“Last Jedi” puts women in the lead

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“Last Jedi” puts women in the lead

(Illustration by Liam McFadden | Staff Illustrator)

(Illustration by Liam McFadden | Staff Illustrator)

(Illustration by Liam McFadden | Staff Illustrator)

(Illustration by Liam McFadden | Staff Illustrator)

By Maggie Durwald | Columnist

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Not so long ago in a town not so far away, I ran around the house with a blanket for a cape and a blue plastic lightsaber, pretending to be Darth Vader. My twin brother favored Luke Skywalker. We spent hours clacking our lightsabers together and waving our hands wildly at each other in a frenetic demonstration of the Force.

Eventually, we stuck our lightsabers in the basement and hung up our blanket cloaks. I lost contact with the Star Wars saga until “The Force Awakens” was released in 2015 as the first installment of the new trilogy. I didn’t like the movie.

And then “The Last Jedi” came out last month. I left the theater as excited and ready to take on the galaxy as I had been as a child.

“The Last Jedi” has something conspicuously absent in the seven other episodes in the series: complex, realistic female characters. That is, women in powerful positions with speaking roles and significance to the plot. Before Episode VIII, female fans had few female characters to look up to. In the original trilogy, Princess Leia was a damsel in distress with a blaster who was eventually reduced to a bikini-clad sex symbol. In the prequels, Padme Amidala served mostly as a love interest to the protagonist and mother of the original hero.

The newest film gives feminists something more to hang onto. It follows powerful women pulling the same tricks that Han Solo and Luke Skywalker used to pull. The galaxy of men fighting men suddenly seems to have found a place for women.

Director Rian Johnson handles women in this film better than any of his predecessors. Anyone could have added more nameless female characters to the casting list, but he created numerous strong female characters with complex stories and faults of their own — kind of like their flesh-and-blood counterparts. And while the decision may simply be a sign of the improving gender politics of our times, the changes to female characters in the movie is encouraging.

Rey, the main protagonist of the new trilogy, is a solitary scavenger whose parents left her at a young age, and early on she shows a powerful ability to use the Force. She’s strong, tough and utterly confused by her place in the galaxy — a struggle I find highly relatable.

Critics, such as freelance writer Jon Brown in a column for the Daily Caller, have decried Rey as a “Mary Sue,” a typically female character who can do no wrong and is the model of perfection. Yet Rey’s general cluelessness and propensity to get into bad situations show that she is as much a student as Luke was in the original trilogy, with just as many faults. She’s powerful but relatable. I would have loved pretending to be her growing up.

“The Last Jedi” introduced another strong female character in Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo. The purple-haired Resistance leader proves to be one of the more complex characters in the film. She argues with hotshot pilot Poe Dameron, who questions her ability to lead the starship. Viewers question her competency along with him. In the end, an act of heroism dismisses any doubts that Holdo is a strong leader, but the most compelling part of her character is her relationship with General Leia.

Portraying women in positions of power is one thing, but perhaps more important is seeing powerful women working together. The Bechdel Test is an bare-minimum indicator of female representation in movies — those that pass the test contain at least two named women who talk to each other about something other than a man.

None of original trilogy films pass this test — they contain just three female characters with speaking roles, only two of whom ever come into contact with each other. The next three films do slightly better, but female characters are still noticeably scarce and isolated from each other amidst an army of men.

“The Last Jedi” passes the Bechdel Test in part because Leia and Holdo work together to save the Resistance sans directives from male characters. Their friendship and unwavering support of each other is the reason they succeed. And I think strong women working together, fighting for each other, is an even more powerfully feminist message than that of the solitary female warrior.

The film also gives a voice to minority women through the character of Rose Tico. Kelly Marie Tran, a Vietnamese-American actress, plays Rose, a Resistance mechanic whose sister makes a heroic sacrifice at the beginning of the film. Rose proves to be a strong, compassionate hero, and Tran breaks all stereotypes for Asian women in film. Whereas Hollywood has a history of casting Asian women in the roles of “sex workers or characters described as submissive, fragile or quiet,” according to an April 2017 article by Sam Levin in the Guardian, Rose is a smart, bold hero.

Many male fans have voiced their dissatisfaction with the heightened role of women in Star Wars online, claiming that the male figures are portrayed as weak and inferior to the women. In a thread on Quora, one fan writes that the movie’s female lead is portrayed as “naturally awesome just by being a woman.” Some of these fans also claim that the franchise is pushing away their fan base by attempting to appeal more to women and minorities.

Evidently, these critics see Star Wars as a boys’ club. But so many groups, including women, have been fans since 1977 without any substantial representation in the films. It’s refreshing and exciting to finally see these viewers reflected back in important characters on the big screen.

“The Last Jedi” is by no means the end point for feminists’ work toward equal representation in mass media. However, the move toward a more positive and realistic representation of women and minorities in this film was well done and exciting for old fans and new.

In the meantime, I’m excited for a new generation of young girls who get to pretend to be the heroines I wish I could’ve been growing up.

Maggie primarily writes about social issues and economics for The Pitt News. Write to Maggie at mad338@pitt.edu.

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