The year was 1999. I was in the fourth grade. And Star Wars’ Queen Amidala was the coolest freaking heroine I’d ever seen.
She was fearless, strong, and fiercely intelligent. The opposite of a damsel in distress. Wise, educated and incredibly well spoken — not to mention the ruler of her own freaking democracy — Padme was the heroine my nerdy little 11-year-old bookworm self had only dreamed of.
Here was a woman who was a hero in her own right. Not just a pretty face. Not stupid. Not helpless. And not objectified or valued only for her body. A Princess Leia who didn’t need a golden bikini to make her memorable.
I adored Padme Amidala. But I was also young. At 11, I didn’t quite get the subtleties. I didn’t see the things that would lead others to call her a failed attempt at feminism.
(For context, I also thought Hayden Christensen [II & III’s Anakin] was one of the hottest actors I’d ever seen. Not to mention that his overall woodenness and general lack of acting ability entirely escaped my notice. So I’ll leave it to you to evaluate my teenage sense of judgment.)
But Padme: strong, intelligent, gutsy Padme, was my hero. Even though she never really fought quite as well as the boys. Even though her actual power as a senator proved fairly useless. Even though as soon as she got pregnant and saw her husband turning evil, she pretty much gave up all hope and more or less died of a broken heart.
I still loved her. She was a strong, smart woman. And I adored her for it.
Fast-forward to today. It’s 2015. Star Wars: The Force Awakens has given us a new chance at heroines: Rey.
Rey succeeds where 1999’s Queen Amidala, 2002’s Padme “six pack” clone-fighter and the 2005’s pregnant, depressed damsel could not.
(SPOILERS ahead, if you haven’t seen the film yet.)
She is a badass in every sense of the word. A light saber-wielding badass, capable of taking on the film’s primary villain in an epic sword duel. She doesn’t just fight the bad guy by herself, she actually emerges victorious. The force is strong with her. Stronger, perhaps, than with any of the men she encounters.
But where The Force Awakens really succeeds is in its treatment of Rey. She’s not a strong woman, she’s strong. Plain and simple. She’s not a female badass. She’s a badass. No other descriptor needed. Her femininity doesn’t define her. It’s not even really a big part of who she is.
Most of all, for the entire 136 minutes of film, no one felt the need to objectify her in any way. The Star Wars heroines before her, though both strong and brave, were both objectified. (Because they’re, like, women in a sci-fi movie. And they’re hot.)
Padme, though gratefully making it through the series without ever having to don a Leia-style gold bikini, still has perhaps her most memorable scenes running around Geonosis in a skintight white outfit (toting a gun! shooting at clones!) with her entire stomach exposed.
Now, obviously Natalie Portman is gorgeous and most people would kill for her abs. It just bothers me that, for all the talk of Padme’s intelligence and leadership as a senator, we still mainly just remember the time she and her perfect abs ran around shooting stuff.
Rey, for the entirety of The Force Awakens, is never once sexualized. She has no skintight bodysuits. No exposed abs. There’s not even a low-cut top in sight. Nothing about her outfits are feminine or form-hugging. She isn’t a girl warrior. She is a warrior.
For a male-heavy blockbuster sequel that everyone was hoping would demolish every ticket sales record, it’s a feat I’m betting movie marketers probably either labeled somewhat risky or horrifically stupid. Here is a leading female character, a sci-fi action heroine, who is never objectified. Nothing in her appeal has to do with her body.
Think for even a second about any other sci-fi or action heroine, and you’ll realize this is incredibly rare. But miraculously, The Force Awakens managed to pull it off.
Star Wars crushed the box office records. The internet is obsessed with Rey — in fact, their biggest criticism is that she’s too perfect.
All the while, none of us has any idea what Daisy Ridley looks like in a bikini. Or how great her abs are. And no movie marketers took it upon themselves to get all Photoshop-happy with her upper half, a la Keira Knightly in King Arthur.
No, Rey in The Force Awakens has the rare luxury of getting to be a strong, powerful heroine — without even a hint of sexualization in sight. It’s a only a facet of what makes her character and this movie, in general, so groundbreaking.
(See also: the fact that Star Wars cast a person of color as one of their leads. I know, right? This stuff shouldn’t be trailblazing. It should be normal. But realistically in Hollywood, we’re not there yet.)
The Force Awakens was a great start. But we still have two more sequels in this new trilogy left to go. So the question is: Did moviegoers convince Hollywood that we love Rey enough just as she is?
Because I’m concerned that 2017 and 2019 will bring their own versions of Leia’s gold bikini for Rey.
…that the next logical step in her character development from scrappy desert fighter to iconic Jedi warrior will mean trading her gender-neutral battle garb for a skintight latex-y outfit of the warrior princess persuasion.
Would a vampy, sexified Rey sell more movie tickets? I’m betting most people will think so. But Star Wars has given us something beautiful with Rey. A strong, fearless warrior who doesn’t need to use her body to help make her an pop culture icon.
I hope they have the sense not to mess that up.