It’s been a while since I updated this blog, but nothing inspires me to take a break from my intense Netflix binge faster than unfair criticisms of a female character.
Today’s focus, Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, who screenwriter Max Landis calls an unrealistic and boring “Mary Sue” character, because she’s good at things. In case you’re not familiar with the lazy and juvenile term, “Mary Sue”, it’s used to criticize female characters who are viewed as too perfect, lacking realism, and generally poorly developed.
Take note, if you haven’t seen The Force Awakens yet, this isn’t that spoilery, as in, I’m not discussing specific plot points, character deaths, etc., but it’ll still give you a good idea of Rey’s character, so if you don’t want that, save this piece for after you see the movie.
Here’s a shortened list of the main issues Max, and other dudes on the Internet, seem to have with Rey: She’s too smart, too talented as a pilot, too skilled at fighting, and far too strong with the Force.
All right. Let’s have a closer look at those skills and why Rey might have them.
First things first… People, have you seen Rey’s home planet, Jakku? It’s a really, really shitty place where you have to scavenge all day just to eat, and I’m guessing it’s an especially shitty place if you’re a lady, flying solo, which Rey is and has always been. Rey would have had no choice growing up but to learn how to survive. It makes sense that she’d be highly adaptable. She’d have to be smart just to stay alive. Even in our quick view of Rey’s everyday life as a scavenger, we see signs of significant technological prowess that would lead her to be able to fix and even fly the Millennium Falcon. It should be no surprise that she’s able to put things back together, when she’s made a life out of taking things apart, knowing which parts are important, and selling those parts for rations.
As for her prowess in combat, again her rough upbringing provides the answers we need. Consider Rey’s interaction with Teedo, the scavenger who tried to capture BB-8 for parts: When Rey approached Teedo and demanded he free BB-8, he didn’t hesitate. He treated Rey with a high level of respect, the kind of respect that comes from past interactions during which Rey proved that she deserved this kind of respect. Rey isn’t some innocent flower. She’s a hardened orphan from a cutthroat desert planet. Survival is her specialty.
As for her skill with the Force, take a look at Luke Skywalker. At Anakin. Star Wars has a history of introducing viewers to characters who have seemingly inexplicable strengths in the Force. The Force Awakens is the first film in a series. Questions about Rey’s past and lineage are set up, and in future films, I’m sure we’ll get more answers. If you’re concerned that we don’t know everything about Rey and why she can do what she can do with the Force, maybe go watch any other series (Yep, including earlier Star Wars films!) and realize that in a series, you’re not going to get all of the answers in the first movie. That’s not how this sort of storytelling works. If you got every answer in the first film, there’d be no need for future films. Duh.
What’s most frustrating to me is that all of my previous justifications for Rey’s many talents don’t matter. I shouldn’t have to go through each of Rey’s skills and explain them in depth. Every single thing Rey does doesn’t have to have a clear origin story. People don’t ask this kind of justification for every talent that highly skilled male characters possess. When characters, male or female, are established as smart, tough, and adaptable, like Rey, we should be able to accept that when placed in life-threatening situations, they’re going to do whatever they can do to find a way to make it out alive.
Regardless of what misogynist, attention hungry nerdboys seem to think, women can be good at things. Women can be tough and resilient and intelligent and adaptable as fuck, and if you’ve got a problem with Rey because she uses what she’s learned through her life as a clever, hardcore survivor, maybe you need to talk to a few of the women in your life, because a lot of us — probably every single one of us, really — are good at all kinds of things. If you like, I can send you a list of all the things I’m good at. Some of them, I haven’t even been trained for. Shocker. Does that make me a Mary Sue? Obviously it doesn’t. It makes me a person who is good at things, sometimes without any specific reason for it, just like anyone else.
This is a much larger issue than just Rey and The Force Awakens. I’m not naïve to the fact that the criticism of Rey stems mainly from one person, Max Landis, and that it’s a pretty clear cry for attention and retweets rather than a legitimate criticism. The Force Awakens has gotten rave reviews. It doesn’t need my defense, and I certainly don’t like to add fuel to Max’s fire, but this goes beyond one movie.
This is about how people talk about female characters in film in general. It’s about the hypercritical standards female characters are expected to adhere to. Just as women are held to impossibly high standards in real life, female characters can’t seem to win in movies. Female characters are too weak if they aren’t strong enough. But careful! Because if they’re too strong, they’re not realistic. With these irrational standards, what could female characters do to please all men? One thing, from what I’ve seen: They could give it up and be male characters.
So the problem exists, but how do we fix it? That’s the big question, and sadly, I don’t have the answer. I don’t know what can be done. But I do know that it’s important to talk about issues such as this one. If nothing else, it feels nice to defend my girl Rey, because she’s kickass, y’all, and I really love the idea that a generation of children will get to grow up with a character like her as a role model.
One final point: I don’t want to perpetuate the idea that just because Rey is a female character, she’s above criticism. Criticizing what you consider to be a flawed or boring character doesn’t necessarily make you a lady-hating fool. But before you criticize Rey for her talents, consider how you felt about Luke or Anakin. About James Kirk, James Bond, Indiana Jones, any male superhero, or hell, just about any male protagonist in any movie. When female characters are good at things, people call them “Mary Sues”, but when male characters are talented, people call them heroes. Language is important. Awareness as to what we expect from male and female characters matters. And if we’re going to hold female protagonists to ridiculous standards, for goodness’ sake, we’d better do it for the men too.