As a younger viewer of epic stories like Star Wars, I always found value in the tales of those striving to find their place in the world around them. Even now, I still see value in those stories. For many of my favourite characters, that is their onscreen narrative: one where they come of age and learn to survive and thrive.
But now, as an adult who is, granted, still trying to find her place in the world, only now with some added life experience and perspective, I find new value in the characters who are past their coming of age. They have found a place in the world – or in the galaxy – and they occupy it by being wholeheartedly, unabashedly, unironically themselves.
Today, I salute them.
Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo
Admiral Holdo was right.
OK, now that I got that out of the way, let’s get into this.
In the middle of everyone litigating whether or not they enjoyed The Last Jedi (to put it mildly), one refrain I heard over and over again was just how much people disliked the character of Amilyn Holdo, played by the fantastic Laura Dern.
There is, generally speaking, an undue amount of nitpicking with this movie but, being a curious person, I decided to focus one of my rewatches on trying to see where people took issue with it.
Some of the problems, like the fact that the Throne Room fight is “unrealistic” because the moves the Praetorian Guards make are “stupid and incorrect” I dismissed immediately. First of all please suspend your disbelief while watching the pretty space wizards fight with their laser swords. Also, it’s called stagecraft and cinematography, look it up and don’t @ me, I don’t care.
But others, like the characterization of Vice Admiral Holdo, needed a closer look. I wasn’t satisfied by the “it doesn’t make sense” narrative when it came to her decisions and her story arc, so I decided to try and piece them together for myself. In the process, she went from a character I was curious about to a character I absolutely adore.
You get added context for Holdo through the Leia: Princess of Alderaan novel, but you don’t really need it to appreciate her here. All you really get there that is applicable to The Last Jedi is that she and Leia are friends, and that she is the type of person to go from A to D and expect you to keep up, or get out of her way. Which, really, is what you’d want in a leader, no? Someone to take charge and get everyone through the day?
Shame about that whole “being a girl” thing. And a middle-aged one at that.
Because that’s really the problem isn’t it? And that’s also why I admire the character so much. She operates in a sphere that, yes, we’ve seen Leia operate in before, but other than her and Mon Mothma, the Rebellion and later the Resistance is quite male-heavy, at least in terms of what we, the audience, see.
And then in comes Amilyn Holdo, with her purple hair and her evening gown, ready to take charge of the whole situation because it has fallen to her. There is not a single thing she does in the movie that we haven’t seen a man do in some context or another. But they never seem to get the flack. Funny, that.
It’s not as though she doesn’t have a reputation for being a formidable leader. Even Poe has heard of her. But because she’s somehow not what everyone expected a Resistance Vice Admiral to be, she is viewed with suspicion.
This goes beyond the movie and into the real world because I definitely thought the same thing on my first viewing. Which definitely makes sense. Of course, I would side with Poe, the character I know, over the character I don’t. The big argument leveled at her – namely, that she should have told Poe the plan – was absolutely my thinking the first time. That is, until I took a step back and realized that while I, the audience member, know that Poe Dameron is a main character and inherently trustworthy, Holdo doesn’t know that. She hasn’t watched The Force Awakens. She hasn’t read the call sheet.
So instead, she does what she believes is best for all involved and damn the consequences. She doesn’t waffle on anything because they are in a time-sensitive situation, and they cannot afford indecisiveness. She doesn’t once question her right to hold the authority that she does. She doesn’t change her methods to suit others when there is simply no time to soothe damaged egos.
She is, in a word, unapologetic. As she should be.
How many of us need that reminder in our daily lives? How many of us need to remember to stare down impostor syndrome in the face, and to stand in open defiance of those who think they can do your job better than you, no matter how honorable their intentions?
I know I do.
When you take a step back from the armchair internet criticism and actually look at Holdo for what she is, you realize what a truly sympathetic character she is too. She is dealing with the exact same thing that our main characters are. The only differences for her are that, first of all, she is taking over for a friend she has known most of her life without knowing if she’ll survive. But more urgently, the burden of responsibility is entirely on her shoulders, and she has lived long enough to know what that means.
When Poe returns from the bombing run with most of the crew dead, he is still so caught up in the thrill of having taken down a dreadnought that the truth of it all hasn’t hit him yet. I have no doubt it would eventually because Poe is not a bad guy. But Holdo doesn’t have the time or the resources to take a chance like that. Not to mention this is not the first war she is fighting. She has probably already made mistakes like that, and cannot do it again. She knows better. She goes into this with clear eyes, knowing that the survival of her cause does not come paired with her own personal survival, and she’s ok with that.
So what does this leave us with? This leaves us with a character who was one of the first in Star Wars that I looked up to as an adult. There were no nostalgia goggles associated, no affinity on a kinship level like I feel for Rey or for Ahsoka. It was just me, at 27 years old, seeing the kind of woman on-screen that I would like to be someday.
If there’s one thing that is characteristic of the Star Wars fandom, it is the obsession we form for minor characters. This can range from minor as in “not the lead” to a character so minor that you need a visual dictionary to even know what their name is. I have many such obsessions, and Fennec Shand – who fortunately falls into that first category – is at the top of that list.
The moment Fennec Shand first stepped on-screen in The Mandalorian’s fifth chapter “The Gunslinger”, it was a non-stop roller coaster of emotions: “Oh sweet, it’s Ming-Na Wen” very quickly turned into “I can’t believe they just killed off Ming-Na Wen, what is the matter with these people?” followed almost immediately by hope for the future when Fennec Shand’s seemingly lifeless body was approached by a mysterious shadowy figure.
The audience wouldn’t get concrete answers about the characters fate until 363 days later, when Chapter 14: “The Tragedy” aired, not only confirming that the mercenary was still very much alive, but also revealing that the one responsible for saving her life in the first place was none other than Boba Fett himself. The two of them stuck around for the rest of the season, and in the process officially launched the Book of Boba Fett spin-off series (and unofficially launched the Great Ship Bonnec, but that’s for another day).
Overnight, Fennec Shand went from someone whose premature loss I mourned to a character whose potential I became greatly invested in. Credit for part of that has to go to her actress Ming-Na Wen, who has been a staple in my life from Mulan at an early age, to Agents of SHIELD and more recently, my late discovery of long-running medical drama ER. Ming-Na Wen is a badass, and so are the characters she plays.
That’s not to say that the only reason I absolutely adore Fennec is because of the person playing her. One does not purchase a screen-accurate cosplay helmet if that’s the case. My love of this character is also absolutely owing to what we see on-screen. She is cool, collected, able to sharpshoot with terrifying accuracy over great distances, and can play mind games with the best of them. She is, in short, everything I want to be when I grow up. But when she returns in season two, we get so much more from her within the layers of the performance. She doesn’t say much, but what she doesn’t say speaks volumes.
The first time we meet her, she and our Mandalorian Din Djarin are on opposite sides of a very small conflict: he wants to bring her into the Bounty Hunter guild and claim the price on her head. Because this is decidedly not something she wants to happen, she immediately starts playing Din and his associate, the idiotic Toro Calican against one another. Or really, mostly preying on Calican’s weaknesses because like I said, he’s an idiot. She’s only looking out for herself, and really, why shouldn’t she? These two are trying to kill her after all, or at the very least, deliver her to people who probably will.
But the next time she and Din meet, things go very differently. For one, she is in the company of Boba Fett, who has been tracking Din since he got Boba’s armor back from Cobb Vanth. Not only is she there with Boba, but we very quickly learn that he is the shadowy figure we saw approaching her after Calican shot her, and that the two of them have been hanging out together since, with Fennec in her rescuer's service in exchange for saving her life.
This is the last specific detail we get about Fennec, but the beauty of a character like this is how much is written between the lines if you care to look. First of all, I cannot imagine anyone – even Boba Fett – trying to keep Fennec in their employ when she doesn’t want to be. She readily allies herself with Din to first fight off the stormtroopers, then to help him get Grogu back. So she clearly has not only a personal moral code, but compared to the last time we see her, she is also less of a lone wolf only looking out for number one. She’s found a partnership that works for her, and is worth sticking around for.
Fennec also isn’t some ingenue leaving home for the first time and discovering a whole wide world out there. She is a mercenary so fierce that she’s got Din ‘I can bring you in warm, or I can bring you in cold” Djarin shaking in his damn boots. She has a past and a reputation, which is going to become even clearer once she makes her debut on The Bad Batch. That show is set approximately 25 years prior to The Mandalorian, giving us some idea of what her life is like and will continue to be like until she and Din cross paths on Tatooine.
Though it hasn’t happened yet, it will be so refreshing to have a female lead whose story I can look up to as a woman in my 30’s. Fennec’s story didn’t end with her coming of age. We don’t even see that part of her life. What we have seen, and will continue to see, is a character – a woman of colour no less – kicking ass and taking names well into middle age, and I am Here. For. It.
It’s so beyond easy for Star Wars to take a badass bounty hunter of any gender and make them a quippy, one-liner-spouting crackshot without much personality. But that’s not Fennec. There is an intriguing personality and a heart of gold in there. So far we’ve seen glimmers of it, and I cannot wait for The Book of Boba Fett to bring that out in full force, when she has the chance to take centre stage.
Despite technically being too old to need a role model by most metrics, I don’t think we ever reach that point where we no longer need or want people to look up to. But as we grow, we need our role models to grow with us.
Amilyn Holdo and Fennec Shand could not be more different. One of them thrives in the heart of lawful society, the other lives on its fringes. Holdo seeks to bring peace through the only means she knows how, by working within the system that has worked with her for decades. Fennec, meanwhile, has carved out a life for herself in an unforgiving galaxy, and has thrived to become a mercenary with a fierce reputation. Both women have pasts, they have experience, and they use these things to drive their decisions, and dictate how they live their lives and address conflict.
One of the beautiful things about the Disney era of Star Wars is that they have given us not only characters for the younger audience to look up to, but also a whole host of new characters for those of us who may not be children anymore, but who are still very much in need of someone to aspire to be more like. Or to cosplay.
Or alternatively, just to see an authoritative, take-no-bullshit badass woman be amazingly cool onscreen. And sometimes that’s all we need.
This is article is part of the Kick-Ass Women of Star Wars series.