[This article contains MAJOR SPOILERS for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.]
Star Wars: The Force Awakens marks an exciting new chapter for the franchise. Creator George Lucas has stepped away, handing over control of Lucasfilm to Kathleen Kennedy. It was she who then brought J.J. Abrams, Michael Arndt and Lawrence Kasdan on board for Episode VII, formed the Lucasfilm Story Group to consolidate Star Wars canon, and began orchestrating this grand return of Star Wars we're all reveling in now. Kennedy also came to the Star Wars franchise with a strong sense that their stories' characters needed to better reflect their fans, to make Star Wars an unequivocally inclusive universe.
No where has this effort been more apparent than with the greater representation given to women throughout Star Wars media. For a franchise whose first installment was seriously lacking in female characters, there has been a vast increase of prominent and significant women in Star Wars books, comics, cartoons, and now films. With The Force Awakens we've reached a tipping point, and in Rey, balance has been restored to the franchise.
Meet Rey, Our Hero
When we first meet Rey in The Force Awakens she's salvaging parts for money from old Imperial ships, living in relative isolation on the desert planet, Jakku. Life is hard, but she's surviving, counting down the days since her family left her behind, still hopeful they'll one day return. She's a capable, skilled young woman, surviving as best she can on a harsh world with little comforts. She's resilient, but not hard.
We learn everything we need to know about Rey when she rescues BB-8 from another scrap collector, then later refuses to sell the droid herself. She's kind, loyal, and - so like others who grew up on a unforgiving, desert world - willing and eager to help. Rey is a character who's likable right from the start, which is pretty necessary for a protagonist. Audiences identify with a character they can root for - one we want to see succeed.
Rey is a character meant to inspire, to be admired. She's the hero of this new adventure, just like Hiccup, Harry Potter, Frodo, or - perhaps most importantly - Luke Skywalker.
Our Hero's Journey
Watching Rey succeed endears her to viewers even more. We appreciate her willingness to stay on Jakku, waiting patiently for her family, but we also know that in order for her to grow she must leave - and she knows that, too. When she looks at an old, wrinkly women cleaning scrap for sale, then later wistfully at a ship leaving the planet, it's clear Rey is worried she'll spend her whole life wasting away on Jakku. She wants to leave, to seek adventure, even if she doesn't fully admit it to herself.
Rey needs an impetus for her journey to begin and that's her meeting with Finn. He recognizes BB-8 as the droid Poe needed to return to the Resistance, and being the good-hearted, stalwart person she is, Rey agrees to help return BB-8 to the Resistance base. The attacking Tie Fighters are also a good nudge, sending Rey and Finn scrambling towards the Millenium Falcon and her first true test of skill.
Luke, too, didn't immediately jump at the chance to save the galaxy with Obi-Wan Kenobi, needing the death of his aunt and uncle, his surrogate parents, to convince him there was nothing left for him on Tatooine. In a way, Rey's parents have been dead for years, but not until she was presented the opportunity could her journey really begin. And Rey passes her first test with flying colors, piloting the Falcon and securing their escape - again, not so dissimilar from Luke helping Han shoot down the incoming Imperial attack during his first trip on the Falcon.
Many remember the scene and Han's now famous response to Luke's joy and astonishment - "Don't get cocky, kid!" But when it comes to Rey, Han is all about encouragement. This is due in part to Han having a different relationship with Rey than Luke, more mentoring than rivalry, and him being at a different point in his life, but Han - or any character, for that matter - never discourages Rey. She's never told she can't do something because she's a girl, only to later prove all the boys wrong, along with delivering some cliché remark about how girls get the job done. She proves herself capable and talented, and in turn is rewarded - never mocked.
Rey grows in confidence through encouragement, and with a strong belief in herself and her abilities she is able to achieve great things. It's the quintessential hero's journey, and with how strongly The Force Awakens mirrors A New Hope, the striking similarities between Rey's and Luke's journeys aren't at all surprising. In both films their eyes are opened to a larger world and they face great challenges, which they surpass, but not without suffering loss. And there will be failure ahead for Rey, as there was for Luke, because her journey is not yet finished.
This Is Her Story
After months of speculation and rumor, finally watching The Force Awakens clears up any question over who's the main character. Finn and Poe and even Han Solo may have been prominent in the marketing - as they are in the film - but The Force Awakens is Rey's story and that's significant.
As mentioned previously, there has been a noticeable increase of prominent women in Star Wars; most notably with Ahsoka and Ventress in Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and Hera and Sabine in Star Wars Rebels. But in these cartoons they are still supporting players in Anakin and Ezra's stories. They are most certainly included, even at times emphasized, and in the case of Ahsoka receive a great amount of development, but they are never the character who's central to the story.
Rey is central to The Force Awakens. It is she who learns that she is special, that The Force is calling to her. The lightsaber calls to her, and later comes to her hand, not Kylo Ren's. It's Rey who completes the quest and finds the long lost Luke Skywalker. And it'll be Rey's journey we'll see continue in Episodes VIII and IX.
The marketing for The Force Awakens somewhat downplayed this, but it's a forgiveable misdirection considering the payoff in the movie. When it comes to Episode VIII, however, I fully expect Rey to appear front and center on the poster, brandishing her lightsaber and looking every bit the hero she is.
Already the think pieces are being published heralding Rey as a new feminist icon or debating whether she's more a Mary Sue than fully realized character. But none of this really matters. What we have is a Star Wars film being seen by millions of people with a woman at the center of it all, and that is worth celebrating. Rey will be an inspiration to both girls and boys, just like Luke before her. Most importantly, Rey restores a sorely needed balance in the Star Wars franchise, elevating women from damsels and sidekicks to heroes of their own stories.
Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens is now in theaters, followed by Rogue One: A Star Wars Story on December 16th, 2016, Star Wars: Episode VIII on May 26th, 2017, and the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25th, 2018. Star Wars: Episode IX is expected to reach theaters in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.