Obligatory Force Awakens Spoilers Warning For The Ten People Left On The Planet Who Haven’t Seen It.
In the wake of The Force Awakens there are numerous discussions about the social justice consciousness of the filmmakers and the potential for positively empowering girls and young women. Part of this has involved complaints that the film put feminist ideals above logical storytelling. Part of this has involved praise that The Force Awakens finally did women justice in a way Star Wars movies past did not. In this post I want to address these claims with respect to the treatment of Rey. Tomorrow I’ll post The Feminism Awakens: Episode II, in which I’ll consider Leia, Padme, and other women in the Star Wars movies in order to tackle the question of how well or badly the movie has actually treated women in the past and in the new movie.
The Anti-Feminist Complaint
Some people complain that Rey turns out to be the lead character and the one with an apparent destiny as a Jedi because they see it as a choice meant to be “politically correct”. The thinking seems to be something like the following: “If you go to the trouble of making your protagonist a woman in a sci-fi/fantasy film (or maybe even in an action film generally) where otherwise a man would have done equally well and been the default choice, then you’re deliberately making choices to forefront women because you have a feminist agenda. If having empowering female representation influences story and character choices then the purity of the storytelling is compromised by politics. You’re making a political message film instead of just telling a story. You’re going to have a woman take on more characteristically masculine roles, which will make for a less believable and more distracting pander that will detract from the compellingness of the story. When we see our Strong Female Character Kick Ass Against Men, we will roll our eyes and be taken momentarily out of the story because we’re having it shoved in our face the Moral that Women Can Kick Ass Too (“and look, they can even beat up men!”). The exaggerated contrivance is distracting pander to little girls (who don’t really care about action genres anyway) and bitter old maid feminists who hate men and action movies anyway but will bitch and moan if there aren’t Strong Female Characters in these movies they’re not watching. Of course there can be roles for women in these movies but only if there is a distinct character or story reason for women roles. Any other casting of women characters is basically affirmative action that should embarrass women themselves, who are being pandered to, gender preference, and denial of gender realities where men, being undeniably physically stronger on average and among the most peak fitness levels, are usually the ones to engage in the sorts of dangerous careers that land someone in an action movie in the first place. Strong Female Characters are feminist denials of biology.”
Whether anyone would actually spell it out in that kind of detail or extreme or not, I mean to lay bare the fundamental logic at work in complaining that they chose to center the film on a woman character in the first place as somehow a compromising instance of “political correctness”.
I think nearly all of the above is wrongheaded. First of all, these movies are fantasy films. They’re not about representing reality but about giving us vicarious thrills and inspiring us in our own relatively mundane trials and abilities through imaginative exploration of what they would be like in more exotic circumstances. They’re stories meant to convey resonant themes about dealing with various kinds of adversity. And women and girls deserve stories that do this for them no less than boys and men do. None of us realistically can have Force powers or any other super hero powers. Even with non-fantasy genre heroes, no man is Batman or James Bond or John McClain anyway. If you can, as a matter of second nature, suspend your disbelief to imagine non-magically enhanced men kicking ass beyond any human male’s real world capacities then you should have no trouble doing the same for human females.
And once super hero powers or magic or the ability to use the Force are in play? Then the characters are realistically as powerful relative to each other as the story specifies. The differences between peak strength men and peak strength women in raw power are negligible compared to the difference in power between a super hero and any average human. And we can imaginatively set the power dial for any super hero character anywhere we want relative to other super heroes since their powers are not flowing from sheer human muscle mass and distribution as they would in ordinary humans. And when the peak powerful ordinary women that action and sci-fi/fantasy creators are designing are in play, they can realistically be expected to kick ass over ordinary henchmen the way they do in most of these movies. Or at least the edges where they border on unrealistic are not really that much further than comparable men.
It’s a choice to refuse to view women as your equal. It’s galling that people can look at a drastic disproportionate representation of men over women as leads in mainstream-marketed films, including sci-fi/fantasy and not see anything unfair about that, and yet turn around and claim it is unfair to deliberately prioritize sex in coming up with characters when it comes to making room for women. That prioritization of women is not sexism, it’s not an inordinate interest in genitals “which should have nothing to do with anything”. No one is saying we need more representation of women in sci-fi/fantasy because we need more vaginas in it. It’s because being a woman or a girl in our society goes well beyond mere anatomy to an entire gendered experience in the world. And people of that gender have been underrepresented and under-celebrated in the stories and given appallingly fewer role models in the lead roles within the genre. That’s the sexism, that’s what’s unfair. It’s sexist to assume that a character doesn’t need any specific story reason to be given a masculine gender and that we should default to our characters primarily being men. How about we just default to making our characters half men and half women since the potential audience is comprised of half men and half women and women would like that extra relatability of more characters that share their gender, which men take for granted. And, no, I’m not saying women can’t relate to male characters or that they can’t relate to a given male character more than a given female one. I’m saying that every point of potential commonality helps in connecting with characters and more men should stop having conniption fits about being asked to identify with women characters more often.
You can’t say we should all be treated equal and then when people try to actually equalize how many films have female leads cry foul and blame them for ruining all the stories ever. When you do that you signal that you don’t really want equality since you villainize any attempts to actually correct for what was an unjustified imbalance in the first place. If you haven’t been whining over the great and disproportionate number of characters conceived of as men without any good justification beyond the completely unfair bias that the “ordinary” human is simply by default a man, then you don’t get to whine if you think that Rey didn’t have an abstract justification for being conceived of as a woman. And don’t say you favor equality if you accuse efforts to balance scales of being ones meant to unfairly tip them—as though they weren’t already ridiculously tilted in favor of men since forever in this genre.
As to the question of whether Strong Female Characters are poorly and predictably written as overcompensatingly badass—they indeed sometimes are! But that’s just part of the problem that feminists are complaining about. They don’t want perfect characters, they want multi-dimensional ones that are interesting. It’s feminists I’ve read complain about The Strong Female Character in any given action or sci-fi/fantasy film being a token who is there to aid the male lead who is the true star and not really be the main character. It’s feminists complaining that throwing in one generically tough or smart woman in a group of multiple men is supposed to be sufficient.
Was It Too Unrealistic That Rey Bested Kylo Ren?
The other complaint about Rey is that even if it’s fine to make the lead a woman, they went overboard and made her a “Mary Sue” and they overcompensated in this direction because she was a woman. They made her too utterly perfect in every way, even to the point of having her (a) understand how to fix Han Solo’s own ship better than he does and (b) absolutely improbably best a far more experienced and trained Force user in a saber duel, simply because they wanted to put a feel good rush of girl power empowerment in the story, even at the expense of any semblance of story logic or respect for the established mythos of the other movies in which people need to be trained in the Force before they can use it so well.
I think this complaint is mostly unjustified. The films have been very clear from the beginning that (at least for the Force sensitive) a lot can be accomplished with little training. In the case of Luke Skywalker in A New Hope, the original Star Wars movie he had barely any training from Obi-Wan when he blew up the Death Star. Even though he was already a good shot who reported that he was able to regularly hit similarly difficult targets back on Tatooine, when he made the shot he turned off his view finder and trusted his feelings in order to use the Force to help him shoot instead. He had an entirely impractically precise hit to make with no scope. So in this case he used his newly realized, hardly practiced, and barely tutored gifts with the Force to not just enhance his existing shooting skills but drastically supplement them and make a superhuman shot.
Leia at the end of Empire Strikes Back also has Force sensitive capacities without realizing them, when she is able to sense Luke calling out for her even though she has no idea that it’s through the Force that she’s doing it.
As for Anakin, he was an untrained nine year old slave whose Force sensitivity made him the only human being able to participate in pod races. And then he wins a pod race after merely a few words of pep talk from Qui-Gon Jinn. Throughout the series, Force sensitivities are integrally related to mechanical abilities as well (for example, Darth Vader takes as proof that Luke Skywalker is powerful that he has been able to construct a light saber for himself). Anakin demonstrates the extraordinary mechanical aptitude not only to build a winning pod racer but also to build an artificially intelligent droid. Even his “lucky” piloting in the end of The Phantom Menace which leads him to accidentally being in position to blow up the droid army’s command ship and save the day, involves at various points incredible maneuvering judgments (no one is just that lucky) that are attributable to his connection to the Force which, as Qui-Gonn explained to him involved the ability to see things just before they happen and have the appearance of extraordinary reflexes. Again, Anakin didn’t even need to try in that scene, his Force sensitivities were so absolutely natural. We also see in Attack of the Clones that Anakin’s skills far exceed the training being given him by Obi-Wan since he can do things Obi-Wan cannot and which Obi-Wan thinks are foolish. He’s just naturally off the charts strong with the Force.
For 16 years I’ve heard complaints about the prequels ad nauseam, but the idea that in The Phantom Menace Anakin was just too strong with the Force to swallow—even when he was doing this as an absolutely untrained nine year old—has just never come up. Because like with countless other (typically male) fantasy “chosen one” characters we understand that their having an unrealistic level of indomitable natural power is part of the point. These movies are in no small part about vicariously living the fantasy of being especially powerful. That’s always the case, without anyone being charged with being a Mary Sue.
But, you might ask, “Why did Luke need training from Yoda at all if all he needed was to tap into his natural Force powers?” Primarily Yoda had to teach Luke to actually believe in the Force and that he could use it because his overt doubts were in the way of just feeling his way through it. But once he gets through that, he gets very little more training from Yoda before speeding off to Bespin and then becoming a full fledged Jedi on his own. The other integral training that he needed from Yoda was related to how to stay away from the Dark Side. Rey has heard enough stories about Luke to already know how the Force works and we see her trying it out and figuring out that she has it and can trust it before the big controversial showdown wherein she, allegedly improbably, bests Kylo Ren.
There are several key things to remember about that scene. From the beginning of the film she has demonstrated abilities with fighting with a staff, so she knows her way around at least one weapon and probably more. Having the Force, like Qui-Gonn explained, means simply having Force-enhanced “reflexes” of the sort Anakin had, which made her from the start enhanced. When Kylo Ren begins to fight her he has already been shot in the midsection by Chewbacca and has been fighting for a long, exhausting time against Finn in that condition. And then, like Darth Vader in Empire Strikes Back, Ren takes an explicit interest in turning Rey, which means that, like Vader, he was probably holding back actually destroying her at the start of the fight. He was trying only to bring her to submission. He does get a strong advantage over her and is muscling her down while making his pitch that he could teach her and it’s only there that he mentions the Force and she remembers she can draw on it and, a la Luke in A New Hope, decides to rely on the Force the rest of the way. She finds that if she explicitly trusts in the Force it can augment her existing, demonstrated and already-presumably-Force-sensitive fighting abilities drastically. Finally, the narrative has already prepared us for this with the scene where Kylo Ren, an experienced mind reader tries to read Rey’s mind and she, having never done this before, is able to read his mind instead. So the movie already gave us a huge clue that she is so much more innately powerful than him that she can pick up what he’s doing through the Force and do it right back at him. It’s therefore not so illogical that the same dynamic could work for light saber fighting, when it’s a Force influenced kind of fight when between Force users.
So this is all consistent with both the original trilogies. The idea that both the Skywalker children are especially Force sensitive because their father is is right there in Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. “The Force is strong in my family, I have it, my father has it, my sister has it.” It’s hereditary and, like other hereditary traits, it makes people “naturals” at things. Especially in this case because the ability in question is to use a kind of magical power. If your magic is just innately stronger, as Rey’s believably could be compared to Ren’s, then she could just have the innate advantage.
How Was Rey Handled From A Feminist Point of View?
Finally, was she a good feminist character for those looking for one? Was her treatment something to be happy about from a feminist point of view?
In some ways my girlfriend did think they were a bit too cute with Rey, to the point of pandering. She thought the bit about Rey not wanting Finn to hold her hand when he was trying to help her escape mortal danger was excessive. I thought that having her know how to fix something on the Millennium Falcon that Han Solo didn’t was a bit much. I generally found Rey, Finn, and Poe likably perfect to an almost absurd degree. But I interpreted that as much more about Disney trying to win people over with full blast charm in introducing the new protagonists they’re resting the franchise on. I didn’t take that as having anything specific to do with sex (or race). I also don’t think they rushed Rey to competency against Kylo Ren because they had chosen a woman lead character. I think they were committed to make this another movie about a desert orphan who discovers his/her powers to use the Force and saves the day in the first movie since they were clearly trying to recapture A New Hope’s formula however they could. Since they laudably chose to make the lead a woman character, that meant she’d be the one discovering her power in a way meant to be inspiring. And I think they were not going to deny us the chance to see our new hero with a light saber either. In fact they even gave us Finn with a light saber as part of this instant fan service, even though, as not Force sensitive but merely trained as a stormtrooper he should be even less of a match naturally for Kylo Ren. I think we were supposed to be impressed in a distinctly feminist way when Luke’s light saber flew directly past Kylo Ren’s outstretched hand into Rey’s when we weren’t being shown Rey even trying for it. I think the filmmakers were trying to surprise us by making us assume the male lead, Finn, would be the one to best Kylo Ren with the saber and then make it Rey who does so instead. I wasn’t particularly stirred since I saw it coming (and I think I was spoiled from one of the commercials that Rey would have the light saber at some point) and I thought that moment was a little too calculated and telegraphed. But I thought that of most of the movie.
The only other distinctly feminist thing to mention about the use of the character was pointed out by Libby Anne at Love, Joy, Feminism, and it’s that none of the characters ever remark on her appearance, which was indeed a refreshing way to help take some of the attention off her role as attractive (or not) to men when it should have been on her as a burgeoning hero. Of course, Finn’s nerves around her seem to indicate he has a fast formed crush on her that is presumably not unrelated to how gorgeous she is. Han Solo also realistically seems to underestimate her repeatedly because of her gender and trades in sexist stereotyping a bit by advising Finn not to lie since women always figure it out. I’m not complaining that Han was written as a bit of an old fashioned guy. That is the man we saw charmingly sexually harass his way into Princess Leia’s heart in Empire Strikes Back.
But these are just minor things. The main thing is that Rey is a delightful character, easy to root for and easy to believe will succeed. I am very happy we have her now as she will make an exceptional role model for girls (and boys) alike. And not merely in a supporting role. Which is a most welcome change.
More analyses of The Force Awakens from Camels With Hammers:
Readings of the Star Wars Prequels from Camels With Hammers: