Star Wars, like most science fiction and fantasy epics, has had a bit of a gender problem. Like Lord of the Rings, it offers a deluge of multi-dimensional and varying male characters while only offering one or two female characters.
In the original trilogy, we got Princess Leia Organa, who, for her time, was a bit revolutionary. She was a leader of the Rebel Alliance, was resistant to torture and took charge when her, Luke, Han and Chewbacca were under attack. She was resistant to Han Solo’s initial advances and later played a role in rescuing him.
Nevertheless, she was a sex symbol – from the buns to the bikini she wore in Jabba the Hutt’s palace, teenage boys almost certainly were in mind when her character was designed. Her role as a romantic option for Han Solo was a big part of the trilogy and her part. This continued all the more so in the prequels.
Natalie Portman’s character of Padme Amidala, like Leia, had roles and responsibilities – she is a queen in the first film and a senator in the next two. Her character is pivotal for Anakin’s character, from his childhood to his mother’s death to his fall, but the “damsel in distress” vibe never ceases. She seemed completely helpless in Revenge of the Sith, bewildered, pregnant and scared about what was going on.
JJ Abrams tried something completely different for The Force Awakens, the seventh installment of Star Wars and the first film in the series to be completely out of the hands of creator George Lucas. Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, is a mysterious character that we see become interconnected in the larger galaxy of Star Wars. Her past is hinted at, with no last name and only flashbacks; we have even less rope given than we did about Luke’s origins in the original trilogy. (There has been a great deal of speculation of fan sites about who her parents are, resulting from her having been the reincarnation of Anakin Skywalker to the daughter of Obi-Wan Kenobi.)
Most important, however, is she truly is independent. Rey is seen speeding around, trading resources for food and living on her own on the planet of Jakku, a rough and abandoned desert planet seemingly even more hostile than Tattooine. The only companion she has, until running in to Finn, an ex-stormtrooper and possible love interest (Finn grabs her hand and asks if she has a boyfriend and we see Rey kiss Finn’s body when he has been hospitalized later in the film, but that’s as far as any romance between the two goes), is a droid called BB-8, a less clunky but every bit as charming take on R2-D2. We’re led to believe that this is part of her character – that Rey has been alone for some time and has had to learn to survive, as evidenced by one scene with Han Solo, in which Solo tells her to take a blaster, to which she responds, “I think I can handle myself thanks.” Han says, “I know you can. That’s why I’m giving it to you.”
Rey’s look is awesome too – she is given robes and a long staff that certainly evoke the Jedi look, while also reminding us that she is a scavenger and tough survivor. She looks tough and attractive while also looking feminine – she isn’t sexualized while also not seeming as if JJ Abrams and the Force Awakens crew overtly tried to avoid doing so.
While JJ Abrams, the director of Force Awakens and creator of the hit show Lost and director of the last two Star Trek films, may be daring and innovative in how he portrays women and minorities (he said in one interview that he wanted a cast that reflected the world we are in), that progressive attitude may not translate to marketing. While there were plenty of T-shirts, bobbleheads and figurines of Rey produced, Rey was omitted from the Force Awakens action figure line, despite her prominence as one of Force Awakens’ main characters.
The first wave of action figures were totally absent of the main character of the film, with Finn, Kylo Ren and other figures in abundance. Perez Hilton, a popular entertainment blog, reported that toy manufacturers were specifically told to not produce Rey toys, with one anonymous informer from within the industry saying, “One or more individuals raised concerns about the presence of female characters in the Star Wars products,” adding “Eventually, the product vendors were specifically directed to exclude the Rey character from all Star Wars-related merchandise.”
The omission seems bizarre, as not only in Force Awakens but throughout the modern Star Wars universe are intense and powerful female characters. The Clone Wars and Rebels TV shows have revolved heavily around Ahsoka Tano, a protégé of Anakin Skywalker who left the Jedi just in time to avoid the purge depicted in Revenge of the Sith. She is a major figure in Clone Wars, with the eventual showdown with Darth Vader being one of the biggest draws of Rebels. Marketing teams only think about the bottom line, however, and among marketing teams can be the misogynist mind-set that many feminists describe but men dismiss.
A second wave of toys is on the horizon, with a Rey figure that looks great and equipped with her staff, lightsaber and blaster. Paul Southern, the head of Lucasfilm licensing, announced with a press released that fully recognized that there had been an outcry over her initial omission, saying, “The timing is good to try to address some of the social discussion that has been created through the ‘Where’s Rey?’ movement.”
Hopefully the figures will sell and Lucasfilm will see that kids don’t mind playing like a girl.