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Star Wars: will the force awaken your inner feminist?

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Star Wars has long had womankind on the fence. On the one hand, Princess Leia is a bonafide powerhouse. On the other, there’s plenty to complain about her portrayal - not to mention Natalie Portman’s role in Episodes I, II and III. But rumour has it that J.J. Abrams’ Star Wars sequel is set to give a new hope to feminists as well as the Force. Stylist contributor Cat Collins finds out whether the feminists are about to strike back...

Think of Star Wars, and it’s difficult not to conjure up an iconic image. Resistance fighter and one of the leaders of the Rebel Alliance, Princess Leia Organa is chained to revolting alien crime lord Jabba the Hutt and dressed in an impossibly skimpy gold bikini. The scene in 1983’s Return of the Jedi became a pop culture reference in its own right, making a sex symbol out of Carrie Fisher, and causing plenty of feminists to purse their lips at the gratuitous sexualisation of George Lucas’ heroine.

Some argue that it was simply a small scene in a film made when such gratuity was acceptable. And Leia has since been deservedly hailed as one of cinema’s greatest heroines of all time regardless of costume choices. The Force Awakens sees the former Princess renounce her royal title in favour of something much more practical, and pass the action on to another leading lady. But as the epic sci-fi franchise returns for a seventh film with a new weapon-wielding female warrior at the fore, can Star Wars reinvent itself enough to appeal to an audience with more modern standards?

gold bikini

Princess Leia Organa and her gold bikini in 1983’s Return of the Jedi

It’ll come as no surprise to fans of the space-set saga that the action in The Force Awakens is almost unrelenting. It begins with a brutal attack by the First Order (an evolution of the Nazi-like Galactic Empire) and kick-starts a rapid introduction to the franchise’s new cast members - Daisy Ridley’s Rey, John Boyega’s Finn and cocky X-Wing pilot Poe Dameron, played by Oscar Isaac. Their tales intertwine with those belonging to some more familiar faces, as the not-quite Padwans become embroiled in an ongoing war at the peak of the Dark Side’s rise to power.

While Han and Luke may have born most of the burden in battle for the original trilogy, as Obi-Wan and Anakin did in the subsequent prequels, The Force Awakens turns its attention to someone new. Enter Rey, a scavenger with a mysterious past, an affinity with flying machines and some serious bo-staff skills. But Ridley isn’t just the movie’s female lead - she’s THE lead. Upcoming sequels will doubtless explore other characters and stories, but for now the galaxy far, far away belongs to Rey.

Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Lupita Nyong'o at Star Wars: The Force Awakens premiere in Los Angeles

Thankfully, director J.J. Abrams hasn’t just wheeled out the tried, tested and tired ‘strong woman’ trope. Yes, she’s independent and strong-willed. But she’s also courageous, capable, clever and compassionate. A woman who can take care of herself in every sense of the word, Rey’s in charge from the get-go - fighting off attackers, saving her friends, and quickly earning respect from even the most curmudgeonly of companions.

And it gets better - she and Leia aren’t the only women in the mix. From Gwendoline Christie’s stony silver Stormtrooper, Captain Phasma, to Lupita Nyong’o’s wonderful wide-eyed CGI pirate, Maz Kanata, and the countless background players, Hollywood has finally given us some reasonable equality in an action movie - on both sides of the battle. Hell, it even passes the Bechdel test.

The best thing of all, though, is that the presence of femininity is barely mentioned. Aside from one enjoyable gag that sees a chivalrous Finn shown a thing or two, neither character nor audience care about gender. There are heroes and heroines for everyone to aspire to - and no need to distinguish between the two.

Sci-fi is a genre with a justified reputation for celebrating ballsy broads, and The Force Awakens continues a legacy that began with A New Hope, unequivocally proving that if there can be no balance in the force without the Jedi, there certainly be no balance in film without women. 

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