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Mothers of the Rebellion

With ‘Rogue One,’ the ‘Star Wars’ universe puts female characters front and center

(Getty Images/Disney/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Disney/Ringer illustration)

When a teenage Carrie Fisher landed the career-defining role of Princess Leia, the Star Wars offer came with an asterisk: Before she arrived on set in London, the already-diminutive actress would have to lose 10 pounds. Fisher agreed and dutifully checked herself into a “fat farm” in Texas. (This was 1976, several decades before we’d start calling them “wellness retreats.”) Her fellow clients included a former first lady and an advice columnist who counseled Fisher “over a less-than-filling dinner of a burnt-looking partridge that seemed to have been singed and then torched.”

It’s not the most sensational revelation from The Princess Diarist, Fisher’s most recent memoir and account of her experiences on set. It’s just the one that sticks out the most since the current face of starlet prep for a Star Wars role is something very different. Picture the fat farm in all its hilariously dispiriting glory. Now watch “Daisy Ridley lifting 80 kilos.” Or “Daisy Ridley gym workout,” or “Daisy Ridley: Workout Training.” Not everything about Star Wars heroines and our expectations for them has changed; before reprising her role in Episode VII, Fisher was once again asked to lose weight and once again handled the request with bemused pragmatism. (“They don’t want to hire all of me — only three quarters!”) Still, when a studio’s demands expand from “get smaller” to “get stronger,” something has.

As Disney has taken on the formidable and formidably profitable project of bringing the Star Wars franchise into the 2010s, the stars of both its tentpole franchise and Rogue One, its first stand-alone story — in fact, the stars of every announced movie with a new rather than inherited protagonist — are women. Where Marvel took 21 movies to give its multibillion-dollar enterprise a female face and DC took four, Disney’s Star Wars went there from the jump. That’s unusual, smart, and, as blockbusters can sometimes be, tremendously meaningful.

Throughout the original trilogy, we had no female fighter pilots, and we certainly didn’t have any female Jedi. We didn’t have much of anything, besides one aunt, one rebel leader, one radar tech with a throwaway line, and most importantly, one princess. We had Leia, and so we celebrated her, even when her character was frankly underserved.

Carrie Fisher is acutely aware of Princess Leia’s status as “the only girl in an all-boy fantasy.” In fact, she writes, there were all of three women on the entire set: Fisher, a makeup artist, and the hairstylist who crafted those iconic buns. Fisher’s celebrity was accordingly odd and not especially lucrative; the then-19-year-old actress hadn’t pressed for a stake in future merchandising, leaving her unable to profit from the sale of her own image.

Fisher is especially shrewd on the difference in Leia’s appeal to men and women, one that speaks to a demand female fans satisfied for themselves before Star Wars ever tried. Men, of course, love the gold bikini, and when they do latch onto her personality, it’s typically what Fisher calls “her unthreatening little bitchiness” that attracts them. The women, meanwhile, “let the men like [the bikini] — even have their fairly innocuous little erections — because they know I represent something else and not just that sex thing. Capable, reliable, equal to if not better than a man.” There’s a long history of women drawing value from works that weren’t built with them in mind, and Leia has a hallowed place in it.

But little of what Leia became was actually on the page. Much of it was Fisher’s own fiery and sarcastic performance, and Fisher tactfully makes clear that a substantial amount of Leia’s personality was her own invention. On her line reading of “I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board” — her sick burn to Governor Tarkin before she’s made to witness the destruction of her home planet — she writes, “Who talks like that, except maybe a pirate in the 17th century? … [So I read it] more sardonic than emotional. Fearless and like an actual human. Ironic.” Fisher’s performance — not the script — is why we remember Leia as a bravado-puncturer instead of a camp figure.

Other problems even Fisher couldn’t fix. Leia, too, learns her mortal enemy is actually her father, though the impact of that revelation was never as fully explored for her as it was for Luke. Leia, too, was a member of the Skywalker family and theoretical heir to the clan’s preternatural way with the Force, though the possibility of her mastering it didn’t really come up. Her emotions and growth were never prioritized — which might have been more a point of contention were it not for Fisher’s talent and a lack of alternatives. Princess Leia was a hero, but she was never the hero. Star Wars made it impossible to pretend otherwise.

When Star Wars finally did get its female hero, she was met with some resistance — not enough to stop The Force Awakens from bringing in more than $2 billion at the global box office, but enough that the star of the film was asked to address it. But The Force Awakens made enough money to escape the finger-pointing that comes with the failure of any would-be franchise, and Disney never marketed its Star Wars as a female-led reboot or even touted its obvious diversity. It was just Star Wars.

By design, Rey follows in Luke’s footsteps. The Force Awakens is a compressed redux of the original trilogy, using moviegoers’ nostalgia to coax them into something new. As the center of the film, Rey embodies that fidelity: She grew up on a desert planet, far from the galactic conflict she’d eventually join. She joins the fray via an acquired droid. She’s as good at manipulating the Force as Luke is at flying (and the Force as well, though even Luke needed a Dagobah stint to get his telekinesis on).

Yet Rey stands on her own. Luke was always a cipher against which Leia’s feistiness or Han Solo’s nonconformist charisma could pop. Rey has a defining motivation all her own: Stranded on Jakku by parents she can no longer remember, Rey’s sense of abandonment makes her jump at the chance to join with something larger than herself — something that can give her the semblance of family. (It’s also what makes Kylo Ren her perfect foil; everything Rey’s ever wanted, Ren was born into and rejected.) Luke is drawn into the revolution; Rey runs toward it with open arms. She’s as excited to be there as we are.

Rey and Leia share all of five seconds of screen time throughout the movie; they don’t even meet until after the climactic battle, and when they do, it’s with a wordless embrace. Even so, that embrace is remarkable in its efficacy, a mirror of the scene Rey later shares with Luke, handing off his lightsaber in a symbolic baton-passing from one generation to the other. It establishes a link, even a legacy, between the two. Whatever family connection almost definitely follows just confirms it.

Together, the Luke and Leia scenes reinforce each other. It’s almost impossible to overstate the significance of the lightsaber imagery; I can only say I instantly understood that this — a character who is strong and female without being a Strong Female Character — is what a generation of kids would imagine when they thought of a Jedi. The first girl Jedi matters all the more for the people around her acting like it doesn’t.

The implication in Rey’s scene with Leia is subtler, but no less striking. In The Force Awakens, Leia’s been drawn back into the main narrative of the franchise. She’s not a bystander anymore; this time, she’s a military leader, a sister, a love interest, and a mourning widow. Just like her brother, Leia also has something to pass on. She’s part of this lineage, too.

And now we have Rogue One, which gives women a key role in Star Wars canonical past as well as its future.

Felicity Jones’s Jyn Erso has plenty in common with Rey, though it’s unclear whether that similarity is intentional. Both women were left to their own devices early in their childhoods, though Jyn knows exactly where her father is: building the Death Star for the Empire under duress. But Rey and Jyn channel those abandonment issues in precisely opposite ways. Rey yearns for connection; Jyn shuts herself off to it. Consequently, it’s not as easy to identify with her as it is with Rey: We’re here to see some action, while Jyn does her best to avoid it. Jyn’s opacity is by design, though it’s still an obstacle.

Jyn and Leia establish their own kind of bond in the final minutes of Rogue One, 120 seconds of pure and satisfying fan service. Jyn and her compatriots have successfully completed their suicide mission, and relayed the Death Star plans back to the rebellion. The rebels narrowly escape a homicidal Darth Vader and, in turn, hand the plans off to Princess Leia, magically restored to her 19-year-old self through the wonders of CGI. (Mercifully, Fisher’s likeness was treated with far more skill than that of Peter Cushing.) We know exactly what happens next.

It’s an obvious and not particularly necessary act of dot-connecting, but it’s oddly resonant. There’s a literal handoff between the rebel and the princess, just as there will be a metaphorical one when Leia welcomes Rey into the fold. Rey will never know Jyn, or even her name — one of Rogue One’s most profound takeaways is that for every hero, there are thousands whose sacrifices will go unrecognized. But they’re still connected.

Star Wars has retroactively shaped itself into an unbroken line of succession, from one woman to the next. Offscreen, the franchise rightfully takes heat for failing to hire a female director and excluding Rey from its initial round of toys; meanwhile, the industry as a whole continues to set its own bar as low as “paying lead actors what they deserve.” An improvement in Hollywood’s product doesn’t mean an improvement in its system, and can even belie that system’s problems. The shift onscreen is nonetheless palpable. We’ve come a long way from “the only girl in an all-boy fantasy.” Now we’ve got one heroine setting up a trilogy, a second heroine initiating it, and a third carrying its reincarnation, each woman standing on the other’s shoulders. Star Wars is a matriarchy now.