It took me a while to tear myself away from all the fics Rin recced yesterday to write this, but when I was done, I was in too much of a Star Wars mood to write about anything else. At first I was like, “self, should we really have a Star Wars-related post for the third day in a row?” but let’s be real: no one’s complaining.
I’ve gone from being a multifandom mess to at least 80% Star Wars trash in the last week and a half (with the remaining percentages split between Hamilton and Steven Universe), and since I can’t stop thinking about it, today I want to talk about all the ways The Force Awakens defies traditional gender norms in storytelling.
Let’s start with Rey, because, yes, Hasbro, Rey is the main character. Before our holiday break I wrote about the alarming frequency with which female heroes receive unnecessarily traumatic treatment. Rey doesn’t go through that; rather, her journey is far more reminiscent of the typical male hero’s story. While she does have a troubled past, “I don’t know who my parents are but it makes sense story-wise for them to have been someone important” is a dime-a-dozen backstory for male heroes. Think Luke, think Disney’s Hercules, think Naruto. She isn’t shaped into a budding Jedi because of a terrible tragedy—she’s shaped into a budding Jedi because she found a lightsaber in a box.
Furthermore, while her character growth is somewhat defined by her new relationships, those relationships are both organic and, as of right now, platonic. And while, yes, Kylo Ren does attempt to mind-rape her in order to discover Luke’s coordinates, it’s not something he does to her specifically—we see him use the same tactics on Poe earlier in the film. While it’s a terrible thing to experience, it’s not a gendered assault—he’s not targeting her because she’s female.
And even cinematographically, her depiction stands out. She’s never objectified by the camera; there’s never a moment where the shot lingers on her body in a skeevy way, and actually, the first part of her that we see is her face. One scene that stands out to me especially after three viewings is the one where she confronts Finn in Maz’s cantina. She’s given the literal high ground over him, and we as an audience are looking down over her shoulder toward Finn—a definite power reversal for an argument between men and women.
Rey’s not the only woman who gets to live outside the typical narrative, either. Leia is a gruff military leader, compassionate but no-nonsense. After her son defected she “went back to what she was good at”, which is apparently running motherfucking rebellions. Maz joins the sparsely populated club of cinematic wise old woman mentors, which currently consists of… Mama Odie from The Princess and the Frog and… the witch from Brave, maybe? And that’s not to mention the scores of other women who are present in the film. There are women working at every level of the Resistance and every level of the First Order. Fan-favorite background character Jessika Pava flies an X-Wing just as well as any other pilot. Phasma proves that you don’t have to be a man to be sinister and imposing. There are more women of different races and body types who have speaking lines in the two hours of this movie than there are in the whole Marvel Cinematic Universe, and that in and of itself breaks gendered expectations.
But it isn’t just a movie that gives women a different sort of expression. The men also get freedom that men’s stories don’t always give them. Finn gets to be scared and weak and recover, he gets to be openly emotional and expressive. We see him scared and confused at the beginning, and he doesn’t try to hide his desire to get the fuck away from the First Order when he’s confronted about it. He’s also sincerely complimentary and physically expressive, even with other guys. He’s eager to compliment Rey and Poe’s flying on separate occasions; his handholding with Rey seems more for his own security/benefit than for hers; and he doesn’t hesitate to fly into a hug with Poe when he realizes Poe survived.
Meanwhile, Poe is the typical stereotypical masculine pilot flyboy without any of the problematic trappings thereof. He’s brash, snarky, and at least a bit reckless, but he’s also caring, trusting, deeply loyal, and generous. (And if what appears to be the prevailing popular desire comes true and he actually ends up being queer, it’ll be yet another win for stereotype-breaking representation.) He wants to uplift and affirm the people around him—he gives Finn a name because he refuses to buy into the idea that a sentient being could have no real individual identity, even when it doesn’t occur to Finn to be upset about it. Poe is also very open about his affections, however romantically or platonically you read them. He doesn’t have Dean Winchester’s “no chick-flick moments” rule—he doesn’t need to constantly reaffirm his masculinity after doing something emotional. His affectionate behavior even extends to BB-8—the droid is one of a kind, and not just because it’s carrying the map to Luke. He genuinely cares about its welfare and greets it like an old friend after meeting it again.
On the other hand, we have Kylo Ren. Unlike our male heroes, Ren doesn’t express or deal with his emotions in a healthy way. He’s a loose cannon, and even his allies avoid him and fear him when his absolutely terrifying short temper is set off. While some people point to the mockery of his over-emotional behavior as buying into the idea that men can’t be emotional without it becoming a joke, his tantrums are actually just a different facet of toxic masculinity. He’s not crying because he’s emotionally overwhelmed; he’s destroying property because he didn’t get what he wanted. Syng was definitely right in pointing out the ways his behavior mirrors that of real-world MRAs. This is textbook toxic masculine behavior—you can’t talk to other people about why you’re upset and work through your feelings, but it’s totally okay if you physically express that anger through destruction. Think of every guy in any movie or show who starts a fight or punches a wall or beats a car with a wrench (looking at you again, Dean Winchester) because he’s pissed off. It’s a deeply unhealthy and unproductive way to vent your emotions.
However, Ren’s behavior is still important in terms of the gendered portrayals in the movie for the same reasons Syng argued that his MRA-ness was important: because it’s not going to last. He’s the villain, and in the end he’s either going to realize that he was wrong and has been wrong, or he’s going to die, or both. In this way (hopefully), the narrative will confirm for the audience that the way he acts is not the way men should act.
Like any other movie, The Force Awakens has its ups and downs, its plot twists and its plot holes. But it stands out to me both within its role as a part of the Star Wars universe and as a standalone work because of the way it deals with gender. Excepting perhaps Mad Max: Fury Road, I can’t think of another movie in recent memory that gave us such nuanced, unstereotypical, and refreshing portrayals of gender on the big screen. Here’s hoping that the next two films carry this message forward and keep up the good work.