Within the last few months, I finally watched The Force Awakens again for the first time since the theatrical run. What I had liked about it at first I loved even more the second time. What had bothered me about it the first time likewise bothered me exponentially in the repeat viewing. All in all, it makes for a very awkward filmgoing experience for me – I love parts of it too much to say I dislike it, but I hate other parts too much to say I like it. And even if Episodes VIII and IX tie the narrative together in a way that really makes Awakens shine in retrospect, the fact that those films have totally different teams behind them (as opposed to The Maker’s overarching, if fickle-with-details narrative) will always undercut whatever “hidden brilliance” we may or may not find in the film upon future analysis.
The above paragraph was originally supposed to be a lead-in to a whole column re-evaluating The Force Awakens upon a repeat viewing away from the hype and the fear, but frankly, that’s really all I have to say on the matter until the entire picture comes to light. Besides, the main point of my column is to keep Episodes I-III and their rightful place in the Saga as a whole in the public’s eye as a positive force (pun unintentional, but welcome), lest the bile levied at them by mainstream geekdom be history’s final word on them.
But it does serve as a nice introduction to a matter that I’ve been wanting to write about for nearly a year, but wasn’t confidant I could do it justice. Because there is one element of The Force Awakens that I have had a slight but noticeable shift on in the intervening months: Rey.
In my first viewing, Rey didn’t leave much impression on me outside of some issues I had with her narrative, and I had no evidence or defense for a claim some have made of her being a “Mary Sue” – type character. However, in the second viewing, I did feel like I got a better sense of her character: someone with a curiosity and wanderlust, but afraid to stray too far lest the people who left her on Jakku be unable to find her again.
This is very similar to Luke in New Hope. The cynical part of me feels it’s almost too close to Luke, merely an exaggeration of his role in the 1977 classic. However, as George Lucas purposefully set Anakin and Luke’s stories as similar enough except in key points to set up juxtapositions in their character arcs to make a point about how our choices make a difference, I will choose to view Rey as another extension of that until I see where the writers and directors of VIII and IX take her.
But even though I do have a slightly more positive outlook on Rey, I still feel she is not as strong of a female character as she’s treated. Additionally, the hype of her as a “strong female character” does a major disservice to the slew of actual strong female characters that have populated the Saga up to this point. And I’m not talking about EU-ish figures like Asajj Ventress or Ahsoka Tano, but in the films proper – especially the hypotenuse of each respective trilogy’s power trio.
Okay, so here’s where it gets a little dicey for me because, last time I checked, I am not in fact a woman. Because of this, my insight into women’s issues will always come from an outsider’s perspective and should be taken as such, no matter how much of a feminist I consider myself to be. That being said, I feel that many people trying to create and/or are begging for “strong female characters” in fiction are missing a very crucial point.
Being a strong female character means being a strong character period. You can have strength of character, weakness of character, virtues, flaws, it runs the gamut. You need to have at least a character motivation, and at best a character arc. What makes a truly weak female character is when “female” is the only real character trait. And Star Wars, at least George Lucas’ Star Wars, eschewed that from the very beginning.
It started, of course, with Princess Leia Organa. While initially set up as a typical “Damsel in Distress” prop, it becomes apparent very quickly that Lucas was setting up a real subversion to that trope. Leia has a personality, and a very strong – even funny one. She needs help, but she easily holds her own both before rescue and especially post-rescue. This continues through Empire and Jedi (though she does mellow a bit in Jedi, this was not due to writing but due to Fisher’s offscreen habits by her own admission). The one time she’s ever objectified, in the infamous Slave Bikini, she retaliates in the most appropriate way. Other than that scene, she’s never treated as merely “the woman”, she’s her own character.
Of course, Lucas would outdo himself with Padmé Amidala. Throughout her appearances, she is a fully real character. She has virtues – A sense of honor, duty, and a desire to help those in need. She has flaws – She’s insecure, a bit of a workaholic, and almost as stubborn as the man she would fall in love with. She also has a very clear character arc. She starts out as someone who feels she must keep her true self and her persona as queen completely separate – both for her own safety, and the peace of mind of her people. She then learns to be both at once and accept being both, but she still lets work consume her until she gives in to the force of True Love. And then when that love is corrupted by the evil of the Dark Side, she has the courage to face it and try to fight back in the only way she knows how – by compassion and reasoned discussion. While it ultimately costs her life, she does pave the way for eventual redemption both by her sense that Anakin is still within the shell of Darth Vader somewhere, and also by (in deleted scenes) inspiring some of her fellow senators to begin working towards a rebellion.
And the only instance of any character underestimating her and expecting less of her for what she is, it has nothing to do with her gender. Both Palpatine and Nute Gunray assume she’s weak due to her age, and are both proven disastrously wrong.
And how could I forget Shmi. Shmi, despite her conditions, was a strong character without having to physically kick butt. She was the emotional heart of Phantom Menace through her patience, her love, and her determination to do right by Anakin even if it broke her heart. I wish we had seen more of her before her untimely death in Clones, and it may strike some as heartless using her as a catalyst for Anakin’s turn down the dark path. But unlike the many examples of disposable women in fiction, it really did serve the story and would have been just as impactful were the character a male – a father.
And that’s not even counting the smaller roles. Zam Wessel’s gender is brought up exactly once, with Anakin correcting Obi-Wan’s assumed pronoun. Beru Whitesun/Lars feels just as important a part of her household as her husband Owen. Padmé’s handmaidens are also her loyal bodyguards and decoys. Many human and alien extras appear in bars and Jedi missions and Rebel armies without attention being drawn to their co-ed status. Even Oola in Return of the Jedi, who one could argue was an object of Jabba’s objectification and sacrificed purely to make Jabba more dangerous, still felt like a real character due to the performance of the actress and the fact that she was doomed by an admirable act of defiance – it takes bravery to attempt an escape from an abusive situation.
When it comes to Rey, though, any strength and uniqueness of her character is brought down by the fact that both Finn and Han initially treat her as “the girl” and are “surprised” when she doesn’t conform. The mere acknowledgement of expected modern Earth reactions to such a person where women in the Saga were heretofore treated equally undercuts Rey being held as a “strong female character.” Even Captain Phasma was technically, by my argument, a stronger female character – underwhelming as a character I feel, but it would be the same if Phasma were male.
So, to sum up this overlong article, I love the women that George Lucas created for the Star Wars Saga. Anybody who doubts their strength seems to be watching a different movie. And most attempts by others at trying to “introduce” a “stronger” woman seem counterproductive (the aforementioned Mmes Ventress and Tano, the latter technically a Lucas creation herself, being among notable exceptions). And in fiction as well as real life, no matter what body you possess, true strength of character comes not from what you do, but from who you are.