Feminism and “The Force:” Thinking Through “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” by Sara Frykenberg


Sara FrykenbergSci-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.

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Image sourced from here.

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.”[1] 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.”[2] 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.”[3] 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), ”[4] 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.

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Image sourced from here.

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.

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Image sourced from here.

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.”[5] 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.

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Image sourced from here.

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!

[1] 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.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] 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.

[5] 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.

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Categories: Film, General, Myth, Patriarchy, power

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34 replies

  1. With Rat’s lineage, while watching the film, I figured she’s Kylo’s twin sister, hence the dramatic stare when they see each other face to face.

    But, I also think after the enormity of “I am your father” that would be too obvious.

    What if she is Obi Wan’s child? The most compelling argument I’ve read on this is her fighting style mimics his, the voice she hears when holding Luke’s light saber is his and it would be a nice plot twist.

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    • “But, I also think after the enormity of “I am your father” that would be too obvious.”

      I found that an enormous statement in one of the former films – that the great hero and force for good also contains the genes of the opposite. What does that say about us? What does a Storm Trooper who bleeds say about “enemies”?

      I hope there is a Yoda figure in the new productions because we will never attain peace by blasting others into oblivion. It takes wisdom, and self knowledge.

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    • My sense is that she is too young to be Obi Wan’s child, because events in this movie are supposed to happen 30yrs. after the events at Endor.

      … I think I want them to be twins, perhaps, because I am a twin. But either way there is much needed back story here…

      Liked by 1 person

      • I don’t remember if they mention her age, but I agree, she may be too young.

        I don’t “want” her to be Kylo’s sister, simply because it mirrors the original movies. This movie has already been criticized for being a pale shade of its predecessor. Though I still want her lineage to be exciting and gasp worthy.

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    • I had a strong sense that Ray was Luke Skywalker’s daughter. The last scene — when she holds out the light saber to him — seemed to point in that direction.

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  2. War is war is war, I have not seen any of these films.

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    • Precisely, Carol. There are other ways to deal with conflict. Those kind of “flicks,” though, probably would not bring in the $.

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    • Yet war is something we remain in close relationship to and cannot eliminate by ignoring or denying this relationship… while I do not think Star Wars re-imagines or refracts this kind of violence, other science fiction and video games do- games you have dismissed in comments to my posts without watching or playing either.
      We will have to agree to disagree here Carol.

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  3. I will probably see this movie. Eventually, when I have time and feel motivated to go out to a multiplex filled with noise and noisy people.

    I liked the first three movies, which I saw in theaters. I thought the famous cantina scene was a terrific example of diversity. Admittedly, none of the diverse characters were human, and the heroic humans were mostly white-skinned. It’s good to learn about the diversity of skins in the new movie.

    I have read in many places that movies are loud and filled with action-adventure with almost no dialogue so the producers don’t have to spend very much money on translation. I much prefer movies that deal with conflict without blowing up people (and cars and whole cities) so that there’s a victor surrounded by ruins and shreds of people. But, Esther, you’re right. Conversation brings in less money than blowing things up.

    Gee–that’s true in “real” life, too, isn’t it.

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  4. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this “follow up” to the original Star War series, Sara. Yoda was always my favourite! If we use our brains instead of our swords, the world will be a better place.

    I haven’t been to a theatre in a long time due to sight and hearing difficulties. but if a film makes us think more deeply about life, and what we do to others, I think it has value as another way of story telling – a very powerful way of story telling.

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    • Thank you Barbara– I like Yoda too, but I’m kind of enamored with BB-8 right now– the sweet and seemingly emotional droid is too sweet ;)

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      • The droids in the original – can’t remember their names now – were two of the funniest characters in the story! :-D

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  5. I wouldn’t underestimate the power of casting a woman as the lead Jedi. I think my daughter liked the film because of that heroine.

    Nevertheless, while I greatly enjoyed these films as a child, I feel I have outgrown them. The only thing that might make them more interesting in the future is if they decide to break down the Hero’s Redemption Myth which is so pervasive in American society. I think they are toying with this idea, ex. Luke’s failure to kick start a Jedi school, Ren’s refusal to accept his parents’ help.

    I think the film did in some ways reflect contemporary society; men who run away from their problems instead of facing up to them, women who wait for love (family or lover) instead of seizing exciting opportunities that are offered to them, children hooking up with the ‘wrong’ crowd.

    But I find the shooting and explosions tiresome. I’d rather listen to an interesting conversation. Perhaps listening involves a ‘power’ we are unwilling to grant the ‘other’.

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    • I’m not a movie buff, and rarely watch TV, but your last paragraph, thanks nmr, is important, and maybe speaks to what we are trying to accomplish at FAR?

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    • I also really appreciate your final comment here nmr. It raises a question for me connected to the questions I ask above: what do ‘we’ think we will lose by listening to ‘the other?’

      I am very interested in Carter Heyward’s assertions (as I read her) that we are afraid of losing what little we have left of ourselves, not realizing, like Anakin, that it is our “alienated power” (Heyward) that causes our self-diminishment.

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      • I don’t understand Carter Heyward, so I can’t really speak to that. I think it is the perception of ‘loss’ that is the sticking point for me. Although it is labeled ‘loss’, I would label it ‘change’. People are afraid to change, afraid of the changes around them – and this is what first tumbled Anakin onto the Dark Side.

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      • nmr, I think the two are the same (loss and change), at least in the beginning. The beginning of any change, whether desired or not, is the loss of what went before.

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      • Nancy I agree with you about loss and change being the same at the beginning. This came up a few weeks ago in the comments on a blog and I’m sorry I can’t remember the person who said it (was it you? sorry!), but working through the loss involved in change is a very important feeling and not to run away from it. That helped me so much in a particularly dark time in my life (which yes, involved change/loss).

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  6. I’ve been hesitant to watch the movie, given my disappointment with previous installments on the Trilogy i grew up with/ However, after reading your post, I’d like to. Fem heroines non-sexualised, diverse ethnic groups~ yah! Was anyone differently abled?

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  7. I truely liked the film and its female star. I was pleasantly surprised to see that she was ‘ordinary’ yet special, like we all feel in our day to day life. I also liked the fact that it was the male hero who cheiceked out at first and came back because he loved the heroine. The film ends with him in a comatose sleep like sleeping beauty, waiting to be kissed awake. waiting to be rescued.

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  8. I think she’s Luke’s daughter. Surely if she was Kyloe twin Leia would have greeted her as her daughter but Leia hugged her as if she was another relative like a lost niece. Ren is Kylo’s clan name under Snoke.
    But if she is Luke’s daughter where is her mother and why was she abandoned?

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    • elfkat, your last thought here is why I am resisting the idea that she is Luke’s daughter: too much missing backstory. Exactly– what about her mother? Unless she becomes just a flashback– which would be quite disappointing.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. I read an article theorizing that Rey is actually an incarnation of the Force itself/some kind of reincarnation of Anakin, much like Anakin apparently was in the prequels (I haven’t seen the prequels). This would help explain why she feels and uses the Force so strongly without having been trained in it.

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  10. I have to admit that I found the movie pale in comparison to the 3 first Star Wars films. I enjoyed the strong female lead; that she wasn’t hyper-sexualized; the new African-American ex-storm trooper and his vulnerabilities, love, and final sleeping beauty coma; and especially the “watering hole,” with its many, many species of humanoids. But essentially — without Yoda or Ewoks or any actual new conflicts — it was just a big shoot-em-up between “good” and “evil.” That paradigm is completely worn out for me. Too bad. I had heard many good things about the film

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  11. The other thing that bothered me about the film was the use of the light sabers. Finn using a light saber during an aerial attack, with bombs going off all over the place, seemed to diminish the “force.” It sure wasn’t very successful in that battle.

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  12. Reblogged this on hataibu's world and commented:
    This is my outing as a Star Wars fan.
    And besides, this article’s musing are quite interesting …

    Like

  13. Lovely breakdown! Wonderful thread!

    Like

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