Okay, I have confession that many people who know me already know… I love Star Wars. But if you would please indulge me a moment to explain why this matters I feel we will have a great discussion. I was born into a Star Wars world. In 1977 when the first film came out the world was enthralled. I was born in ‘78 and took to the entire series in little time. But I am not obsessed with the series and my being a fan is just one facet of my life. In fact in recent years I had really stopped watching the movies and had moved on. Then one day my five year old daughter (she is now seven) asked me to see Star Wars. I didn’t understand why she wanted to see live action movies and move on from Frozen and other great animated movies. I brushed off the request and we didn’t hear about it for another few weeks. Then she asked again and again and again. It seems that at recess the kids were playing Star Wars and she loved it. My wife and I looked at each other and said: well she wants to see them. As the closing credits were rolling the look on Ayelet’s face was priceless. She loved it. She wanted to see the next one and the next. She loved the ewoks and she loved the lightsabers. But above all else she loved Princess Leia. It was natural. She already adored princess movies and now she had another princess to love and this one fought against evil and led a huge rebellion against evil.
My wife and I searched high and low for clothing for her. We looked for dolls and for toys. There was nothing and she was quite unhappy. So we bought her storm trooped pajamas and boys t-shirts. We would search the Disney Store and Target for her and would find nothing. Finally last year we found a dress up set with Leia and Queen Amidala in it. Ayelet loved it and that was all we found. Luke and Han and Chewbacca got all of the merchandise. The females got nothing. Clothing was impossible to find as well. Ayelet fell in love with legos at this time and it was natural to have her love the Star Wars line of legos. Guess what, Leia is in next to none of them and the ones she is in are the really big and expensive ones. In fact, Amidala is also quite tough to find and is not in any sets made today. The frustration was immense. But our little trooper (not to be confused with a storm trooper) marched onward and found ways to love the male characters that were adequate.
Last year for the Jewish holiday of Purim (we wear costumes like at Halloween) Ayelet insisted that she was Leia, Carrie was Queen Amidala and I was to be Anakin Skywalker. She is proud of who she is and she loves being that person. Her birthday party this year was a Star Wars Jedi Academy one. She helped plan it and already wants to do the same thing again next year. It was a blast and all of the kids, boys and girls loved it.
When The Force Awakens was being advertised all of us were trying to read between the lines and dissected the previews to ascertain what we thought the movie would be about. After the initial disappointment of no Luke, no Leia and little Han wore off we all were excited by the new characters. Ayelet fell in love with Rey right away. She assumed that she would be Leia and Han’s daughter… sorry sweetheart. When the first merchandise came out she made me wake up at 5:00am to take her to the Disney Store and to Target to get some items. She purchased a large Rey figure the Rey lego set along with an R2-D2 sweatshirt and a Rey t-shirt. She was a happy camper. She desperately wanted the Rey costume and she would eventually get it for her birthday from someone else.
When the movie came out Carrie and I went to see it on opening night (yes I am now a Star Wars super fan again because of my daughter) and when the movie ended we looked at each other and said how excited we were because Ayelet was going to love Rey. And so on Sunday morning when we took her and her friend’s family to see it the two girls sat glued to the screen and fell in love at first sight. Rey was strong and Rey was good. Rey did not wait for change she was the change. Rey was the hero. In fact why is the movie titled The Force Awakens? What is the “awakening?” It is the force awakening in Rey… The whole movie is actually about her (spoiler) and her search for Luke. Finally a female character that didn’t need a man to do things for her. A female lead that wasn’t overly sexualized and made to be “eye candy.” Finally a female that is not being rescued but doing the rescuing herself. And also a sympathetic character that feels pain for others and optimism for the dark world in which she lived. Thank you JJ Abrams and the folks and Lucas Film for giving us this great new role model and hero.
But that is not where the story ends. With this great new female lead character one would imagine that the merchandise issues for girls would be resolved… NOPE!!! Go to Target and try to buy a Rey figure. Or try to buy Rey pajamas or sweatshirt. Try to buy basically anything Rey and you will almost always come up disappointed. At some point in time we need to convey to the toy world and to the merchandising empires that gendered toys are not the only way to go. That determining if boys or girls are the target of a certain product is outdated and also damaging to all of the great work we have done in empowering our kids. Boys who want to play with kitchens and baby dolls should be embraced by society and our marketing machines just as girls who want to play with light sabers and action figures and legos should also be made to feel welcome. Give our girls and our boys characters that they can relate to and that will make them feel hopeful and optimistic about our future. Give our children toys and clothing that doesn’t pre-judge them when they are young enough to not be led down a road of judgment and bullying. Give our children the positive self image that they deserve and that we as parents are working to develop every day.
This issue is not a new one. History is always repeating itself in every generation. Just as the Ecclesiastes says “There is nothing new under the sun.” (1:9). Just as the First order builds another planet sized battle station with a vulnerability. The world constantly plays the same stories over and over just with new characters and new capabilities. In this week’s Torah Portion, B’Shalach, we learn of the crossing of the Sea of Reeds (Red Sea). In that great story we are led to learn about the greatest unsung hero of the Jewish people and the Torah. The text (Exodus 15:20) tells us that “Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron…” (led the women in song and dance). Why does the Torah call her a prophetess and why only the sister of Aaron and not Moses. The answer that the Rabbis created was that she was a prophetess when she was the sister of only Aaron (before Moses was born). What was her prophecy? Her father, Amram, was a leader of the Jewish people and when the decree against male newborn Hebrews was made, he chose to divorce his wife and so did all of the other men. Why continue to have babies that could be killed? Why remain married? Miriam stood up and said that he was wrong. For Pharaoh only decreed against males… he (her father) was decreeing against the girls as well. Additionally, perhaps he was destined to be the father of the future redeemer of the Jewish people. Immediately, he took back his wife and they had Moses. When the text told us that Miriam stationed herself to watch the basket in the river the rabbis tell us it was to see what would happen to her prophecy. All of this is from the Talmud Bavli in Tractate Sota 12a – 13a. It is also found in the midrshic work of Exodus Rabah 1:19-22. In reality, had it not been for Miriam, we would still be slaves in Egypt. Had it not been for one young girl fighting back against authority we would never have had a crossing of the Red Sea to sing about. But Miriam almost seems like a coda… like an addition at the end of the song. She isn’t part of the initial song and dance of the Jewish people. In reality Miriam, Aaron and Moses were all needed to get us out of Egypt. In reality we as the Jewish people have been led for centuries by strong Jewish women who led often from behind the scenes. We owe a debt of gratitude for her life and for her courage. We owe it to our people and to our world to teach about the great things she did. We owe it to our daughters to tell her story so that they can learn that long before Moses said “Let my people go” Miriam began the whole process by courageously standing up to her dad and making history.
We have come so far in this world in terms of equality of the genders and the ways that we tech our children regardless if they are male or female. But the journey is not over. We must continue to push our society to empower all of our children and provide them with heroes to look up to and emulate so that they will be the Force that Awakens in our tomorrow and make our world all that much better.