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Learning from "The Last Jedi"

Rebekah Buchanan

It seems that every January my commentary focuses on something about the Star Wars franchise. It's the new year and I don't plan on changing that habit this month. Last month, my son Jack and I went on our annual mother-son movie date to the Star Wars: The Last Jedi premier. It's a tradition I've truly come to enjoy. He roots for the dark side and I cheer on the Rebellion and we have a great time.

When The Force Awakens came out, I wrote about how I was happy with the feminist turn in the characters of Rey, Leia, and Maz. Last December, when Carrie Fisher died, I wrote about what an important role model she was for me. And as I sat through The Last Jedi I was excited about all the ways in which the film was written for women and am finally seeing the Star Wars I’ve always wanted. (And one I believe most of us needed to see.)

The original Star Wars trilogy that I loved as a child, when my dad first took me to see Star Wars: A New Hope when I was in kindergarten, lacked the female characters I so desperately wanted to see in an action-adventure film. I longed for female role models in film and television that weren’t isolated like Leia was in the original series or wearing outfits that in no way could be practical for being the superheroes they were—like Linda Carter as Wonder Woman. But now there seems to be a slow, slow change in Hollywood. And, the new Star Wars films have more than just one woman and The Last Jedi, dare I say, is a feminist film.

The Last Jedi does a number of things well. It creates a film around how the world would be different if women were in charge, and it does this well. For one, the female characters are placed in multiple roles that are pivotal to the story arc of the film. Rey, Leia, Holdo, and Rose are all needed to not only make the movie work, the film is structured around their narratives.

The film shows male characters as emotional, irrational, and unable to control their anger, arrogance, guilt, recklessness, and rage. It is the male characters—Poe, Luke, Kylo Ren and even Finn—who do not seem to have the sense to work toward the goals of the Resistance. And even more so, it is the male characters’ lack of belief in their female superiors that creates much of the tension within the film.

The women are the ones who maintain honor, who work together to achieve the success of their Resistance, and are the ones who have clear, rational plans throughout the film. They maintain their integrity, continuing to fight for what they believe is right despite what others may think. They are level-headed and cooperative. As the men fight for power and control, spending their time defending their masculinity and what they believe is right, the women get the job done, quietly working together to enact their plans.

Women are leaders and apprentices. They are multi-racial and multi-generational. We see women at all stages of their lives, careers, and personal journeys. Their characters have compelling and complex narratives. They work together as leaders who have a strong and well-developed plan for the future of the Resistance, of which they are in charge.

Yes, there were battles throughout; lightsabers flew, and there were dog fights, plane chases, and the Millennium Falcon. But there was also a calmness and level-headedness that was strongly needed in the franchise. The women worked together. They stood side-by-side and because they did, their plans worked.

The women of Star Wars are creating their own narratives. They are dismantling relationships such as master/padawan that did not work in the past. They are making their own world, and we are all better for it.

2017 brought us a world where women sharing their #metoo experiences, and calling out men in power became an important turning point in Hollywood, media, politics, and hopefully daily life. Although 2017 brought us a leader who is angry and mean and feels as though it is okay to call people horrible names, with The Last Jedi, 2017 ended showing us what could happen if women ruled the world.

Maybe, as we move into 2018, we need to listen a bit more to the women of Star Wars. We need to remember that if women were in charge, at least in the Star Wars universe, there would be more kindness and compassion, better organization, and more peace. Because, as Rose argues, The Resistance won’t win by fighting what they hate; they’ll win by saving what they love. Maybe we need to do more of that in the new year.

Rebekah Buchanan is an Associate Professor of English at Western Illinois University.

The opinions expressed are not necessarily those of the University or Tri States Public Radio.  Diverse viewpoints are welcome and encouraged.