Star Wars: The Force Awakens provides the kick-ass female lead we’ve been waiting for

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Star Wars has a female lead! The main male character is her sidekick! The villain is an angsty young dude who throws raging mantrums because she’s better than him! The lightsaber fights are amazing! Did I mention THERE IS A FEMALE LEAD?!?

*Warning: Review contains minor spoilers*

As you’ve probably already heard, Star Wars: The Force Awakens has excited and surprised audiences and critics alike with a fun, fast-paced romp through our favorite galaxy far, far away. The film returns to the spirit of the original, A New Hope, but with fresh faces and a feeling of expansive possibilities.

There is a repetition of familiar motifs, which are very Star Wars: Rey, a plucky kid orphaned and abandoned on a desert planet called Jakku, has little understanding of the impending war above but is thrown into the thick of things through a chance encounter. She is a lonely young woman who lives in the old, abandoned shell of an imperial walker and spends her days hunting for salvaged parts amid giant industrial structures, now silent and forgotten. But unlike Luke Skywalker’s desert home planet, Jakku has a post-apocalyptic feel to it, full of dusty scavenger inhabitants à la Mad Max. There is also BB8, a droid who purrs like a cat when excited but looks like a cat toy, who rivals even R2D2 in its beepy robotic cuteness. Soon after she meets BB8, Rey meets Finn, an escaped Storm Trooper. When Rey asks him if he’s part of the Resistance, Finn replies in a way revolutionary women will recognize: “Yeah, I’m in the Resistance, baby. Let’s be comrades.”

Finn is immediately smitten with Rey. Yet, thankfully, their relationship skips the romance and unfolds as a friendship instead. Rey is clearly the main character and our destined-hero for this trilogy, though Finn is an interesting counter-balance to her “chosen one” arc. He’s just your average storm trooper who snapped one day and didn’t want to be a soldier, anymore — a cog in the machine who suddenly stopped spinning properly because of a random kink. He doesn’t seem to have “the force,” and there’s really nothing much special about him. In fact, he just wants to get away. It’s Rey who wants to stay and join the Resistance, and his friendship with her is what pulls him into the fight.

Speaking of fighting, my GOD! The lightsabers sizzle with a sense of danger and palpability that makes you remember just how cool the concept of a laser sword really is. The climax of the film is a gorgeous duel in the snow. This movie is not to be missed, if only for that one scene.

That gnawing commitment to feminist justice that prevents you from enjoying most malestream media will feel pleasantly calm for the duration of this film. Maybe Hollywood is starting to notice that feminist characters and storylines in action films, such as Mad Max: Fury Road, actually work really damn well, because Star Wars: The Force Awakens feels as if it actively tried to avoid lazy sexism. Aside from the main aspects, such as a female lead who isn’t a damsel in distress, there are also more subtle moments where sexist stereotypes are averted.

For instance, we are provided with a classic Star Wars bar scene, full of bizarre aliens, drinking and carousing. The camera pans over to a big fat alien with an attractive humanoid babe lounging against him, and we immediately recognize it as the sexist Jabba-the-hut-with-lady-slave trope. However, the humanoid babe isn’t in a bikini; she’s actually in a cool black and white cape ensemble. And soon she walks off to a secluded area, in order inform The First Order that she’s spied something of interest to them in the bar. In a subtle bait-and-switch, the sexist trope we expected was skipped, and the woman became a subject actively participating in the story’s events, instead of a sex-object contributing only to the background decoration.

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It’s also refreshing to see Leia as a powerful older woman. We encounter her once again as a badass general leading the Resistance. While C3PO did throw in a misogynist-sounding jab about her to Han Solo — “Princesses!” — which read like, “Bitches, am I right?!” *eyeroll* Star Wars is largely absent of the standard woman-hating that interrupts our enjoyment of so many films.

One scene, however, does include an obvious subtext of sexual violence, which has been referred to as “that bondage mind-rape sequence.” In it, Rey is held captive by the villain Kylo Ren, in full-body restraints, while he attempts to extract information from her. “You know I can take whatever I want,” he says to her, huskily. There is then some grunt-filled “force-wielding” with sexual undertones. But it is not gratuitously done, as our shero fights back! Thankfully, throughout the film, Rey is never sexualized.

Naturally, the character of Rey is facing backlash online. On Twitter, Reddit, and other places men go to to complain on the Internet, Rey has been accused of being a “Mary Sue.” In online media criticism-speak, A Mary Sue describes a trope — a thinly-veiled self-insertion character with excessive power, shoehorned into a fictional world, usually for the purpose of wish-fulfillment. In short, they’re claiming that Rey is way too cool/perfect and doesn’t have enough character flaws/weaknesses. But while Rey is a natural at almost everything she puts her hand to and is a powerful fighter, her character isn’t any more over-the-top than your average superhero or “chosen-one” we see in these kinds of movies that follow a main character, destined for greatness. Writer Tasha Robinson from The Verge makes a good point on the Rey as Mary Sue debate:

“Back in 1977, were we wringing our hands over whether Han Solo was too suave and funny and cool, or whether Luke’s access to the ‘powerful ally’ of an all-connecting, all-seeing, all-powerful Force that ‘binds the galaxy together’ made him way too overpowered? Are all the male superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe boring because they can summon lightning or smash buildings? Every time a slick, enjoyable action movie like John Wick comes out, do we have to pore over whether the protagonist’s reputation is too amazing, or whether his fighting skills are so unbelievable that they ruin the movie? Is anyone whatsoever complaining that Tom Cruise’s Mission: Impossible character should be needier and more helpless, with bigger, more obvious, more telling weaknesses?”

The answer is, of course, no. On closer inspection, it appears the Mary Sue trope is, itself, (at least in part) a result of misogynistic receptions of female characters. Though female critics have created a male version of Mary Sue (called Gary Stu), the label is rarely applied to male characters. It seems that when male action-heroes are naturals “with all the luck and all the skills” we don’t bat an eye.

All in all, Rey is a triumph for girls looking for a heroine to admire. Finally, we have a female Jedi who kicks ass!

Susan Cox
Susan Cox

Susan Cox is a feminist writer and academic living in the United States. She teaches in Philosophy.

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  • Sally Hansen

    It’s amazing to me that a character like Rey would be labeled a “Mary Su” when you have perfect characters like Goku (from Dragon Ball, Dragon Ball Z and Dragon Ball Super), one of the most popular anime characters of all time, who have absolutely no flaws whatsoever and are in fact lauded for being perfect, innocent and pure. I’ve watched the entire series and Goku doesn’t have a single flaw whatsoever, yet no one would accuse him of being vapid, boring or unrealistic and he’s seen as the perfect hero, despite the fact that all of his talents come naturally to him and he doesn’t even have an education.

    Rey grew up on a planet without her family where she had to learn to brave the harsh elements and survive on her own. She probably had to learn to fend off predators of all types and had to make her own living instead of relying on a father to bring home the bacon (EXACTLY like Goku). She’s an empowered woman and that makes men angry. They want to see a helpless woman who, ultimately, NEEDS a male, otherwise they are confronted with the fact that their own masculinity is pointless, and even harmful most of the time. *GASP* the horror… As Dworkin has pointed out, brave, heroic masculinity only matters in contrast to weak, degraded, dehumanized femininity. When we pull ourselves up by the boot-straps and abandon our masochism is when masculinity and the entire gender binary is threatened and finally dismantled. This scares men more than anything, so they will downplay a strong female character as much as possible.

    • james501

      Goku was a teen’s/kid’s character and even he was labelled as being “too innocent/borderline stupid” sometimes.

      From star wars people expect something better.
      People arent afraid.
      People want good characters whose badassery is justifiable.

      Take Ashoka Tano and Rey, the latter is heavily critiqued while the former has very good reception among fans.

      • Sally Hansen

        Oh give me a break. If Rey were a male character NO ONE would be complaining about her. End of story.

  • Thank you for talking about the new Star Wars film! I have been waiting for a feminist site to talk about it since I saw it last Saturday. I was never that into Star Wars and I thought the new film was good rather than great, but I have been seeing people talk about it and the older films, which has made me interested in the series.

    Unfortunately the conversation seems to be dominated to some extent by masculinity conforming males who focus on the technological aspects of the films (both the technology featured in the films and that used to create it) and the fighting. I would like to see more discussions of the moral and political themes of the films, in particular the concepts of the light and dark side of the force.

    I glad that there are films about the conflict between good and evil (instead of the conflicts between dark, angsty, “morally complex” men and even more evil men that characterise much of what is considered “good” film and television, is there a rule against friendly, likeable, morally decent characters or something?) that are not simplistic or reactionary. There are good guys who are clearly good characters (no agnosing over whether or not they are really good and whether their morally questionable actions are in fact justified by cancer or trauma or whatever) and bad characters who are clearly bad (even if it sometimes understandable why they turned to the dark side), yet characters can still switch sides and many are tempted to switch sides, but ultimately do not.

    I like these kinds of series (Harry Potter and Avatar are in the same category), but unfortunately merely mentioning the words “good” (in a moral or ethical sense) and “evil” cause a series to automatically be labelled as “childish” and “simplistic”, no matter how much thought the creators of the series put into exploring the nature of good and evil or the potential of all human beings to switch between those sides. The rules of “good”, “dark”, “edgy” and “risque” (all of which are universally seen as compliments, no matter what) story telling demand that all characters, including the main characters, be cold, cynical and violent. We are meant to root for them only because they are less evil than their opponents.

    Call me childish and conservative all you want but I would rather hang out with Aang, Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, Anakin Skywalker (before he turned to the darkside, of course, though I totally understand his rage against the Jedi Council, they are almost as ideologically controlling as liberal feminists) or, hell, even Jar Jar Binks (yeah I mentioned his name, braces for angry reactions) over any of the central characters from Breaking Bad or Game of Thrones (not that I could ever sit through all the bloodshed that I have heard is present in those shows).

    That said, I found the character of Rey a little boring. I think the Mary Sue label has some merit (though it is more of an aesthetic critique than a feminist critique). It is often used to describe female characters who are absurdly physically attractive (with bodies that look more like hourglasses than actual human bodies) and have male characters throwing themselves at them. Sex obsessed, gender conforming writers, who think they are super original and subversive, take their shallow fantasies and make characters out of them. I think it is these characters that are sexist and not the “Mary Sue” label, though using it to refer to any competent female would be sexist.

    Rey is not a Mary Sue in this sense. I think she was created to avoid offending people (good luck with that, the mere presence of females who are subordinate eye candy is offensive to some males), rather than to fulfil a fantasy. She did her job. I was not offended by her (which I usually am when it comes to female fictional characters) and I was very relieved when she liberated herself instead of being portrayed as a damsel in distress (I did not interpret the interrogation as sexual, but I can understand why someone would since the most neutral of language has been sexualised by our pornified culture, if a bad man wants something from a women, it must be sex, because there is nothing else a woman could possibly give).

    The fact that she worn modest, practical clothing was also a relief (believe it or not, sex crazed males, covering only your breasts and genital region is not a good idea in a combat situation), though I thought the shirt she worn at the very end (when she spoiler spoiler) was a little too low cut. I usually do not notice these things, but it was the only time she changed clothing in the entire film and the male characters all wear extremely modest clothing (no part of their chests is shown at all), so it kind of stood out to me.

    Anyhow, I found Rey dull, not only because of her abilities and lack of training, but because of her moral perfection. Even at the start of the film, when she has no experience using the force or fighting with the rebels or anything and is an impoverish scavanger, she resists the offer of food in exchange for BB-8, despite knowing little about the droid or the information it contained. Most people would have given in under those conditions (given their lack of awareness and moral training) and I would have forgiven her for doing so, but she is so resistant to temptation that she effortlessly rejects the offer. Hell, even her name suggests “light”.

    By contrast, Finn started out as a storm trooper and even after he escapes, he lies to Rey and frequently contemplates giving up. He is a clearly a good person without a doubt, but he faces challenges in transitioning to the lightside in practice (though I was disappointed by how easily the rebels accept a former storm trooper without suspicion). In the earlier films, Luke and Anakin are tempted to fall to the darkside, with the latter eventually giving in, and there are even moments where you fear that Luke will switch sides. When Luke was trained, he was not just taught how to use a lightsaber. He was taught how to be a good person. The other good characters have to lie to him to try to remove that temptation, adding complexity to their characters as well. They underestimate Luke who, in addition to being the child of an evil character, is a little arrogant and immature. In the end, the fact that Luke resists temptation makes him even more of good guy.

    As I said above, I do prefer struggles between clear good and evil sides over excessive moral ambiguity. Luke (and Finn in the new film) are good and likable, but they are not perfect. They experience normal human temptations. They fight against the darker parts of their own characters while also fighting external enemies. Rey, by contrast, is not only competent, despite having little training, she completely resists any attempt to draw her towards the darkside without training. She adhere to Jedi ideals without being taught them (though I do look forward to the next film, in which we will hopefully learn more about her and see her being trained in the ways of the Jedi). I think the creators of the film were so worried about offending people that they avoided giving her any traits that would make her interesting. She is the only central chracter in the film who has no association with the darkside whatsoever (at least not so far, I am curious to know who her parents are).

    The fact that Rey is female is focussed on more than any other aspect of her character. Finn, on the other hand, is black, but you could have an interesting conversation about that fact that he was raised as a storm trooper (like I did above) without mentioning his race. There is little to talk about for Rey, apart from the fact that she is female. I would like to live in a culture where female characters were allowed to have dark elements to their character and be interesting without being perceived as evil.

    The moment a female character (or a real life woman) displays the slightest amount of anger, sadness or any kind of “weakness” (as defined by liberals who think being strong means not being bothered by anything, no matter how violent or horrific), she is condemned with a range of misogynistic slurs, motivated by the belief that emotional responses on the part of women are never justified by the situation are always due to their inherent characteristics (mainly the fact that they are female). These restrictions mean that Rey is not likely to be as memorable as Luke, Anakin, Han Solo and many of the other interesting male characters from the series. I do look forward to seeing whether she becomes more interesting in fulture films though and I definitely do not dislike the character.

    • Scifimaster92

      You’re absolutely correct regarding the term “Mary-Sue”. While the usage of the term is often an example of a sexist double standard, I feel it definitely applies in the case of Rey. Aside from what you mentioned with regards to her abilities and training, there’s also the fact that she literally has no personality of her own, being little more than a female version of Luke Skywalker. In fact, the brings me to my next point – the film itself is little better than a shallow rehash of “A New Hope” made by people who falsely believe that the average “Star Wars” fan is not only superficial but also a rabid nostalgia-freak. In fact, the way the film was marketed, combined with director J.J. Abrams’ prior track record and Disney’s atrocious actions behind the scenes (namely the forced discontinuation and de-canonization of the Expanded Universe – which, I might add, included plenty of strong and compelling female characters – and their intentional alienation of the prequel and EU fans through said marketing) made me never want to see the film at all. And yes, I know that last part had absolutely nothing to do with the topic of feminism, but I just wanted to share my opinion on the subject.

      • To be clear, I do not actually think that Rey is a Mary Sue, at least not the kind that really annoys me. She is not constantly referred to as physically attractive and she has only one love interest (I think the plan is to have Finn and Rey get together in later films). If a character is awesome at everything she does that is only a symptom of her being a Mary Sue. The defining feature of a Mary Sue is that they are created for the purpose of wish fulfilment. I do not think the creators of the film (most of whom were probably men) were trying to live out their fantasies through her (if so they would have made her male), nor were they creating a character that the audience could live their fantasies through (since the audience is also disproportionately male).

        I think the creators of the new film wanted to clean up the problems associated with the earlier films (particularly the prequels). They wanted to update the graphics (which I am totally fine with, the graphics of the original trilogy look unimpressive to me, though they may have been impressive at the time) and fix up some of the politically incorrect elements of the original six films (such as the sexualised representation of Leia, the fact that a man who turns out to be her brother is sexually attracted to her, the presence of characters such as Jar Jar Binks, which could be perceived as racist representations of minority groups and the general absence of non-white characters in the original trilogy).

        I think Rey is the way she is because of political correctness. The creators were scared that the audience would dislike her and complain about her, so they failed to take risks with her the way they did with Luke, Anakin, Han Solo and, to some extent, Finn. You have to be willing to make some people angry in order to make an interesting character. Whether you love or hate Anakin Skywalker, you are never going to forget him and his story. He will be remember for things other than his biological sex and his competence in various fields (to put it mildly). If Rey is remembered, it will be as “the strong, female character” (which strikes me as a somewhat individualistic, liberal ideal). The fact that she is female is the only trait which makes her stand out from the many competent force users and spaceship pilots that we see in the series.

        The new film is indeed very similar to New Hope, but if Force Awakens had come out first, I would probably like it better, since it is a better looking version of New Hope that lines up more with my political convictions. On some level, J.J. Abrams was faced with an impossible task. He cannot go back in time and recreate the conditions under which New Hope was released. The Star Wars franchise already exists so anything he does will be seen as a rip off of or an insult to the original series. He ended up going with the safest path (the path of least resistance, haha) and ensured that his film would not be despised the way the prequels were, but it will not leave the same impact on film history as the original trilogy did. Since prequel and expanded universe fans are in the minority of the potential audience for this film (I know next to nothing about the expanded universe so I was relieved that I did not need to be familiar with it to understand the new film), it made sense to focus more on the originals, but a clever twist on the originals rather than a straight up copy would have been more interesting.

        To Sally, I never really got the impression that Rey was tempted to do the wrong thing (accept in the purely external sense, when antagonist characters tell her she should do the wrong thing). She wanted to return to Jakku to wait for her parents, but I never interpretted that as a desire to abandon the mission out of cowardice. Compare her to Finn, who boldly and cynically insists that they run away or to Luke who has to struggle to resist the pull of the darkside in the original trilogy.

        The fact that Rey is not aware of her awesomeness is not an interesting flaw. Self doubt can be a compelling flaw if it has the potential to lead someone down the wrong path, as it did for Luke in the original trilogy. Not only did the villians genuinely believe that they will be able turn Luke to the darkside, but some of the good characters who mentored him, feared this outcome as well. In fact, when Palpatin tells Luke that he will be irrevocably converted, Luke responds not with a statement of his own moral character, but by pointing out that he is likely to be killed by a rebel attack and when Palpatin tells him he will not be, Luke is visibly terrified. He would rather die than turn to the darkside or let the Empire win, but such a heroic death no longer seems like an option. I really feel his pain at that point.

        To be fair, I have been able to rewatch the ending of Return of the Jedi over and over, but I have not been able to do the same with the new film. Maybe there is a scene in which Rey experiences a similar level of temptation to Finn (if she had experienced the same temptations that Luke did, I would have remembered), but I do not think her struggles will leave the same impact on the audience as those of other characters (who, to be fair, are regarded as some of the greatest film characters of all time). Rey is not contemptable, like female characters from other series, such as Bella Swan or Hazel Grace (yeah, I dislike The Fault in Our Stars, deal with it), but she is no Luke or Anakin Skywalker.

        To Dana, I think having morally ambiguous heros turn evil might actually make things worse (I am not upset at you for revealing the end of Breaking Bad because I had no intention of watching it to begin with, white males of the Western world, please shut up about that series and Game of Thrones, thanks). It reeks of the “human nature” narrative, that I as a revolutionary socialist am sick to death of. The cynicism of our modern culture is quite depressing. The original Star Wars trilogy is a refreshing antidote to that idea (which is why I am glad that Luke did not end up falling to the darkside, even if the decision to have him stay good was partially motivated by a desire to make the series more child friendly). The idea that if Luke uses anger and violence to fight against the evil Empire he will innevitably become like it is put forward, but turns out to be wrong. Anger, experienced for the right reasons and directed at the right target helps Luke to succeed. The path Luke takes is not decided by his genetics (or by his “soul” if you want to see it that way). Meanwhile, Anakin acheives some level of redemption, even though “common sense” implies that such a redemption is impossible.

        The series goes to very dark places and makes the audience reflect, but ultimately leaves them hopeful, instead of forcing them to endlessly contemplate their own inherent and irresistable evil. I did enjoy the new film (even if it is not on the same level as the originals) and Rey could turn out to be an interesting character in later films, but I will have to wait for that to happen before I declare her to be a great character (I do not think she is the daughter of Luke, that would be too predictable, though she most likely is related to an established character in some form). I think the new Star Wars series has potential, and the release of a new film about the lightside of the force defeating the dark is a great way to end 2015 (which is coincidentally, the International Year of Light), but I will have to wait until the next film before I decide whether or not that potential was realised.

  • Lucia Lola

    Soooooooooooooo happy with this film. For every reason articulated so very well in this article. 🙂

  • disqus_9Ip2NndWw9

    Don’t forget Maz Kanata! The 1000 year old female saloon owner plays an important role as the wise elder of the film.

  • GMG_NTEN

    Well, I saw the movie today, and I can understand where the Mary Sue complaints are coming from. I have no problem with the fact that Rey was portrayed as strong and competent, and it’s fantastic that they had a female main character. But I think her powers overshadowed her lack of personality. It didn’t help that I thought her actress was a poor actor, and that factored in a lot. But Finn instantly falls for her, and then she gets captured, it all felt pretty par for the course for female characters. Yeah, she has a “strong” moment at the end, but I felt like she was a really hollow and personality-less character. I’m not trying to rip on her, they tried, and her outfit is at least practical. But she’s nothing special IMO. It’s just that the bar for women characters is so low, that as long as she’s not tied on the railroad tracks metaphorically speaking, she’s above average.