the Death Star, the Empire’s deadliest weapon, which is the plot point that began the entire saga. The leader of that team is Jyn Erso, played by Felicity Jones. Her father is the scientist who was basically forced to develop the weapon and the Rebellion needs the plans to find a weakness to exploit so they can deal a major defeat to the Empire. Jyn is presented as a criminal who has actually been imprisoned and is busted out by the Rebellion because of who her father is. Jyn is like Rey in that she has had only herself to rely on for a long time. She is at ease throwing punches at Stormtroopers, and she will defy either side of this galactic confrontation if she thinks it’s the right thing to do. She also has an inspiring effect on the people who join her on the mission. She puts herself in very real physical danger to accomplish her goal. Jyn has no Force abilities, however, though that hardly seems to lessen her impact. Again, Jyn is a formidable character who just happens to be a woman and that’s something there can never be too much of on screen.

Strength and courage are traits that define the lead female characters of the Star Wars saga, and the extraordinary abilities of the Force can be part of that. Leia, Padme, Rey, and Jyn are part of a wonderful tradition of women in science-fiction, and the best part is that there is more to come. Leia appeared in Episode VII, so both she and Rey will have more story to cover in Episodes VIII and IX. Rey especially has backstory to explore in terms of her family. (My guess? Girl’s a Kenobi.) And more stand-alone stories, like the one focusing on a young Han Solo, are on the way as well. Chances are, Star Wars will continue to satisfy the viewer with outstanding lead females. The Force will definitely be with them!

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rachel Sexton is from Ohio. She loves her parents and her dog Lily. She has to have acting, film, reading, and dance in her life. Her hobby is editing fan videos.

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3 Replies to “Forceful Females: The Women of Star Wars”

  1. This is a beautiful tribute, and I really appreciate it. (Especially after all that’s happened these past few days. RIP, Carrie Fisher.)

    You’re right, Star Wars has been exceptionally good at showcasing “formidable characters who just happen to be women,” and I hope more movies/books follow that lead in the future.

    Like

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