Written by Seth Wilkins

It’s Wednesday, May 25, 1977; in just 32 theaters around the country, “Star Wars” will become the third highest grossing film in the world. By Thursday morning, three ordinary actors will achieve superstardom and become some of the most famous people in the world.

Now, 40 years after its debut at the box office, “Star Wars” has garnered a worldwide audience. After Disney purchased Lucasfilm and the “Star Wars” franchise in 2012, its fan base has grown from older to younger audiences of all walks of life, as it has become a pop-culture staple and industry leader in film making and visual story telling. Today, wrapping up the 40 anniversary celebration, “Star Wars” has grown to stand for equality between people of all diversities and backgrounds, aiming to spread acceptance and encourage strength.

This month, from April 13 – 16, the annual Star Wars Celebration was held in Orlando, Florida. The event takes place in different locations every year, hosting a variety of events including panels with current cast and crew and unveilings of new titles and projects. This year’s celebration was the premier of the first teaser trailer for “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” the second installment in the latest movie trilogy by Disney, as well as a new campaign for their children’s health charity Force for Change. This weekend was the largest celebration in the history of the event, specifically honoring the 40 years that “Star Wars” has influenced popular culture.

Disney has spent the last five years redefining “Star Wars,” what it represents and the role it plays in pop culture. Soon after their purchase, the company announced a new saga, planning to bank off the success of the first films, using the familiar imagery to help craft a new story for the franchise. It would be the first movie since “The Revenge of the Sith” was released in 2005. Reception of this prequel trilogy was ill overall; Disney had to recover the franchise from a lot of negative feeling. “The Force Awakens” did just that. The film proved to be monumentally successful and helped reshape “Star Wars” forever as a picture of struggle and hope.

“The Force Awakens” introduced a large cast of new characters, this with an emphasis on diversity. In true “Star Wars” fashion, it featured a strong female lead, played by Daisy Ridley and a blend of old and new faces. The familiar Carrie Fischer, Mark Hamill and Anthony Daniels, starred next to the new, including Adam Driver, John Boyega and Oscar Isaac. Although “Star Wars” has always included different ethnicities in its cast, “The Force Awakens” marked the first time those diverse actors have been main characters in a “Star Wars” film.

With all the fan boys that have garnered around “Star Wars” for years, the updated franchise allows for the inclusion and participation of many more young and independent women. Audiences loved Princess Leia, then Padme Amidala and now that the legacy resides with Rey, the importance of the strong woman has never been higher.

Felicity Jones brings another female character to life as Jyn Erso, protagonist of the recent “Rogue One.” Because of inspiring characters like her, women of all ages can finally admire the “Star Wars” franchise. The new emphasis on empowering women is clear in costumes, toys and the upcoming spin-off titled “Star Wars: Forces of Destiny,” focusing on including even more strong females in the franchise, to continue to help encourage young women.

In the 40 years that it has graced our screens, “Star Wars” has also enlightened our hearts and minds. Fan or not, we’ve all been exposed to the sagas in one way or another — be it that someone jokingly says, “I am your father” or that you’ve been to a Disney park in the last couple years.

In the hands of Disney, “Star Wars” is continuing to inspire young minds to be fearless and strong, with remarkably diverse characters that show intelligence and strength can come from anyone and anywhere. After 40 years of changing the industry, “Star Wars” continues to change culture for both new and old fans.