Lori Anderson: Star Wars film embraces diversity

FOR the first time since Princess Leia, the franchise has a strong female – not to mention a black man – writes Lori Anderson

Daisy Ridley as Rey brings a welcome breath of diversity to the latest outing of the Star Wars canon. Picture: Contributed
Daisy Ridley as Rey brings a welcome breath of diversity to the latest outing of the Star Wars canon. Picture: Contributed

It was the disco classic from the dark side. The one you had but hid. Hands up if you didn’t dance in front of the mirror twirling your hairbrush as a microphone to I Lost My Heart to a Starship Trooper? Just the boys then? Well, that’s all about to change. Hot Gossip should re-release their lurex sheathed magnum opus so that a new generation of males can secretly sing along to the unforgettable chorus: “I lost my heart to a starship trooper/ Flashing lights in hyper space/ Fighting for the Federation/ Hand in hand we’ll conquer space.”

For, just as in 1978 a whole generation of girls fell in love with the maverick space cowboys Luke Skywalker and Han Solo, so millions of boys (and more than a few girls) are set to develop a galactic crush on Rey. Played by the young British actress Daisy Ridley, she is a scavenger, an ace pilot and a natural warrior who inhabits the desert planet Jakku and is the heroine of Star Wars: The Force Awakens which opens tonight at one minute past midnight. She may even get to fly the Millennium Falcon.

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Women have suddenly re-appeared in a galaxy, far, far away and we should all jump for joy. For what sets the new Star Wars movie apart from the last five in the series of box office smashes is the welcome appearance of strong female characters.

I’m giving a free pass to the original Star Wars because it introduced us to Princess Leia who could wield a blaster and give contemptuous lip to even the foulest, most tyrannical villain: “Governor Tarkin, I should have expected to find you holding Vader’s leash. I recognised your foul stench when I was brought aboard.” Yet apart from strangling Jabba the Hut while wearing a metallic slave bikini, she was largely pushed to the side in The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Poor Natalie Portman had even less to do in the three prequels except for attempting to negotiate an intergalactic treaty or two and die in childbirth.

Women in all their glorious menace, however, are woven throughout the new movie, with Daisy Ridley as this generation’s Luke Skywalker while Gwendoline Christie plays one of the central villains, a Captain Phasma, who has all the makings of a Darth Vader in waiting.

We have Kathleen Kennedy to thank for redressing the balance in the Star Wars universe, for it was the veteran Hollywood producer who was appointed by Disney to take over from George Lucas after the company bought the rights for $4 billion, which may yet be the bargain of the millennium. One of her first thoughts was that the famous “galaxy far, far away” could do with a lot more diversity and so the two leads in the new movie are now a white woman and a black man.

As she explained in a recent interview, one of the first discussions she had with JJ Abrams, the film’s director, was the idea of a female action hero. “Given that we’re in 2015, this was a point of view that the two of us talked about immediately from the beginning. He has a wonderful teenage daughter and I have two daughters and we were acutely aware, for 2015 and beyond, that the Star Wars universe needed to be populated not just by women but by far more diversity. In fact, even when I talked to George [Lucas] about the film, in the early days, we talked about casting a girl.”

Not only does it make sound moral sense but it’s also good business for Star Wars always had the boys in its pocket and now the franchise is successfully reaching out to girls too. For the first time ever, Star Wars toys are among the top ten most popular presents for girls according to new research. Other film companies should take note. Sadly Marvel seem to believe that a woman’s place is not on the big screen but on the small. The Avengers movies have spawned a whole series of spin off films for the likes of Captain America, Iron Man and Thor but despite a steady campaign among fans they have refused so far to green light a solo adventure for Scarlett Johannson’s Black Widow, a black leather clad former Soviet assassin, arguing that fanboys are not yet ready to pay in droves to see a female superhero. In contrast television viewers who have signed up to Netflix can enjoy a new 12 part series about Jessica Jones, a superhero turned private eye cracking cases on the gritty streets of New York.

There is nothing like the big screen though and the benefits of having women in such important lead roles on both sides of the Force, light and dark, is almost incalculable. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is destined to become the biggest film of the year and, perhaps, the biggest film of all time if it manages to topple Avatar. This means millions of young girls and women in many nations where women are still second class citizens can see their sex portrayed as both heroine and villain, capable of deeds both great and foul, in all ways the very equal of men.

This is no small thing. We won’t know for many years how many women will be inspired by Rey to reach out beyond their own confines and challenge the patriarchal status quo but we will in time. Little girls need heroines who do more than simply wait to be swept off their feet by a man and it is refreshing that with The Hunger Games and Star Wars: The Force Awakens they are seeing them projected up onto the big screen. It may have taken almost 40 years but at last we can say the Force is with her.