Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens, which opened on December 18, 2015, was everything that fans of the saga had hoped for. It was action-packed, caught us up on what our favorite heroes had been up to for the past 30 years, and introduced hope that balance may yet be restored in the galaxy. This hope came in the form of Rey, a young woman scavenger living on Jakku. After a chance encounter with an AWOL stormtrooper named Finn who hopes to join the Resistance against the evil First Order which he previously served, Rey becomes involved in a mission to track down the last Jedi, Luke Skywalker. Along the way Rey discovers that the Force is with her, making Rey the new hope to rise up against the First Order alongside the Resistance. On her journey she meets Han Solo, Chewbacca, some new heroes, and General Leia Organa who leads the Resistance.
This film was praised for its use of a strong female lead, who wore a functional outfit, and “whose central purpose was not to be a love interest”. Throughout the movie Finn makes attempts to save Rey, only to find that she is a superior fighter and can artfully escape dire situations. In fact, it is Rey who saves Finn’s life from a rathtar (space monster). Another refreshing fact of Episode VII in comparison to the earlier Episodes is that there are multiple important roles played by women. General Leia commands the Resistance, Captain Phasma is a high-ranking stormtrooper, and Maz Kanata fills the role of a wise mentor similar to Yoda. Why is this a big deal? As explained by Jake Minton, “of all characters who spoke at least one word in the top 100 movies [in 2014], only 28% were women…. 26% of all female characters that appeared in the top movies were fully or partially nude at some point, only 9% of the guys.” The statistics show that women tend to receive far less screen time than men, and that much of the screen time they do receive is for a sexual purpose, rather than to advance the storyline.
While Rey is not the first strong female hero in a film, one fails to think of another movie franchise which has successfully replaced a traditionally male role with a female lead. For example, Star Trek: Voyager, which casted a female Captain, performed poorly compared to Star Trek’s original series (Captain Kirk), or Star Trek: the Next Generation (Captain Picard).
Perhaps the successful introduction of a female lead was fostered by the use of a strong female character in the first Star Wars film, Episode IV: A New Hope. In A New Hope, Princess Leia is not only a Diplomat but also a member of the Rebels who hope to take down the evil Galactic Empire. She takes great risk to send blueprints of the Deathstar to the Rebels, and is tortured and mind-probed by the Imperials for the whereabouts of the Rebel base. She withstands it all, talking only when the alternative is having her home planet destroyed, and still she gives false information. Leia is unimpressed by Han Solo’s efforts to woo her, although he wins her over in the subsequent Episodes.
Despite the strong role played by Leia in Episode IV, critics note that her role was reduced to being the love interest in the next two Episodes, and that Leia was the sole female to have a significant role in those movies. In Episodes I - III Padmé Amidala was the female co-star who filled an important role within her planet and galaxy’s government, first as Queen of Naboo and then as Senator in the Galactic Senate. Unfortunately she was quickly shifted to a role of love interest/damsel in distress. But, due to space constraints of blogging, and the general preference of all Star Wars fans to gloss over Episodes I, II and III, that is all we will say about Padmé.
Instead of comparing Episode IV to Episode VII in order to call out the portrayal of women in the earlier film for being dismal, I find it more appropriate to consider each film in the context of the time in which it was made. To have a female not only in a position of power within government, but to also show her as competent in combat and capable of withstanding torture against Darth Vader himself, is admittedly impressive for a film released in 1977. In Episode VI (1983), Leia attempts a dangerous and brave rescue mission in hopes of saving her love, Han Solo. He does not chastise her for risking her “pretty little head” to save him, and although Leia is forced to adorn a gold bikini while enslaved by Jabba the Hutt, she ultimately kills her captor with the chains he had used to bind her.
However, despite these positive undertones in relation to the portrayal of women via Princess Leia, Episode IV does not pass the Bechdel test. The Bechdel test analyzes women’s involvement in films by asking: 1) are there two female characters with names, 2) do they speak to each other, and 3) do they talk about something other than a man? Despite failing this very low threshold for meaningful women’s involvement, Princess Leia was a heroine in the inaugural film, and perhaps it was this demonstration of female competency that resulted in fanboys and fangirls everywhere embracing Rey as the lead in the newest film!
 Supra note 1.