A few days before writing this post I had a Twitter rant.
Now this in itself is nothing new, I’ll let rip on something fairly often on my timeline. However since the tweets I posted are still being retweeted and discussed I’m going to do something I’d previously decided not to, hop on the bandwagon and write a post about Star Wars.
HOWEVER, before we proceed I should make it clear that this post will be chock full of spoilers about Star Wars The Force Awakens and that some speculations will be made about characters and backstories that some readers may find upsetting.
My Twitter rant concerned the current media obsession with Rey, the female lead character of The Force Awakens. Currently Rey is being lauded as a first in the arena of science fiction, a “game-changer” and proof that “…Movies Starring Women Make Money…” As a movie and TV sci-fi fan I was more than a little perturbed at the erasure of the fine tradition of great female science fiction characters.
Almost immediately my Twitter mentions exploded with excellent examples of the many wonderful female characters that have existed in sci-fi throughout the decades. The full rant, and many of the examples sent to me can be found in this Action A GoGo post. I didn’t write it but the writer shares my disgust at media selective memory.
It’s a common complaint that Hollywood are afraid of the risk of woman lead movies and, to be fair, this complaint has merit. According to “It’s a Man’s (Celluloid) World: On-Screen Representations of Female Characters in the Top 100 Films of 2014” by Dr. Martha M. Lauzen of San Diego State University’s Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film women lead only 12% of the top 100 domestic grossing movies of 2014 and encompassed 29% of major characters. However I believe that science fiction as a genre has one of the best records with regard to female inclusion and representation. Looking at science fiction films made in recent years, whether female lead or with major female roles, it is clear that women in science fiction bring in the box office bucks.
Gravity – over $700 million
Prometheus – over $310 million
Hunger Games – over $691 million
Hunger Games: Catching Fire – over $847 million
Terminator Genysis – over $409 million
Lucy – over $463 million
Disney paid $4 billion for Lucasfilm, well let’s face it $4 billion for Star Wars, and they have got to be rubbing their collective corporate hands together at the positive publicity that these articles about Rey are generating. Those less concerned about generating Disney dollars are inclined to be a little more cynical. Rey is being touted as a win for diversity, a strong and capable young woman that makes no apology for her abilities. However, as I discussed in my last post, character diversity is nothing without good writing and character composition. In other corners Rey was criticised as a poorly constructed wishy washy wish fulfillment character, pretty, immediately good at everything. A too perfect persona without the depth or flaws necessary for a fully rounded character.
The thing is, I’m actually going to disagree with that.
It’s true that Rey does seem to be immediately brilliant at everything she turns her hand to, she’s a great pilot, knows mechanics and can understand droid language and, inexplicably, Wookie. She’s presented to us as a loner on the desert planet of Jakku. A survivor taking great risks to scavenge bits and pieces from old, abandoned Imperial ships to exchange with junk dealer Unkar Plutt for tiny amounts of food rations. It’s clear from the outset that she can fight with a staff and is able to handle herself. She is also presented as a kind person that will stick her neck out for those in trouble. Her resistance to BB8 following her home is minimal and she immediately becomes invested in the droid’s plight. She rescues BB8 from thieves twice and declines a huge number of food rations for the droid (though she is obviously tempted) When Finn arrives Rey’s first instinct is to assist him and BB8 in getting away from The First Order and back to the rebellion.
Does that mean she has no flaws or weaknesses?
Well let’s take a deeper look. In my opinion Rey DOES have weaknesses and flaws, however the flaws she has been assigned do not endear her in any way to the audience. It’s all about how the weaknesses are presented. Take for example Princess Leia, she is very brave but outspoken, has a quick temper, finds it difficult to recognise and express her true feelings and is not above at times being petty. Instead of walking away when Solo baits her she calls him a “…stuck up, half-witted, scruffy–looking Nerf herder!” She then kisses Luke purely to prove to Solo that he is wrong about her feelings for him. However those weaknesses are presented in a way that endears us to Leia, we enjoy her sharp put-downs, her arguments with Solo amuse us and we root for him to win her over. It’s refreshing that Leia doesn’t immediately fall into Solo’s arms and that he has to work to win her affections. Leia’s initial refusal to admit her feelings for Solo then adds real emotional weight to her declaration of love as Solo is about to be frozen in carbonite, a moment acknowledged in the film as very likely to result in his death.
Compare that with how Rey’s weaknesses are presented to us in The Force Awakens. Rey was left on Jakku by her family at a young age (as we see in a flashback) and though she could have left at almost any time if she traded her flying or mechanical skills for ship passage she chooses not to. Why? Because she believes that one day her family will come back for her. She is stubbornly resolute in this belief and even turns down a job on the Millennium Falcon because of it, desperate to return to Jakku. She only abandons the idea when, after a force vision on Takodana, she is told by Maz Kanata (a 1000 year old force-sensitive pirate) that her family are never going to return for her.
The thing is she never describes anything specific about her family, never even referring to even a mother, father or siblings but just as “family” This seems to suggest that she doesn’t even remember them in any meaningful way. The wish of a forgotten family coming to rescue her, when she is more than capable of rescuing herself, is a foolish child’s dream and suggests that she has difficulty dealing with some aspects of her reality. The flashback within the movie, and the reveal since that Rey was left with Unkar Plutt does rather suggest that Rey’s family may have sold her. I’m aware that the fan favourite conclusion is that she is a part of the Skywalker/Solo family, this may well be the case. In Rey’s force vision she witnessed Kylo Ren slaughtering a generation of padawan learners. However force visions often include events the force-sensitive person does not witness in person. If Rey is a Solo or a Skywalker I would question why she was left with someone clearly so unsuited to caring for her, and it could be that Rey being a member of either family is nothing but a giant red herring. Rey’s mechanical and flying knowledge had to come from somewhere, she may well have been a slave or servant in the same kind of vein as Anakin and his mother Shmi. Certainly her knowledge of Plutt’s methods, acquisitions (she knew who he stole the Millennium Falcon from) and mechanical habits suggests that she was once a part of his organisation.
This is where it also gets slightly uncomfortable in that at times Rey seems to shy away from physical contact. Being a young, attractive girl on her own on a savage wasteland planet comes with it’s own set of problems and it is clear that Rey has had to learn to defend herself well from predators. Er, that’s as far as I’m going with that.
For a scavenger that lives alone on a harsh planet Rey is awfully trusting, she takes everything anyone tells her at face value and never questions the motives of anyone around her. When Finn turns up wearing Poe’s jacket Rey challenges him but then immediately believes him when he tells her that he is from the resistance, BB8 shows far more skepticism than she does. The comical moment on the ship where Finn has to convince BB8 to tell him where the resistance is based so he can tell Rey to fly there only makes her look more incompetent as the conversation happens within her earshot but she doesn’t pick up on it at all.
When Rey comes across Han Solo she immediately builds him up as a father figure, despite spending hardly any meaningful time with him. The focus on action sequences in the movie leave little time for relationship building. Unfortunately this reflects on Rey in that it makes her seem starved of affection, instantly latching on to the first person that gives her any kind of positive reinforcement. This may have been done intentionally, connecting back to her youth and the abandonment issues regarding her family. Her immaturity is reinforced by what is quite frankly overconfidence in her other abilities. On Solo’s ship what Rey describes as the “simple matter” of pulling the fuses to seal the pirates away from Solo actually releases the deadly Rathtars on board. The fact that this ends up helping them is more a matter of luck than judgement.
These character facets added together present Rey to the audience as childish, needy and at times dangerously cocky. Unfortunately these are not very likable traits. I found it difficult to connect with Rey and as the movie progressed I found myself not particularly warming to her as a character. This may change as the movies progress and Rey grows. After all Luke Skywalker in A New Hope is, let’s face it, a bit of a tool. For Rey to progress into a more relatable character she may need to be allowed to lose a bit more, that may bring the Rey devotees out of lightspeed with a jolt.
So while I wouldn’t say that Rey is without flaws as a character I wouldn’t say she is the second coming of sci fi women either. In fact she’s not even the best female character in the Star Wars universe. Even though the extended universe storylines were abandoned the prequels and their offshoots are still in fact considered a part of Star Wars canon. If Padme Amidala and Princess Leia are not enough and you want to show your daughter where all the best female characters are in Star Wars? Show her the Star Wars: Clone Wars animated movie and TV series and Star Wars Rebels.
The fact remains that some of the most iconic female characters ever created have come from science fiction. Ellen Ripley, Sarah Connor, Uhura, Zoe Washburne, Starbuck, Dana Scully, Eleanor Arroway, Katniss…the list of sci fi women is long and distinguished. Rey joins a genre already packed full of fantastic role models. Rey is untrained, untested and unworthy to lead such a group, but maybe with some seasoning she may be able one day take her place among the most excellent pantheon of science fiction goddesses.
The current state of corporate Hollywood has made it clear, with it’s endless remakes and reboots, that it considers anything that has not already been tested to be a risk. Personally I think it’s a little naive to place so much hope on Star Wars The Force Awakens opening up other genres to more female lead movies. Yes the film has taken a very large amount of money but it’s Star Wars, it could have been over two hours of nothing but council meetings, trade negotiations and whiny emos and people would still have paid good money to see it…wait…
Thanks For Reading
Find me on Twitter at Angela Night @Angelheartnight