In an early scene in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Han Solo and his newest protégé, Rey, prepare to fight a collection of Storm Troopers. Han hands her a blaster. “You might need this,” he says. Rey shoots him an are-you-kidding-me look. “I think I can handle myself,” she says. Han shoots back: “That’s why I’m giving it to you.
Aaaaaand there it is. With that brief exchange, the big questions about the new Star Wars and women—would there, uh, be any? Would the film find a way to update Leia’s (in)famous bikini? Would the franchise, under J.J. Abrams, give audiences a female character they can finally feel un-weird about liking?—got its answer. Rey, the tantalizingly de-surnamed woman played by the Hollywood newcomer Daisy Ridley, may have been dubbed “Star Wars’s first female protagonist,” but that isn’t strictly correct: The franchise has had its Leias and its Padmes. What Rey is, however, is Star Wars’s firstfeminist protagonist. No distressing damsel, she’s instead a fighter and a survivor and a nurturer and an all-around badass. She may fit the trope-happy cliches of Hollywood lady-ry—the “empowered woman,” the Strong Female Lead—but she’s also something both simpler and more meaningful: a fully realized character. Rey is a woman who refuses to be defined as one.
(Some discussion of minor plot points follow.) When audiences first meet Rey, she’s living on Jakku, a desert (and mostly deserted) planet. She’s a scavenger—she trades scrap metal for rehydratable bread—and a pilot. She is clothed (and remains clothed for almost all of The Force Awakens) in typical apocalypse chic: pants and a tunic made of sun-bleached fabric, bands that extend the length of her arms, thick-soled boots, a leather belt looped several times around her waist. She is, all in all, vaguely feral. (In an early scene, she eats some of her barter-bread in a way that makes clear she’s been on her own for a very long time.)
And then: Through dumb luck (or, this being Star Wars, maybe something more), Rey encounters a droid, BB-8, who holds the secrets to the whereabouts of Luke Skywalker. And then, via BB-8, she encounters Finn, a former Storm Trooper who (through desperation and dumb luck) has escaped conscription to the First Order. They end up, with Han Solo (more dumb luck!), teaming up with the Resistance. Which is also to say: They all end up fighting a lot of baddies.
And Rey proves herself to be, in extremely short order, extremely adept as a fighter. She is brave. She is smart. She is resourceful. She is a pilot of Soloian skill. She has a ninja-like command of a bow staff.
The plot of The Force Awakens, in fact, revolves around—relies on—Rey’s martial abilities. It also gently mocks the characters who would doubt those abilities. Finn, in particular, repeatedly attempts to inject chivalry into situations where chivalry is drastically out of place. During a fight the pair has against the First Order troopers, he runs over to Rey in an attempt to rescue her—only to realize that her attackers have already been neatly dispatched with. When Finn grabs her hand as they flee, she snaps, “I know how to run without you holding my hand.” (A few moments later: “Stop taking my hand!”) When Finn asks her, after another battle with intergalactic baddies, “Are you okay?” she shoots him a why-wouldn’t-I-be look. She replies, simply, “Yeah.”
Read more: The Atlantic