(Spoiler warnings apply.)
Since The Force Awakens hit theaters, there’s been an outpouring of love for the main character of Rey. A woman at the center of sci-fi’s most famous film franchise? A female Jedi? Dreams do come true!
And almost in tandem with the appreciation came the backlash. She’s annoying. She’s too perfect. She’s unrealistic. She’s that most dreaded of terms: a Mary Sue. GASP.
For those unfamiliar with a Mary Sue, here’s Wikipedia’s description:
A Mary Sue is an idealized fictional character […] who saves the day through extraordinary abilities. Often but not necessarily this character is recognized as an author insert and/or wish-fulfillment.
Mary Sues can and do exist in both fanfiction and pop culture, I won’t argue with anyone there. But there are points I think need to be addressed in the arguments against Rey, and what the overlooked connotations of using the term “Mary Sue” even mean on a broader scale.
Get comfy, kids.
Yes, Rey’s incredibly talented. She’s survived on her own for the majority of her life, she’s an ace pilot, she adapts to her Force powers quickly. She’s smart as a whip. She has the requisite special destiny, and Han Solo himself offers to recruit her for her mad skillz.
You know who else was super-skilled, with impressive Force powers? Anakin and Luke Skywalker. Anakin, the most super special-est of them all, with his unnaturally high midichlorian count, and a product of immaculate conception. You know, like Jesus, in case you missed the metaphor. (And what a Mary Sue that guy was, jeeze.) Not to mention, he’s an 8-year-old boy with zero prior Force training who won a deadly pod race, piloted a starfighter, defeated an armada of enemy ships, built fully functional robots in his downtime, and was accepted as a Jedi apprentice despite the Council’s worries. He’s prophesied as either the savior or the doom of the Jedi order, and possibly the most powerful of them all.
Then there’s Luke, a teenage farmboy who blows up the Death Star with one try using mastery of a Force he’s never heard of before that week, in a ship he’s never seen before, let alone piloted. In fact, he’s the Resistance’s best pilot (just like dad, “the best starpilot in the galaxy”). Obi Wan provides him very little combat training, and Yoda none, yet he holds his own pretty dang well in a lightsaber duel with his father. He’s the last hope of the Rebellion (besides his sister), and both the Light and the Dark Sides are battling for possession of his powers.
Tell me, how is Rey so unrealistic in comparison?
Let’s be perfectly honest — no one would be having this conversation if Rey were a boy.
How often do we hear Anakin or Luke labeled as the male equivalent, a “Gary Stu”? Their talents are a given, whereas Rey is treated like some offensive, wild anomaly. The male wish-fulfillment fantasy is accepted and unquestioned, but give a woman similar skills, even on a somewhat lesser scale, and suddenly there’s some issue of believability.
Yes, we should examine and question the characterization of female characters when needed; I do that plenty. But in this instance, I chalk up Rey’s capabilities to a mixture of convenient writing (a lot of The Force Awakens’ plot developments happen exactly when needed); the style of the protagonist’s arc in this specific universe; her situation; and the fact she’s just a damn capable character.
And there’s nothing wrong with that.
She was abandoned as a child and forced to survive for years as a scavenger — it makes sense she’d develop and hone a variety of skills over that time. She’s good with mechanics and propelling around because she’s a scavenger. Same with ships; she’s spent years learning how different mechanics work. She can pilot, yes, but she’s not instantly perfect. She struggles with the Falcon, but adapts thanks to her knowledge base. She can fight because she lived on her own, a young girl on a ruthless desert planet where the populace is competing for literal scraps of food. She would’ve died fast if she didn’t learn how to defend herself.
As for the Force, there’s the distinct possibility that Luke trained her along with the rest of his apprentices, and she retained that knowledge despite it lying dormant for years. If not, well, neither Luke or Anakin needed much training to accrue some lofty accomplishments, did they?
And lest we forget — she emerged victorious in a lightsaber battle with an injured Kylo Ren. That’s not an improbable outcome. Given her personal history, her abilities are actually more logical than her male counterparts’.
Rey isn’t a Mary Sue, by which I mean she’s not an unrealistic, unflawed character. She’s complex, capable, and gifted: a sci-fi/fantasy protagonist that fits neatly into the pattern of previous Star Wars protagonists, and she developed at the same pace as them, albeit in different scenarios. If you’re going to call her a Mary Sue, make sure you’re holding Anakin and Luke to the same standards. If you’re not, it’s misogyny, plain and simple.
By definition of a well-written script, a perfect character is non-compelling and frustratingly lazy no matter their gender, yet complaints only seem to arise in droves when the character is a woman. Let’s roll call some popular male characters. Tony Stark? James Bond? Most generic action leads? General consensus agrees they’re awesome. You don’t see Twitter rants about how Bond is the “worst character ever” because of everything he can do.
Which makes me wonder: is a Mary Sue, or the perception of what a Mary Sue entails, even a bad thing in the first place?
The male gaze defines our narrative expectations. Some dude can be the pinnacle of mankind, the envy of his fellow lesser man, the lust of all women, the Chosen One. How many thousands of stories have featured this baseline archetype? Mens’ fantasies are the norm, so seeing their wish-fulfillment onscreen is so common we accept it with little question. Womens’ fantasies are aberrant. As soon as a girl pushes the boundaries of what’s expected, Mary Sue! allegations are bandied about like she’s the spawn of Satan.
The worst possible thing a female character can be, apparently, is a Mary Sue. Too powerful. Too talented. Too much. It’s a term used, often without canonical merit, to belittle and silence. Slapping a female character with the label of Mary Sue isn’t justified critique, it’s policing.
Earlier this year, so-called Men’s Rights Activists boycotted Mad Max: Fury Road because of Furiosa’s role as the primary mover-and-shaker of the piece over Max. Never mind that three movies featuring Max as the titular hero had already been made, along with countless other action movies with a badass male lead. The Expendables is an entire franchise centered on this concept. (Which, hey, is planning an all-female spinoff!)
I’m not saying this kind of male wish-fulfillment is inherently wrong. Everyone needs heroes, and there’s room for plenty of different stories. Some of my favorites have these characters! Y’know, like Star Wars.
But we’ve seen enough of them by now. If there’s room for those types of stories, there’s room for others. Like Rey’s.
We push for diversity and inclusion because minorities need thoughtful, proper media representation instead of continuing the trend of the omniscient white guy. It’s disappointing that in 2015 a woman leading the world’s most famous sci-fi saga is a surprise, but it shows how much we need our perspectives shaken up.
I reiterate: a Mary Sue isn’t a well-written character. Rey isn’t a Mary Sue. The accusations are rehashed, kneejerk sexism.
But even if Rey were a too-perfect, too-talented, unbelievable portrayal, maybe that’s okay. There’s room for some self-indulgent female fantasies after decades of being forced to sit at the kids’ table.
Either way, generations of fans grew up wanting to be Luke. It’s time we let girls feel the same way about a girl.