My six-year-old daughter didn’t get to figure out “The Empire Strikes Back’s” twist on her own — “Did you know Darth Vader is Luke’s father?” a classmate breathlessly asked her after we watched “Star Wars” for the first time. But as soon as Obi-Wan Kenobi told Luke Skywalker he had a twin sister, she knew right where “Return of the Jedi” was heading.
“I knew it was Leia,” she told me, “because there are no other girls in the movie.”
She did not have the same problem with “The Force Awakens,” which for the first time in the series’ history features a female protagonist: Daisy Ridley’s Rey. The world of J.J. Abrams’ “Star Wars” finally looks almost as diverse as the audiences who have watched the films for decades. It may largely retrace the steps of the original trilogy, but it matters whose feet are doing the stepping.
Abandoned by her parents on a desert planet, Rey watches spaceships soar into the sky and dreams of a better life — in other words, she’s a lot like Luke Skywalker, just as Oscar Isaac’s Poe Dameron is a next-gen version of the original trilogy’s Han Solo. Just as Luke comes into his Jedi powers over the course of “Star Wars,” so Rey becomes progressively adept at using the Force, although until the movie’s final minutes, she doesn’t seem aware that’s what she’s doing.
Through the course of “The Force Awakens,” Rey turns out to be good at a lot of things: She’s a skilled pilot, she’s good with a firearm, can hold her own in a lightsaber fight with the evil Kylo Ren. When Harrison Ford’s Han Solo offers her a blaster, she snorts, “I can handle myself.” He responds, “I know. That’s why I’m giving it to you.” (Even so, Mr. “I Know” can’t resist adding, a few seconds later, “You got a lot to learn, kid.”)
Rey’s alarmingly steep learning curve prompted objections from some critics, including screenwriter Max Landis, that the character is a “Mary Sue,” which Wikipedia defines as “an idealized fictional character, a young or low-rank person who saves the day through extraordinary abilities. Often but not necessarily this character is recognized as an author insert and/or wish-fulfillment.”
Star Wars: The Mary Sue Awakens
— Max Landis (@Uptomyknees) December 19, 2015
But as io9’s Charlie Jane Anders pointed out, over time, the term “broadened until it means ‘any female character who is unrealistically talented or skilled.'” And while Landis and others may counter that their criticisms have nothing to do with gender, it is difficult not to notice that these objections are never raised when the same proves to be true of male characters, which it does all the freaking time. As Tasha Robinson wrote at the Verge, “We wouldn’t be worrying about Rey’s excessive coolness if she were Ray, standard-issue white male hero with all the skills and all the luck.” The only referendum I needed came from my daughter, who during the final battle yelled out “Go Rey! She’s so good!”
Critiques of Rey’s hypercompetence — and here we abandon the term “Mary Sue,” never to look back — rest on a sloppy reading of “The Force Awakens,” and in many cases boil down to “She’s not enough like Luke.” No, she doesn’t have a mentor like Obi-Wan Kenobi, and we don’t see her learning how to use her powers. (At one point, John Boyega’s Finn picks up the floating ball that helped a blindfolded Luke learn how to use the Force from the floor of the Millennium Falcon and tosses it aside — we won’t be needing that.) But the idea that Rey is “over-powered,” as Landis put it in a later video, neglects a key component of Rey’s character: astonishment. No one is more surprised at Rey’s skills than she is herself. After she saves the Millennium Falcon from self-destructing by performing an ad hoc repair, she beams with pride and then, after a beat, frowns in puzzlement. How the hell did I just do that? (As for speaking multiple languages and being handy with a staff; she has an orphan’s street smarts, nothing more.)
The Washington Post’s Sonny Bunch argues that Rey knows, for example, how to sway a stormtrooper to loosen her bonds and drop his weapon because she is, in effect, one of us: “How does she know what a Jedi mind trick is? I’m not asking ‘how does she do it,’ but something more basic: ‘How does she even know what it is?’ And the answer is, ‘Of course she knows what it is because she’s us and we know what it is. She’s the authorial insert into the greatest, most expensive piece of fan fiction that has ever been created. She’s what you get if you mash up Episodes IV through VI and put yourself into the mix.”
But what’s crucial to her character is that she doesn’t know what a Jedi mind trick is, even after she’s done it. It’s not until the pivotal moment during her duel with Kylo Ren, when he offers to be the first teacher that she’s ever had, that the tumblers click into place. It may well be that we’ll find out in Episode VIII that Luke was guiding Rey from afar; the look in his face in “The Force Awakens'” final scene can be read as one of inevitable recognition. But that, as they say on “The Good Wife,” assumes facts not in evidence. For now, all we know is that Rey’s exceptionally in tune with the Force, and that while Luke needed to be taught to let his conscious mind rest and “trust your feelings,” Rey just seems to know that.
About that — is there any male-dominated work of genre fiction that uses the word “feelings” more frequently than the “Star Wars” saga? Luke’s time on Dagobah aside, the Jedis’ powers owe more to mindfulness than to training montages; Luke doesn’t destroy the Death Star because he’s learned to be a better shot, but because he’s learned to let go. In the monstrously lopsided world of cinematic protagonists — one where stores are selling six-packs of all-male “The Force Awakens” action figures that substitute a random X-Wing pilot for the movie’s main character — merely changing a male hero to a female one would be welcome enough change. But with Rey, “The Force Awakens” has given us something different: A hero(ine) guided as much by intuition as cunning, driving by a longing to find home rather than to escape it.
This is a real thing approved by Lucasfilm that aired on TV pic.twitter.com/VQStL4qKys
— dani(el) (@earthbendan) January 7, 2016