“Dear child, I see it in your eyes. You already know the truth. Whoever you were waiting for on Jakku, they’re never coming back.” Oh those eyes, those deep, expressive eyes. Those eyes act as a light speed tunnel for us on the thematic, cinematic, and emotional journey of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. These are the eyes of Rey, who makes The Force Awakens my favorite movie of the year because I think her story is exactly the one we need to hear, a story of survival and in that survival…hope.
However, now, many…many a critic, fan, and YouTube troll has come to the conclusion that Rey isn’t a complex or interesting character. That perhaps she is unfit to be our new Star Wars hero. That she is actually too perfect and not relatable at all. That in her trek through the film she sees very little conflict and is practically playing through the game with all the cheat codes on. To this I completely disagree, and I would argue that there is a lot they may have missed or been ignorant to in the film.
Before we take a closer look into who Rey is, it’s worth addressing why some have been blind to the larger aspects to her character that really nullify the argument of her being what some would call a “Mary Sue.” Rey is a woman. As much as we want to say how forward thinking we are and how much we love strong female characters, this Rey backlash reveals how, even unintentionally, some are still blinded by a bias against female action heroes. Would there be any backlash, any controversy at all if Rey was played by Chris Pratt?
Not to pick on Andy Dwyer, but just last year we watched him play a character that was eerily similar to Rey…Guardians of the Galaxy’s Star Lord. He’s abducted as a child and forced to survive amongst a band of space pirates. When we meet him at the beginning of the film he is bumbling and overly confident…but then actually bests some of the main baddies in the galaxy to escape. Throughout the film we watch him do it again and again. He doesn’t really fail. Star Lord was a well formed hero that was equipped mostly before we entered his story and those experiences made him perfect for the mission he was about to go on.
Pratt’s character in Jurassic World was nearly a copy. He’s a super soldier in the movie that is functioning at such a high level raptors can’t help but respect him. All of his experience that led him there happened in his time in the military and we don’t see that in the film. Let’s say it, these characters are less controversial because they were men. After Jurassic World broke records most of the online rhetoric was focused on the movie’s heroine being able to run in heels. Preposterous, right? She was in a jungle after all. See this delightful take on why it actually might have been brilliant. Nobody was calling Pratt a “Mary Sue.”
It is easy for us to see The Avengers’ Black Widow and Mad Max’s Furiosa as strong female characters because they are immersed in universes led by men. That’s why we haven’t seen a Black Widow movie yet. Even Furiosa has an extremely slim chance of landing her own movie even though she was one of this year’s most loved characters on the silver screen. These are film universes driven and formed by men. Here’s what confuses me though, the same people that are critical of Rey, are the most vocal supporters of Furiosa. For my money, Rey’s character goes further than Furiosa’s and is oceans deeper than anything a stubbly Pratt has done recently. Rey is more a Buffy or a Jessica Jones than she is a Black Widow because The Force Awakens is her movie, her universe, her life. And what a life it is.
Rey is a survivor. What do we know about her? At a very young age, she was dropped off on Jakku in the hands of a sketchy scavenger in a community of vultures and thieves. Already her upbringing makes Luke Skywalker’s childhood look like a rousing round of Candyland. When we meet him, Luke is a whining, brattish teen eagerly awaiting the day he can abandon his life with two stable parental guardians, a stable job, and safe place to live. Rey endures her life of barely eating enough, living in isolation, working in dangerous conditions, and potentially living in even more dangerous conditions all because of the promise of a family that will come back for her. Luke can’t wait to leave, Rey is fighting her whole life to be able to stay. That is different and interesting.
How was she so good in a fight? Well imagine the life she has survived living as an attractive, young woman on a lonely planet of starving scavengers. Beyond the types of aliens that would see her as food, picture the neighbors she had that would love to have her chained to them in a metal bikini, physical violations not so different from the mental violations she resists from Kylo Ren. Why was she able to navigate around the Star Killer base? Her whole life has been a ridiculous parkour training regimen light years ahead of the brief time Luke spent doing handstands on Dagobah. She knows Imperial technology and spacecraft, it has literally been her life. But then she pretty expertly flew the Millennium Falcon, what gives? In the brief amount of dialogue we get when she is on the Falcon she makes it clear that it has been a part of that shipyard for years and she has helped over the course of that time to work on it.
Rey’s back story perfectly outlines how she became the warrior that we see in the film, she’s a survivor, but she’s also not perfect. We see her make terrible choices in the film from nearly crashing the Falcon to hitting the wrong fuses to leaving the safety on her blaster on to running away from her destiny on several occasions, and most of these poor decisions have fatal consequences. Finn nearly dies several times as he sticks close to Rey, and Finn’s quest to save Rey ends at an extremely high cost for Han Solo fans. Rey is not a Mary Sue, she’s not perfect, but she is a survivor and I think that once the force awakened in her, attaching to that survival instinct, Rey could be the most powerful Jedi we’ve ever seen. Survival produces strength.
Luke was far less equipped to be a hero, but why does that make him more compelling? Why is a bumbling man more interesting than a well-equipped woman? If the story was about moisture farming, maybe Rey would fail, but this is a story about hope in the galaxy surviving and for that we need a survivor at the core. I would argue that Rey is just as flawed as Luke in some ways. The difference is, Luke’s flaws got his hand chopped off, where I would wager Rey would chop off her own hand to survive a situation her insecurities and flaws put her in.
This new trilogy is Rey’s story and Rey’s story has me actively asking what my life experiences are preparing me for. The hardships I’ve survived, the darkest moments in my life that I’ve seen the other side of, how will they help me in the future? Rey’s story is a story for all of us. As dark times come, as tragedy strikes, we will make it through and on the other side of that darkness is the light. Those eyes that are filled with this complex back story are screaming out to us to just survive because hope waits for those who endure. Rey was equipped for this new adventure because of her life on Jakku. What adventures is your life preparing you for? As the advice to Rey continues, “The belonging you seek is not behind you, it is ahead.”