Warning: Contains spoilers for Star Wars, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. If you haven't seen it, this is not the story you're looking for.
Princess Leia's (Carrie Fisher) gold bikini in The Return Of The Jedi has been credited with the sexual awakening of an entire generation of
Ross Gellars men. In fact, despite her spunky personality, the Leia of the original Star Wars trilogy was a fantasy created entirely for the male gaze. Her cry for help was the ultimate manifestation of the damsel in distress, a princess calling out for her only hope: men.
With The Last Jedi, that is definitely no longer the case. If The Force Awakens planted the seeds of this change, promoting Leia to the rank of general — no longer a symbol of the republic but its actual leader — and casting Daisy Ridley as Rey, Rian Johnson's latest instalment takes things a step further. Kylo Ren's (Adam Driver) swoll pecs make it official: Star Wars is a woman's game now.
The sudden nudity isn't gratuitous (although welcome, judging from the gasps in the audience, and the major Twitter attention it's been getting). Last Jedi sound supervisor Ren Klyce actually told HuffPost that it was done to emphasise that Kylo and Rey's Force connection goes beyond just hearing a voice.
“That was important to establish what she was actually seeing,” Klyce explained. “Was she hearing his voice or seeing his face or just his eyes? And so that [shirtless scene] is to inform the audience, ‘Oh, she can see his body.’”
But in the context of a franchise that has been known to use women's bodies as an enticement for viewers, it's also a clear sign that the creators know that straight white men aren't the only audience they're catering to anymore. (And they're right: Box Office Mojo statistics indicate that female attendance on opening night increased by 10 percent compared to The Force Awakens, for a total breakdown of 58 percent male, and 43 percent female.)
The fact that Rey highlights Kylo's lack of a shirt only cements its importance as a marker of the female gaze, our very own Princess Leia in the gold bikini moment.
When I brought this up to Kelly Marie Tran, whose breakout turn as Rose Tico, a maintenance worker turned Rebel hero, has already made her a fan favourite, she laughed. "You know what's sad," she said. "It's so ingrained in my mind that it's normal for women to be portrayed in that way that I never thought about it like that. I love that women are loving that moment!"
The Last Jedi is littered with clues indicating this shift. In fact, the film as a whole is basically an indictment of toxic masculinity, from Vice-Admiral Holdo's (Laura Dern) total contempt for Poe Dameron's (Oscar Isaac) brash, macho heroism, to Finn (John Boyega) and Rose's time on Canto Bight, a sort of Space Monaco that highlights the greed and corruption of those who have made money off this long and arduous conflict by selling arms to both sides.
The man's world established over the course of seven previous films has yielded only brutality, disorder and pain. (For the naysayers who claim there is no male dominance in Star Wars, I refer you to this montage of all the lines spoken by women in the first three films, Princess Leia not included. They all fit neatly into a one minute and 23 second-long video.) The Last Jedi seems to suggest that it's time to give someone else a chance to fix it.
The disillusionment doesn't just target the Dark Side. Rey, so full of hope in the last instalment, realises upon meeting her idol, Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), that his hands aren't that clean when it comes to his nephew's sudden shift towards the Dark Side. Leia demoting Poe after his stubborn need to destroy the Dreadnought at the cost of dozens of lives and — a Han Solo-like move that, in previous films would have earned him heartthrob hero status — confirms that there's been a change in strategy.
If someone watching this movie thinks that it's unrealistic to have this many strong women, then I think they should walk outside.
Kelly Marie Tran
Women are shown to be the life force of the Rebellion, now on its last legs. And not just Leia— the next person in line for command, Holdo, is also a woman. That indicates an already-established power structure that has allowed women to rise through the ranks, although Poe's "that's not who I was expecting" comment still indicates that there's still some room for improvement.
Similarly, the future of the Jedi is not, as Luke once thought, Ben Solo (a name which calls to mind a bratty bar mitzvah boy), legacy Skywalker, but Rey, a woman who has faced down adversity and earned her place as the hero of this story, despite the latter's claims that she has "no place" in it.
Rose's rise from patrolling the bowels of the space cruiser to breakout star of the film is yet another sign that times are changing. "I love the idea of her being a background player," Tran said. "[She's] this person who might not necessarily be the leader, or someone who has powers, and she still can make a difference in her own way. That's really important."
As the first-ever Asian-American woman cast in a Star Wars film, Tran is hopeful that the film can be an example to inspire others to push for diversity and gender parity. "Star Wars is something that people love, and it is one of those films that people are going to see no matter who you put in it," she said. "I think it is important for the larger franchises to take the lead on that, because if they're doing it, then other people won't be as afraid to."
It's also worth mentioning that no one — except for maybe Supreme Commander Snoke (but are you even surprised) — questions Rey's ability to kick Kylo Ren's ass because she's a woman. She's green, yes; she lacks training, sure; but her gender isn't something she has to overcome or set aside in order to succeed. The same goes for Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), whose chrome armour obscures her physical gender — she is a villain, but through her actions, not her looks.
This all adds up to what Annalise Ophelian, a documentary filmmaker whose latest project, Looking for Leia, takes a look at female Star Wars fans, called the “first truly Bechdel Test passing scene” in the franchise. And although she doesn't specify the exact one she's referring to, the fact that I'm not able to guess is progress in itself. “Female heroes are traditionally presented in cinematic isolation," she told The Guardian. "This film gives us women working side by side, women in technical positions, and of course women learning the ways of the Force.”
Unfortunately, reality has a way of getting in the way of such progress. The film is receiving negative criticism from certain fans who feel like the franchise is taking on a social mission that doesn't include them. In other words, men feel like they're not in control anymore, and that's scary. Despite a 93% critics' score on Rotten Tomatoes, the film only has a 55% audience rating.
Over the weekend, Kevin P. Sullivan, movies editor at Entertainment Weekly, highlighted a half-star review that claimed "I'm all for taking female characters to centre stage but they did it at the expense of the male characters. The men were weak, cowardly and impulsive. The women were strong, independent leaders...Again I'm all for having strong female leads, but not like this." Translation: strong women are fine, but only if the men are stronger.
Related are the many reviews that take issue with the "political agenda behind its creation," as another half-star reviewer called it. The film definitely doesn't hide its liberal bent, but at the core of this messaging is a deep-seated discomfort with women taking the lead in a narrative that has, until now, been geared towards men. We saw a similar backlash last December, with the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which cast Felicity Jones in the lead role as Jyn Erso.
Not all fans share this negative view, however. In 2015, #WheresRey started trending on Twitter when people realised that she was missing from the action figure six-pack created for The Force Awakens. Once Hasbro, which created the product, assured fans that Rey figures were in fact available, they became so popular that stores all over the country started reporting shortages.
"It must be crazy to live in a world where you think there aren't strong women everywhere," Tran said. "On the one hand, there are amazing women doing things in the public eye, but also just being a woman and having your period every month, and wearing heels to work, and dealing with people who think you can't do something because you're a woman. If someone watching this movie thinks that it's unrealistic to have this many strong women, then I think they should walk outside."
Star Wars has always been an aspirational story of perseverance and optimism, even in the face of impossible circumstances. The Florida Project's 7-year-old Brooklynn Prince's recent reaction to meeting Daisy Ridley proves that having women leading the fight for good in the galaxy, far, far away can have real impact here on Earth. How's that for a new hope?