So I didn’t like Star Wars: The Force Awakens. I’m aware this is not a popular opinion. And there are a number of reasons for this. I could talk all day about it being too much of a send up of A New Hope, or I could go on about how it relied too much on cashing nostalgia checks and not enough on creating new imagery, or I could point to a dozen or so gaping plot holes that broke my suspension of disbelief – but the main reason I did not like the Force Awakens will be even less popular than that. Her name was Rey.
“But, everyone loves Rey. She’s a strong female lead in a genre that has traditionally been the sausagiest of sausagefests.” You’re right on both accounts; Rey is tremendously popular, and the sci-fi / fantasy / action genres have all gone way too long without delivering kickass heroines. And I really wanted Rey to be that kickass heroine, but for me she fell flat.
Strong Female Characters vs Compelling Female Characters
When people are complaining about a lack of “strong female characters,” it seems like the solution is to make competent, proactive, ass kicking female characters. And there’s nothing wrong with that. There are competent, proactive, ass kicking male characters, so there should be competent, proactive, ass kicking lady characters. But I think this is also a fundamental misunderstanding of what critics and academics mean when they call for “strong female characters.” They’re actually calling for compelling female characters. It’s a subtle but important difference.
After all, we have tons of movies full of ass kicking, super competent, proactive dudes that everyone generally find boring and unsatisfying. Superman is the most competent and ass kicking dude in history, but if you ask a dozen people about him, the most common adjective you’d get in response is “boring.” Does anyone actually remember anything at all about the main character in Avatar? It was the best selling movie of all time, but if you asked someone to talk about that character, you’d get a ton of blank stares. I don’t even remember his name.
Everyone, however, remembers Luke Skywalker. Everyone remembers Indiana Jones. I don’t think many would argue with me if I called them compelling characters. But does everyone remember that Luke spent 90% of A New Hope whining, running away, generally failing, and relying more competent people to pull him through? Indiana Jones was certainly proactive, competent, and ass kicking, but if you stop and think about Raiders of the Lost Ark, he actually failed at pretty much everything he set out to do, and the plot would have resolved the exact same way with or without his presence – meaning he wasn’t competent or asskicking enough for it to matter.
So clearly, a compelling character does not necessarily need to be strong, nor is strength enough to make a character compelling.
Before I get into the reasons Rey doesn’t work for me, let’s look at a successful protagonist:
Luke is an obvious place to start; just as The Force Awakens was strongly modeled after a New Hope, Rey was modeled after Luke Skywalker. Both start as poor kids on isolated desert worlds. Both start the story as orphans – Luke becoming doubly orphaned just twenty minutes into the movie. Both are dragged into a galactic conflict when they stumble on a droid with vital intelligence. Both discover they are Jedis, and learn the ways of the Force to make a great impact on the story. Heck, they even dress the same:
But let’s look again at Luke. When we meet Luke, he’s whiny. Like really whiny. He’s defeatist. He doesn’t believe in himself or others. The galaxy knocks on his door with great adventure and responsibility, and he’s basically an angsty teen who wants to play with his landspeeder. Sure he says he wants to move on to bigger things, but he doesn’t really believe it’s possible for him. So he whines. “But I was going to Tooooshiii. To get some power conveeeerteeeers. It just isn’t faaaaair.” In subsequent interviews, Hamill has discussed his delivery of these lines as intentionally insufferable to paint Luke as a defeatist whiner.
As irritating as Luke’s flaws are at the beginning of the movie, It’s these flaws that make the climax of the movie feel worthwhile and earned. We see Luke fail to block the blasters from the practice drone. Obi Wan paints this as a failure for Luke to trust both in himself and in the Force. So when, in the climactic Death Star trench run, Luke shuts off his targeting computer, it represents more than Luke learning to use the Force. It’s Luke learning to believe in himself, honoring his dead mentor, and embracing a larger responsibility to the galaxy – he is giving up his immaturity and growing as a person.
This arc accomplishes a lot. It makes Luke a more interesting character, because we can see how his personality is dynamically altering in response to his circumstances. It makes the ending feel earned and satisfying, because Luke had to overcome not just external antagonists, but also his own personal flaws to blow up the Death Star. Because we see these flaws defeat Luke in the earlier parts of the movie, we know they’re difficult for him to overcome. Watching him finally do it makes the ending magic feel earned and satisfying for the viewer. This arc is what makes Luke’s story an archetypal Hero’s Journey.
Why Rey Sucks:
She Has No Flaws – or None that Matter:
Rey begins our story as an impoverished loner scavenger, just eeking by in a harsh desert. We quickly learn that she’s self-sufficient, adept at beating the crap out of people with a stick, and empathetic towards wayward droids. And we learn that she wants to stay on Jakka in the hopes that her family will return to her.
So she does actually have a couple of flaws – she’s tied to her past on Jakka – which causes her to refuse the initial call to adventure, and she wants to go everything alone. But these flaws don’t actually cause her to *fail* at any point. If she’s going to overcome her loner nature, we should see her struggle with it. Instead, she just defaults to hanging with Finn and Han. She never fails to trust them to take care of something important. She never fails because she insists on going alone. So she overcomes this flaw without ever failing in the process, making the flaw trivial. So when she overcomes it, we barely notice.
Likewise, when she refuses the call to adventure, there’s no consequence to it. When she initially refuses the lightsaber, it’s not like it would have been likely to help her in her first encounter with an unwounded Kylo Ren, before she’s gained any force powers. Likewise, when she refuses to fly with Han Solo, there’s nothing really important at stake for the plot. So there are no real consequences for her flaw.
When Luke took up his call to adventure and embraced his destiny, he had two choices: use his targeting computer, which seems like the smart choice, or embrace the Force, despite having failed in it before. He makes a deliberate choice to tackle his defeatism and lack of faith head on, instead of using the targeting computer – a valid and far more reliable alternative. When Rey picks up her lightsaber and embraces the call to adventure, the choice is pick up the lightsaber or watch your friend die. She had no agency in this decision, but was instead pushed there entirely by the actions of others.
So she doesn’t really get an arc, because her flaws are trivial and without consequence, so she has nothing to overcome, which means she doesn’t really grow as a person throughout the film. When she overcomes what little she has to, she’s pushed the entirety of the way by external events, removing her agency. Sure, she grows in competence, but that’s not the rewarding character growth we want to see in a protagonist.
She Develops New Powers as the Plot Demands and is Entirely Too Good at All of Them:
When the plot needs a pilot, Rey turns out to be the best one there is. When the plot needs a fighter, Rey turns out to be the best one there is. When the plot calls for a mechanic, she makes Rick look like Morty. When the plot calls for someone who speaks Wookie or Droid, she’s the best one there is. When the plot calls for a Jedi, well, look out Galaxy, there’s a new badass Jedi in town.
None of these abilities are things Rey *should* be able to do. She has some piloting experience, but that shouldn’t equate to her flying the Millenium Falcon like the fucking Red Baron. Sure, Han Solo pulled off crazy stunts in the Falcon, but that was HIS ship, he’d spent years flying the thing, learning it’s every in and out. And even then, he wasn’t as good as Rey. His navigation of the asteroid field is portrayed as incredibly difficult – and yet it’s a hundred times less complicated than Rey maneuvering through the INSIDE of a Star Destroyer. And the fact that it’s difficult for Han is what brings dramatic tension to the scene. No one is confident that this is a good course of action. In every engagement the Falcon has with TIE fighters, it looks like a smuggling freighter should against multiple state of the art war ships – like it’s escaping through the skin of its teeth every time.
So how did Rey become a better at piloting Han’s old ship than Han ever was? We can explain something like this away by saying, “It’s the Force,” or “She’s naturally talented.” But then when she’s also beating the crap out of people who have been trained in combat since birth, is that also the Force? Is that also natural talent? Or when she’s conducting better emergency repairs on the Falcon – again, better than Han ever could, is that natural talent too? And she speaks droid and Wookie? Okay, so scavengers probably run into lots of droids, but how many Wookies live in the Jakka deserts? The character becomes so good at so many things, that it breaks our suspension of disbelief, because no one person with her backstory should actually be able to do all those things.
Her success at everything overshadows all the other characters. Luke and Ben bring Han on board because they need a pilot. What does Rey need? She’s already better at combat than Finn, the guy trained for it since birth. She’s better at flying and mechanics than Han, so why do they need him to pilot the ship? She’s better at using the Force than our primary antagonist, Kilo Ren, which just completely neuters him as an antagonist; why should our characters fear him if Rey is already better than he is in every way, even without training?
And then we come to her mastery of the Force. Hoo boy.
Let’s first look at Luke’s progression of Force powers. In A New Hope, he uses the Force successfully exactly once – to guide his final shot against the Death Star. This is a subtle use, it comes at the climax of the movie, and it marks great personal growth for him. His second use of the Force is to telekinetically pull his lightsaber to him on Hoth. This requires great personal effort, and takes place after a large timeskip in order to show that Luke has progressed since the last film – but he’s still no super hero. Then he goes through formal Jedi training on Dagobah. He cuts it short to confront Vader, and he pays with his worst defeat ever. It’s not till the third and final movie that we see Luke emerge as a badass warrior Jedi, using the Force to overcome overwhelming odds.
Rey had a different path. Her first experience using the Force, she’s doing insanely sophisticated millisecond maneuvers through the inside of a Star Destroyer. Her second time around, she’s not only resisting the telepathy of Kilo Ren, she’s turning it around on him. Her third time, she’s performing mind tricks on storm troopers. Her fourth time, she’s telekinetically wresting control of a light saber from Kilo Ren. And then beating him down. All of this in the course of a single movie – do you see what I mean about overshadowing other characters? She makes either makes Luke look retroactively incompetent or she breaks the established rules of the setting. Either is enough to take me out of the movie.
But the main problem with her growth as a Jedi is that it feels cheap and unearned. As I’ve mentioned a number of times, Luke putting away his targeting computer was a climactic earned moment of personal growth. When Rey wins her mental battle against Kilo, there is nothing for her to overcome. She doesn’t earn it. We just see someone who has never done something before defeating someone who is highly trained and competent – as if Harry just out right beat Voldemort in a duel in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. It trivializes both the Force – if someone could learn it so fast – and the primary antagonist of the film – that he can’t even compete with someone who doesn’t even know or understand what she’s doing; did he spend all his training time playing Candy Crush? This is repeated when she wrests control of the light saber from him – the guy who could hold a blaster bolt in place for minutes at a time is overpowered by a complete neophyte?
Or the climactic moment of “personal growth” when she embraces the Force to overpower Kilo. Does she have a personal conflict to overcome? Does she become a better person? Nope. Kilo tells her he’ll teach her the ways of the Force, and then she says, “The Force? Oh, right. The Force. I forgot about that. I should be using that right now.” And she turns around and wins. She learned nothing from any of these. She didn’t have to overcome any kind of personal mountain. She’s just better.
And the mind trick? How did she even know that was a possible thing to do? The Jedi have been basically wiped out for nearly a hundred years. By the time of New Hope, the Imperial Officers consider force powers a superstition. Why would she even know to attempt that, never mind make it work?
The way she so easily learns these Force powers to overcome sticky situations makes Kilo Ren and Luke look like idiots sure, but it also has more dire narrative consequences. When characters fail, that’s when we learn about who they really are. That’s when the dramatic tension is the highest. Watching characters try and fail is what endears us to them in the first place. Storytelling is, at it’s core, characters struggling to overcome conflict and adversity. When you trivialize the conflict, you trivialize the entire story. If Harry Potter could just kick Voldemort’s ass in a duel the entire story, what’s the conflict? Why should we care? What makes the ending matter, if it’s just the result we expect?
She is Boring:
Sometimes characters can get away with being utterly amazing at everything and totally static. Look at James Bond. That’s basically his MO. He gets away with it because he’s so fucking entertaining. He’s got the quickest quips, the suavest lines, the most stylish clothes, the craziest gadgets, the coolest car you’ve ever seen, etc. But for all the talk about breaking barriers for women in action movies, Rey never breaks the most important ones. She’s not allowed to be interesting or entertaining.
Here’s a quick game: Describe Han Solo’s personality – not what he does or what he looks like, but who is his character. You’d probably come up with something like: “Smarmy, cocksure guy, who is always out for himself. Roguishly charming, often intentionally annoying, he fancies himself a playboy. A habitual gambler who plays fast and loose with both his odds and his morals. But though he hides it under a surly exterior, deep down, he’s the thief with the heart of gold.” Now imagine he’s put in an everyday situation. I bet you can picture how he’d act and what he’d say.
Okay cool. Now do those things for Rey. Notice a difference? I bet you did. Can you remember a single Rey line? Admittedly, I have a pretty poor memory, but I can’t. I certainly can’t think of any that I’d ever want to QUOTE. Even Luke’s whining about going to Toshi for power converters was memorable and character informative.
So why doesn’t Rey get any good lines or interesting character traits. It’s not like the writers don’t know how. Poe has like four scenes. All are chock full of memorable dialog. I bet you can think of three or four Poe quotes off the top of your head. Finn has memorable quotes. Not only that, he gets an arc. He runs away in cowardice and then returns because he wants to protect the only friends he’s ever made. He makes stupid decisions that get him into trouble because he’s single mindedly focused on protecting that friend. Han Solo is obviously Han Solo. That roly poly droid shows more personality than Rey.
Because for all the people talking about how Rey is busting barriers for ladies in action movies, she’s still not busting the ones that count; the writers haven’t allowed her to be entertaining or interesting. Just as Black Widow is often accused of being the Wet Blanket and Fun Spoiler of the Avengers, Rey is allowed the ass kicking of an action movie star but isn’t allowed to be entertaining or fun at it. Why can’t my lady action hero be a swaggering badass like Han. Or have interesting personal growth like Finn? Why is a lady being really good at punching and flying enough for everyone?
So What if Rey was a Boy?
Let’s pretend we live in an alternate universe. In this universe, everything is the exact same as it is here, except Rey is a boy. Now, can you honestly say you’d find Mr. Rey remotely interesting? That he wouldn’t be just another boring action hero? That you’d remember any of his dialog or want to buy his action figure? That he wasn’t too good at everything? That everything he did was really earned? I think your opinions on Rey might be a little different.
So if the only compelling thing about a character is their gender, I think we deserve a better female action hero. Thank goodness we’ll always have Sarah Connor and Ellen Ripley.