When I was 10 years old, I dressed up as Princess Leia for Halloween. I dressed up as her because I admired her, and because I felt like I had no choice. My brother and I were both deep in our Star Wars phases, and I knew I had to match his Darth Vader costume with an iconic character of my own. Of course, as a little girl, there weren’t many iconic female characters to choose from, but I didn’t mind too much at the time. Leia was the first female character that I truly considered a role model, the first one that made me think: I want to be like her. Her confidence, power, and wit throughout the “Star Wars” saga, the easy equality she seems to have in her relationship with cocky smuggler Han Solo, and her leadership role in the rebel alliance, were all things that shaped my childhood.
Still, Leia was never my favorite character in “Star Wars,” or the one I related to the most, even as I twisted my hair into twin side buns. Instead, I wanted more than anything to be Luke–to use the force, to fly an x-wing and have dramatic Lightsaber battles, to scream and fight and fall off things. Luke didn’t just get more screen time or a cooler weapon than his twin sister; it always seemed to me like he was allowed to feel more. There was nothing wrong with Leia’s righteous anger, but it was far more compelling to watch Luke scream in anguish after finding out that Darth Vader was his father. Leia was always the girl I wanted to be, but there were no female characters in “Star Wars” who resembled the girl I actually was.
This October, I was officially too old for trick-or-treating, but it gave me great joy to know that little girls had a new “Star Wars” hero to dress up as. Rey, from the recent seventh episode of the “Star Wars” franchise, is everything I wish I’d been able to see on screen as a kid. She is tough enough to live alone on the desert planet Jakku for several years, and kind enough to save a lost droid from other scavengers. She resists having her hand held, but is unafraid of showing fierce loyalty and kindness towards her friends. She gets to be annoyed and hopeful and lonely and resilient all at once. She gets to yell and cry. And, yes, she gets to hold a lightsaber. Watching “The Force Awakens,” I finally saw a female character displaying the type of complex emotions I thought I would feel in her situation.
This is not to say that Rey is the perfect character or that every female “Star Wars” fan will relate to her like I did. To truly represent the wide variety of people who make up its fan base, the “Star Wars” franchise must continue to strive for more diverse representation as it expands and introduces new characters. But for me, Rey, and the new generation of characters who come with her, represent a new hope (pun not intended) for diversity in the universe that so deeply impacted my childhood. The fact that the other two new heroes in “The Force Awakens” are Finn, a black stormtrooper who leaves the oppressive First Order to join the Rebel Alliance, and Poe Dameron, a Latino pilot who escapes from the First Order alongside Finn and serves as a respected member of the alliance, only increases my optimism. These characters allow more kids than ever to see themselves represented as the protagonists of their favorite movies, just as I saw myself in Rey.
The latest “Star Wars” movie, Rogue One, includes similar diversity among its characters, as well as another new female lead. Like Rey, Jyn Erso is a tough, independent young woman who has to survive on her own from a very young age. She’s sarcastic and guarded, but throughout “Rogue One”, she develops into someone with great conviction and loyalty to the group of rebels she unwillingly joins. Both Rey and Jyn show that there’s room in the Rebel Alliance, and perhaps even in the Jedi order, for women who are given just as much characterization and emotional depth as their male counterparts. My hope for the “Star Wars” saga is that as it continues to develop, we will continue to see characters who remind us that, at it’s core, “Star Wars” is a story of human emotion that belongs to everyone, not just those who look like Luke Skywalker.