The Female Focus of Star Wars: The Force Awakens Was Planned From the Start

As the father of one of the many girls who like Star Wars, I couldn’t miss the opportunity to quiz the cast and filmmakers about the prominence of female characters in Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

As much as I love engaging with Star Wars with my daughter, I am always painfully aware that it is centred around male characters. But girls who like Star Wars – like my daughter – deserve to be able to see themselves in these stories too. Princess Leia is great, but it is her father and brother that the story focuses on. Ashoka is awesome, but the stories she’s in are usually driven by others.

No longer. There is much to admire about Star Wars: The Force Awakens – reuniting the original cast, the compelling new characters, using practical sets and effects. But the most glorious new aspect of the movie is the central role of Rey, and the greater prominence of female characters overall.

A new generation of Star Wars women

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Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens – she will inspire a generation of little girls

Having previously stated that he wanted to make a movie that “mothers could take their daughters to”, Director J.J. Abrams told me that “the idea was always to have this female character at the heart of the story”.

From the moment we meet her, Rey is the one who drives the story forward and in a way that was surprising and moving. When she had her ‘moment’ I felt like crying and cheering at the same time.

Kathleen Kennedy, the president of Lucasfilm, has been a vocal advocate of the Star Wars fangirl community and the need to bring a gender balance into all areas of the Star Wars industry.

She observes that “(Princess Leia) was a very cutting edge character in the 70’s, so we really used that as a springboard to bring in Daisy Ridley and make her such a powerful female presence.”

This intention was echoed by Disney CEO Bob Iger, who made reference to the fact that “Women are heroes too,” so why wouldn’t they have a female Star Wars lead.

Daisy Ridley gives a bright and engaging performance as Rey. She will inspire millions of little girls, and I asked her how that felt. For her it came down to the way Rey has been written.  “J.J. is an incredible writer, especially of females in a kind of male dominated world… if people look up to her, then I’m very happy with that.”

General Leia and Captain Phasma – Star Wars women’s changing role in the intergalactic military

Princess Leia is now of course General Leia Organa, leader of the Resistance. It is a logical progression from the character’s more militaristic role with the Rebels in The Empire Strikes Back, and (to a lesser extent) Return of the Jedi. Of the change of Leia’s title, Carrie Fisher quipped that “Women are a lot better than men really, especially in wartime. We look better in the outfits.”

One of the best outfits in the movie is worn by Gwendoline Christie as Captain Phasma. She was impressed with it from the start. “I Ioved that it was purely practical armour, that it wasn’t sexualised in any way,” she said, adding that “I’m utterly thrilled to wear the costume… It’s very empowering.”

Captain Phasma became a female character very late in the casting process, in part because of internet chatter about the (at that time) low level of female cast members. It’s great that the filmmakers listened, and also looked for other ways to normalise the inclusion of women in a way that had not been done in previous Star Wars movies. JJ Abrams said that “…we have wonderful cast of good guys, bad guys, pilots, stormtroopers – that happen to be female.”

Empowering little girls who like Star Wars

It’s difficult for me to know exactly what characters will help empower my daughter. I have encouraged her to engage with a range of fictional females from Katie Morag to Batgirl. Her interest in Star Wars has been fairly organic, and she naturally gravitated towards Leia, the most prominent of all.

But I have a strong sense that Rey will resonate with her. Daisy Ridley beamed when I told her I bought a Rey figure for my daughter straight after watching the movie. “That is so cool! How old is your daughter?” When I told her she’s 4-years old (which she will be when she sees the movie), her expression changed. “She’s a bit young for this don’t you think?”. I shrugged, and so did Daisy. “Depends on the child I guess?” she said. It does indeed.

Should my young daughter see Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

In this story, set a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…. there was a girl who never lost hope, who cared about the plight of others over her own, and never backed down from a challenge.

I can’t wait for my daughter to experience Rey’s resilience, her exciting journey, and a defining moment that will bring many a fan close to tears.

Mark Hamill said something quite beautiful, about how much he loves Star Wars fans, and how privileged he feels to have been a part of so many of their lives from childhood to adulthood and even parenthood.

So despite her young age, and questions over age appropriateness, I think my daughter needs to see this now.

I want her to have this new saga woven into her childhood the way Star Wars was into mine. So she can look up to the stars in wonder, and imagine intergalactic adventures involving heroic girls (and villainous chrome armoured women).

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Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review: Bringing Gender Balance to the Force

**This is a spoiler free Star Wars: The Force Awakens review, that reveals nothing new about the plot other than anything officially released prior to my seeing the finished film**

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Unlike the prequels, which I watched for myself, I came to this brand new chapter of the Star Wars saga as a father of a daughter, with whom I have shared my love of Star Wars. Thoughts of gender imbalance and representation were far from my mind when watching earlier entries, but they are now at the forefront as a fanboy dad of a fangirl daughter.

The previous Star Wars movies either had Leia or Padme as prominent central characters – but that was pretty much it. The main story was always that of the male protagonist. Just how bad female characters had it is plain from this compilation from the original Star Wars trilogy:

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review: Bringing Gender Balance to the Force

In the hands of Lucasfilm under Kathleen Kennedy, JJ Abrams, and Disney as well, we finally have a Star Wars movie that places women at the heart of the story. This is the kind of shift I had been wishing for since we started the #WeWantLeia campaign – a story that little girls can watch, and see themselves at the center of the galaxy far, far away…

For this alone, it deserves to be embraced by  girls as much as boys – and I sincerely hope that it will. I also hope that the merchandising begins to reflect the shift into Star Wars becoming overtly unisex, and the central role that women play in this story.

Hopefully it should come as no surprise to learn that Rey is essentially the lead character, though as part of a large ensemble cast. She is an engaging and mysterious character. Despite living a harsh life on the desert planet of Jakku, her first instinct is always to help others, even in the toughest of circumstances. Her character displays a stubborn resolve, yet she is always full of hope.

Daisy Ridley is a bright and engaging screen presence, and her performance adeptly balances Rey’s vulnerability and strength. Ridley is confident in her action scenes, especially when wielding her staff. She also has some nice verbal interplay with the rest of the cast, most notably Finn (John Boyega).

As reported, Princess Leia is now General Organa of the RESISTANCE (their caps). While she was portrayed as a military leader in The Empire Strikes Back, this aspect of her character took a back seat in the other movies. Here she is presented as someone who is greatly respected. I am personally glad that the ‘Princess’ is all but eliminated from her character, and she was always one in name only really. While I feel it is immensely important for boys and girls too see women in positions of authority, I would much rather it be seen as a status they have earned rather than were born into.

Over in the FIRST ORDER (formed from the remnants of the Empire), we have Captain Phasma – the female Chrometrooper that is adorning t-shirts and lunch boxes everywhere. Played with icy authority by Gwendoline Christie, Phasma’s role is relatively small, but her presence is keenly felt in every scene she is in.

Elsewhere we have Lupita Nyong’o’s CGI character Maz Kanata who feels like the the kind of creature that inhabited George Lucas’s prequel trilogy.

Additionally, throughout the movie there are a whole host of female actors in minor speaking parts (including pilots) as well as female extras. In terms of gender balance, this is all a vast improvement on previous instalments.

But the key female character is Rey. This is (by and large) her story, her journey that we are following. Once we meet her, it is her actions that largely drive the story, and her mystery that hooked my interest the most. And as far as I’m concerned, she has THE moment of the film.

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Rey (Starkiller Base) 3.75-Inch Star Wars The Force Awakens Action Figure

As soon as I left the screening, I headed to a toy shop to pick up a Rey figure to give to my daughter this Christmas. I think lots of boys and girls will want a Rey toy after watching this movie too.

I can’t wait for my daughter to see the film, mostly because of Rey. But am I being to hasty?

Should young kids see Star Wars: The Force Awakens?

I, like many other parents, have been wondering whether this higher rated Star Wars film (12A/PG-13 – as opposed to the U/PG of the original trilogy), will be suitable for young kids.

Having seen it, I think it’s pretty much in line with the original trilogy. The ‘force interrogation’ mentioned in the BBFC notes is quite intense, but relatively brief. While similar in nature to Vader’s force choke, the tone is less playful.

There’s nothing in the film like the worst violence of Revenge of the Sith, but there is a rougher feel to the general tone of the action. There is also a more suspenseful aspect to action scenes, and main characters are regularly placed in jeopardy. Overall, imagine a tone slightly more intense than The Empire Strikes Back, but with a little more humour.

The source of most of the suspense and jeopardy is Adam Driver’s gloriously menacing Kylo Ren. He is a troubled and disturbing character, but never more so when masked and speaking with his lo-fi synthesised voice. He is definitely going to scare a lot of kids – but then that’s what we expect from our villains. If your kid is OK with Vader, Darth Maul, or the Emperor, Kylo Ren should be fine too.

One thing to bear in mind is that even if your child is comfortable with the existing movies, they have likely experienced them on the small screen. The added intensity of seeing this on a big screen, with louder and more dynamic audio, should be taken into account.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens Review – final thoughts

I was feeling fairly indifferent to Star Wars Episode VII when it was announced, and even while it was in production. Perhaps it was the let down of the prequels. But I recall realising, in the minutes waiting for the first teaser to go live a year ago, how excited I suddenly was. And I know exactly the moment when my expectations soared (with Star Wars fanfare):

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It would be great to be able to watch this movie in a different context. One without all the hype, publicity, and my own vastly raised expectations. Unfortunately I, like most of you, are not in that position, so it is from this place of interstellar high hopes that I watched Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

The film feels like a Star Wars film from the first moment, and I was instantly hooked. Like the original trilogy, it doesn’t really try to explain the socio-political fabric of this galaxy far, far away – preferring to let the action tell the story.

It is full of familiar and brand new characters, but perhaps a little to full. A movie this packed with ideas – whether people, concepts, civilisations – requires a juggling act of epic proportions to create a compelling narrative from.

Broadly this has been achieved, but there are too many times where the story lurched one way or another simply because it has to, not because of logical scenarios or character motivated action.

But while the story felt disjointed to me, this could also be due to scenes and plot points playing out differently than I had imagined from watching the trailers.

I also felt that the emotional payoff of some key scenes were not what I had hoped for, while others surpassed my expectations.

The task of making this film is daunting. There are brand expectations from Lucasfilm, commercial ones from Disney, and great storytelling hopes from all. So much pressure to try and find a way to please everyone.

Unlike Lucas, Writer/Director JJ Abrams is of the fan generation, and this does at times feel like a fan film – albeit one on a grander scale. The movie is peppered with references and in-jokes, especially when the original cast are involved.

This happened a little often for my liking, and began to take me out of the film. Yes, it’s great to see the likes of Han & Chewbacca back in action, but too many quips and skits relating to the past can make a scene seem more like a sketch.

There are also moments that feel very JJ Abrams, and again that jarred with this being ‘a Star Wars film’.

I am looking forward to my second viewing of the movie this week (prior to being invited to an advance screening, I had already purchased my opening weekend IMAX tickets). With eyes no longer glazed with expectation, perhaps I will be able to watch the film cleansed of the hype and hope and see it for what it truly is.

That said, I am already speculating about Episode VIII. Will I never learn?

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Postscript: Second viewing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens

I saw the film a second time this weekend at a 3D Laser IMAX screening, so I got to see the ‘Escape from Jakku’ scene in all its big screen glory (it was cool!).

As I suspected, I enjoyed the film a lot more this time. After my first viewing, one thing people asked me was where I placed it in relation to other films – my episode order is IV, V, VII, and then VI. I like Star Wars and Empire more, but Jedi less.

I reflected that how in earth can I be disappointed in that? Was I really expecting the film to better Star Wars & Empire – two of my favourite films of all time? I was focussing on the flaws and/or bits I didn’t like, and ignoring the exponentially more great things about it. My previous criticism seems to be that the film isn’t perfect. How ridiculous.

That I feel Star Wars: The Force Awakens is better than Return of the Jedi – the last Star Wars film I saw as a child, is indicator enough of my opinion. It’s quite simply a terrific Star Wars movie. If you’re a fan or the original trilogy, there is no logical reason for you not to love it – which I finally do.

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DISCLAIMER: As I have already done, I reserve the right to completely change my opinion as stated in this Star Wars: The Force Awakens review in the future. In the 1980s I was adamant that Return of the Jedi was the best Star Wars film. Later, I thought The Phantom Menace was really good, and even more embarrassingly that Attack of the Clones was  better. I like to think I am more preceptive now, but I’m probably not.

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Seen the film? Please tell me what you thought of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in your comments below.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens – Vanity Fair Photos

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Next-generation bad guy Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) commands snowtroopers loyal to the evil First Order on the frozen plains of their secret base. Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.
A small galaxy’s worth of tracking dots affixed to Lupita Nyong’o’s face allowed artists at Industrial Light & Magic to transform her into the C.G.I. character Maz Kanata. Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.
Galactic travelers, smugglers, and other assorted riffraff fill the main hall of pirate Maz Kanata’s castle. Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.
Dashing Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac) stands alongside his trusty X-wing fighter. Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.

J. J. Abrams directs Actress Daisy Ridley for a scene in which her character, the young heroine Rey, pilots her speeder through a bustling marketplace on the planet Jakku. Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.
Members of the brain trust behind The Force Awakens: composer John Williams, producer and Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, co-writer Lawrence Kasdan, and director and co-writer Abrams, photographed at Bad Robot, Abrams’s production company, in Santa Monica. Photograph by Annie Leibovitz.