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'Star Wars: The Force Awakens' hero Rey hailed as feminist icon

Now that millions of moviegoers are finally getting a glimpse of "The Force Awakens", one of the most pleasant surprises has been the strength its female lead.
This photo provided by Disney shows Daisy Ridley as Rey, left, and John Boyega as Finn, in a scene from the new film, \"Star Wars: The Force Awakens.\" (Photo by Film Frame/Disney/Lucasfilm/AP)
This photo provided by Disney shows Daisy Ridley as Rey, left, and John Boyega as Finn, in a scene from the new film, \"Star Wars: The Force Awakens.\" 

Now that millions of moviegoers are finally getting a glimpse of "Star Wars: The Force Awakens," one of the most pleasant surprises of the film has been the strength of its lead female character, Rey, who some have hailed as a new feminist icon.

Ever since the first teaser trailers for "The Force Awakens" arrived, the prominent placement of Rey, played by newcomer Daisy Ridley, caught the attention of both casual and die-hard "Star Wars" fans. The series had featured women in major roles before, but Rey appeared to be driving the action scenes instead of primarily being a spectator to them.

It turns out, despite a memorable turn by "Star Wars" veteran Harrison Ford as Han Solo, that "The Force Awakens" really is about Rey's character after all. The story centers around her resourceful character's mysterious arc, and, without spoiling anything, it's safe to say that the film's last act suggests she will very much be at the center of the narrative in future "Star Wars" films.

RELATED: New 'Star Wars' films to feature 'really strong women'

This makes Rey a far cry from previous "Star Wars" heroines. Although Princess Leia is elevated to the role of general in the new film, and did get to participate in actions scenes in the original trilogy, she was also objectified in a "slave girl" outfit and was frequently getting rescued by her male companions. Natalie Portman's Padme fared even worse in the "Star Wars" prequels, mostly saddled with elaborate costume changes and with unconvincing love scenes opposite Hayden Christensen as Anakin Skywalker. The development of the light-saber wielding Rey in "The Force Awakens" was a concerted effort on the part of the film's director, J.J. Abrams, who wanted to broaden the appeal of the sci-fi series.

“’Star Wars’ was always a boy’s thing, and a movie that dads could take their sons to. And although that is still very much the case, I was really hoping this could be a movie that mothers could take their daughters to as well,” Abrams said during a November appearance on "Good Morning America."

Rey arrives amid a particularly strong year for women in non-traditional action roles. Charlize Theron won rave reviews earlier this summer for her commanding performance as Furiosa in "Mad Max: Fury Road" and Jennifer Lawrence was a huge draw at the box office yet again for her performance in the final "Hunger Games" installment. And even male-dominated films like "Ant-Man," "Furious 7," "Terminator: Genisys," “Avengers: Age of Ultron” and "Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation" featured at least one butt-kicking female action hero. "The Force Awakens," for some viewers, has raised the bar for female representation even higher.

"Leaving the theater, my girls felt as empowered as their brother usually does after seeing one of the many blockbusters built for him. They never commented on how pretty Rey is. They never had to flinch because Rey was a sexual object to some man in power. They just felt strong. Equal," wrote Nicole Sperling in a personal essay for Entertainment Weekly.

"Here, Abrams acknowledges the past while fashioning his own pluralistic future filled with a female hero, female generals, and even Captain Phasma (Gwendoline Christie), the galaxy’s first female villain. In this 'Star Wars,' the Force that awakens is woman," added Marlow Stern in The Daily Beast.

Still, some have questioned whether the praise for films like "The Force Awakens" is warranted. 

"The fight for equal representation for women, in front of and behind the camera, continues, and will continue for a long time. No one's saying sexism is over and we should put our feet up and enjoy it. And no one's arguing that all female characters should be as flawless and fearless as Rey," wrote Tasha Robinson for The Verge. "Characters who have a lot to overcome to become heroes are the bravest and most inspirational — more so than characters like Rey, who are naturally good at everything."

However, she added that Rey is "a fantasy wish-fulfillment character with outsized skills, an inhuman reaction time, and a clever answer to every question — but so are the other major 'Star Wars' heroes."

Carrie Fisher, who played Leia in the original trilogy and reprises her signature role in "The Force Awakens," has been outspoken about some of the sexism that she has endured while making the blockbuster films. Fisher has said that producers forced her to slim down for "The Force Awakens" and she warned Ridley to not "be a slave like I was."

For her part, Ridley is optimisitic about Rey. “I hope Rey will be something of a girl power figure,” the actress said during a recent press conference for "The Force Awakens." “She will have some impact in a girl power-y way. She’s brave and she’s vulnerable and she’s so nuanced ... She doesn’t have to be one thing to embody a woman in a film. It just so happens she’s a woman but she transcends gender. She’s going to speak to men and women.”

Although there has been some backlash to the film's racial and gender diversity, it clearly is resonating with all audiences. This past weekend it enjoyed the all-time best opening in box office history (not adjusted for inflation) and got a promising "A" CinemaScore from audiences, and an A+ average among women specifically, even though the majority of the film's audience to date have been adult men.