For nearly 40 years Carrie Fisher's smart, resourceful Princess Leia was the only significant female character in the Star Wars galaxy. George Lucas's original trilogy is many things — wildly imaginative, wonderfully expansive, and endlessly entertaining — but female-driven it is not.
In fact, a revealing supercut from Vulture examined all of the non-Leia speaking parts for women in A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi and found that there are only three female characters who have any dialogue: Aunt Beru on Tatooine, former senator and Rebel Alliance leader Mon Mothma, and an unnamed Rebel controller at the Hoth base. While that doesn't take away from Leia's importance as a Rebel hero and pop culture icon — after all, she was a blaster-firing princess who could save herself long before it was popular — it does make Rian Johnson's Star Wars: The Last Jedi all the more monumental to the canon.
In the days since the anticipated film's release, a lot has been said about Johnson's bold, exciting new entry in the Star Wars franchise. Episode VIII dismantled fan theories, reshaped old mythology, and angered some fans in the process, with A.V. Club's William Hughes calling it the "most political (and populist) Star Wars film ever committed to the screen." But the single-most radical thing about The Last Jedi isn't its story or genre subversions — it's its overt feminism.
The film opens with a blazing act of heroism from Resistance gunner Paige Tico (played by Vietnamese actress Veronica Ngo), who in her final moments took out a First Order Dreadnought with quiet determination. Her gut-wrenching sacrifice weighs heavy on the film and its characters, especially for her little sister Rose (Kelly Marie Tran).
Rose is a delightful addition to the Star Wars universe, a character whose Rebel spirit is unbreakable, as evidenced by the way she stunned would-be deserters on the Raddus mere hours after her sister's death. Not to mention, it was her idea to sneak onto The Supremacy to temporarily turn off the First Order's hyperspace tracking device (and no amount of mansplaining from Finn can take that away).
Meanwhile, Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo (Laura Dern) is a woman put into a position of power following General Leia's near-death on the bridge. Poe Dameron's (Oscar Isaac) immediate mistrust of Holdo's authority has as much to do with her feminine appearance — her amethyst hair, matching dress robes, and ornate space jewelry (at Fisher's request), in particular — as it does his hotshot, male ego. The way he refers to Holdo as "not what I expected" is extremely telling, especially as he proceeds to undermine her at every turn despite her experience and capabilities.
The Last Jedi also gave Billie Lourd's Resistance officer, Kaydel Ko Connix, a more active role, in addition to introducing Amanda Lawrence's steadfast Commander D'Acy, a character who comes off as very even-keeled when compared to her male counterpart Poe. Countless other female Resistance members are also seen piloting X-wings and taking down TIE fighters. Of course the women of the Resistance wouldn't be complete without Rey (Daisy Ridley), a Star Wars heroine and Jedi in the making.
J.J. Abrams's Star Wars: The Force Awakens established that there was more to Rey, a scrappy young scavenger from Jakku, than meets the eye. She's incredibly powerful, though her relationship with the Force is dangerously unbalanced. The Last Jedi sends her off on her very own hero's journey to Ahch-To, a remote planet where a world-weary Luke Skywalker has been living in self-imposed exile. (On an island maintained by a community of hard-working female creatures called Caretakers, no less.) Leia and Rey believe Luke to be their last great hope against the First Order, but little do they know that it's not Luke who's the "spark that will light the fire that will burn the First Order down" — it's them. It's their courage and strength, just as it was Jyn Erso's valor before them that led the Rebels to its first big win against the Galactic Empire.
And it's about time.
"It just feels right, especially now," Johnson told The Los Angeles Times of the film's diverse group of female heroes. "It's a sea change you feel happening. The fact that it is powerful for folks who haven't seen themselves [reflected] on screen, as heroes and also villains, all types of characters... to see how much that matters to people, and how emotional that is, has been really impactful."
But The Last Jedi isn't just a film featuring a cast of complex female characters; it weaves multiple stories in which men not only learn to listen to women but also suffer actual consequences when they don't.
Poe's story line with Leia and Holdo is the most blatant example of this. At the beginning of the film, he's, in Holdo's own words, a "trigger-happy flyboy" whose reckless actions lead to a major Resistance victory at the cost of nearly their entire fleet. Poe thinks he's a leader, but he doesn't understand that true leadership means knowing when to fall back. His contempt for Holdo is an all-too-real example of the kind of casual sexism female bosses often face. Poe is the most likable guy in the galaxy, but even he has trouble taking orders from a woman who's not Leia Organa.
Whereas another screenwriter might have made Poe the handsome hero of this story — his coup going off without a hitch — Johnson isn't afraid to make Poe's hubris his downfall. When it's later revealed that Holdo had a plan all along that would save the Resistance, a plan she made knowing she'd have to sacrifice her own life, it's Poe who has to acknowledge his mistakes.
It's a lesson Leia had been trying to instill in him since the very beginning: Blowing things up doesn't make you a hero and, hey, maybe listen to the woman above you and stop mansplaining your way through the galaxy.
Finn learns a similar lesson on his mission to Canto Bight with Rose. When he stops talking and starts listening to Rose, he sees the beautiful casino planet for what it really is: a shiny facade inhabited by ugly war profiteers. Their bonding moments on Canto Bight ultimately set up Rose's heroic act in the film's spectacular finale, in which she risks her life to save Finn from his ill-conceived suicide mission. Just as Johnson said, watching a female heroine finally get her moment and save the day — by saving the male hero — is impactful.
It's just as impactful as seeing two leaders of the Resistance come together in The Last Jedi's most emblematic moment. "So much loss," Leia says to Holdo, knowing she's about to lose yet another friend. "I can't take any more."
"Sure you can," Holdo smiles. "You taught me how." (That line was improvised by Dern as a tribute to her onscreen idol, Fisher, and Leia's lasting legacy.) This moving exchange is poignant not just because it's an emotional goodbye, but it's also a declaration of admiration between two powerhouse women — a rarity in Hollywood blockbusters like this. There was never a rivalry between Holdo and Leia; they were just two old friends working together for the greater good.
In many ways the female power of The Last Jedi feels like a fitting tribute to the late Fisher, the fearless and unapologetically feminist Force of Star Wars. It may have taken four decades, and one infamous gold bikini, but women are finally running the galaxy far, far away.