“I’m no one.”
— Rey, The Force Awakens.
Most lady geeks of a certain age have keen and clear memories of the first time we watched the Star Wars movies: the first time we learned the identity of Luke’s father, the first time we cowered in fear of the Emperor, swooned for Han and looked up to Leia (or swooned for Leia and looked up to Han, whatever your mileage was).
Me? I wanted to be Luke. He was the one with the cool Force powers and the hero’s storyline. From whining about not being able to hang out with his friends at Tosche Station to taking down the Empire with his cool refusal to bow to the Dark Side, he was absolutely my favorite character. Leia finished a close second, but not because she was pretty or hot. Her visual attributes barely registered with me — instead, I loved her for her political acumen and the fact that she was the extremely smart leader of a rebellion. She stared down Darth Vader while everyone cowered, and laughed in his face. She was cool.
In a world of Clintonian sex scandals and a mostly-male Senate, she taught me that girls could be just as good as boys. No — better.
I firmly believed that Leia was just as cool as Luke, but the boys at day care still said I couldn’t have the lightsaber “because I was a girl.”
Let’s call it the Lightsaber Ceiling.
We’re not even going to talk about the prequels at the moment, because they turned a woman who was literally born to rule into a weepy sack of hormones. (Yes, being pregnant with twins is no joke, but any mom will tell you that motherhood is only part of who they are, not the “game over” state they forced on Padme Amidala.)
It hurts me these days to watch girls actively excluded from the things I love because people say they’re not “for girls.” Science fiction, fantasy, video games, making STEM robots, computer programming, science, politics, writing hard SF instead of paranormal romance. Gamergate. Rape threats and death warnings simply for loving things that are not “sugar and spice and everything nice.” Doxxing. I’m not the only one of my friends who has been quizzed by male members of a fandom to make sure I’m not a “fake geek girl,” whatever that is. I’m not the only one who has been teased and threatened on an MMO. I’m not the only one who has been patted on the head and told that less was expected of me because I was “just a girl.” Our culture steers young girls away from Leia Skywalker and Kathryn Janeway to Bella Swan and Anastasia Steele, who have no agency at all unless it’s through and because of the men in their lives.
That’s why I’m quite excited to see what Disney seems to be doing with The Force Awakens. The newest TV spot makes clear what the cinematic trailers hinted at: The Force Awakens is undoubtedly Rey’s story. The dialogue from Maz Kanata pinpoints Rey as the person in whom the force is “awakening.” She occupies Luke’s station, with Finn taking up an adjacent, Han/Leia position. She’s the one that says “follow me,” not Finn. She asks Finn’s name in the international trailer. And, what’s more, she seems to have the same kind of agency a male character in her position would have. It’s pretty obvious she’s got skills, confidence and empathy, that she’s active, that she’s smart, that she has a moral compass. Rey gets to have a faith journey with her pursuit of the Force. She’s clearly the hero. This is clearly her movie. A bunch of little girls are going to see this movie and see Rey, and it is going to be an active and defining moment for them, and they’ll hopefully see the world of fandom and geekery as something open and welcoming to them. I’m so excited by this. I’m hopeful that this is one of the steps in the right direction that our anti-girl nerd culture needs right now.
And then I went to look for Rey toys, and I noticed, like others did, that they are far less sexualized than toys I saw of both Leia and Padme, even though there’s way too few of them.
I’m not making any pronouncements yet — most geek girls of my age have been disappointed over and over again in a culture that tells over and over again that we don’t belong and that we’re not wanted. But what Disney is doing with Rey looks like a step in the right direction this time, and I’m really excited. Maybe this will actually be something I’m excited to show any little girls of my own someday.
Because then you see the Cover Girl light/dark makeup line and wonder if anything is ever going to change.
This Christmas, give a little girl in your life a lightsaber. Tell her that she can be the hero. Because, friends, that is where it starts.