The Force Awakens: Rey and the Thorny Issue of 'The Feminist Protagonist'

The Force Awakens: Rey and the Thorny Issue of 'The Feminist Protagonist'

So this little piece I’ve written here is a request: please can we ease up on the strong woman/ feminist trope? I ask this as, with all the excitement over the new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, there has been an awful lot written about how Rey, the new female lead played by Daisy Ridley, is a feminist protagonist.

What does this mean? What on earth is a feminist protagonist? The Atlantic describes it as “no distressing damsel. She’s instead a fighter and a survivor and a nurturer and an all-round badass.”

And that is Rey, for sure. Interesting qualities, absolutely. Exciting ones too. But these do not make her a feminist.

They wouldn’t make anyone a feminist. That’s because feminism has nothing to do with how a woman appears or behaves. Female behaviour and personality traits don’t relate to feminism – feminism, like any civil rights movement, is something you choose to be a part of.

Feminism is for all women. All. And any attempts to frame certain traits as feminist are dangerous.

Strong, assertive female characters such as Rey are no more feminist than Emma Thompson’s character in Love Actually. Ripley from Alien is no more feminist than Daryl Hannah in Splash!

That Rey, like Ripley before her, is unapologetic is terrific. That she takes up space, never shrinking back, is understandably attractive and is bang in line with current discourse.

However, just because a woman is physically strong and athletic, assertive and can handle a lightsaber or a flame thrower, that doesn’t necessarily make her a feminist. And, conversely, like Emma Thompson in Love Actually, a woman who has been cheated on by her philandering husband yet chooses to stay with him can, of course, be a feminist.

It would be a mistake and exclusionary to correlate feminism with just a certain type of female behaviour, or dictate that only certain female behaviour is acceptable for a feminist. A strong, independent woman can be as misogynistic as any MRA, and a submissive woman can be feminist to the core.

Sexism includes correlating certain behaviours and traits with gender. Don’t think that just by flipping that around 180 degrees we’ve suddenly got ourselves a feminist icon. What we have is a different type of female character – a welcome change, yes, but let’s not correlate that with feminism. Let’s not mistake correlating another type of behaviour as acceptable as freeing ourselves from sexism – it’s just building women a new cage.

That’s not to say Rey isn’t welcome. She is, absolutely. It is a big step – and a welcome one – for Star Wars to move away from the Aryan blue-eyed blonde-haired leading male to a young woman.

As a role model for young girls and boys Rey is wonderful. Her spirit and confidence makes a refreshing change from the more typical depiction of women in films. Like Katniss before her, I hope she has a profound subliminal effect on the kids who will flock to see the film.

Variety is crucial (and we’re still miles away from that – Rey after all is white and well-spoken) but she is a great step forward.

But she is not a feminist just because she is feisty. I hope she is a feminist, I really do. But as Meryl Streep recently demonstrated, strong women who fight seemingly feminist positions can still turn their backs on feminism.

But more than this, I don’t want young girls thinking, I’m not a feminist because I’d rather be Cinderella than Rey. And I don’t want boys thinking they should only admire and respect women who are pushy and wilful. And I don’t want anyone overlooking or diminishing any woman who doesn’t exhibit behaviour or personality traits similar to Rey.

Feminism is for everyone and fights for all young girls and women. All young girls and all women are to be respected. All. Feminism is not exclusively for the ‘badass.’

That not all women consider themselves feminists is unfortunate but nevertheless, let’s not reduce feminism to a Charlie perfume advert. As feminists, we love our ‘strong women’. But not to the exclusion of women who don’t share those traits.

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