Sci-fi fan that I am, I would feel remiss if I failed to discuss Star Wars: The Force Awakens here on feminismandreligion.com (warning, spoilers ahead). Yet, despite the fact that I have seen the movie two times since its release and the many, many discussions of this movie already out there, I have yet to form some conclusion as to the relationship between feminism or religion, and Star Wars.
On the one hand, The Force Awakens is just like the other Star Wars movies. ‘Good guys’ fight the ‘bad guys,’ a hero/ine emerges and some characters are tragically lost, either by choosing the wrong side or when killed by emerging villains. Interesting iterations of “the Hero’s Journey,” these movies fulfill standard mythic tropes—mythic tropes that also tend reinforce our existent social structures and ideals… so, often kyriarchal ideals of power.
According to Lev Grossman of Time magazine, The Force Awakens “toes the Joseph Campbell line pretty closely.” Yet, the film is also a reimagining which, according to Kathleen Kennedy, president of Lucasfilm, requires director J. J. Abrams to “come up with new ideas, new points of view, and… move [the Star Wars universe] from 1977 to 2015.” I am interested in what The Force Awakens says about 2015. What does this films say about changing cultural tides and our understanding of our global, interconnected community?
Perhaps, most notably, The Force Awakens highlights a growing sense of the importance of our human diversity and the hopes of many for greater inclusiveness of this reality within dominant narratives. J. J. Abrams states, “It was very important to me that this movie look more the way the world looks than not.” This priority is refreshingly obvious when watching the film. Whether rebel fighters or leaders, or technicians within the First Order command room, the screen features women, men, people of color, white people, aliens, computer generated “part(icipants), ” droids, puppets and humans.
I have never seen so many women in a science fiction film. While I like Ray (Daisy Ridley), the female lead and the film’s ‘awakening’ Jedi, I found the sheer volume of women cast as secondary characters more indicative of the film’s diversity than the choice of a female as main character. Sci-fi is no stranger to the “exceptional” female lead: a super-sexy (usually white or light skinned) powerhouse who kicks ass and stuns the world with her physical prowess, lean lines and sensual power. Recall, if you will, Tomb Raider, Aeon Flux, or even Gravity’s exceptional Ryan Stone.
The Force Awakens, alternatively, normalizes women’s inclusion by casting women in all kinds of roles, including as a commander of the gender ambiguous Storm Troopers—its almost as if women were at least half of the population of the universe! Further, Ray is not hyper sexualized. Her costume befits the dessert planet that is her home, utilitarian then Jedi like in nature.
As has been widely discussed in social media, the film also features a Black male lead, Finn (John Boyega). FN-2187 arises from the literally nameless mass of storm troopers, first identifiable by the trail of blood left on his helmet by a comrade whom he watches die in the movie’s first battle. Wait—storm troopers bleed?!? Yes. There is important truth in this scene: those objectified and used as tools of the empire bleed and die, and it matters.
I am fairly certain that we (the audience) aren’t supposed to care very much about storm troopers in most Star Wars movies. The prequels make these warriors into clones—copies of one real person to be used as blaster fodder. But FN-2187 has a story and a will. A child stolen from his family and conditioned to fight, Finn is now a young adult running from the First Order and their cruelty, given a name by the Rebel pilot (Poe, played by Oscar Isaac) he helps to escape capture. Unfortunately, he is exceptional in this depiction, as storm troopers continue to be killed and used indiscriminately throughout the movie.
Finn’s character also does not completely escape the racial tropes given to Black men in media who are often depicted in “three common stereotypes: the athlete, the entertainer, and the criminal.” He is arguably the funniest character in the movie, the entertainer, a characterization often meant to disarm the hyper-masculinity attributed to the black male body by racist Eurocentrism and white supremacy. However, Finn is also a compassionate hero character: he wants to do the right thing and cares passionately for his companions. He is always running towards danger to help his friends, a behavior that contrasts film dialogue that describes him as someone who wants to run away. I am curious to see how this character develops as the new story unfolds.
More inclusive in many ways, The Force Awakens, I hope, shows some shift in Western consciousness—a shift in how many of us, as a society, see our communities and ourselves, or hope to. What I find most telling in this movie, however, is what this film’s villain reveals about concerns in 2015.
In the Star Wars of the 70’s and 80’s, and indeed, even in the prequels of the early 2000s, there is a great deal of emphasis on the lure of the “dark side” of the force—its power and appeal. Luke Skywalker’s victory is his ability to resist the seduction of the dark side, and ultimately redeem his father. Audiences are meant to identify with the hero against the lure of the “darkness.” Anakin Skywalker’s tragedy is that his fear of losing his lover drives him to the “dark side” powers that actually cause the loss he so dreads.
This trilogy emphasizes the damage of fear—a timely message during the Bush administration and the “War on Terror.” Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), on the other hand, works to resist the call of the “light.” The Force Awakens puts emphasis on the villain’s perspective; and my question is, is this because many of us who are in the audience need to see how we are also like this villain?
As Ray reveals, Kylo Ren fears that he will not be as powerful as Darth Vader. Depicted as near omnipotent at the beginning of the movie, able to use the force in ways audiences haven’t seen before, stopping a gun blast in mid air, extracting information from his prisoners by the force of his will, Kylo Ren is anything but weak. Yet, when confronting the “light,” embodied in his female rival Ray, Ren loses his confidence. The female use of the force, an ultimately relational power, challenges patriarchal conviction. Determined to correct his weakness, Ren murders his father, Han Solo—the perceived source of his vulnerability; but this only exacerbates his loss of power (patriarchy is built upon killing the mother, not the father, after all) . Ultimately, Ray bests him in a duel, calling upon the innate power within her.
Watching Ren stumble and cling to self-defeating power, I couldn’t help but think about American social stratification, class warfare and environmental degradation. When they are unable to erode the middle class any further, whom will the ‘powers that be’ turn on next? How is empire coping with the growing unrest of the rebels and storm troopers it has so abused? Why are we so afraid to lose power when facing the ‘other?’ What stops us from believing in another kind of power? What are we really protecting? What is Kylo Ren really protecting? Again, I am curious to see how the movies will attempt to answer these questions…so much feminist theology attempts to answer these questions.
What were your thoughts on this film?
And for fans: do you think Ray is Luke Skywalker’s daughter or Kylo Ren’s twin?
Thank you for reading, and, may the force be with you!
 Lev Grossman, “A New Hope: How J. J. Abrams Brought Back Star Wars Using Puppets, Greebles, and Yak Hair,” Time, December 14, 2015, pg. 74.
 Seth Giddings. (2009) Events and Collusions: A Glossary for the Microethnography of Video Game Play. Games and Culture 2009 4: 144. Pg. 148
Giddings uses this term to describe the computer generated characters we play with in video games, working to expose the anthropocentric biases we operate under when considering our digital interactions within games. I feel this term can be applied to the computer generated movie characters here as well.
 Luke Wood and Adriel A. Hilton, “Moral Choices: Towards a Conceptual Model of Black Male Moral Development,” Western Journal of Black Studies, Spring 2013; 37, 1, pg. 21.
Featured image sourced from here.
Sara Frykenberg, Ph.D.: Graduate of the Women’s Studies in Religion program at Claremont Graduate University, Sara’s research considers the way in which process feminist theo/alogies reveal a kind transitory violence present in the liminal space between abusive paradigms and new non-abusive creations: a counter-necessary violence. In addition to her feminist, theo/alogical and pedagogical pursuits, Sara is also an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy literature, and a level one Kundalini yoga teacher.