Rey and the F Word

(Intro by Head Butler Ryan: This is Trinity’s first post as a contributor here at the Manor! I met her and her husband at Celebration Orlando this year as we waited in line for the Rebels S4 panel and I was fortunate enough to make two new friends, plus interest from her in writing for the site.  So give her a giant “Welcome to Fandom” hug over on Twitter @TrubelleNova, after you finish reading her article of course!)

What is Rey to you? When I think about our new Star Wars hero, Rey, I want to know her backstory. I want the question answered: is she a Jakku original or is she the long-lost daughter of Luke Skywalker? Is she the kidnapped baby of Leia and Han Solo or somehow through a long thread connected to Obi-Wan? But Rey is more than each of her story parts that we are so curious about. Let’s start at the beginning.

From the first time we see Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, she is independent. She leads a precarious profession that endangers her life daily and that danger coupled with the harsh elements of an outlaw desert world made her a survivor. The preferred adjective we give to those of her breed is “strong” and she is indeed that. But when fans discuss Rey’s journey, sometimes things go wrong. Her “strength” becomes a liability.

In storytelling, characters become compelling when they have tremendous odds to overcome. We see the choices they make when pressure is applied by antagonistic forces and we understand who the character is and what they stand for. When they fail or succeed, we feel the consequences with them because we’re invested in their journey. The things for Rey to overcome in The Force Awakens is the abandonment of her family, the fact that she can’t leave Jakku because she’s waiting for them to return to her. But it doesn’t actually hold her back, does it? She still escapes Jakku by stealing the Millennium Falcon when need calls for it. Then a few things happen that are surprising: she executes a Jedi mind trick and pushes back against Kylo Ren’s Force mind probe, something we as Star Wars nerds think is reserved for well-trained Jedi (which Rey is not), and then she beats a seemingly superior foe in a lightsaber duel. For some, these accomplishments make Rey “too powerful.” To those who hold this opinion, Rey’s wins are unbelievably won since they don’t understand how someone of her humble origins could grow to such lofty heights in a limited amount of time.

In my opinion, none of these things diminish Rey. This new trilogy is competing with today’s standards of movie hero, which has changed drastically since Episode I 18 years ago and Episode IV 40 years ago. Our new Star Wars hero is effortlessly likable for a modern audience. Daisy Ridley’s personality sparkles throughout her performance. But who Rey is, ultimately is what she does, as it is with all of us in real life. Rey is hard-working and she’s not a punk. What we see at the end of the movie is established by clues given at the start: she’s a fighter. She knows how to use melee weapons considering her attachment to and use of her staff. She is a consummate survivor who climbs around machines all day and knows how they work. And most importantly, she has the Force.

We have no measuring stick for assessing what’s believable for Force powers and what’s not. It’s all fake so we just use our feelings (pun intended) based on what we saw in A New Hope and The Phantom Menace, movies that introduced each trilogy’s hero: Luke for the originals and Anakin for the prequels. Judging based on those films, our hero needs to be an expert pilot, even if it defies logic because they have the Force. Luke started as a bush pilot but by movie’s end became a fighter pilot, blowing up the Death Star with a one-in-a-million shot, while Obi-Wan Kenobi was the Jedi Master and lightsaber duelist. Anakin was a child prodigy podracer, miraculously getting his first win for racing and subsequently earning his freedom from slavery, while Qui-Gon Jinn and Kenobi were the Jedi Knights and lightsaber duelists. Rey flew the Millennium Falcon, finally leaving Jakku, but she also filled the roles of Force-using Jedi and lightsaber duelist that previously was reserved for the kindly older mentor figure. In the absence of Luke Skywalker, Han Solo couldn’t be to Rey what Obi-Wan was to Luke and Qui-Gon was to Anakin. Without a warrior mentor to protect her from her enemies, Rey had to save herself. This one detail puts Rey in a different class than little Anakin and Luke: she was unprotected.

If Rey was not a consummate survivor, if she was anything other than what she was, would she have survived the movie? Not believably, no. Her ability to use a lightsaber came from more than her connection to the Force, it came from her refusal to give up in the face of insurmountable odds. Her defiance to yield to Kylo Ren in the forest led her to use anything and everything in her knowledge to survive, she knew there was no one who could save her and when there was nothing tangible left for her to use, she found the Force within her to command.

The question Star Wars fans ask is if Rey is too powerful in the context of the Star Wars cinematic universe, but against a larger backdrop of how women are portrayed in media, my question is if Rey is treated fairly. Consider Rey as an image of feminism. Before you pick up fruit to start throwing at me for bringing up the F word, let me explain my definition of it by restating another F word: fairness. If you zoom out and look at the big picture, all feminism is trying to accomplish is fairness, or equality between the genders and that’s how I see feminism. There are many off-shoots of the larger context of it that are individually debated endlessly on the floor of the Senate or in coffeeshops, but at its core, it is the fundamental belief that men and women are created equal.

It feels like we’re living in an age where women in Western culture can succeed in equal measure to men, but for too many, that reality is a façade. In response to the issues that are damaging to women, a visible resurgence of feminism has sprung up in the past few years. Various forms of advocates for women have become more vocal to shine a spotlight on the ways half of the population struggles to acquire equal opportunities and respect as the other half.

That spotlight reveals the limitations some women face and how in some cases, those limitations are the ripple effects of those who, whether consciously or subconsciously, want to preserve the gender hierarchy. The who and the why varies, but people who perpetuate misogyny can be boiled down to the most basic motivator: maintaining the status quo. The most effective way to do this is limit the playing field. Who’s competing? Everyone, but if you can target the weaknesses of certain groups, you can limit that group’s success or effectiveness. For example, some people might believe something like, “Women want to spend more time with their kids, why should they have to put in long hours for an executive position?” Then when you have a boardroom that is 95% men, no one will question it because we’re conditioned to believe that women fill lower wage support roles, not high paying leadership roles, an example that the surface issue of the wage gap comes from a deeper flaw in cultural norms. The fact that single mothers and middle class families are brutally left behind in the competition for economic independence is conveniently ignored. We see the consequences of society’s acceptance of inequality everywhere, be it in the form of misogyny or racism.

If the needs of women and men were truly equal, society would look very different. The frustration lies in explaining that to someone who’s not living in those limitations and doesn’t believe other people are or that those limitations even exist.

Each generation since the dawn of female empowerment have rolled back many limitations that used to exist. The right to vote, own private property, open a bank account without the approval of a husband or father… It’s hard to believe that women used to not have access to these basic human rights. These early feminists challenged the status quo and sought to establish the humanity of women, that women have always faced the consequences of decisions made by men, and women as equal partners would have a voice in those decisions. My generation can resist the indifference of society because before us were the rebels.

Before Rey, there was a princess. Leia channeled the spirit of the baby-boom feminists. They were bold and mouthy. They were the rebels who wouldn’t take any amount of shit from Han Solo types because they couldn’t afford to. Leia was a response to the classic “damsel in distress” routine that poorly reflected the capabilities of half of the population. George Lucas said that when he was writing and casting Princess Leia, he wanted a “real woman.” He succeeded. Leia had personality, goals, weaknesses, skills, emotions and a brain. Carrie Fisher didn’t just play a princess, she became an icon for the ages.

I don’t like thinking that Rey wouldn’t exist if it weren’t for Leia, but there might be some truth in that. Leia helped make women in film, specifically in the action and sci-fi genres, be viewed as equally active with male heroes, instead of passive. Dave Filoni, executive producer for Lucasfilm Animation, shared at the Heroines panel at 2017’s Star Wars Celebration that he believed Leia was always planning ahead, looking for opportunities, and in A New Hope, when Luke Skywalker stumbled into her cell, it was less of a rescue by Luke and more of an opportunity grabbed by Leia. It’s a small detail but the motivation behind it is huge when building characters and it shows itself in Filoni’s animated characters: Hera, Sabine, Ahsoka, all female characters whose gender is a nonissue in their adventures. They have skills and motivations that are compelling, fantastical for their Star Wars worlds and in their unique ways, they’re relatable. Simply put, they’re good characters.

We’d like to think that a lot has changed since Princess Leia nailed fools to the wall in the original Star Wars trilogy, but Rey is a response to the “damsel in distress” routine as well. In The Force Awakens, Rey is accosted by two thugs attempting to steal BB-8 in the tented village on Jakku. Our favorite stormtrooper turned revolutionary, Finn, sees the fight and after running to help her out, he stops, realizing that she can take care of herself. He looks surprised for a second and the movie moves on, but the message is clear: Rey’s a fighter. She’s momentarily distressed, but saving is not required, for a damsel she is not. She’s a Jakku scavenger, “indebted to no one” (to quote The Force Awakens novelization). The rest of the movie further develops how deep her skills go, and by the time the credits roll, we know they go deep.

To her fans and the generation of little girls growing up in this new age of cinematic heroes, Rey is a reminder of hidden potential and the power that lies in realizing that the things that hold you back, are mostly just in your head. She was holding herself back by relegating herself to hopeless and needless waiting on Jakku. Once she left, she discovered her veiled authority over the Force and that she could not only save herself (she already knew that), but she had the power to save others as well.

To play on a quote from the Batman movie, The Dark Knight, Rey is the hero we need, but not the one we deserve. We don’t deserve her because we take her for granted. We don’t understand how necessary she is. After decades, feminism is still fighting the same battles and we’re not much closer to finding solutions for leveling the playing field for each half of the population. For Rey, she is able to crash through her barriers and save herself, even when it feels like there’s no way out. She’s at the same level as Batman or Superman, who regularly save themselves from impossible odds. When Rey does it, she’s labeled a “Mary Sue,” a genre character who can do whatever the plot requires her to do. I would argue that that label is unfair. Action and sci-fi films are littered with male heroes who pull new skills out of thin air with no explanation all the time and I don’t hear fans calling foul on them. Calling Rey a Mary Sue is hypocritical.

We’re conditioned to believe that heroes who save themselves from impossible odds look a certain way: male, particularly the big muscled, uber-masculine archetype. Women, on the other hand, are usually the ones being saved. There isn’t anything inherently wrong in that, but when it’s so pervasive in storytelling that 50 percent of the population is pigeon-holed into one role, then it becomes a problem. The roles are reversed by a few limited female warriors, such as Wonder Woman, and the superpowers of Diana Prince in a make-believe world make it “believable” that she can save herself from impossible odds, same as Superman. When the female hero of impossible ability is the star and the male protagonist serves as the support, love interest, and motivation for the female star, sometimes mocking of the perceived emasculation of the male character ensues, as exhibited in this short clip:

After watching that video, think about Lois Lane of Superman fame, Agent Carter and Captain America, Pepper Potts and Iron Man… The contributions of Lane, Carter and Potts were valuable without superpowers because they anchored their superheroes to humanity and gave those stories heart, i.e. a personal reason to defeat whatever evil was confronting the protagonist. They brought the stakes home and made things personal for the hero. Chris Pine’s Steve Trevor accomplished this beautifully for Wonder Woman.

In the video clip, when Chris Pine says that he’s in the Wonder Woman movie, Jimmy Kimmel jokingly assumes he’s Wonder Woman. The insinuation can be interpreted many ways and is surely intended to be harmless, but Kimmel is humorously hinting at the expectations society has on superhero films: the leading character is a white attractive male like Chris Pine. The following comments also feel harmless, but the assumptions an audience must have to make the joke funny are specific. The audience must assume, whether consciously or subconsciously, that romantic characters are secondary. Kimmel’s teasing of Pine as “Wonder Woman’s boyfriend” and poking fun at Pine’s lack of superpowers suggests that the role is subordinate, (Kimmel comments, “who talked you into this?”). Kimmel’s jokes hint that being the superhero’s love interest is beneath Pine and portraying that role is something that is usually reserved for… Women. Kimmel says it himself, “You don’t see that very often.” The only reason why it’s funny that Chris Pine is Wonder Woman’s boyfriend is because he’s a man. If the gender of the roles and superpowers were flipped, it’s not a joke, it’s a statement.

Jimmy Kimmel is a comic who I watch regularly and I like his show. I believe that his words were intended to be little more than a lighthearted conversation with a famous actor. However, as a comic, he’s a loudspeaker for society’s conditioned expectations for men and women. To get laughs, he uses those expectations regardless of the subtext. This doesn’t make his words the enemy, it makes them a reflection of cultural truths. If we want to change the reflection, we need women working with men to change what we expect women to do in film, and to accomplish that, we must give them opportunities to do so. As long as we’re used to seeing women as supporting heroes, they will always be judged more harshly when they’re the leading heroes.

To Chris Pine’s credit, he said some lovely things about the qualities of having a superhero who’s a woman. He, director Patty Jenkins, and lead actress Gal Gadot repeated this intelligent narrative about the virtues and optimism found in Wonder Woman throughout the film’s press tour, sometimes for Pine, in the face of interviewers who belligerently called him Wonder Woman’s girlfriend (the more I think about that backhanded comment, the more I’m insulted). But the inspiration found in Steve Trevor was more than his desire to do the right thing and serve in The Great War to save lives, but Pine’s effortless portrayal of a grown man who did not feel threatened by the strength of Diana, rather he loved her for it. Gal Gadot’s Diana, “Princess of Themyscira,” is a hero who embraces her full potential and doesn’t apologize for it, and fans celebrate that quality.

But Rey is not Diana Prince. These two characters are deeply different and that’s a good thing, they should be. Other than being an awesome film, Wonder Woman’s status as a feminist icon and her Amazonian background only helped elevate the cheers from audiences when she lifted a tank over her head. As an unknown hero, certain fans didn’t buy it when Rey kicked the shit out of Kylo Ren. Maybe it’s because of inner biases that have limits on how many powerful women are allowable in film. Maybe they didn’t want J.J. Abrams expanding the Star Wars universe and challenging our concepts of what’s possible with the Force in that galaxy far, far away. Regardless, the reason why some people cheered for Wonder Woman but turned around and critiqued Rey is because of everything surrounding these two Titan heroines.

In the action genre, we see male heroes save themselves from impossible odds all the time. It’s so common we don’t even question it. Think about the Die Hard films, Lethal Weapon, Sylvester Stallone’s John Rambo, every James Bond film ever made, and you get my point that Hollywood has conditioned us to believe that even in these films that have little to no supernatural or superhero elements in the story, we accept that these heroes could save themselves from impossible odds and their virile masculinity is further demonstrated by a revolving door of female sexual conquests. Eva Green’s Vesper Lynd, James Bond’s leading girl in Casino Royale, said bluntly, “You think of women as disposable pleasures, rather than meaningful pursuits.” Of course, Bond later falls in love with Lynd and it’s a credit to that characterization of 007, but his behavior never truly changed. It wouldn’t matter because it’s a trait of this fictional character to have many lovers, we accept it because we grew up with this character, but generations of young boys see this behavior as something to aspire to because it’s “badass.” When women behave the same way as Bond, they’re labeled whores.

While there are far fewer female heroes that lack superpowers leading the charge in action flicks, we still have them: Sarah Connor, Ripley, Lara Croft… As stereotype crushing as these characters are, there aren’t enough of them to recondition general audiences to easily believe that women are as miraculous at accomplishing far-fetched feats as men are.

In Star Wars, Rey has fantastical abilities, so I’m going to compare apples to apples. Captain America is one of my favorite superheroes. In his first film, The First Avenger, he’s a thin young man with many health problems. He’s never undergone military training and there’s nothing to suggest he’s a tactical genius, but after getting a super-steroid fix, he becomes a master war tactician and commissioned officer in the U.S. Army responsible for the lives of an elite squadron of soldiers after… basic training. That’s it, that’s all the training he had. The audience is supposed to just accept it even though it makes no sense and there’s no explanation for it beyond his sudden bulking up. And it gets worse. We never see Cap train with the comic book government agency, SHIELD, for anything in the movie’s sequel: update his hand-to-hand combat skills so we believe he’s an expert MMA fighter, we never see him training to become a pilot of highly advanced jets… And I get it, some kind of montage showing Steve Rogers learn how to do the internet and all these things would’ve slowed The Avengers or The Winter Soldier down, but my point is that in the fantastical Captain America movies, we just accept that Steve Rogers can do all the things. Nerds accept it because of the comics they’ve read, but the common audience member knew little to nothing about Captain America when we were introduced to Chris Evans’ iteration of him in 2011. But he looks the part, so even when things don’t make sense, we accept it, because we’ve been conditioned to believe that (points at Chris Evans) this is what a hero looks like. I’ve heard no mention made among fans of the male equivalent of a Mary Sue when referencing Steve Rogers’ incredibly convenient fantastical abilities. We have expectations of grandeur on our movie heroes, namely that they can do the impossible. This is only questioned when the hero looks different than what we’re used to seeing or we don’t want the mythology in the story to be explored.

One of my favorite scenes from The Force Awakens is the interrogation scene. I like it not because it’s comfortable to watch, it’s actually unsettling for most of its runtime. Kylo Ren, the emotional new baddie, has subdued our new hero. Rey is locked in arm and leg restraints, completely vulnerable to her kidnapper. He has robbed her of her free will and reminds her of this fact by towering over her, flicking his eyes up and down her body while saying, “You know I can take whatever I want.” He then invades her mind with the Force, and as he casually recites Rey’s most intimate details of her being, she cries. But even as he violates her mind, she begins to resist. This slower scene builds as it turns from Kylo Ren preying on a defenseless Rey to a legitimate battle of the minds when she begins to fight back. She commands him to stop, then she tells him that he’s going to fail. In the soundtrack, the audience can hear the second the power shifts from Ren to Rey. She manages to turn the tables on him completely, peering into his mind and seeing his deepest secret. Ren’s eyes are fearful as he looks at Rey, the girl who is more powerful than she knows.

This scene begins the process of showing the audience what Rey is made of. It’s not just that she has the Force, we already knew that by this point in the movie, but what it tells of her character is important: even in the face of insurmountable odds, she doesn’t accept defeat. She’s the consummate survivor, the hero girls and boys need in these dark times. That’s what I love about this scene, it begins with Rey in hopeless submission, but ends with her holding the power. When we have rapists walking free after a few months in jail (a video autoplays at the link), it can make people, especially women, feel unsafe, and lose a little faith in the priority level society has for justice. The indifference of society toward violence can make those who are most vulnerable to violence feel devalued, but seeing heroes like Rey win battles against male predators is not only optimistic, it’s necessary. When she bests Kylo Ren in the forest, she not only claims victory but she reclaims her dignity that he had stolen.

Rey is the one who refuses to be subordinate. She challenges the status quo not simply because it needs to be challenged, but because she knows that when the chips are down, she can’t count on anyone else to save her, she has to be able to save herself. That’s the power source of Rey’s unique strength. If poorly conceived female stereotypes in film won’t die, even 40 years after Princess Leia commanded our respect, going above and beyond to silence those stereotypes is essential. Where one Star Wars fan might see something not believable in the power of Rey, maybe for someone else it’s hope.

The question remains: are we treating Rey fairly? I think not, for no other reason than we need her but we pretend we don’t. We need more women portrayed as victors instead of victims in film. We need compelling characters who are layered and surprise us. We need active characters who understand the power of compassion. But most importantly, let’s embrace the idea that the impossible can be made possible by women and men as equals in our greatest fantasy stories.

Trinity is a new contributor for the Manor. You can follow her on Twitter @TrubelleNova. You can follow the site @MynockManor.

Trinity’s Other Works:

Through Luke’s Eyes: A Creative Character Analysis