(Major spoilers for The Force Awakens and the now-discarded EU. And Eps. IV-VI I guess.)
Happened upon Anita Sarkeesian’s review of The Force Awakens today on Youtube and found it pretty interesting. This was going to be just a brief summary of her review, but apparently I can’t resist giving you all my hot take, too, because the Whills know we need another one of those. So here goes...
In large part I agree with what she has to say about The Force Awakens, although I heartily disagree that the characterisations and relationships in Episodes IV-VI were as flimsy and two-dimensional as they were in either the prequels or TFA. The relationships between all three of the OT heroes were pretty fraught throughout Episode IV, and although the evolution of Han and Leia’s relationship was pretty rom-com standard, I loved the development of Luke’s relationships with each of them, and still think that those were pretty nuanced.
Like Anita, I enjoyed that TFA was jointly led by a woman and by a man of colour and think both characters have promise. I was initially really happy to see what was essentially a female redux of Luke Skywalker, a character whom I idolised as a child. Hell, I still idolise him. Best moment of the movie was seeing Luke turn around looking full-on Jedi Master. But upon reflection, I don’t think Rey was as strong a character as she could have been, and frankly, doesn’t come near Leia in Eps. IV-VI (although this may be due at least in part to my preference for snarky bitches).
I disagree with Anita’s assessment that Rey is particularly subversive of the ‘strong female’ character. Yes, she eschews the sort of sexy, sultry, wise-cracking shtick we’ve come to associate with that trope, but the biggest problem I have with the majority of ‘strong female’ characters is not their cookie-cutter demeanour, but the fact that they typically lack agency in enacting their own stories. Everything they do tends to be driven by destiny, by chance, or by romance. It’s not the ‘strong female’ shorthand that bugs me, so much as the fact that shorthand is slapped on top of characters who, at their core, are the same old damsels in distress we’ve always be given. And despite her lack of bravado, Rey’s character is not all that from that unfortunate norm.
SERIOUSLY, SPOILERS AHEAD
We are introduced to Rey as a scavenger who has been abandoned on the Tatooine-surrogate Jakku, and is now waiting for a mysterious someone to come back for her. BB-8, a Resistance droid carrying a valuable map starts to follow her around, after which point she more or less adopts it. Upon recognising the droid, First Order troops attack the duo and their new companion Finn, they flee the planet in a stolen Millennium Falcon, only to run into Han Solo. After a bit of bonding, Han escorts Rey, Finn and BB-8 to Mos Eisley-surrogate Takodana, where Luke’s long-lost lightsaber from Eps. IV and V goes a bit Ollivander and decides it fancies Rey.
wand lightsaber calls out to Rey and shows her visions of her presumable past and future, after which she discovers that the weapon has chosen her, and that the Force is her destiny. At this point, Rey makes a half-hearted attempt to assert herself, rejects the lightsaber, and runs away into the woods. Where she is promptly abducted by Emo Kylo Ren.
To her credit, once within the First Order base, Rey uses her newfound powers to put one over on both Ren and James Bond. Subsequently, Rey and Finn engage Ren in a lightsaber duel, which they somehow win despite having absolutely no lightsaber training that we know of (or, in Finn’s case, any apparent Force sensivity). Evidently, Ren’s terrible lightsaber is a serious handicap. He should probably build a new one. What a turd.
With the major action of the film resolved, Rey follows her destiny to seek out the reclusive Luke Skywalker, using the map that BB-8 had been carrying. When she reaches her destination she discovers that it is one of the locations seen in her lightsaber-induced vision. Because destiny.
Basically every major action Rey takes in the film is a result of either destiny or chance. (Thankfully they mostly omitted the romantic nonsense at least.) To be fair, Star Wars has always leant heavily on the destiny thing, as Anita points out in her review. But even taking this into account, Rey’s arc in The Force Awakens seems unusually driven by outside forces (pun fully intended). The fact that Rey’s hero’s journey so closely parallels that of Luke Skywalker in A New Hope makes for an easy comparison:
(MAJOR, MAJOR SPOILERS. SERIOUSLY, I’M ABOUT TO SPOIL THE BIG PLOT TWIST.)
Life on home planet
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Both characters are seemingly at the mercy of others. The distinction is that Rey unquestioningly submits to this, while Luke actively fights against it.
Entanglement with Galactic conflict
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On the surface these events seem similar. However, Luke’s engagement with the droids and subsequent encounter with Ben are clearly driven by his curiosity and desire for adventure, whereas BB-8 decides to follow Rey and their relationship somehow materialises spontaneously from there; there is no indication of the bond being mediated by any aspect of Rey’s personality.
Reason for leaving home planet
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Although the inciting event for Luke’s decision to leave Tatooine appears to be his family’s murder, in reality, as Ben notes, he had been using his family as an excuse to mask his trepidation about leaving. However, leaving Tatooine to explore the galaxy has previously been well-established as his lifelong goal.
First use of the Force
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In Luke’s case, his first (knowing) engagement with the Force is the result of a conscious decision to pursue Jedi training. In Rey’s case, it’s a matter of chance and/or necessity.
First lightsaber duel
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In The Empire Strikes Back, Luke makes a conscious decision to confront Darth Vader in order to rescue his friends. In fact, he does this in contravention of the orders of his masters, Yoda and Ben. In The Force Awakens, this critical moment in Rey’s development as a Jedi occurs in the course of a larger combat sequence, subsequent to another character handling the saber against Kylo Ren. I would argue the whole thing is still driven largely by chance, as it is precipitated by Rey, Finn and Chewie’s coincidental observation of Han Solo’s murder at the hands of Kylo Ren.
Decision to pursue Jedi training
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In both stories, travel to a distant star system to seek out a reclusive Jedi Master is seen as a necessary step in pursuing Jedi training. The distinction is that in Luke’s case, he has already voluntarily committed to learning the ways of the Force, and in fact, meets with opposition from his friends and colleagues when he apprises them of his plan. In contrast, Rey has been told multiple times how important it is for her to pursue Jedi training but she herself never indicates particularly strong feelings on the subject. She just...does it.
Sorry. I can’t seem to make this table any smaller/prettier.
I’m not certain whether Rey’s lack of agency in The Force Awakens can be chalked up to yet another instance of flimsy fictional femininity, or whether it’s merely symptomatic of the generally paper-thin characterisations from which the movie suffered. Regardless of the reason for it, though, she is far from the revolutionary sci-fi heroine I think we deserve.
Other things I super want to discuss but this is getting stupid long, so I’m gonna go point-form:
- Anita’s point that the Star Wars universe is very binary in its conception of good and evil, which ultimately sets up a regressive narrative wherein meaningful change within the galaxy will never be achieved - obviously, that dichotomy derives from the space opera aesthetic of George Lucas’ original conception, but I think one of the most interesting things about the no-longer-canon EU was the way in which it introduced shades of grey into characters’ use of the Force (e.g., the witches of Dathomir, Mara Jade, Jacen Solo/Darth Caedus, Tahiri Veila). The scrapping of the EU was one of the major reasons I went in to The Force Awakens feeling a bit resentful. The later EU novels got some well-justified flak for being just a bit too melodramatic, but I liked their exploration of the nuances of the Force (not to mention what might exist outside the Force, although I don’t think that ever got picked up again after Anakin’s death. Feel free to correct me if I’m wrong; I’d love to read more about that.)
- Holy shit, I’m terrible at point-form.
- How is it that Finn didn’t slice himself in half when he switched on that lightsaber???? I’ve seen people arguing that he wasn’t handling it particularly competently, but seriously. Plasma blades produce a hella unwieldy force field, which is why even Initiates (WHO ARE FORCE-SENSITIVE) are given lower-intensity blades with which to train. Rey also should not have been able to handle the blade as well as she did, though I’m more willing to suspend disbelief in her case since, as pointed out on io9, there’s the possibility she may have received some basic training at some point in the past. And at least SHE’S FORCE-SENSITIVE. Seriously, did I miss some really important part where we found out Finn is Force-sensitive??
- Kylo Ren’s lightsaber. That thing should not be functional. Never mind the stupid crossguard, which seems like a really great way to impale yourself and/or lose control of your weapon since you’re having to compensate for two perpendicular force fields. But the sputtering. Which is apparently due to his use of a cracked crystal? (As is the crossguard?) This makes precisely zero sense, because crystal defects/misalignment are supposed to cause the lightsaber to explode upon activation. Ugh, Kylo YOU’RE THE WORST.
ANYWHO. Now that I’ve aired out all those very strong feelings...discuss?