The complaints have started to come in. So far, I’ve heard the politics in Star Wars: The Force Awakens don’t make sense, Rey is too good to be believable, and that rehashing the story beats from the original films takes away the great experimentation of what people loved about the films in the first place.
First, it should be known that all Raes are exceptionally great at everything they do, so Rey’s skills were no surprise to me. She also lives on her own in a tough world and fights off a gang of men to save herself and BB8 before she even meets Han or Finn, so it’s clear she’s pretty good at fighting for her survival and thinking on her toes. Better than young Luke, even, who had a home and didn’t have to bargain for his food every day. (Luke is also a big whiney baby much of the time, but this isn’t about him.) If you need more convincing, Caroline Framke does a great job of laying out why Rey isn’t a Mary Sue.
As for the politics in the Force Awakens: I don’t care. I got the gist, and wondering about the details of a post-Empire government and why the Resistance is different than the Republic did not impede my enjoyment of this movie in any way. What threatened to derail it instead was being so prepared to be disappointed every time Rey got into a bind. Here it is, I thought. This is where she gets into trouble she can’t get out of, and Finn will need to rescue her.
But that never happened. Instead, she rescued herself and she rescued her friends. Instead, Rey not only fought, but she also survived and excelled.
What shocked me, looking back, is how ready I was for the let down of seeing another woman not get to be the hero. I was hoping for better but ultimately not surprised when Finn picked up the lightsaber. Of course, I thought. Here it is, here’s the part when Finn gets to fight with the lightsaber and Rey has to watch from the sidelines once again. I thought this even as my worst expectations had been disproved not yet an hour earlier when Rey talked herself out of imprisonment and fought back against Kylo Ren’s mindwashing all on her own.
For as predictable the Force Awakens may be, Rey saving herself surprised me. The movie played on the expectation that Rey would need rescuing a few times, and each time she didn’t need a man’s help I was shocked and delighted. Isn’t that the experimentation and subversion of expectations that people loved in the originals? To me, and to many other women watching, that element of surprise was there. If you didn’t see it, maybe it’s because you are not used to bracing yourself to watch women get shunted to the side.
What kills me is how even as I wanted Rey to be the lead in this movie and get to do heroic things, I didn’t truly believe it would happen, not deep down in my bones. I’ve seen popcorn movies before; I know how it goes. Rey gets to be charming and beautiful, but when it came down to it, she wouldn’t be able to come through when it really mattered without a man helping her out. And, honestly, I still would have loved it even then because Rey, Finn, and Poe are so charming and loving, and it was so good to see Han and Chewie again, and because I am so used to the disappointment of not seeing a woman save the day that it hardly would have registered.
That’s the saddest part. Women have been denied being the star and seeing female-specific stories for so long, we’ve become used to it.
I didn’t know I was missing this: This is the refrain I’ve seen from women again and again lately. Rachel Syme said it in her wonderful essay on women making culture:
“And this flash of recognition immediately made me sad: How moving it is to feel like you can meld with the screen, how deeply this mirroring affects you and changes the way you feel for long hours. I realize how rarely I feel this way, the way that men must feel all the time.”
And Jessica Ritchey said it in her great piece on Rey:
“This wasn’t just going to be the story about how Finn and Poe become great heroes, with Rey helping out and minding her place. This was also going to be the story about how Rey becomes a great and powerful Jedi.
I didn’t know how badly I needed to see that story.”
I said it myself in a recent Tinyletter:
“I didn’t know I was missing women-specific stories until I got a taste. I had always felt fulfilled with the stories I’d been given until I uncovered the giant hole that had always been there. Now my thirst cannot be quenched.”
I didn’t know that connecting with a character could feel like this because it’s never happened to me. Never before have I seen a girl who shares my name save anyone. Never before did I know what it felt like to see myself as the lead of a franchise like Star Wars.
I didn’t know, but now I do. It’s been an awakening indeed.
The backlash against Rey isn’t surprising. To survive in a man’s world, sexism mandates that women need to be better than the men. But when Rey has the skills, they change the rules and say she’s too perfect, that she got too good too quickly.
To demand perfection in stories by and about women is, as Admiral Ackbar would say, a trap. When a work doesn’t meet that invisible mark, people who don’t take women’s stories seriously use any flaw they can find to easily dismiss it. But perfect female characters will never exist. Women are complex and varied, and no one story or one character will ever be everything that every person needs–especially if you want your women quiet and compliant.
It’s a familiar pattern now. Book or movie contains a woman lead and some female-driven plotlines like a love triangle or motherhood, book or movie becomes a hit on the back of female fans, book or movie is picked apart and ridiculed endlessly. (The original Star Wars included a love triangle that no one seems to mind even though two of the spokes are siblings, but this isn’t about that either.)
If culture is serious about including women, it can’t dismiss everything that isn’t an ideal example of a woman. (And who gets to decide on the ideal portrayal of a woman? As Rachel Syme pointed out, it’s certainly not women who are making this culture in the first place.)
Rey may be flawed, or not flawed enough, but to me she is perfect.