I’m new to Star Wars.
I didn’t grow up watching the original trilogy, nor did I spend my early teen years watching the prequel trilogy or any of the numerous spinoff cartoons that aired on TV. I had one of those sound books for kids of A New Hope, knew the basic spoilers of the original trilogy (and the basic pop culture references), and saw some clips here and there of all six movies.
There are plenty of reasons why I never got into the story–minimal exposure, greater interest in cartoons, my almost exclusive interest in anime throughout much of my teens. And with all that, one thing that certainly didn’t help was all the marketing that sent a clear message that Star Wars was for boys. I didn’t feel excluded; I just didn’t want to participate in the first place and I found much better stories about girls in things that I already liked.
So, I ready to pass over The Force Awakens. Given that Star Wars particularly is a pillar of a culture that writhes at “fake geek girls” and has been a ready example of many interesting albeit critical feminist analyses I’ve come across, it didn’t occur to me that the new film would depart from that norm. It really wasn’t on my radar until it premiered and the Internet exploded.
Then, I heard about the diversity–female and black central protagonists. I heard that it was a good film with a good story. Friends left and right were telling me that I’d like it.
So, I gave Star Wars a chance. I watched the original trilogy all the way through for the first time, knowing most of the spoilers, not expecting much from Leia, and anticipating heterosexuality. I mostly got what I thought I would and still enjoyed every minute of those films. Okay, the first part of The Empire Strikes Back was kind of slow, Han Solo came across as more of a creep than a charming bad boy, and slave Leia was awkward but shown as more empowering than I expected it to be (it also didn’t last as long as I thought it would). The original trilogy is a solid, tightly-written story and it doesn’t surprise me that it’s used as a model for a good execution of the Hero’s Journey. From a nuts-and-bolts of writing standpoint, it’s a great learning tool (and blogs that have used it as such served as my other primary exposure to the series).
I went into The Force Awakens with the original trilogy fresh in my memory, minimal knowledge of the new film, and none of the nostalgic attachments to the franchise to severely heighten or lower my expectations.
The Force Awakens is great and the deviation from casting all white men as the central protagonists frankly feels like an invitation for more types of people to come play in this universe and be a part of the story, so to speak. This is what good representation does. I felt neutral about Star Wars before, but with Rey as an access point in this reboot of the franchise, I feel like I can participate more in genuinely enjoying other parts of the whole story (should they be decently written, and I’ve read that many are not). In other words, I wasn’t interested in Star Wars–so representation issues didn’t particularly bother me–until I got invited to the party and that’s why Rey is important. For girls unlike me who grew up loving Star Wars anyway and faced exclusion from both a marketing and cultural standpoint, Rey is even more important. She’s a long-awaited affirmation of their love for the franchise. Don’t get me wrong–Leia is a great character and certainly ended up doing more than I thought she would in a set of films made in the 70s and 80s, but Rey is the one taking the Jedi journey here. Leia doesn’t take that journey in the original trilogy, even though the Force is apparently just as strong in her as it is in Luke.
Rey is a solid character who I hope becomes more dynamic in the next two movies. She’s an expert pilot, technician, and fighter, and her affinity for the Force combined with her sharp thinking get her out of tough situations. Her one catch is her naivety in waiting for family that won’t come back and running away from that truth. I hope that in the next film, she’ll open up more as a character because right now, we only have a little bit of her backstory–or the why that informs her cunning and skill. Otherwise, she might stay too similar to Katniss Everdeen and Merida and other recent strong female protagonists we’ve had in movies and TV shows. Then again, the fact that I’m interested in finding out more about Rey means that the writers did their job in crafting her well. I want to see her become a Jedi. I want to see how she’ll struggle and triumph in her training with Luke–and I want to see how Luke training Rey will help him overcome his guilt about Kylo Ren.
Finn is important for similar reasons. He’s one of very few well-rounded black protagonists that I’ve seen in mainstream pop culture stories. He humanizes the Storm Troopers, who in the original trilogy are presented as disposable soldiers and nothing more. He’s awkward and good-hearted and the fact that he’s a developed, complex character helps to counter the negative stereotypes and limited typecasts that black men are often limited to, both in fictional worlds and the real world. His comedic awkwardness doesn’t limit him to a comic relief role, nor does his past as a Storm Trooper confine him as an evil or dangerous character who can’t be trusted. Of course, I expect that he’ll struggle with that past trying to pull him back over the next two films, but it’s clear that he has a strong sense of morality.
In a time when young black men are conceived of as just one thing and are killed or injured for it, Finn provides a much-needed counter to those perceptions. Fictional characters and stories have power. They help shape our opinions and inspire us to take action in the real world. With Star Wars being as mainstream as it is, millions of people will see Finn and that just might begin to change the way that so, so many of us subconsciously internalize perceptions of black men specifically and black people in general. Does Finn’s existence solve the urgent problem of police brutality? Does it do anything for Tamir Rice and Michael Brown and Freddie Gray? No, but Finn can start to change minds and Star Wars as a whole can once again be a formative story for our youngest generations, some of whom are black and some of whom will grow up to become police officers.
I could say more on this, but this article in The Guardian provides a much better and more interesting analysis of blackness in Star Wars than I could’ve come up with.
And finally, there’s Poe. Admittedly, I didn’t realize he’s Latino until I read some articles about it, which just goes to show that Latinx isn’t something you can tell only by looking at someone. It’s an ethnicity that comes in all races. Poe is set up as the attractive action hero–you think he’s going to be the main protagonist. Then, you think it’ll be him and Finn as a team. The special thing about Poe is that he’s exactly the type of male lead we’re used to in so many other stories. He’s confident, good-looking, skilled, light-skinned–he has all the makings of main character, but he doesn’t actually become the focus of the movie. Although he does survive and therefore becomes part of the story, it’s not ultimately about him. Instead, the primary narrative is the one about Rey and Finn. And the best part about Poe? He comes across as a character who doesn’t need to take center stage and be the hero. He gets satisfaction from giving agency to Finn and working with others. There’s also lots of talk going around about Poe and Finn having some chemistry, which would be very exciting to see fully developed in the narrative (meanwhile, Rey would either be ace or fall in love with a cute lady pilot. Or both).
While all of this newness is refreshing, The Force Awakens doesn’t throw away its foundations for the sake of this new direction. Sometimes, it feels a little too close to A New Hope, but with Han, Leia, Chewy, and Luke all making appearances, the new movie sets a precedent that this trilogy will work with its base material as opposed to doing away with it or topping it. That said, I can see why some die-hard fans would be disappointed or even angry at certain events in The Force Awakens.
But overall, the new movie got me interested in Star Wars. I’m not claiming superfan status, but I do like the story. It’s fun, engaging, and solidly written.