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With Star Wars' Rey, we've reached Peak Strong Female Character

With Star Wars' Rey, we've reached Peak Strong Female Character


And there's nothing wrong with that

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Note: This essay contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.

It's inevitable: The anti-Rey backlash is coming. The first wave of response for the ass-kicking, lightsaber-swinging, Force-wielding female protagonist of The Force Awakens was euphoric: she's "the feminist hero we've all been waiting for" (according to Bustle's Casey Cipriani), the "Bechdel-busting intergalactic hero we were promised" (per Joanna Robinson at Vanity Fair), and "feisty enough to banish thoughts of Katniss Everdeen from the most devoted Hunger Games enthusiast" (via Bob Mondello at NPR). But we all know what happens when anything gets universal, enthusiastic praise: Haters gonna hate.

That holds especially true for women, who get more virulent and violent responses than men for anything they do in the public sphere. And it's even more accurate about Strong Female Characters, who are still having their cultural moment, which invites especially intense scrutiny from all angles. Mad Max: Fury Road was similarly lauded for introducing a kick-ass woman character who didn't need rescue and wasn't around as a love interest, but the praise was strong enough to invite backlash, and not just from terrified men's rights activists. She was also picked apart by admirers who still don't think women should be imitating male violence. By respected critics who felt her lack of detailed background made her implausible. By bloggers who felt she didn't go far enough in eradicating stereotypes, or that the very act of nurturing made her yet another tired mother figure.

And Furiosa isn't alone: Plenty of thoughtful critics have questioned what a Strong Female Character is, and whether any given example of one — Katniss Everdeen, for example — is strong enough to qualify. I guarantee the "Is Rey really a feminist character?" thinkpieces are already brewing, alongside "Is she too tough?" worrying and "What does our embrace of this exceptionally capable character say about us?" musings. They've already started on Twitter.

I'd be a hypocrite if I suggested, even for a moment, that we shouldn't examine Rey, that she should get some kind of cultural free pass. I've done plenty of that kind of examination myself, and I regret none of it. But at the same time, the swoony heights and dreary second-guessing of Mad Max: Fury Road have left me a little weary of the impulse to prize apart and examine every heroic female protagonist, skeptically wondering whether they properly fulfill all our many ideals — and then, if they do, fussing over whether that's a good thing.

Star Wars

Because let's face it, Rey is kind of a Mary Sue character. (That's fan-speak for a thinly-veiled, self-insertion character in fan fiction, usually written by someone who wants not just to be part of an imaginary world they love, but to be its ultimate, most beloved and respected hero. The male version is a Gary Stu.) Rey is a survivor who seems to be consummately skilled at everything she tries. She's a crack pilot. She's a skilled mechanic. She's so innately talented in her use of the Force that she figures out Jedi mind tricks on her own, out of nowhere. She keeps falling into standard-issue damsel-in-distress situations, then capably rescuing herself. Even Han Solo is vocally and visibly impressed with her awesomeness. Her only weakness is a minor and understandable one: She misses the parents who seemingly abandoned her.

I'd be a hypocrite if I suggested that we shouldn't examine Rey

For women who've felt underrepresented through decades where most of the ladies onscreen were victims, tokens, rewards, or shrews, it's natural to feel a sugar rush of fulfillment over characters like Katniss Everdeen and Imperator Furiosa. That these heroines not only make it to the screen, but beat out their male counterparts at the box office is even more encouraging. And it's especially thrilling to see a new tough-as-nails, take-no-prisoners heroine in the Star Wars franchise, which even writer-director J.J. Abrams has described as "always a boys' thing." Abrams was wrong about that (and knows it; he's clarified that quote) — given that A New Hope's Princess Leia was a feminist icon back in 1977. She was one of the original models for modern women heroines: like Rey, Leia is confident, competent, unapologetic, and an active participant in her own rescues. (Even when rocking a skimpy metal slave-girl getup.) But while Leia was quickly reduced to a secondary character after A New Hope, Rey is all Leia's potential fulfilled — jumping right into the pilot's seat instead of moving to the rear of the starship while the boys fly.

So here's a radical suggestion: instead of being concerned about whether her Mary Sue flawlessness is a problem, why not, just this once, enjoy it for what it is?

The fight for equal representation for women, in front of and behind the camera, continues, and will continue for a long time. No one's saying sexism is over and we should put our feet up and enjoy it. And no one's arguing that all female characters should be as flawless and fearless as Rey. It'd be a boring cultural landscape if they were. I'm still convinced, as I wrote for The Dissolve around this time last year, that the best Strong Female Characters are the physically and emotionally weak ones. Characters who have a lot to overcome to become heroes are the bravest and most inspirational — more so than characters like Rey, who are naturally good at everything.

She's a fantasy wish-fulfillment character — but so are all Star Wars heroes

But it takes more than one kind of character to make a world, and joyously proficient lady badasses are just as important to a diverse, rich, fulfilling cultural landscape as troubled, complicated lady heroes. And there's something deeply suspicious about the early stirrings, on Reddit and 4Chan and especially all over Twitter, about how Rey is just too damn effective and nifty to be acceptable. She's a fantasy wish-fulfillment character with outsized skills, an inhuman reaction time, and a clever answer to every question — but so are the other major Star Wars heroes. Are they all getting the same level of suspicion and dismissal?

As Caitlin Moran said in her hilarious, invaluable essay collection How To Be A Woman:

I have a rule of thumb that allows me to judge — when time is pressing and one needs to make a snap judgment — whether some sexist bullshit is afoot. Obviously it's not 100 percent infallible but, by and large, it definitely points you in the right direction.

And it's asking this question: "Are the men doing it? Are the men worrying about this as well? Is this taking up the men's time? Are the men told not to do this, as it's ‘letting our side down'? Are the men having to write bloody books about this exasperating retarded, time-wasting, bullshit? Is this making Jon Stewart feel insecure?"

Almost always, the answer is: "No. The boys are not being told they have to be a certain way, they are just getting on with stuff."

Back in 1977, were we wringing our hands over whether Han Solo was too suave and funny and cool, or whether Luke's access to the "powerful ally" of an all-connecting, all-seeing, all-powerful Force that "binds the galaxy together" made him way too overpowered? Are all the male superheroes in the Marvel Cinematic Universe boring because they can summon lightning or smash buildings? Every time a slick, enjoyable action movie like John Wick comes out, do we have to pore over whether the protagonist's reputation is too amazing, or whether his fighting skills are so unbelievable that they ruin the movie? Is anyone whatsoever complaining that Tom Cruise's Mission: Impossible character should be needier and more helpless, with bigger, more obvious, more telling weaknesses?

Rey can exist alongside Ethan Hunt and Captain America

We wouldn't be worrying about Rey's excessive coolness if she were Ray, standard-issue white male hero with all the skills and all the luck. So maybe the most radical, feminist, subversive thing the cultural community can do is accept and enjoy her, instead of interrogating her right to be perfect — and our right to feel represented by her. When we question a female character's coolness and competency, we're giving into that embarrassing tendency to second-guess and undermine ourselves. The impulse to judge Rey comes from the same place as the societally trained impulse to say: "Am I being unfeminine by being too loud? Too confident? Too present? Too assertive? Should I tone it down? Do I deserve to be heard?"

We may have reached peak Strong Female Character with Rey. Yes, she should be an extreme outlier, not a model for every female character to aspire to, just as not every male character in the movies should be Captain America or Ethan Hunt. But she should also be allowed to be as unquestionably superlative a protagonist as they are. We can't have nice things until we learn to accept the ones we've been given. So before bitching that Rey's too good to be true, ask yourself this: once in a while, isn't it nice to have something that is too good to be true?

The Force Awakens Our first reactions

For more on The Force Awakens, check out The Verge's Star Wars playlist on Youtube, which includes Every time Chewbacca speaks in Star Wars and your chance to have BB-8 patrol your home. Make sure to subscribe to The Verge's YouTube channel and be sure to check out our roundtable discussion on The Force Awakens. Be warned: There are spoilers.