For the Last Time, Rey Is Not A Mary Sue
The dam of The Last Jedi speculation finally burst open with Star Wars Celebration last week, which included a panel about the film – due this December – and the premiere of its first teaser trailer. It also reignited questions left over from The Force Awakens, including, unfortunately, the ongoing debate about whether or not the sequel trilogy’s central figure, Rey, actually earned her stripes in that film.
It’s honestly exhausting that we have to keep having this conversation. To get personal, Rey is, without hyperbole, one of the greatest things to happen to female fandom, a welcome mat to a franchise that has long felt impenetrable for women. Leia was a landmark character in her own right, but it’s Rey who gets the central story this time, Rey whose leitmotif rounds out the score, Rey who wields her own Excalibur and takes the Joseph Campbell march towards heroism. As a female fan, it’s downright revolutionary to see your favorite franchise through the eyes of someone who looks and feels like you. And “feels” is an operative word here, because unlike so many female action stars in genre films, Rey isn’t hardened or masculinized so as not to ostracize. She’s emotive, expressive, giddy, gentle. That range isn’t incidental; it informs her characterization. Rey is unlike anything we’ve seen before.
She’s also exceptionally, preternaturally gifted. And for some (like director Max Landis, who popularized the Rey hate by misidentifying her as a “Mary Sue”), that’s the sore thumb. They like her, generally speaking. They think Daisy Ridley’s cute. But one person can’t possibly fly the Millennium Falcon and defeat Kylo Ren and perform a Jedi mind trick without being a plot device, can they? Rey, they argue, is there to satisfy a plot with which they’re not yet wholly familiar, and her abilities are too convenient to feel earned.
Those might be reasonable claims elsewhere, but this is Star Wars. A franchise – as its own creator reminded us at Celebration – that is meant for 12 year olds. And so, necessarily, every major character arc is an exaggeration. Every hero’s journey is, by design, foundational and formulaic.
But what’s more ridiculous about the jab is how it rests in comparison with Star Wars’ two other central figures: Anakin and Luke Skywalker. Luke, like Rey, was introduced to us as a gifted pilot who is unusually strong in the force. In A New Hope, he fired the fatal blow to the Death Star with his eyes closed after a ghost helped him summon the force. And then there’s Anakin, who, at 9 years old, builds C3PO, wins a Podrace against professional and seasoned racers, and successfully pilots a starfighter without prior knowledge of the ship.
Luke and Anakin’s skills are mostly relayed to us. We known Luke is a good pilot because he says so. We know Anakin is a good pilot because his mom says so. We know Rey is a good pilot because we spend an intimate morning with her dismantling a Star Destroyer in a ship graveyard, wearing an x-wing helmet while she looks to the stars, and escaping her prison planet on the Millennium Falcon. We know she’s a capable fighter because we see her defend herself with her staff several times before she wields the lightsaber that calls to her. She can summon the force to perform a mind trick because, moments before, she was tortured with a similar tactic and fought back. We witness her development through silent exploration and in real time. Yes, it’s fast. Yes, it’s convenient. But it’s no more convenient than Han Solo showing up at the last second to help Luke save the day. It’s no more convenient than C3PO and R2-D2 happening upon Luke’s farm and uniting him with his father’s best friend and his long-lost sister. It’s no more convenient than anything in Star Wars, a children’s story that literally exists to tell pulpy, destiny-driven fantasy stories about outer space.
Even if Rey is a Skywalker, and her advanced force skills are part of her DNA, she’s still an all-time great for eschewing the labored trappings of the men who came before, and for rising above the limitations of her space fantasy genre. Take her out of Star Wars and drop her into any other story – a high school movie, a period drama – and she’s still someone you’d want to follow, someone who bursts off the screen and straight into your heart. Much of that is on Ridley, who exudes an irresistible charm. But it’s also in the writing, and the care, and the power of letting a woman step into a familiar vehicle and reassemble it.
I will admit that it’s frustrating how much of what follows Rey is the parentage question. It’s a clever marketing tool, but a pointless distraction when it comes to the riches we’re given at face value. That Rey is competent and quirky, that she is a survivor not just in the elemental sense but the spirited one – that she can still look to the sky with the eyes of a child, full of hope. No matter how The Last Jedi fills in her backstory, I’m still most excited to see how it grows her beyond that. How her training with Luke might fulfill the glories she’s dreamed of, or burst them apart. Either way, I know she can handle it. She’s already proven she can.