See, I dressed up like Luke Skywalker.
It was probably 1977 (the year Star Wars came out), maybe 1978, so I was 8 or 9 years old. There might be a photo around somewhere, but I’d have to do some digging in the garage to find it.
Back then, store-bought costumes consisted of these plastic drapes, printed with a character’s body, paired with absolutely horrifying molded plastic masks. Fortunately, we were a homemade Halloween costume family, and by “homemade” I mean “scrounge through the closets and see what you can cobble together.” (This remains, I wholeheartedly believe, the best way to assemble a Halloween costume.)
I managed to secure a white wrap-around blouse that was more like a dress on me than a top, which is a good thing because (the way I remember it) I wasn’t wearing any pants. Yeah, I know, you’re pretty sure Luke Skywalker was wearing pants in the movie, right? Somehow I got it in my head that, since I couldn’t find a pear of tan or even white pants to wear, it’d be better to just go without any at all. My Grandma Ruby’s red go-go boots (which had long before passed into our dress-up collection) didn’t bother me, but a pair of blue jeans? No way!
But the coolest part of my costume, the whole point of the costume,* was the lightsaber. Mine was inflatable, a yellow tube of translucent plastic attached to the head of a flashlight so it glowed when switched on. Yes, yellow. No, there has never been a single occurrence of a yellow lightsaber in any of the movies. And no, I don’t still have it: how long do you think an inflatable toy is going to last, especially one designed specifically for hitting other children?**
Being Luke meant you got to have a lightsaber, so of course I wanted to be Luke. I don’t remember if anyone asked me if I wanted to be Leia instead–I certainly had enough hair to achieve satisfactory hair buns–but I don’t think it ever crossed my mind. I mean, Leia was cool and all; she was feisty and got to spit out some real zingers. But in that first movie? She didn’t get to do very much except get rescued. In classic Cambellian terms, she was the prize the hero wins at the end of his journey, not a hero in her own right. Don’t get me wrong, I love Princess Leia so much; she was powerful, a force to be reckoned with, but only within the constraints of the role she was assigned, a role defined by millennia of hyper-masculine narrative tradition.
So Leia never gets a lightsaber. She never gets all that the lightsaber represents, an iconic symbol of power and destiny, the duty and the right to fight evil and transform the world. The story is about the guy with the lightsaber, right? Is it any wonder that I, as a child, should want to dress up as the actual hero of the story that transformed my world? Even if it meant dressing as a character of the opposite sex?
Don’t get me wrong, I don’t see anything wrong with cross-gender costuming (or dressing in general). It’d be nice if it was a little less one way, but we should all be encouraged to emulate whatever heroic figures we admire, regardless of gender.***
There just haven’t been that many female heroes of that caliber, and certainly none wielding lightsabers.
But that moment in The Force Awakens, when Rey reaches out her hand and calls that lightsaber to her? Rey, who is kind, curious and clever, and also strong, fierce and undauntable (and who never, ever whines). Rey gets that lightsaber, and she kicks butt with it. More importantly, Rey gets the story that goes with the lightsaber. She gets to be the hero, instead of the princess, which is the only part of the story that girls have ever gotten to play before. She gets to be the one who fights evil, who struggles against her destiny, who makes mistakes and even fails along the way, but ultimately emerges victorious against the Dark.
I feel a spark of joy every time I see a young girl dressed up as Rey. A whole new galaxy of possibility has been opened to these girls, one where they are valuable for what they can achieve, not just for what they are. This is why it’s Rey is so important, because when she gets that lightsaber…we all do.
*Maybe the whole point of Star Wars.
**I was far too young to appreciate the humor of a limp lightsaber.
***I was John Wayne one Halloween, too. I got a little fed up with all the, “Oh, a cowgirl” comments. I wasn’t a cowgirl. I was the Duke!****
****Yeah, I know John Wayne is a bit of a problematic figure now, but this was the ’70s, I was 7 and we just weren’t woke.