Yes, I will be getting a Rey action figure. (Star Wars: The Force Awakens spoilers within.)
Here there be SPOILERS. Please read at your own risk. (What a thing to say. Don’t we always do everything at our own risk? Maybe I should say, “Please read responsibly.”)
I was never a Star Wars girl. My bestie, L, is a Star Wars girl, and Mac is definitely a Star Wars boy — so much so that he was actually pretty upset with me (or perhaps just dumbfounded by me) for not knowing the difference between various ships in the Star Wars universe. And for having forgotten various “iconic” scenes from the original trilogy. (Him: “But it’s iconic!” Me: “They’re all iconic! They’re Star Wars scenes.”) And then I had a little mini-panic about not being “geeky” enough, which is probably a symptom of some kind of Geek Impostor Syndrome, or something. (Bad Geek Girls, anyone?)
I never loved Star Wars as much as they did, though I did love it. Especially Luke’s training sequence on Dagobah, with Yoda’s “Do or do not. There is no try,” which later became, like, my mantra when I was using mindfulness meditation to process my depression+panic+agoraphobia (because my brain is just that fun). So, yeah. That meant something. And of course there’s that moment when Han says “I know” and it’s somehow sincere and heartbreaking and the most romantic thing ever.
But anyway. I saw The Force Awakens. And I kind of fell in love a little bit.
Yes, parts of it were disappointing. Yes, a lot of it was cribbed from the original trilogy — but at least those parts felt more like an homage, or a pastiche, and less like a ripoff (::cough::Into Darkness::cough::). And while I would have preferred a more original story, I still greatly enjoyed The Force Awakens on its own terms. And can perhaps forgive its creators their playing it safe, in light of everyone’s fears that this project would turn out to be The Prequels, The Sequel: The Return of the Obnoxious CGI, or some such equivalent kerfluffle.
But, as I said, I fell in love a little bit. With Rey. Or maybe not Rey herself, exactly, but with the idea of Rey. So, as we all know (since you saw this movie or you wouldn’t be reading this now, right?), when Rey first encounters Luke/Anakin’s old lightsaber, it whispers to her, drawing her down into the conveniently located creepy old storage space where it’s being kept. Like she’s destined to have it. Like the saber wants to be wielded by her.
Me, in the theater: Pick it up. Pick it up, Rey. C’mon, please.
Of course, as soon as she touches it, it triggers some scary flashbacky visions, and she runs away.
Me, in the theater: No! Go back and pick it up, Rey. Pick it up! If you leave it there, some dude is going to get it! And then he’ll be the movie’s resident Jedi-in-training and he’ll be picking up the destiny you tossed aside and you’ll never be able to take this decision back! Destiny, Rey!
And I realized in that moment that I had an incredibly low bar for The Force Awakens. All I wanted, literally all I wanted from this movie was a female Jedi. A girl Jedi who was part of the main cast. Who would be shown wielding a lightsaber. Or a girl in the main cast who wielded a lightsaber even if she was never officially inducted into Jedi-hood. (I was willing to settle.) If Rey, at any point during this movie, picked up a lightsaber and fought with it? I was going to love this movie forever. And that’s, like, pathetic, right? That’s nothing. It’s been 38 years since A New Hope. The larger Star Wars universe is full of Jedis. (Both male and female, though I’m not familiar enough with the bigger franchise to know if its gender parity goes beyond that.) You can play as a female Jedi in KOTOR. But. We never had a prominent female Jedi in the films before. Sure, we can talk about Leia being force-sensitive, but, in the films, we never see her do anything Force-related except “feel” stuff that happens to other people — a stereotypically “feminine” ability if I’ve ever heard of one.
So, it was really, really important to me that the Skywalker saber seemed to be all Team Rey, and when she ran from it, I was kinda devastated. And then a dude did pick it up, and while it was really, really cool that it was a POC dude, for once, with his own quest and everything (and Finn is pretty adorkable for a stormtrooper), I was still kinda more devastated, because it looked like what I had predicted was actually happening. In the theater, I was anxious and on edge until the very end of the film, when finally — finally! — after Finn carried it around for most of the movie, Rey got her lightsaber back.
There have been several waves of reaction to Rey. First Wave: “Yay! A badass female Star Wars protagonist who’s awesome and hypercompetent and lightsaber!” Second Wave: “Boo! An unrealistically badass female Star Wars protagonist who’s unrealistically awesome and unrealistically hypercompetent and we call Mary Sue!” Third Wave: “If she’s a Mary Sue, so are the dudes. Why don’t they dude action heroes have to take this kind of crap? Can’t we just accept that women got a big-budget archetypal action movie wish-fulfillment character just this once?” And it kind of cycles back to First Wave from there. And that’s all . . . really fascinating. And a lot of talented people have been discussing these varied reactions to Rey, at length. So here are some links. Which will most likely lead you to other, equally fascinating links. Welcome to my rabbit hole:
- Berlatsky, Noah. “Forget Rey, Paul Atreides was the real Mary Sue.”Random Nerds.
- Kain, Erik. “No, Rey From ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Is Not A Mary Sue.” Forbes.com.
- Lang, Nico. “What Critics Get Totally Wrong About Star Wars.” Alternet.org.
- Roinson, Tasha. “With Star Wars’ Rey, we’ve reached Peak Strong Female Character: And there’s nothing wrong with that.” The Verge.
- Squire, Amy. “Star Wars’ Rey: Feminist Heroine or Mary Sue?.” Fanny Pack.
Tasha Robinson’s article is in some ways a continuation of two other articles which she penned for The Dissolve about female film heroes, both of which I recommend:
- “We’re losing all our Strong Female Characters to Trinity Syndrome.”
- “The best new Strong Female Characters are the weak ones.”
And not only the Internet is abuzz with discussions of Rey! Not too long ago, I was at a hotel, where I was given an actual, physical copy of USA Today. I know, I know; it was weird for me, too. And in this bizarre remnant of a bygone era, a writer named Meg Hickman had an opinion piece titled, “The Force Awakens to Feminism: ‘Star Wars’ answers every boy who has said girls couldn’t be Jedi knights.” (An online version of Hickman’s piece [which came out one day before the print version, and therefore deviates from it slightly] can be found here.) The first line:
The Force Awakens is a lot of things: funny, flashy, elegant — and a multimillion dollar “I told you so” to every little boy who said girls like me couldn’t be Jedi knights.
Hickman goes on to describe an anecdote in which, as a young fangirl, she was boxed into playing the damsel in distress:
Once, a little boy yanked a stick from my hand and scolded me for trying to use it as a lightsaber. It would be better, he said, if instead I hid somewhere so I could be rescued. I agreed. We were in grade school but already conforming to the gender roles displayed for us in the movies we loved.
And I was filled with nostalgic sentiment for the days in which I sword-fought with pampas grass stems with one of the boys in my neighborhood, pretending I was Westley from The Princess Bride. And I thought of how hurt I would have been if he had told me I could only be Buttercup.
Personally, I’m still kind of buoyed up by my First Wave response (“Yay!”) to Rey in The Force Awakens. Because she’s brave and talented and generous and — yeah, kinda chosen, what with the Skywalker legacy and all — and someone my hypothetical daughter imago could look up to. And so far? No strategic costume fail or metal bikini. And I have yet to find a poster image of her clinging dramatically to Finn or contorted into the “stop taking this picture” pose. And that’s all . . . great, actually. Really great.
So somewhere in all of that is why I’ll soon be feeding the Star Wars sarlacc-money-pit to get a Rey action figure of my very own. (Even if they don’t make many of them.*) Just to remind me of what it meant, and what I felt, when Rey picked up that lightsaber. Just so occasionally, I’ll look up from my computer and remember: Girls can be Jedis.
* Seriously: Four rows of Star Wars merch at Toys R’ Us and nothing — except a couple of disturbing big-heads and a quarter-inch, creepy faceless mini that was part of a playset. Oh, well. At least it’s not as bad as trying to get a Korra or Katara action figure (TV Katara, not movie Katara). Those are pretty much go custom or go home.