May the Force Be Female: The Lessons of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’

Warning: Major spoilers below. Read at your own risk.

Star Wars: The Last Jedi, while not a perfect movie, far excelled in landing every message it sought to send. More than anything, for the first time in probably all of the installments, it gave us women we could relate to, women we are used to seeing in our lives, and gave them time to shine. It gave us characters who were multifaceted, who were dependent on themselves, and who knew their minds and their hope, and acted to save the galaxy, and save the people they loved most without the approval of men.

If at any point you started to feel uncomfortable with this representation of women, it’s probably because these women weren’t written with your prepubescent fantasies in mind. They were written to be real, the male gaze be damned. Every single woman was written to be a survivor, a leader, a mourner, and most of all, human. They were not victims of the male gaze, doomed to banality and sexuality, rather they were active participants in a galaxy at war. And at the end of the day, The Last Jedi was a war movie, filled with the costs, the mistakes, and the heartbreaking reality of what it means to be a rebellion fighting against a greater force. It did not ignore what previous movies sometimes glossed over. It did not hide from the bloodshed, from the human element of loss, death, and hope that makes a war function. This movie was about cost, and the things we learn along the way in war.

Everyone in the movie has to make a hard choice at one point in the movie. Poe has to choose to find balance and let his ego go so that the rebellion will live on. Finn has to learn to be committed to a war that he was drawn into against his will, and to realize that he fights not for a cause but for people. But it is the women who shine the light on the emotional resonance and balance needed for these kinds of choices. The women are the ones who make those themes and messages land so well.

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General Leia, while mourning the loss of her husband at her son’s hand, also has to mourn a son that is no longer truly alive as she knew him. On top of this, she has to mourn the fighters that trusted so much in hope, in her, and died for it, not knowing if their sacrifice would save the war. This all on top of dealing with her brother’s abandonment of the cause and a hotshot pilot trying to save the galaxy all by himself.

As she mourns the entirety of her family, she has to make the tough calls that ensure her people live on, for if no one carries the weight and responsibilities of the rebellion, hope in the light dies. Leia has always been the logistical and physical heart of the rebellion. She carried it with her when she was a teenage princess and bristling her way through captivity and battles on remote planets. She kept people fighting, strategized plans, and was a symbol that started Luke on his journey that resulted in temporary peace for the galaxy. The thing about her in this movie that is so striking is that while she remains the heart and vessel of hope, she also carries with her the knowledge that the symbol no longer belongs to her alone. It belongs to the people she leads, and in her wisdom, she respects this truth.

Though her story remains tied into the choices of the men around her, such as Han, her son, Luke, and Poe, she has more to unpack in this movie than she ever did before. She has room to shine, to grow, to teach lessons about what it meant to survive, and what it meant to be responsible for lives while in the middle of a war. She was the balance that Poe needed to learn, that Admiral Hodo eventually realized. She was no longer a passive symbol, but rather a teacher and a mentor – ironically the sort that Luke could learn to be and the type of symbol that signaled strength, determination, and resilience. She showed that leadership wasn’t about ego; it was about making the difficult choices that meant there were people left to fight tomorrow.

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Leia also flawlessly brought the most emotional scenes of the movie. With Carrie’s brilliance and spark of light, you felt every loss, every moment of fear, every speck of yearning for peace in a life marked by tragedy and continued resilience. (And if you weren’t bawling when Mark Hamill kissed Carrie’s forehead and said “No one is ever really gone,” I don’t know what to do with you.)

Carrie also had the difficult emotional task of showing Leia trying to fight with a smaller rebellion, fighting against a soldier, her son, who knew her too well, all while mentoring a man who was far too used to the cowboy plan of attack, rather than exercising caution and strategy. She managed all this with so much grace and charisma that her presence seemed larger than the galaxy could contain.

What I loved about her in this movie was that she allowed us to pause at take stock of the costs and of how one person cannot save the entire galaxy via a last stand. Victory is not won by one man sacrificing everything; and heroes are rarely ever alone in their actions. Victory comes by preserving what you have in people, and Poe’s win at the cost of so many lives revealed his desperation, of course, but it also showed how far Leia has come as a leader, and how much her wisdom stems from patience, temperance, and survival. She was what he needs to be, and she set the example of what Poe needed to learn in order to grow as a man.

I know that some people were upset that Poe didn’t go charging in and win all the victories as the conquering hero, and then have the rebellion sing of his glory, as we have seen in previous movies. Again, this is because we are used to movies being told from the male perspective, where the guys can be cocky and think they know best, and no one ever gets hurt, because the writers are running off an ill-conceived notion of one man being the heart of victory and glory. Aka, a really toxic understanding of both men and women. Leia’s mentorship of Poe taught us that the people are the heart of victory. This is a lesson learned by Poe by the end of the movie, and his failure makes his growth possible. It’s necessary, and wonderful to see. And, seriously, if you don’t want your male characters to grow up and learn from the women around them, then maybe it’s time you find another series. This new Star Wars shows a galaxy with amazingly real women at the helm. Real women mean better written male counterparts, because everyone gets room to grow and learn. It’s just a fact, and it’s good news for all of the characters.

Speaking of Poe, we can’t neglect his interactions with Holdo, played by Laura Dern. I think that every single woman on the face of the planet can relate to what happened to Holdo. She had a plan, it was just as viable as Poe’s, but because it wasn’t Poe’s, it was decided he needed to take over. Now, could she have told him the plan and saved everyone some problematic mutiny? Sure. Did she have to tell some recently demoted captain, who had just killed hundreds of people because he ignored a direct command by Leia, the plan? No, absolutely not.

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Holdo was in charge, and she owed Poe exactly nothing. She was doing her job, and she was managing to find solutions that didn’t include sending Finn and Rose into added danger. She was thinking of people, not ego.

Despite the awkward mutiny, Holdo and Poe learned from each other in the small amount of time they were together. Holdo exercised caution, perhaps too much. Poe exercised too much independence and love for blowing things up. It was Holdo who ended up taking Poe’s approach in the end, and Poe who took Holdo’s (and Leia’s). She helped him see another point of view, and she saw his point long enough to save the rebellion. (Though she only put her own life in danger and no one else’s by her sacrifice with the ship – another lesson Poe most likely took to heart.)

Holdo and Leia revealed the cost of leadership and the burden of carrying so many lives, and they were full of love, life, and hope. They were perfect, and they were real in the weight they carried and the grace in which they carried it, and seeing them teach lessons and know their own minds was amazing and a truly great part of the movie.

Rose’s entrance, I think, is another perfect summary of what it means to be a woman. She’s sobbing out her grief from the loss of her sister – what is probably her only family, family that got her through hell – and yet she is still working, still protecting the rebellion, still showing up even though she would rather be anywhere else. She refuses to let anyone get away with abandoning their duties, even someone so well known as Finn. She shines through her tears; finds joy even in her darkest moment. She was hope personified. She believed in what the rebellion was doing, because she believed in people, because she was the people, has seen what it was like to live under the darkness, and it was through her actions and heart that the final scene with the kid with the ring made me believe that hope will live on. She made me believe that the rebellion had a future.

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Her story lets us know that as long as good people live, so does hope for the light. This is important. This is pivotal in understanding that war isn’t for glory. It is about stopping evil. It is about the humans who make life worth protecting.

She also taught Finn a valuable lesson about the difference between dedicating yourself wholly to a cause and dedicating yourself wholly to the people in the cause. The cause can shift, and often does, but it is the people within these causes that we should look to protect. The people keep it alive, keep hope burning even in the darkest moments. She doesn’t want more sacrifices by the rebellion. Her sister was enough. What she wants is for people to live for the rebellion, to fight on, to find a way beyond the sacrifice play that ends the dark’s encroachment on light. She was hope, but she was also unbridled life.

She sees people more than she sees necessity and war, as Holdo and Leia must, and this is a powerful distinction between the rest of the characters who are all mixed into necessity’s hold. Rose’s legacy might not be of the big heroic moments that come with leadership roles and award ceremonies, but it was one of humanity. She was the embodiment of how the rebellion will live on, will beat Kylo Ren, will take down an Empire. She was the reminder that a war of this kind if fought for people and by people just like her. Rose is the rebellion, and her actions may one day be the most important of them all.

Built on this idea of regular people saving the galaxy is Rey. Rey is, for the purposes of the Star Wars narrative, the big damn hero. She is the one who faces the greatest conflict internally. She doesn’t fight any of the big space battles in this movie. Instead, she spends her time trying to convince boneheaded Skywalkers not to be drama queens. At one point, Kylo told her that she was nobody, but this was where he was wrong, and this was her strength. She comes from average parents, but being average doesn’t mean that you aren’t incredibly worthwhile and ultimately dangerous to the forces of evil. Most heroes are “average.” Most are remarkable in their normalcy. It is not our lineage, or our pasts, that preclude heroism. It is our actions. We can always choose, and that was Rey’s strength in this movie. Her choices change everything.

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One striking thing I noticed about Rey’s journey in this movie was how similar it felt to someone being in an abusive relationship. She was isolated from family (yes, I consider Leia and Finn her family, shut up), and she was barraged by Kylo’s twisted ideas of what it meant to commune with the force. Yes, he was damaged, yes, he may have good parts to him, but honestly, I don’t really care. His interactions with her all amounted to making her feel small, insignificant, alone, damaged, and ultimately in need of him and his approval. Without him, she was nothing, or so he stated after they faced down Snoke. They have a connection, certainly, and she saw good in him, but that truth just adds to my point. Abusers often aren’t one hundred percent evil creatures of the night. What makes them powerful is that they are human beings who struggle and who know how to turn their turmoil into sympathy and manipulation.

Kylo Ren coveted Rey, coveted the attention, but he didn’t know her. He killed Snoke because he wanted his power, because he felt degraded by him, but that did not mean he was on Rey’s side. He was always ever on his own side – no amount of humanizing him can change this truth.

This was where the power of Rey’s choice came into play. She could have easily fallen into his lies, fallen into the belief that she was nobody, and totally alone in the galaxy, but instead, she decided to be someone independent of whatever else anyone thought of her. She knew her mind, and she knew that while she wanted to give Kylo a chance to change, he wouldn’t sway her to become what she wasn’t. The scene where she closed the door on him in the Millenium Falcon felt cathartic, liberating. Her expression said everything she needed it to, as did Kylo’s. She was picking herself, not out of malice, but rather love for herself, and he knew he had lost his chance. She was free of him. That meant picking the people who loved her without qualifications or manipulation – it meant picking the rebellion. She was choosing love, and in doing so, taking on the mantle of Leia’s legacy of balance, of Holdo’s sacrifice, and of Rose’s sense of belonging to the people.

All of the women in the movie looked like women I know, women I have met, and women I look up to. They were real, powerful, vulnerable, fierce, and susceptible to doubt and unmistakable courage. The reason they made so many people uncomfortable was because they were not dependent on men for their worth. They were not romantic interests first, leaders and heroes second, if at all. They were fully formed, in a way that Star Wars has never really given us. And even the background shots had so many different women, so much diversity and resilience (and female pilots, holy shit!). This is the future, and this is what the world looks like if you open your eyes and you allow equality to shine. In writing the women to be like this, the men were better developed, the story was heartbreakingly realistic and human, yet full of love and hope, and the universe was deepened into something that made you believe the rebellion lived in all of us, and that force truly could bind us all together and make us strong.

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Here’s hoping the next installment brings us more of these wonderful women – and, hey, maybe some black, Latina, Arab, Native American, and non-binary women who get to have lines!

As always, may the force be with you. Be kind. And do as Leia would have you do.

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