[Contains major spoilers for ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’.]
If you haven’t heard of the latest Star Wars movie, Episode VII: The Force Awakens, you might want to check your pulse. The latest installment of the space fantasy franchise has so far taken $1.5 billion at the global box office, a total which is still climbing. Expectations were high, yet with little information leaked and deliberately vague trailers, no one knew quite what to expect from the new episode.
For all it’s success, the film has received mixed reviews from critics, being both lauded and criticised for the same reasons, namely that it’s a retro movie for the fans that doesn’t introduce many new ideas and actually repeats old character archetypes and plot devices. Yet I found myself massively enjoying it, and for one major reason: its variety of female characters – both heroic and villainous. But the hero Rey is a victim of her own success. She has been criticised for being too much of a ‘Mary Sue‘; an ordinary girl who excels at whatever she tries her hand at: engineering, fighting, flying, using a lightsaber, and of course her fledgling use of the force. She even seems to show more talent and power for a new Jedi than Luke did.
Like most people I expected the male protagonist Finn – the former stormtrooper who found he had a heart – to be the lightsaber-wielding hero, and the mysterious woman in the trailer to be a supporting character. Just another kick-ass woman who nevertheless needs rescuing by the male hero and inevitably starts to fall for him. I was delighted to be wrong.
The heroine of the story turned out to be Rey: a lone scavenger using her brain and her strength to survive. Her world is turned upside-down when she finds the droid BB-8 who holds the key to finding the last Jedi in the universe – the now mythic Luke Skywalker. Despite Finn’s exciting start rescuing a rebel fighter pilot, Rey soon takes over, using her engineering, fighting, and flying skills to get them through one trial after another.
The film actively strives to playfully and knowingly break the ‘damsel in distress’ trope that seems to have annoyingly survived in modern blockbusters. On Finn’s first encounter with her, Rey is in the midst of fighting off two attackers. Finn leaps into action to help but by the time he reaches her she has already dispatched them. In one of my favourite moments of the film, Finn and returning hero Han find their damsel-rescuing skills yet again redundant when she is captured. Instead they discover her climbing out of the cavernous First Order base to safety, having used her new-found Jedi powers to escape, blissfully unaware her friends are behind her panicking in their search to rescue her. She eventually defeats the dark warrior Kylo Ren in a lightsaber duel and sets off at the end of the movie to attend her destiny (leaving Finn behind completely): to find Luke Skywalker who will presumably guide her in the force.
However as this author points out, would these amazing new skills be so unbelievable if Rey were male? Or would we just assume the character has previous experience of flying, or that men make natural pilots? Was Luke criticised for being too good at being the hero?
The film actively strives to playfully and knowingly break the ‘damsel in distress’ trope that seems to have annoyingly survived in modern blockbusters.
In a film series so rooted in the power of mythology and mysticism I don’t believe it’s too far a stretch to believe Rey could have messiah-like ability in the force. Legends of the Jedi are famous in their world and so her already knowing what new powers she has at her disposal, such as mind-control, is a given. When Kylo Ren, a dark agent of the force, connects to her mind to get information out of her, both she and he are surprised to find she can do a little delving of her own, so who knows what kind of secrets she found inside him. We don’t know how her future will pan out but it’s clear she is destined for great things in a universe where the Jedi have become almost extinct.
It would be wrong to say Rey is the perfect heroine though. She has her own weaknesses and fears. When she experiences visions of her future she tries to run. She’s afraid of her powers and leaving her old life behind. She’s effectively an orphan, wondering if her family will return and why they even left her in the first place. She also visibly wants to take a job with Han and learn more from him. And don’t forget this is just the first part of her story. She has at least two more films to make mistakes.
A feminist hero isn’t just tokenism in a ‘PC world gone mad’, it’s pretty sound business sense. People want to relate to as well as admire their heroes. I’ve seen all the Star Wars films and always been a sci-fi/fantasy fan, but I was never that impressed by Luke (perhaps because he did exactly what was expected of him), and the less said about the prequels the better. With ‘The Force Awakens‘ I feel a whole new young, female, fanbase opening up for the franchise who may not have been interested before. Instead of being told ‘Star Wars isn’t for girls’, or ‘you can be the princess’, little girls can now batter their brothers’ action figures with their very own Rey ones (provided they can get hold of one… #WheresRey).
In a world of fantastical male heroes, is there not room for a legendary woman? Isn’t the whole point of a fantasy story some sort of wish-fulfilment? An epic triumph over evil rarely achievable in real life? The world certainly has its share of Gary Stus, the inexperienced yet perfect male hero. Captain America, Batman, and Harry Potter could all be described as Gary Stus if we put Rey in that pigeon hole. However I think she has the experience to back up her achievements. She has had years to hone her mental and physical skills on Jakku. She, along with everyone in the Star Wars universe knows what a Jedi is capable of. She doesn’t rely on anyone else to rescue her because she has never had anyone around to look after her before. Still her emotional weaknesses and willingness to learn show she isn’t fully-formed yet.
It remains to be seen if the latest trilogy can develop beyond the nostalgia for episodes 4, 5 and 6, but I think Rey is the fulcrum for this. She has so much room to turn further stereotypes on their head. Personally I would love to see her character develop with no love interest whatsoever. She is a born leader, a path beset with pitfalls. I’d find it far more interesting to see how she develops in her Jedi training, find out if she is tempted by the dark side, and see how her abandonment backstory is played out.
Screenwriters, take note!
Written by Amy Squire.
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