Undermining Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens

Hollywood, California (TFC) – It’s no secret that feminism is pop culture these days, and various forms of media have taken to creating strong female side characters (lampposts with swords and karate and whatnot) as well as the occasional female lead. Suddenly, feminist issues are in the spotlight, and movies are being flooded with kickass female heroines that can draw blood while simultaneously being the catalyst for some male character growth and romantic subplot. Sarcastic YAY! We get to be a slightly stronger version of the serviceable female counterpart.

The recent mega hit Star Wars: The Force Awakens introduces a female lead that will inevitably become iconic. But can the franchise make her an icon without undermining her because she’s female? Rey, Star Wars’ newest female lead, is being subjected to loads of backhanded praise for being/not being the oft-loathed “strong female character” mentioned above. However, supportive fans and critics are undermining her by considering her the world’s best Mary Sue. Additionally, the film hurts Rey by working too hard to prove she’s independent instead of just letting her mature on her own.

There was a scene in The Force Awakens that irked me heavily. Earlier in the film, Finn discovers Rey and BB-8 on Jakku. Rushing to her defense, he quickly discovers that Rey is more than capable of kicking an enormous amount of ass without any man’s intervention, and rather comically ends his rescue pursuit. It was funny and endearing, and taught us a little bit about who Finn is and what his perceptions are. That was really all we needed to indicate Rey’s total badassery.

But, no. That’s when Star Wars decided to be as subtle as a sledgehammer. Once the First Order caught on to BB8’s secret cargo and Finn’s intentions, they sent TIE Fighters and troopers down to Jakku’s surface to scoop them up. Attempting to play the hero, Finn repeatedly attempted to grasp at Rey’s hand to yank her to a safer location within the the shantytown. Repeatedly, she shouted at him to stop grabbing her hand. Aside from the obvious undesirable body contact issue, I have found this particular scene irksome since my first viewing for reasons I will explain.

Image Source: Heather Paul, Flickr, Creative Commons Star Wars - The Force Awakens: Daisy Ridley (Rey)

Image Source: Heather Paul, Flickr, Creative Commons
Star Wars – The Force Awakens: Daisy Ridley (Rey)

For starters, protection is often used in films as a catalyst for romantic growth, and I think that was evident here. The film subtly hints at a burgeoning romance between Rey and Finn. He admits a level of affection for her based on how she looked at him. He also attempts rather foolishly to saber-battle with Kylo Ren on her behalf, and it nearly kills him. Despite repeatedly rejecting his unrequested protection, she ends his screen time by affectionately wishing to see him again, giving him a comatose forehead kiss. It’s suggested that Rey has long dealt with overprotective men if you consider her initial reaction to Han Solo’s offer of a free blaster, so this is clearly an irritant and a turnoff for her. It isn’t wrong for the two to have a level of mutual affection for each other as outcasts and warriors for good, but why does it need to enter kiss territory? Why does Rey, a new member of a spiritual tribe that clearly eschews romantic relationships (for obvious reasons), have to play the part of the female romantic lead when the film has no real need for it?

Moreover, why does the film work so hard to demonstrate that she doesn’t need protection while simultaneously rewarding her protector? The hand-holding complaints weren’t spare dialogue to fill space, they were clearly there to illustrate Rey’s independence, over and over again. This irks me because the film already did an incredible job by demonstrating her skills as a salvage vulture living alone in a burned out wreck. As I watched the film both times, I kept comparing Ray (unfairly, I admit) to another trailblazing film heroine: Imperator Furiosa from Mad Max. Both are inarguably self-sufficient. Both can handle themselves in a physical battle. Both engage in acts of heroism that put themselves at dire physical risk. But Mad Max made no effort to suggest that Furiosa was special because she did these things as a female. By refusing to spell it out for us, it allowed her to stand on her own, and she became all the more formidable because of it. The Force Awakens seemed like it needed to sell us on Rey’s formidability, and that undermined her. Granted, Star Wars films are meant to appeal to children as well as adults, making it unable to take the kind of artistic risks Mad Max could. It is also entirely possible that the film needed to spell it out for all of our little sisters who can empathize. Still, showing instead of telling would have had a more powerful impact by allowing viewers to come to conclusions on their own.

On a side note, what gives with Finn? We know that he was conditioned from childhood to become a stormtrooper. So where did he learn to be so… chivalrous? Is this one of the many lessons from Stormtrooper school that Finn has to unlearn (if they indeed taught soldiers to protect women before blowing innocent townspeople to smithereens at the behest of the Sith)? Or is the Star Wars universe dangerously assuming that patriarchal protectionism is the natural inclination of good-hearted men?

One suggestion for Rey’s characterization is that she’s a Mary Sue (a badly written female character who is heroic and without flaws, and often fulfills a romantic role). I don’t think that this fair. Rey is a character who has survived on the bare minimum on a desert planet, only to be scooped up into an inescapable adventure far beyond her previous pay grade. That adventure also comes with a high risk of being murdered or corrupted by the dark side and possibly dying in space combat. Sure, she’s invigorated, but she is also afraid, and unsure of herself, and has to come to terms with her own abilities before she has the guts to use them. Does it sound familiar? It should, because it’s Luke Skywalker’s story and it was likely intentional that the film so closely resembles A New Hope. But even websites that support her dismiss her as a celebrated fan service. It is exhausting to see female characters debased by sexist nitpicking, especially when male characters in the same exact circumstances are consistently celebrated, and most especially when it is done under the guise of critical celebration.

So, what gives? Does the franchise want to give us the heroine we so richly desire, or does it just want a marketable female figurehead that can jive with the current media zeitgeist? Right now, it’s seeming like the latter. But this trilogy has two more films to make it right. Maybe, just maybe, we can get another authentic female lead who is given room to breathe.