*Spoilers dead ahead. Proceed at your own risk.
Last Monday I made my usual two mile pilgrimage to the one and only movie theater in my current place of residence (go ahead and cry for me, Argentina). This time I was dropping my Benjamin’s on a third viewing of JJ Abrams’ The Force Awakens. While standing in line for my ticket I ran into a neighbor who was headed in the same direction, with his six year old daughter in tow. He admitted that she was the only one of his four children he could drag along to see the newest Star Wars installment. One look could tell you that this forbearing youngster was only there out of filial obligation; she looked about as unenthused as it is possible for a six year old to look.
But I knew something she didn’t. I knew she would walk into the theater a bored moppet, but would emerge a card-carrying superfan of the galaxy’s newest mamma jamma, Rey.
Rey is the hero I wish had existed when I was six. She’s jaded, and compassionate. She’s brave, and smart. She’s bad-ass, and approachable. She commands the respect of every other character lucky enough to share the screen with her.
Drawing comparisons between Rey and characters like Katniss and Tris and Lisbeth Salander and Black Widow is unavoidable. For as long as I can remember, we’ve been conditioned to think that a female protagonist couldn’t be compelling if she wasn’t sexy, damaged, or vulnerable, preferably all three. Enter Rey, a woman whose sexuality is irrelevant. Her past, though tragic, doesn’t define her. She puts the needs of others before her own interests and is unambiguously good. In short, she’s everything that a little girl (or, what the heck, boy) should want to pattern themselves after.
But the really revolutionary thing (and the thing that struck me the most) wasn’t Rey herself, but how others responded to her. Within the first five of meeting Finn, the storm trooper turned rebel fighter, she chases him though a crowded market, brains him with a stick, accuses him of theft, and rescues him from the decidedly Third Reich-y organization The First Order. And to Finn’s infinite credit, he gladly follows her lead. He doesn’t resent being occasionally shown up by a girl because he admires her strength and smarts, too. A bad-ass in his own right, Finn is confident enough to recognize Rey’s value without letting it threaten his own.
The best part is that Finn’s reaction to Rey isn’t the exception, it’s the rule. Han Solo offers her a place on the Millennium Falcon. Kylo Ren openly admits that her power not only matches, but probably exceeds his own.
As I left the theater that day, I caught up with my neighbor and we chatted for a while, about the movie and how cute BB8 was and how we couldn’t wait for the next one. I asked his little girl what she thought, and her big blue eyes articulated everything her vocabulary couldn’t. She was in love, and I was right there with her. I hope that little girl knows how lucky she is. I grew up in a time when the world wanted girls to believe that they could be anything. She gets to grow up in a time when the world is starting to believe it, too.