In the wake of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, there've been countless articles, blog posts, and discussions about Rey, played by Daisy Ridley. While I hope the day will come when the existence of a character like Rey in a record-breaking blockbuster will be so commonplace that it won't be greeted by such strong reactions, the response is understandable. Rey and her ilk are still the exception to the rule in popular film, and it's absolutely worth discussing what makes this heroine so inspiring — which, despite what many might think, is not simply her gender.
Without question, the fact that Rey is female is important; she's possibly 2015's most visible exception to film's male-dominated lead character field (in 2014, women made up only 7 percent of directors on the top 250 films, according to the Center for the Study of Women in Television and Film). Rey is noteworthy as a female character who catalyzes action instead of existing to serve a male-dominated narrative, and the future of equal representation in film demands that the industry finally comprehends that movies led by women can and do make money. But the triumph of Rey has nothing to do with gender. In fact, it's The Force Awakens' complete disregard of gender roles in Rey's case that heightens her impact.
Just imagine if Daisy Ridley hadn't been cast as Rey in The Force Awakens. Replace her in your imagination with the male actor of your choice, be it a Gosling or a Reynolds or a B. Jordan, and consider how the role might change. Could male Rey still be an orphan and a scavenger? Check. A great pilot? Check. Bold, quick-thinking, a little cheeky, and not so interested in romance? All checks. Now put Ridley back in that part where she belongs, because she is perfect.
Too often in film, the casting of a main female character in a film ends up feeling like the studio is shouting, "Look what this person can do, even though she's a woman!" More female protagonists are obviously a great thing, but not when they're being patronized. The Force Awakens, however, succeeds by developing a female character exactly how one would a male in the same situation: with motivations, relationships, conflict, and failings. Rey has all of these elements, and not one is dependent on her gender.
Some audiences don't like it when female characters aren't immediately and elementally distinguishable from their male counterparts. On Twitter, American Ultra screenwriter Max Landis accused Rey of being "a Mary Sue," a term that arose from fan fiction and refers to a female character who's demonstrably infallible in an unrealistic and self-indulgent way. Landis and those who agree with him seem to be implying that they can't buy Rey as the hero she's presented to be, even though she follows a path very similar to Luke Skywalker's in A New Hope. Is Rey more Force-sensitive than Luke was before his training, and thus more of a natural hero than Luke was so early on? Sure, but her forthcoming origin story is set up to provide some context for her abilities in the next two films. And even if it didn't, who even cares? Star Wars is science-fiction/fantasy. There's no rule that says a Jedi can't come along who's stronger than Luke, Obi-Wan, and Anakin, and I highly doubt that's what Landis and his supporters are concerned with. Strip that argument away and the real issue is obvious: Rey's Jedi storyline is only unusual, and to some, unbelievable, because she isn't a man.
The irony of the gatekeeping within this genre is that science-fiction/fantasy has been home to scores of groundbreaking female characters and strikingly feminist storylines. In a blog entry on feminist science fiction blog Motherboard, Clare Evans writes, "there’s nothing objectively masculine about science fiction. There’s nothing objectively anything about it; science fiction is a blank slate." Because the worlds are built and then peopled, this genre is "a place to which no gender, nation, doctrine, or technology can stake a true claim." The Star Wars universe has no obligation to first world gender politics, so there's no use trying to apply them. Rey doesn't know that she's a woman in a franchise that's been populated primarily by men in the past. She has no awareness of her status within the narrative. She's just following her path, doing what's asked of her, and trying to stay alive.
A character doesn't have to visibly labor every moment to fit the "strong female lead" role to actually fill it. If fact, Rey is a heroine for Star Wars fans of every age and gender because she isn't tasked with that burden, something that should be celebrated by audiences, and repeated by other films in the future.
Join us for the first episode of The Chat Room, where we discuss what it's like to be a woman with an opinion on the internet and, of course, Star Wars: