When THE FORCE AWAKENS made the Kessel Run in 12 parsecs, taking theaters by storm, the world embraced the latest entry into the STAR WARS canon harder than a Wookie. In an age where speculation led to disconcerting ideas about the franchise, the fumes of young Anakin’s pod-racer still filtering through our waking thoughts, the latest entry was an immense breath of fresh air. From the careful directorial guidance of J.J. Abrams, the faithfully assuring story by Lawrence Kasdan, all the way to the redundant yet rousing score by John Williams, THE FORCE AWAKENS was shooting womp rats left and right with precision. What seemed to unearth itself from the confines of the sarlacc pit in what amounted to almost 35 years, were characters that were genuinely likeable, allowing us to let go of a sordid and complicated history.
There’s the brave and commanding Resistance pilot Poe Dameron (Oscar Isaac), whose droid, a red and white BB unit, carries the only known whereabouts of Jedi Luke Skywalker. Linked in arms is Finn (John Boyega), a young Stormtrooper turned traitor to the First Order, a sect of the fallen Empire that is hell bent on eliminating the New Republic. Crash landing on the desert planet of Jakku, a glaring reflection of the two sunned planet that harbored a young Luke, Finn comes face to face with a youthful and resilient scavenger named Rey. Our tattered protagonist winds up embarking on a galactic quest of self-discovery, an awakening of both the force and the path she was meant to travel. What Rey does is give this generation of young women a figure to idolize, emulate, and embrace, a demanded outlet in a time of severe male sway.
Then screenwriter Max Landis (Chronicle) calls to arms a mass array of vehement towards our heroine, mislabeling her as a Mary-Sue; a self-insertion-cum-fictional character that represents a seemingly perfect ideal, one generally regarded with vitality and unfeasible attributes. Stemming from a 1974 Star Trek fan-fiction piece titled “A Trekkie’s Tale” in the late zine, Menagerie; author Paula Smith derived the term to represent unrealistic characters in Star Trek based off a character that was seemingly romanticized and adored by both Spock and Captain Kirk. The point of it all was to self-insert in an attempt at wish-fulfillment, creating an idealized version of a fans favorite series.
Landis deliberately took it upon himself to act as both the Sun and Starkiller Base, eclipsing the socially pressing existence of Rey, yet shining a much needed light on the victimization of female protagonists everywhere. Through a Twitter exchange and YouTube video this past December, Max Landis labeled THE FORCE AWAKENS Rey as a one of the worst STAR WARS main characters yet, bulleting her resume with scrutiny and judgement. In listing her many attributes, from professional scavenger to being fluent in more than one language, Landis slammed our young protagonist as a Mary Sue, despite the thousands of days she has had on Jakku to perfect a resume that would make Bear Grylls blush.
By spinning his affluent claim as a defense for male characters, such as Luke Skywalker from A NEW HOPE, Landis unveiled a beating yet withered tradition of masculinity dictating the impossible odds of cinema’s myriad of male heroes. It seems almost tradition, bordering on social spectacle, that any empowered female pressed to celluloid must run the gamut of masculine scrutiny. Amidst the fluttering of outrage pouring over from every possible crack and crevice the internet has to offer, it does beg the question of whether or not Rey is a Mary Sue.
From her first appearance, protected from the elements in sand battered cloth, Rey rappels down the hollowed guts of a downed Destroyer, her movements swift and ingrained; this is a place she has been before, with actions that have been pressed to memory. She trades her haul in for survival, her face imprinted with a look, not of defeat, but repeated acceptance. Later that night, upon hearing the cries from a helpless BB unit, she heedlessly steps in, not for value or self-appreciation, but because she looks after her own. When two masked thugs attempt to kidnap her newly discovered companion out from under her, she moves instinctually, showcasing her capabilities of reacting to any element the desert planet has to offer; not because of whom she is, but what she has become.
Later in our film, we are shown a young Rey being abandoned on Jakku, her cries permeating the dry air that has now crept into the theater. She clings to a hope that’s as hollow as the vehicles she scavenges to buy dinner; a hope that creates as much strength as it does faults. We are given a young woman who has grown up on her own, and fast. Rey doesn’t need to exclaim to Finn for him to let go of her when a school of Tie Fighters discover their whereabouts because we have already seen that she doesn’t need saving; just someone who cares enough not to abandon her.
The parallels to Luke Skywalker are unflinching, from his abandonment by his mother on a desert planet, to the force sensitivity that leads him across the galaxy; our two young protagonists are mirrored in multiple ways. What hinders our heroes similarities are what we are shown, given a varied display of Rey’s technical and survivalist skills, while Luke merely is. When the son of Darth Vader rises to the top of the Republic with his heroic win against the Death Star, we rely on the existence of the force as a means of defining impossible odds. Yet when Rey’s actions and arc unfold, she’s placed on the cutting room floor, turning Luke’s force sensitivity into just another masculine mask that gives reason rather than defines a character.
Landis has pointed out that Rey is a character who wins over even the coldest shoulders, impressing even Han Solo. When Finn, a boy who is the byproduct of abandonment and extensive military training, witnesses Rey defend herself against her assailants, it’s only natural for him to perceive her with awe and adoration. A greater and more important question is; does any of it truly matter? Labeling a character a Mary Sue, even the male standard Gary Stu, only works to strip gender equality, and let’s be honest; it’s an incredibly one sided game.
James Bond, who has seen 24 cinematic outings since 1962, is a man with a heavy penchant for drinking and smoking, yet displays an amazing knack for evading even the most impossible of scenarios. When faced with a woman, an even more imposing and powerful force than any underground lair, he unloads a martini glass of witty sexism that continually charms straight into the nearest bedroom. Despite his continually inflated ego and erudite notions of femininity, Bond gets what he wants, when he wants it, even if it means slapping a woman in the right direction.
Despite our heroine existing in a day and age where Mia Hamm can do anything Michael Jordan can, but better, we are still clamoring at the bit to place empowering women into a corner. With every angle used against Rey, despite her existence falling on her own developed skills of survival, she is a victim of the chatroom brawn that desperately claws at the confines of its own insecurities. From casting blind eyes to the untarnished privilege our countless male counterparts receive, to stripping away any fortitude our female equals might earn, we aren’t far enough from the chauvinist spotlight this generation hopes to change. However, in a moment far, far, away, we are; where Rey is only Rey.