Rejoice! Rey is everything we wanted in a “Star Wars” female character. She”s front and center (just look at that poster!), she”s independent, skilled, scrappy, tough and doesn”t need saving. Princess Leia is far from a total damsel in distress, but this franchise was still missing someone like Rey.
In case you haven”t figured it out by now, “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” spoilers lie ahead.
She pilots the Millennium Falcon! She wields a lightsaber!!! Someone other than a dude touches a lightsaber – not only touches it but dominates at fighting with the elegant weapon. Yes, we got to see some women using lightsabers in the Battle of Geonosis in “Attack of the Clones” – including Shaak Ti, who went on to appear in the animated series “Clone Wars” – but in that battle, they were a few women among 200 Jedi, and they were tertiary characters. This is the first time we”ve seen a main character who is female in her own lightsaber duel – it”s an exciting first, one that moved me to tears as I watched Rey clash with Kylo Ren in the snow-covered Starkiller Base forest, as she discovered her powers and discovered the Force. To see this storied lightsaber dart through the air past Kylo Ren and into the hands of a girl – chills and tears, people, chills and tears.
For so long, we wanted to see a woman – for fangirls, to see someone like ourselves – in a heroic, prominent “Star Wars” role. And now we have what we asked for. So why does Rey – even though I adore her, in a winning performance by newcomer Daisy Ridley – rub me the wrong way?
Where this all irks me is that Rey feels like a very reactive character. Each and every quality of Rey”s is something we wanted, something we requested – like she”s been genetically engineered. Now, let me be clear: I am NOT saying that any and all of the characteristics she possesses are not naturally found in women. And, yes, I know it makes little sense to complain about getting exactly what we asked for as we point out issues with female characters and equal representation in movies, but hear me out: This felt like pandering. The speed with which Rey mastered Jedi mind tricks and lightsaber fighting with zero training is the stuff of fan fiction. Rey is geek feminist wish-fulfillment.
In 2015, damsel in distress roles are such a turn-off – I wanted to scream the umpteenth time we saw Mila Kunis saved by Channing Tatum in “Jupiter Ascending.” Still, in reality, we all sometimes need some help, we even need some rescuing. We can look up to and admire badass women, and certain problematic gender norms can be challenged when we see powerful, capable female characters. And that”s all well and very, very good. But I also believe relatability is a key quality to most compelling characters, male or female. Or if I can”t see myself reflected in a character, I hope he or she illuminates someone else”s reality. While I do enjoy watching “strong female characters” – tough, fearless women – more often what I want to see is strongly written female characters – complex, interesting, flawed women. Too often “strong female character” means a woman who”s been given all the characteristics of an alpha male. (For more on this topic, I highly recommend you read this 2011 New York Times Magazine piece by Carina Chocano.)
Rey – at this point, one movie into a new trilogy – is more “strong female character” than strongly written. We have yet to see any character flaws in Rey. Even Luke Skywalker – whiny, impatient, easily discouraged Luke – has character flaws that we get to watch him grow out of. She”d feel a much more real character (yes, we do want characters who feel real in science fiction) if she had a discernible character flaw or two. Her only weaknesses – ignorance of the war and blindness to the truth that the family that abandoned her won”t return – are totally expected and understandable for her age and the isolated life she”s led on Jakku.
Though the “strong female character” of it all, the literal kicking of ass that Rey does here comes off as a bit of an overcompensation, I can”t deny I'm thrilled to see this kind of character in a “Star Wars” movie. And there are some nuances the writers and Ridley brought to Rey: Just after she shoots a stormtrooper in the chest on Takodana, you see horror in her face as she realized she”s made (what we assume to be) her first kill. And, refreshingly, she”s not actually fearless (a quality that very few people can identify with – most everyone has fears). She”s more courageous than brave. She faces her fears – she”s clearly terrified when a giant tentacled monster snatches Finn, but she keeps her head and figures out a way to free her new friend from the creature”s grasp. And the way she softens and expresses gratitude when she learns it was Finn”s idea to join her on Starkiller Base – that hug – I loved that.
I”ve searched my feelings on Rey, and what I”ve found is a lot of contradictory responses to the character. Part of me wants to examine and question and pick apart this character, and part of me wants to just sit back and enjoy the sugar high that comes with seeing a “Star Wars” girl kick ass. (Well, I guess we already know which way I leaned on that one.) I”m cheering for this tough, scrappy girl and the filmmakers who created her, but I”m also yearning for a little more dimension in her. I”m annoyed that she”s a reactive character, and yet I can”t tell if I”m annoyed at the “Force Awakens” filmmakers for that or at the industry to which she”s an admittedly much-needed reaction or at both. I look forward to the day when a character like Rey isn”t a revelation – and yet it”s also exciting and moving to witness a slow but sure wave of change for women in and on film.
In spite of how conflicted I feel about Rey, this is a character I”m eager to introduce to my future children someday. She possesses many qualities I”d want them to look up to: industriousness, ingenuity, courage, optimism. And I know I”ll want to show those kids a girl kicking ass with a lightsaber.
More HitFix reactions to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens”:
• Drew McWeeny”s spoiler-free review
• Alan Sepinwall”s review
• Drew McWeeny and Roth Cornet”s spoiler-filled video review
• Roth Cornet and Donna Dickens” video discussion about diversity in “Force Awakens”
• Another video perspective, from Chris Eggertsen and Louis Virtel, both notable non-“Star Wars” fans