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19 December 2017

The Last Jedi is the first properly feminist Star Wars

Warning: spoilers and deconstruction of the patriarchy ahead. 

By Tracy King

Several years ago, some time after Revenge of the Sith but well before any of the latest crop of Star Wars films were announced, I wrote a humorous open letter in which I broke up with my boyfriend, Darth Vader. Really it was a plea for the internet and fandom to drop its Star Wars obsession. This was because all I could see, as a former Star Wars enthusiast, was endless and overwhelmingly male worship of a franchise which should have died when Queen Amidala did. The prequels had killed Star Wars, I thought, and I was tired of seeing the corpse still twitching.

My reluctant impatience wasn’t cured by the announcement of new films, particularly because they were to bring back Luke, Han, Chewie and Leia. I saw that as an attempt to capitalise on what made Star Wars great in the first place, but I have never believed you can go back by revisiting characters.

Everything from the hell of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull to the bafflingly dumb Gilmore Girls reboot failed precisely because it’s impossible to recapture in old age what was loved about youth. And I don’t mean just the characters, I mean the fans too. Everyone was taking Star Wars way too seriously, while I was always more in tune with Yoda comedically clambering around for snacks.

But of course old Star Wars fans die hard, so I went to see The Force Awakens and even enjoyed it.  Fan service sat neatly alongside new characters. Rey was established as being as self-sufficient – “stop holding my hand!” – as Leia ever was, but without Leia’s royal resources. Rey is a true equal in a galaxy obsessed with balance.

But it still felt overwhelmingly like the domain of men. There has never been a female Star Wars director, and before Rey, the coolest characters were Luke and Han. The bad guys were precisely that, too – guys. Female role models were limited to Leia, a princess who began as a rebel with a blaster but was reduced to a pinup by the gold bikini slave costume Carrie Fisher eventually admitted was not her choice. That Leia used her chains against her captor doesn’t change the distinctly male gaze that turned that scene into a grubby bedroom fantasy for boys.

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In the prequels, Queen Amidala couldn’t offer any feminist hope because her entire existence was to fulfill her biological destiny. Whatever character arc she was allowed was undone in the ridiculous and disrespectful birth scene in which Amidala, screaming in pain and seemingly trapped under some sort of metal band, gives birth to the twins she randomly names Luke and Leia, before dying of something (the film seems to want us to think it’s a broken heart, but given the midwife droids didn’t administer any pain relief, I suspect Amidala actually died from substandard medical care and the Skywalkers should sue).

But then, a new hope, for me. The Last Jedi is the first Star Wars film for women. (Massive spoilers ahead). Most obviously, there are women in The Last Jedi at every level, from high-ranking military to starship basements. I haven’t done a screen time count but if women aren’t onscreen – and speaking – for more time than any other Star Wars film I will eat my womp rat. New character Rose, played by Kelly Marie Tran, has a taser and a brain and isn’t afraid to use either. In an early scene, John Boyega’s Finn stands in front of her, mansplaining, until she loudly interrupts him because dude, shush. Lupita Nyong’o’s “wise old mysteriously foreign alien” Maz Kanata gets a frenetic action scene seemingly designed to make up for how poorly she was served in The Force Awakens.

There are no lone heroes in The Last Jedi, everything is a team effort, but what heroics there are truly belong to the ladies, from the very early bombing scene to the final rocky rescue. General Leia leads the rebellion, eventually replaced by Laura Dern’s Admiral Holdo after a bit of Force flying that lazy commenters compared with Mary Poppins because apparently 1964 was the last time a woman did anything cool on screen.

Holdo takes charge of the rebellion fleet, but the cocky, Solo-esque half-hero of The Force Awakens, Poe Damaron, is exasperated by Holdo’s refusal to respect his superior manly tactics and mind, so leads a mutiny that in any other Star Wars film would have succeeded. It fails, because he doesn’t know what he’s doing and didn’t respect the vastly superior and more experienced woman above him.

Compare the dignified and graceful exchanges between Holdo – who eventually pulls off the most badass kamikaze move in sci fi history – and Leia to those between darkly brooding men’s rights activist Kylo Ren and the red-haired punchbag General Hux, who can’t share a scene without fighting because neither of them truly earned their position. Their respective scrambling and scrapping for power reveals an immaturity and insecurity in contrast to Poe Damaron’s arrogance but no less patriarchal for it. While the guys fight over power, the women simply get on with the job.

And that of course is why Kylo reacts as he does when his new love, Rey, rejects him and his offer to rule in favour of saving her friends, the rebellion, and ultimately the Force itself. Of course Kylo becomes even angrier and more violent, that’s exactly how men who feel entitled to sex but are denied it act. He’s a 2017 baddie. It’s almost like writer director Rian Johnson has done his feminist homework (or maybe just hangs around on Reddit like the rest of us).

The early scene of Kylo smashing his own helmet is another clue to Johnson’s brave new world. No more hiding behind silly masks, no more blind worship or fear of the masked man. Characters are stripped bare. Gwendoline Christie’s Captain Phasma is a sad victim of this, her helmet punctured to reveal a vulnerable but unrepentant eye, before she too is (presumably) killed off as belonging to the old order of silly helmets. It’s sad to lose a female character – but clothes no longer maketh the woman, and she wasn’t given much more to work with than a fancy hat.

Rey’s rejection of Kylo’s love and power is a feminist triumph. Unlike Leia, who earns her credential as General but was adopted into royalty and born into her Skywalker family destiny, Rey is revealed to be absolutely nobody. I cheered, I cried. The Force Awakens was so desperately trying to hint that Rey’s parentage was Luke-and-Leia special and the internet was agog with speculation for months, but The Last Jedi threw that old trope into a trash compactor where it belongs.

Rey is herself, no resources inherited or bought, self-made with no help from anyone. Not even Luke, really. His rejection of her request for training, and the entire Jedi religion itself is what causes Rey to reinvent the Force on her own terms. Forget the Master/Padawan relationship, that stuff belongs to the failed patriarchy of the old films. New Star Wars belongs to a new generation, and this time it’s women. 

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