This is a rant that’s been stewing inside of me for awhile in various forms, particularly with how popular strong female characters are in film and literature right now. It started with poor press last year about the titular character of The Legend of Korra, but what really irked me enough to write this post was a recent comment about Rey from The Force Awakens. It’s been floating around the net for awhile that Rey is a ‘Mary Sue’. For those not in the know, Mary Sues are generally characters who are unrealistically strong or gifted, with abilities that conveniently save the day time after time. These characters often serve as an author’s ‘wish fulfillment’ of their own desire to be powerful, talented, and perfect. There are more problems with this than I can list, honestly, but I’ll attempt it anyway.
Spoilers ahead for those who wish to avoid any information about the new Star Wars film.
Rey comes into the story fairly quietly. She has nothing materially, lives out of a mechanical wreck, and scrounges for worthwhile parts to turn in for meager rations. Throughout the movie, however, she pulls the heroes out of situations entirely over their heads, usually with a smile on her face. She’s an expert pilot, and she seems to know the Millennium Falcon even better than its famed owner. She also doesn’t shirk physical tasks, and isn’t afraid to defend herself in a pinch. Later in the movie, she takes to her Force abilities with ease, showing herself easily capable of fending off a more experienced Kylo Ren.
This combination of traits, if they had no explanation, would sound the Mary Sue alarm. The thing is, every one of Rey’s skills can be attributed to pretty specific areas of her life where she honed one skill or another. She knows her way around machinery because she’s spent her entire life taking things apart and putting them back together. Her ability to pilot the Falcon so quickly was perhaps a bit lucky (smashing it into the ground aside), but it’s also understood that her home world is basically a dumping ground for all sorts of ships and vehicles. It’s not a hard stretch of the imagination to think that Rey might spend a significant portion of her time learning to pilot and use those ships.
There’s one scene where Finn and Han go to rescue Rey, but instead find her climbing up the side of a wall, clearly capable of looking after herself. I didn’t find this, or her fighting ability hard to believe at all. If you were ditched as a young girl on a desolate planet, wouldn’t you figure out how to get things done? Frankly, she’d be dead if she hadn’t.
Even Rey’s uncanny ability to use the Force is easily explained away by her possible lineage (please excuse my nerdy speculation), or simply by her ability to figure things out. Chiefly, Rey is talented at adapting to whatever life throws at her. Kylo’s Force manipulation is just seen as another challenge, and another opportunity to learn for Rey.
So why is Rey hailed as a Mary Sue when Luke essentially displays the same characteristics in A New Hope? Similarly, Luke grows up on a desolate desert planet where he learns how to be pretty handy with mechanical things. He’s an excellent pilot as soon as he’s given the chance to fly, and goes from knowing nothing about the Force to a full fledged Jedi Knight within the space of a few weeks. Anakin builds entire podracers and droids in his backyard, and blows up an entire base before he’s even hit the double digits. What’s so different?
Well frankly, they’re both guys. It’s strange that in a society so bent on equality, we’re quick to write off women who are exceptionally talented, even though it happens fairly frequently now in literature and film. I don’t want to seem like one of those women with a chip on her shoulder, because I’m not. But I do think that there’s a distinct disconnect between expectations and reality where heroines are concerned. If we’re going to write realistic female characters as a society, with all of their badassery on display, then I think we need to ditch the negative stereotype that female characters can’t be talented without being unrealistic. These two opinions can’t coexist in the same reality, and they do nothing to help us write strong characters, male or female.
The key here is that I want to see realistic, multifaceted, deep characters as much as possible. I want to see heroes and heroines struggle with the same flaws that I do, because it helps me understand myself better. And if my favorite heroes can overcome their often lofty problems, then maybe I can too. Rey is every bit as realistic and multifaceted as a character should be (although there’s more to come in the future, I’m sure), and her talents are reasonably explained in the course of the film. Girls need role models who are emotionally vulnerable, yet strong. In other words, heroes like Rey.
Of course, we don’t know everything about Rey yet, so I understand some people’s skepticism. But let’s face it: the Star Wars universe is rife with characters just like her, and the series does little to explain their talent either. And honestly, would we even have noticed her skill if Rey had been a guy?
For years, boys have had strong characters to look up to in fiction. Superman, Peter Parker, Luke Skywalker, and many others have been a staple for boys everywhere. Rey doesn’t fix everything, but it’s great to finally see a strong female lead in a series so traditionally male oriented.
We’ve come a long way from Leia in a bikini. The boys are right to worry.