Warning: Spoilers for The Last Jedi abound throughout this post.
Ok, look, there are tons of reasons to love The Last Jedi. The thrilling battle sequences. Filmmaking artful and lived-in enough to make you forget the plasticky CGI nightmare they made of the prequels. Interrogation and upending of established tropes. A sense of humor. But, for me, what really sets this film apart is its unapologetic, bone-deep feminism. And I’m not just talking about badass-lady-swings-a-sword feminism; plenty of films get to that level. No, The Last Jedi digs much, much deeper than that, exposing in the process some of the unspoken assumptions and aggressively misogynist traits of the filmmaking industry as a whole.
More than anything else, I’d like to take a minute to use The Last Jedi as a way of exploring the layered nature of feminist filmmaking, starting with the easiest forms of representation and moving all the way to the truly rare and surprising feats that this film and so few others pull off. Here we go:
Level One: Get beyond tokenism.
The original Star Wars trilogy already had Leia, and she was great. From the get go, she was much more than the damsel the genre so badly wanted her to be. Blunt, handy with a blaster, committed to her politics, she was always a feminist character (gold bikini scenes notwithstanding). But. . . aside from Leia, what other women do you recall from that universe? Luke’s aunt? That one rebel officer with the pixie cut? Even setting aside aliens and androids of indeterminate gender, examining crowd scenes in the original trilogy or the prequels brings to mind a weird dystopian subplot in which a sex-specific plague wiped out nearly all women. This is, of course, not a sin specific to Star Wars or sci-fi in general; numerous studies have shown that women are ridiculously underrepresented in both speaking roles and in non-speaking crowd scenes. Still, the Star Wars movies have, up until this point, been particularly glaring their underrepresentation of women. Even The Force Awakens, with all the fanfare about how great Rey is, took a while before it came close to passing the Bechdel Test.
Now look at The Last Jedi. Apart from the many, many prominent roles accorded to women, they constantly appear in those busy battle station scenes, in the seats of cockpits, and as mechanics. All of which, of course, makes perfect goddamn sense. Aside from the Jedi with their lightsabers, almost nothing about this starfaring society requires any particular upper body strength (the last-gasp, scientifically dubious, final biological argument misogynists and MRA fuckboys everywhere still cling to). On rebel ships, women comprise roughly half the people in any given scene (by my own admittedly rough visual estimate), which is as it fucking should be. Yet how many films can honestly claim to achieve this?
Level Two: You have more than one lady, and they’re not all young, hot, and white.
Congratulations, you got a whopping two women into your movie. But seeing more than one woman in a room at a time makes the dumber men of our species have uncomfortable thoughts that said women might be plotting to poison them and steal their penises (or. . . something. I’ve never been clear on exactly what the fear is, here.), so it’s best to make sure these characters are the least threatening versions of our gender possible: slender, beautiful, white women under the age of twenty-five. Do I actually need to provide examples of how common this problem is?
Now that you’ve had a moment to think back on 95% of the movies you’ve seen in your life, let’s return our attention to The Last Jedi. Our very first major battle scene ends with a heroic sacrifice by a woman of color, performing the kind of selfless final act usually reserved for our male heroes and the end of the film. Her sister, Rose, then takes up the reins, calling Finn on his bullshit and basically propelling the second act. In addition to Rose, women of color are visibly present in small supporting roles and among the extras, creating a world in which they exist as more than isolated tokens.
Then there’s Leia, Vice Admiral Holdo, and Commander D’Acy, all of whom are over forty, have crows’ feet, and command the fuck out of the rebels. None of these characters’ ages would be notable if these were male admirals and commanding officers since, ya know, it takes a while to achieve that rank. But Hollywood’s allergy to female aging very rarely allows for even one part like this, let alone three.
Basically, while it might be painfully obvious to observe that women come in different sizes, shapes, ages, and ethnicities, would you be able to determine that from watching most films? Didn’t think so.
Level Three: Recognize that femininity is an asset, not an obstacle to be overcome.
Here’s where The Last Jedi really exposes Hollywood’s sexist bullshit. Then it douses that bullshit in gasoline and sets it ablaze. It does so in the form of the rivalry between Poe Dameron and Vice Admiral Holdo. You’ve all seen this a million times: the cocky, instinct-driven maverick vs. the stolid, by-the-book authority figure. The trigger-happy detective vs. the chief. In The Last Jedi, the setup is familiar, but the payoff is a shock: Dameron is totally, absolutely, dead fucking wrong about his maverick rogue plan, and his idiocy gets people killed. It’s Holdo, who Dameron frames as a coward and traitor, who has actually been protecting the rebels through calm, solid leadership focused on reaching a safe harbor.
The gender dynamics, however, make this more than just a surprising twist on an old formula. Holdo is feminine in every sense. She’s got a shimmery dress, a stylish wavy bob, and a soft voice that makes her sound more like a kindergarten teacher than a battle-hardened commander. But not one of these things holds her back in any way. On the contrary: every interaction between Holdo and Leia reveals a pragmatic, deeply feminine sense of prudence, responsibility, and concern for the larger community rather than just for immediate glory. When Holdo sacrifices herself to take out an enemy vessel, it isn’t one of Poe Dameron’s devil-may-care impulse moves. It’s a calm, cleareyed calculation, the right decision made at the right time.
And that is precisely where The Last Jedi earns a rare mark of distinction as a piece of feminist sci-fi. These women aren’t heroic despite their gender; they’re heroic because of it. This is a film that looks swaggering proponents of toxic “alpha” masculinity right in the eye and tells them to grow the fuck up.
It’s about time.