[Hey! Yeah, you. This post references events in Star Wars: The Force Awakens. If you haven’t seen it yet, turn away now. SPOILERS abound. Or keep reading if you want, but don’t say I didn’t warn you.]
I’ve been waiting a really long time.
I’m not talking about for The Force Awakens movie. I mean, yes, I was excited, but come on. People have been waiting 32 years for that. They bought their tickets the millisecond they went on sale. They camped out in sidewalk tents. They’ve been obsessing about this film since it was announced, and following all the news. Me? I bought my ticket the day of the show and got there early to get good seats. Barely a blink in the grand scheme of fan devotion. Though I did rock some cool Resistance logo nails.
I’m not talking about waiting through the credits at the end, either, though I did do that. Not expecting a clip or hidden surprise, just for the sheer joy of listening to the music, reading all the names, and eavesdropping on the trio of college-aged guys behind me as they succumbed to bouts of VHS nostalgia and cheerfully arrogant filmmaking commentary.
I was the last out of the theater that night. They locked the doors behind me. Outside robed figures with plastic lightsabers posed for smartphone photo shoots in front of the theater’s lit fountain. Little packs of people sporting Star Wars t-shirts — one girl clutching a BB-8 pillow — stood around on the pavement in front of the empty ticket window, not ready to go home quite yet, faces utterly aglow, babbling out their feelings in a giddy rush to whoever would listen. (Such innocent and unrepentant joy! I love it. I wish I could bottle it and give some to every internet troll and hipster cynic on the planet.)
But wait. I’m getting away from the point. The point is, we were all celebrating. But I was celebrating for more than just the obvious reasons. It was slowly dawning on me what I had just seen. I was struck with the understanding that, very much like the characters at the end of the film I had just watched, my search was now over. The person I’d been seeking for so long had finally been found. They were looking for Luke Skywalker.
I’ve been waiting for the girl with a sword.
When I was eleven years old I realized there wasn’t a movie or a book with the kind of hero I wanted to see, so I sat down and wrote one. Forty-two pages long, single space, 12-point Times New Roman font. It was my epic masterpiece. It was also… flawed. (That’s putting it mildly.) I mimicked aspects of books I loved and cobbled together tired fantasy clichés. The end result was messy, naïve, and often quite predictable, but also silly and wonderful and fun.
And at its heart was the character I yearned for: a seemingly-ordinary girl who gets swept up into an adventure that seems too big for her, and yet rises to meet the challenge. A girl who is resourceful and brave (and possibly even “chosen”), who faces monsters and foes, who finds love and friendship along the way (though that isn’t the main focus of the story), and manages to do it all on her own terms. Oh, and with a sword in her hand. (That was super important to me. Because swords are AWESOME. Duh.)
Okay, but the truth is I had seen this kind of hero before in books and movies. The Chosen One. The everyman-turned-champion. The long-awaited subject of prophecy. He saves the world and gets the girl, and in the end there’s no doubt that the story is his story. And I say “his story,” because of course these characters were always guys.
I loved these stories. I was obsessed with them. I just didn’t understand why there couldn’t be some in which girls got to do all the stuff the guys usually did. Not in some “I am woman, hear me roar!” kind of way. (Dude, remember: eleven years old.) It just didn’t seem fair. Here was the pattern I kept seeing over and over again: Guys got to carry the swords. They got to save the world and defeat the villain. Girls got to help. Female characters could be strong, smart, and important — just, you know, in a supporting role.
Okay, so now we come to the part of this post where you’re at least 80% sure that I’m wrong about this. (Or 100% annoyed at me for what you consider “whining” about what you don’t consider to be a problem.) Surely there have been plenty of girls with swords before now. Maybe you’ve started listing in your head. And if you have, and you’ve come up with a veritable crowd of badass heroines that fit my “girl with a sword” criteria then go ahead and hit me over the head with them in the comments. But before you do, here are a few more things to keep in mind about who the girl with a sword is… or, rather, isn’t.
The girl with a sword isn’t animated. I know that seems like such an arbitrary distinction to make, but tell that to my little kid self. She’s the one who came up with it. I think maybe it’s because she/I wanted to see girl heroes played by real people? Otherwise Disney, Pixar, and Miyazaki would totally have us covered.
The girl with a sword isn’t a sidekick. I talked about this a little bit up above, but here are some concrete examples. Back in 1997, the Harry Potter series was just beginning to spread its magic across the planet, so I had yet to meet the witches in J.K. Rowling’s wizarding world: Hermione, Luna, Tonks, McGonagall, Lily, Molly Weasley. All of them are such incredible fictional ladies, but guess what? All supporting players. None of them the main focus.
Same with the original Star Wars trilogy. I love Leia. She’s smart, funny, and brave. She’s even from a family that’s notoriously strong with the Force! So why does Luke get to go all Jedi, but Leia, his twin sister, only apparently gets enough of the juice to hear his telepathic message when he calls out to her for help at the end of Empire Strikes Back? Because she’s a character, but not the character, that’s why. This is not ultimately her story.
The girl with a sword isn’t an adult. We have a veritable wealth of badass women with swords. Joss Whedon has made damn sure of that. And then there’s Kill Bill, The Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, Lord of the Rings, and more. These grown women are awesome, of course, but not accessible or relatable to young girls… which is kind of the point.
The girl with a sword isn’t rated R. Arya Stark and Buffy Summers are two incredible girls with swords. But the problem is, young girls can’t yet appreciate them. What eleven-year-old do you know who’s into Game of Thrones? One in dire need of therapy, probably. And though Buffy the Vampire Slayer was far from an ‘R’ rating, it still had a bit too much of the sexytimes to have been appealing to little innocent prepubescent me. Like I said before, the girl with a sword needs to be accessible and relatable…which these ladies won’t be until girls get a little older.
The girl with a sword isn’t sidelined. In his Narnia stories, C.S. Lewis gave us female leads, but the pattern holds: when Father Christmas came to visit, Peter got a sword, while Lucy was given a healing cordial and Susan received a bow and arrows and a magical hunting horn that would bring aid whenever sounded. Granted, these tools were very helpful, but they also served to keep the girls safely distanced from the thick of battle — something no girl with a sword would put up with.
The girl with a sword isn’t love-obsessed. Love is great. Love is wonderful. But when you are trying to save the universe from impending disaster, all that mushy-gushy-feelings stuff can take a back burner. There are slightly more pressing matters at hand. Kiss your love interest once it’s all over, or exchange flirty banter while battling monsters together. Just because a hero is a girl, it doesn’t mean her story immediately becomes all about romance: love triangles, unrequited love, forbidden passion. Sorry, but that’s just annoying. The girl with a sword is open to romance, but in a way that doesn’t slow down the story or become its main focus.
And last but most important of all…
The girl with a sword isn’t a victim. You may no doubt notice the glaring absence of Katniss Everdeen in this discussion so far. But Katniss Everdeen could never be the girl with a sword, because Katniss Everdeen is too busy struggling to stay alive. She’s not fighting for some higher purpose; she just wants her loved ones to survive. Even when she becomes the Mockingjay, the symbol of the rebellion, it was never what she wanted, just something she felt forced into doing, a part of the game she has to play. Katniss never gets a chance to do things “on her own terms” (one of the main criteria of being the girl with a sword!) because someone else is always pulling the strings — the Capitol, the Gamemakers, District 13. She’s a survivor, not a savior. She’s just doing the best she can.
This is going to piss some people off, but here goes: I love the Hunger Games books, but find it troubling that one of the most highly-lauded fictional heroines of our age is ultimately a victim. Yes, she is strong. She fights back at every turn. She gives them hell. In the end, she helps bring her oppressors down. But she is so scarred after everything that’s happened, everything she’s lost, that, really, how can you say she’s won?
Dystopia is no genre for the girl with a sword. She belongs in fantasy or science fiction, in a story where the world isn’t broken beyond repair, where there’s still hope to fight for, where the good guys and bad guys are easy to distinguish, and you always know which side you’re fighting on. Panem is no such place.
However, there are still places like that. And I got to visit one of them in a movie theater this weekend — a certain galaxy far, far away. Which is where finally — finally! — after all these years of waiting, I met Rey.
Here she is: the girl with the sword.
And check out this movie poster. There she is, top center…
Rey is the Chosen One.
Sure, Finn fights with the lightsaber at certain points in the movie, but it called out to Rey. She’s the one who’s meant to wield it. Kylo Ren manages to rip secrets out of strong-willed, hard-headed Poe Dameron, but can’t break into Rey’s mind, must in fact stop short as she begins to use the connection against him. Because she is strong with the Force. Because while we do follow a vast array of characters throughout the movie (including my favorite rascal of all time, Han Solo), this is ultimately her story.
Did you get that? HER STORY. In a theater packed with dudes, I got to sit and watch an epic science fiction movie in which a seemingly-ordinary girl gets swept up into an adventure that seems too big for her, and yet rises to meet the challenge. She’s resourceful and brave (and possibly even “chosen”), faces monsters and foes (that battle in the snow with Kylo Ren? Gave me chills!), finds friendship along the way (and maybe more? I’m looking at you, Finn, all not-so-subtle while asking about her boyfriend), and manages to do it all on her own terms. Oh, and by the end she’s traded that staff for a lightsaber…which is almost cooler than a sword, since it’s shiny and blue.
She’s not a sidekick. She’s not a victim. She’s not a love interest. She’s the girl with a sword — okay, lightsaber — and her story is being watched right now by thousands of people all around the world. I’d say that’s worthy of some unrepentant joy.
Which means we owe a huge shout-out to J.J. Abrams. Thank you. You stepped into the driver’s seat of one of the biggest franchises in film history, and I was so worried you would mess it up. But I shouldn’t have been, because this is where you chose to steer us. I take back any grumblings I may have hurled your way back when I was confused and frustrated by LOST. Oh, and sorry for all the lens flare jokes.
I’ve waited a long time for Rey, eighteen years at least, and now that she’s here, I hope the world knows what to do with her. I hope that she’s the first of many. If I ever have a daughter, it’s my dream that by the time she’s eleven years old we’ll have a wealth of girls with swords for her to choose from. Seems crazy, right?
We’ve talked about this girl a lot but I haven’t really touched on why she’s so important. Maybe I just thought it was obvious. Because if she doesn’t exist, how could a young girl ever hope to be her? That’s like wanting to be a centaur when you grow up. People will just tell you it’s impossible.
Which brings us to an exchange in The Force Awakens between Rey and Han Solo, as they’re trying to get the Millennium Falcon out of dodge in a hurry, and Han suggests exiting the hold at light speed.
“But is that even possible?” Rey asks.
Han shrugs. “I never ask that question until after I’ve done it.”
And with enemies closing in behind, they blast out of the hold, the stars a white-hot blur all around them, and yes, it seems it is possible. They’ve done it. Just like that, they’re off into the night.