Royalty and Revolutionaries: The Fighting Females of Star Wars

The Force awakened a new star in Daisy Ridley, who turned 25 this week. To mark the occasion, let’s go back a long, long time ago, and revisit gals far, far away . . .
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“Women always figure out the truth. Always,” remarks Han Solo during The Force Awakens. The truth about Star Wars, the cultural phenomenon that celebrates its 40th anniversary next month, is that, at the start, it was a boys club—with one historic exception. (And just one other speaking role for an actress in each part of the original trilogy.) But the series has changed with the times, and is now fully “woke” to the possibilities of warrior women, with last year’s Rogue One: A Star Wars Story centered on its heroine’s journey toward active resistance. This very special sisterhood now spotlights birthday celebrant Daisy Ridley, whose character Rey will continue her adventures in this year’s The Last Jedi. Time, then, for an origins story on the women of Star Wars, which starts with Hollywood royalty…

Carrie Fisher (Princess Leia Organa, introduced in Star Wars, 1977)

Carrie Fisher in 2016

Carrie Fisher, who played the iconic role of Princess Leia, at a book signing for The Princess Diarist in November 2016.

Growing up amidst the “star wars” of her famously divorced parents, Debbie Reynolds and Eddie Fisher, Fisher was reluctant to pursue a showbiz career. But at age 19, thinking she looked like “a bowl of oatmeal with features,” she auditioned for writer-producer-director George Lucas, endured what she called her “buns of Navarone” hairstyle when she got the part—and made movie magic. “Somebody has to save our skins,” Leia said, and she did, several times. 

Against the evil Empire, Leia was smart, tough, determined, and an inspiration for women who felt underrepresented in the sci-fi fantasy genre. She liked being the only woman in the Star Wars universe, and—contrary to what she might have said in her later, funny-confessional career as a memoirist and writer—“I liked being Princess Leia…Princess Leia are us,” she wrote of her fusion with the character. Leia, who over the course of Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983) went from being Luke Skywalker’s potential squeeze to his twin sister, fathered by Darth Vader, came back for The Force Awakens in 2015. (Her exercise regimen, as shown in the 2016 documentary Bright Lights, was treadmills and other exertion followed by a cigarette and Coke.) 

The new film and a hero’s welcome at fan conventions prompted her to write a book, The Princess Diarist (which spilled the beans on her real-life affair with Han Solo—that is, her married, much older co-star, Harrison Ford), which premiered as she finished work on The Last Jedi. Then, a terrible disturbance in the Force: her sudden death, at age 60, last December 27. Said Lucas, “In Star Wars she was our great and powerful princess—feisty, wise and full of hope in a role that was more difficult than most people might think.” 

Natalie Portman (Padmé Amidala, introduced in The Phantom Menace, 1999)

Natalie Portman

Natalie Portman plays Queen Padmé Amidala in The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith.

The Star Wars prequels, successful and underwhelming in equal measure, gave their actors less to work with. Padmé is a more traditional queen, one who nevertheless marries Anakin Skywalker on the sly and gives birth to Leia and Luke as he becomes Darth Vader to save her life—it’s complicated, but the tortured plotting gave critics and audiences little stake in her plight. In The Phantom Menace, the 17-year-old Natalie Portman is stuck sparking an incipient romance with nine-year-old co-star Jake Lloyd; as gratingly, she’s obliged to call her future husband “Ani” throughout as he ages into Hayden Christensen, and doesn’t register all that strongly as an action heroine. (Though the followups, 2002’s Attack of the Clones and 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, give her more derring-do to participate in.) The Israel-born Portman knew little of Star Wars growing up, and thought little of it afterwards—“everyone thought I was a horrible actress, and no director wanted to work with me,” she groused years later, having exchanged her armaments for an Oscar won for Black Swan (2010). She does, however, have one memorable line, as the old order collapses in The Phantom Menace: “So this is how liberty dies—with thunderous applause.”

Daisy Ridley, Rey (introduced in The Force Awakens, 2015)

Daisy Ridley

Daisy Ridley plays fearless scavenger-turned-fighter Rey in The Force Awakens.

Thunderous applause greeted the first sequel to the original trilogy in a generation, with new talent steering the course for the revival. Bringing back Leia as a general, the film makes more room for women, including the villainous stormtrooper leader Captain Phasma, played by the imposing Gwendoline Christie (Game of Thrones). Like the first Star Wars, the principal actors were lesser lights, including the 23-year-old Ridley, a Londoner with only a few small roles to her credit. But she more than holds her own as the fearless scavenger-turned-fighter Rey, who wields a mean lightsaber as she confronts Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), the progeny of Leia and Han Solo, who has turned to the dark side. “You’re afraid that you’ll never be as strong as Darth Vader,” she taunts. What’s her connection to Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill)? Stay tuned. Ridley, who was “devastated at the monumental loss” of Fisher, said the actress was a staunch ally and mentor, a “kick-ass woman” who “paved the way for all the girls.”

Lupita Nyong’o (Maz Kanata, introduced in The Force Awakens, 2015)

Lupita Nyong’o plays Maz Kanata, a wily space pirate, who runs a very Star Wars cantina in The Force Awakens. 

Lupita Nyong’o plays Maz Kanata, a wily space pirate, who runs a very Star Wars cantina in The Force Awakens. 

“I have lived long enough to see the same eyes in different people. I see your eyes, I know your eyes!” Lupita Nyong’o, the first Kenyan and the first Mexican actress to win an Oscar (for 2013’s 12 Years a Slave, her film debut), chalked up another milestone—the first major CGI character embodied by a woman in the series. The actress tethered her otherworldly motion capture portrayal of a wily space pirate, who runs a very Star Wars cantina, to memories of her high school English teacher, Rose Gilbert. “I mentioned Rose in an early story meeting as the sort of timeless, wise figure that I’d actually known in my life,” Nyong’o recalled. 

Felicity Jones, Jyn Erso, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016)

Felicity Jones photo via Getty Images

Felicity Jones plays Jyn Erso, the daughter of a research scientist slain by the Empire, in Rogue Two.

What, no “introduced in?” Let’s just say that if you haven’t yet seen the film yet (it hit home video last week), there’s a reason for that. Positioned between Sith and Star Wars, the offshoot sets up the resistance that fuels the series, and puts the courageous Jyn Erso, the daughter of a research scientist slain by the Empire, in charge of a plot to steal the plans for the Death Star. (She’s recruited by the Rebel Alliance leader Mon Mothma, a minor female character who appears in this film and in Jedi, but was cut from Sith.) Suffice it to say that Rogue Two is unlikely. But Felicity Jones, an Oscar nominee for the biopic The Theory of Everything (2014), gives the part her all, including the stirring line “We have hope! Rebellions are built on hope!” In what unintentionally became a wistful coda, the Star Wars-era Leia appears at the end, commemorating so much sacrifice in a galaxy far, far away . . .