Image: Rey (Daisy Ridley) in Star Wars: The Last Jedi / Lucasfilm Ltd.
Bold take: The Last Jedi is the most feminist blockbuster film of 2017. Heck, it might be one of the most feminist blockbuster films ever. I’m serious.
Simply put, the eighth episode of the Star Wars saga is a tour de force of girl power – and is absolutely the movie we need right now in a real world that seems just as hell-bent on destroying freedom and equality as the villainous First Order.
Much has been written about how The Last Jedi is “an eerily perfect installment for the post-Trump era” that dishes “up a vital 2017 lesson about sexual politics in the workplace,” – a film “in which women are treated not just as equals, but as leaders, adventurers, and even saviours,” that “will bother some people”. The impact of a blockbuster peddling those unusual messages should not be underestimated. You cannot get much more influential than Star Wars.
The wonderful thing about The Last Jedi is that it’s an incredibly feminist film without the audience expecting it to be. It’s not hard to see this. The Resistance – the group Jedi-in-training Rey (Daisy Ridley, the star of the film) belongs to that’s fighting for peace and freedom in the galaxy – is led entirely by women. Better yet, these women are respected as leaders and treated as equals – no-one is questioning their leadership because of their gender, if they’re “too emotional,” or if they even belong on the front lines of a war. Even during a pivotal scene where the Resistance’s leadership is questioned, it has nothing to do with the fact the leaders are women – and the way those women respond just shows how badass they are.
In contrast, and to drive home the theme of equality and resisting oppression, The Last Jedi also shows just how bad toxic masculinity is, particularly when it metastasizes into authoritarian power. Simply put, the evil First Order is led basically entirely by men – and white, presumably cisgender men in particular. The First Order refers to Rey as “the girl” (instead of, you know, her name – Darth Vader and the wicked Empire at least always used Luke Skywalker’s name when talking about him), controls the government of the galaxy after usurping power from an unsuspecting populace, has seemingly unlimited military resources, and is even led by a vaguely humanoid creature that has a fondness for gold and shiny things. Sound uncomfortably like a certain current leader?
The one exception to the cis-male sausage-fest of villainous toxic masculinity is Gwendoline Christie’s evil Captain Phasma. Phasma commands the First Order’s huge number of stormtroopers, and to say she’s fully dedicated to wiping out Rey and her friends would be an understatement. She wears the same full suit of shiny armour as she did in The Force Awakens, meaning that, once again, nothing about her character is sexualised (a refreshing change in how female villains are often depicted in Hollywood that we at Villainesse have raged about before).
And that’s not all. At one point (minor spoiler!), she gets into a fight with John Boyega’s Finn, and in the course of their mano a mano showdown we get a glimpse of part of her face – a face the audience can very clearly tell is a woman’s. During the fight, it’s clear Phasma is a lot stronger physically (not to mention much bigger – the armoured Christie towers over Boyega and Kelly Marie Tran, the first Asian woman with a leading role in a Star Wars film, like Darth Vader did over his subordinates in the original Star Wars trilogy) and more skilled than Finn, forcing him to get creative and outwit Phasma if he’s to have any hope of defeating her; it’s a satisfying role reversal compared to what we see so often in Hollywood where a larger male character throws around or otherwise physically beats up smaller women.
Phasma may not be so keen on the sisterhood, but she is shown to be equal to or even more powerful than her fellow male characters. Can she be thought of as feminist? We’ll leave it to you to decide.
The feminism of The Last Jedi goes far beyond the characters, though. Even the plot itself is unquestionably feminist.
Take, for example, the actions of Luke Skywalker. It would be a m-a-s-s-i-v-e spoiler to give away exactly what it is he does, but it’s one of the most obviously feminist moments not just of the film, but in all of Star Wars; you’ll know it when you see it. Fair warning though: I bawled my eyes out in the theatre like no movie I’ve ever seen before. That’s all I’ll say.
Then there’s simply who the titular last Jedi turns out to be, which may be the most feminist bit of all. Suffice it to say, the future of Star Wars is female.
It’s also important to talk about the lack of sexualisation in the film. Not once are any of the many female characters shown in a state of undress. Not once is there a lingering shot of breasts or derrieres. Male characters do not comment on the attractiveness of female characters. And in the only kiss we see in the entire movie, it’s a woman who initiates it – and ends it. It’s light-years ahead of how sexualised women were in previous Star Wars movies, be it Carrie Fisher’s infamous metal bikini in Return of the Jedi or Natalie Portman’s many pointlessly midriff-bearing outfits in Attack of the Clones.
And it’s worth mentioning how the women in the film do the things they do – and, more importantly, how they shatter misogynist stereotypes. One of the best examples is Rey and her self-confidence and willingness to stand up for herself. “Kylo failed you. I won’t,” she tells Luke Skywalker at one point when arguing why he needs to take her on as his Jedi apprentice after his last pupil (Kylo Ren, played by Adam Driver) turned evil and joined the First Order. The implication is simple: a man failed, but she – a woman – will do better. Not “might not fail” or “I’ll try not to fail” – but won’t fail. No passiveness, or softening her words to appear less threatening, at all. Later on, when a character refuses to lend a helping hand in the fight against the First Order, Rey basically says “fine,” and goes off to save the galaxy by herself. Oh, and (potential spoiler!) she saves everyone at one point in the film with her Jedi powers after her arrival turns the tide in a climactic battle.
The feminism in The Last Jedi matters. A lot. Partially because Star Wars is huge, and an awful lot of young people see it. By showing audiences that women can be just as capable as men, that they’re not sex objects, that women can even be strong and wise leaders, and that toxic masculinity is bad, audiences are influenced by that. Likewise, all those kids who see Star Wars might be influenced, too – and grow up to respect each other regardless of sex, gender or anything else. Odds are that we could soon be seeing little boys and girls dressing up as Star Wars’ badass female heroes for Halloween.
Then there’s the ripple effect: if Star Wars can make heaps of money with female heroes that kids of all genders can look up to and want to be like, then other movies might end up doing the same.
She was talking about something else, but there’s a line from Rey that describes the feminism in The Last Jedi – and its wider implications – perfectly: “Something inside me has always been there, but now it’s awake.”
Go ahead and clutch those pearls, men who may also be half-witted, scruffy-looking nerf herders (to quote Leia) – thanks to Star Wars, diversity in films is bound to increase. And the entire galaxy… er, world… is better for it.
The Resistance will not be intimidated.Support Villainesse