(Spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens ahead!)
(Also apologies for typos or errors, I wrote this between the hours of midnight and 2am.)
Let me just start by saying I love Star Wars. I’m not even an age-old fan; just started the series this year in the hopes of catching up to the release of Episode VII, The Force Awakens. Mostly, I’m here in support of a very lovely cast, some of whom I’ve admired for many years and simply want to put money behind as best I can. But that’s not to say I never expected to love Star Wars as much as the next person. I knew after I watched The Empire Strikes Back that that was an inevitability. Even the prequels – though flawed – are fun movies with pathos to some extent.
And it’s no surprise that I loved The Force Awakens upon seeing it in cinemas on opening day. I wasn’t going in for the visuals necessarily – I bought a regular digital screening ticket, foregoing IMAX 3D in favour of being immersed in the story first and foremost. It’s a narrative any Star Wars fan would be familiar with, as it combines the greatness of the original trilogy with elements of the light, visuals-heavy prequel trilogy. Everything was done superbly and entertainingly, just as fans had hoped.
However, something about the film still irks some people who thoroughly enjoyed the ones prior. That conundrum occurs in The Force Awakens‘ protagonist, Rey (played very skilfully by Daisy Ridley). Have I written a blog post vaguely similar to this before, a few months ago? Yes, but the fact that it’s still a trend means I’m just going to have to say my piece.
I’d first gotten an inkling of this from a friend, who tweeted about her brother calling Rey a “Mary-Sue”. I’d bristled but thought nothing much of it afterwards because this was one person. Maybe it was totally naive of me to think that it wouldn’t fester as more people saw the film – people who disbelieve in the concept that protagonists, much less female protagonists, get to be as powerful as Rey.
Because truthfully, that’s what the film wants us to think she is. Rey has many talents, including but not limited to being a totally ace pilot, a scavenger, a lightsaber-wielding duellist, and a good friend. She’s supportive, kind, and never has a bad word to say about anyone (that we hear). People are enamoured by her because she can handle herself and save the day. She doesn’t need a man, but by the end of the film finds vulnerability enough to want to save one from death.
However, that’s not all she is. On the outset, there’s an establishment that she’s alone somewhat, and that there’s a gaping hole in her life that is her missing family. There’s a minor flashback scene in the film that shows her separation from her parents (I’m assuming), but that’s all we get. We don’t get a sense if she was fostered somehow, or if she’d had to be on the run ever since. Considering her vast array of skills, could she have been self-taught or did she have a mentor of some kind? Granted, the Force itself was presumably dormant in her and that was one less thing to worry about, but just how did she get to that point of proficiency? She had, what? Maybe ten years?
Which is a long time if you’re lonely and need to survive. That’s what I find people don’t understand about Rey and maybe that’s partially the film’s fault, but she is very clearly a survivor to me. Starting the film alone, trading in scavenged metal parts for scraps of food and sitting around staring at the horizon, in wait for her loved ones to return, seemingly without any friends… the girl has had to adapt. She has had to be strong on principle and it goes hand in hand.
Picture this: Her physical capabilities were honed as she has presumably scavenged and lived hand to mouth for a very long time. She’s mentally hardened and even though she has this longing for a family, it shapes her as a person because she literally has no one. In the trailer, she calls herself No One. In this way, she is unlike two of the other Star Wars protagonists we’ve already had so far. Luke was raised by a family up until R2-D2 and C-3PO stumble into his life. Anakin had a mother he loved and killed for. Rey could only look out for one person; herself.
Of course that’s all inference. There is nothing in the film to suggest that this could be true at all, but that’s the joy of these kinds of long-form narratives. You can take all the time in the world to build these characters up because you’re not confined to a single 2 and a half hour slate. It’s not that hard to also see there are two more films coming out in this franchise, and there’s plenty of time to flesh out her character for supposed weak spots. You don’t watch the pilot of a television show and expect to know every single kink and crack in a character’s being. Some characters change drastically from beginning to end, and for these characters the middle portions of their stories are the most important, life-changing parts.
The question of whether Rey can do too much at once – especially after the Force literally awakens to its possible potential – is absurd. When white male protagonists have had it all for absolutely years without people batting an eyelid, I don’t see why (white) female protagonists have to suffer immediately to be validated. This is not a new argument but no one seems to hear it when people make comparisons to Bruce Wayne for example, or Peter Parker (whose circumstances are quite similar to Rey’s, taking into account their relatively young age and the sudden bestowal of power upon them). Why should Spidey, who gets bitten by a radioactive spider absolutely randomly, learn to use his powers proficiently enough to beat a bad guy in a single film? (Yes we’ll talk about the movies.)
Rey was ostensibly written to appeal to anyone, regardless of gender, but we’re made known she’s female. She constantly tells Finn when they first meet that he need not hold her hand; she realises her gender is something that automatically defines her almost above everything else. As a character, Rey even understands that somehow any dynamic between her and any male character would always be fraught with difficulty despite being super “unfeminised” herself. Maybe it is in itself problematic. But there’s no escaping that from her clothes to her no-nonsense line delivery, from the practicality to the wit, she is meant to be the Elusive (Male) Hero. She is a trope (like all characters in the franchise and in many of the best stories out there), but it doesn’t mean she isn’t effective.
Because the legions of people – especially girls – screaming they love Rey, the people that wish they had had a protagonist like her growing up, are the ones that make the most difference. Those reactions mean that at the end of the day, the discontented ones who shout “Mary-Sue!” in an attempt to bring the character down were probably not the ones the film was really made for. These are the people who can’t suspend their belief for 2 hours, who can’t picture a world in which a woman could be “all that and more” (but are perfectly capable kissing Bruce Wayne’s rich ass). It’s probably not to say their loud, naysaying voices don’t matter – they just don’t have to matter to those that see Rey as a constructive step towards the future of the female protagonist.
Picture this: Rey sits nicely next to starkly different characters like Katniss, Hermione, Jean Grey, Furiosa, Chihiro and Uhura. This is obviously not an exhaustive list. The point is that female characters sit on a spectrum and even though so many people blatantly ignore the sheer number and variety of arcs that could be represented, one step at a time it happens. Even if it means someone has to – at least for now – be ridiculed for being “too good”. There are probably worse things to be made fun of as well, let’s be honest.
This has gone on long enough so I’ll try to wrap up. Overall, Star Wars has always been known to foster new generations of people into its rather unique genre. The films have become a milestone feat in moviemaking, in that each era not only visually mirrors what films were/are like in real time – they also become culturally significant. We’ve not forgotten Leia Organa’s slave girl outfit in Return of the Jedi or Padmé Amidala’s fridging in Revenge of the Sith. Those things still happen way too much in media today for them to be ignored, and obviously this franchise is not perfect. In hindsight then, I think someone like Rey should be celebrated – someone who isn’t typically feminine, is aware of the implications of her simply existing in a dominantly male space, and happens to be totally cool. I’m fighting for her, because she deserves to exist.