By Michael Dansen
By this point, one can safely assume that if you’ve wanted to see director J.J. Abrams' new film Star Wars: The Force Awakens, you have done so. If not, SPOILERS SPOILERS SPOILERS...
The film's heroine Rey, played winningly by English newcomer Daisy Ridley, is Luke Skywalker 2.0. The issue here is the writing, not the excellent performance. She lives a hardscrabble life on a desert planet. Rey’s a scavenger, which means she yanks parts off of crashed ships in the hopes of getting a food pellet from her boss. This does not require high-end engineering or mechanical ability. However, upon recovering the Millennium Falcon she is somehow able to pilot [and repair] it better than Han Solo. When a gun turret gets stuck and stops her from being able to shoot down a pursuing TIE Fighter she takes the ship into a loop, stalls out the engine and times the descent of the Falcon so the immobile gun turret can be lined up to destroy the baddie - then reignites the engines of the ship in the nick of time before it crashes. Bear in mind that Rey is a near-starving, semi-homeless person eking out an existence in a very inhospitable place, who is not taking flying lessons in her spare time. Luke Skywalker was a middle-class farm boy who had excess time and money for hobbies with his T-16 Skyhopper - so, you know, he’s actually a pilot.
When the other protagonist of the film - a reformed Stormtrooper named Finn - first comes upon her, she fights off two men who are clearly taller and better-built than she. In another bizarre bit of characterization - which actually ends up reflecting poorly on her - Rey is told by a droid that Finn is wearing a jacket that is not his. Apparently this is convincing enough for her to chase down the unoffending stranger and hit him in the face with her bow staff. Because Finn is almost painfully nice, he overlooks this unprovoked attack and calmly explains himself [hard to imagine this guy was EVER a soldier]. Ten seconds after this, Finn even tries to help her escape by taking her hand. NO! She DOES NOT need a man’s help!! We get it, J.J.; she’s got “grrl power.” Give it a rest, already.
Rey also demonstrates the ability to resist a mind probe from an experienced Force user. She then uses the Jedi mind trick a mere few hours after learning the Force even exists. This does not beg the question: “How did she do that?” It begs the question: “How did she even know that that’s a thing?” Additionally, unlike everyone else in the Star Wars universe except Han Solo [RIP] she also can speak Wookie to Chewbacca, though his species is unlikely to have a numerous presence on a hot, arid desert planet where all that fur clearly would be a liability.
Up until the climax of the film, these data points are troublesome but fall under the “suspension of disbelief/because Force” rubric. At the end, however, she defeats a far more powerful opponent [Kylo Ren] who’s been studying for years simply because she closed her eyes and believed in herself. Yawn. This is the tipping point. I don’t particularly care that the next film could reveal her as Luke Skywalker’s previously-trained, mind-wiped daughter or that Kylo Ren was trying to walk off a bleeding bowcaster wound courtesy of Chewbacca - a combination of marketing considerations and naked politically correct pandering destroyed the Force’s mythos. If your daughter cannot enjoy Star Wars because the Jedi is not a woman then she is dead inside and you have done a poor job of raising her.
At this point, charges of sexism and misogyny are hurled about. But Rey was badly written regardless of her gender - she did not struggle and she had nothing at stake. What took Luke three films to learn has been compressed for the ADD generation. It’s noteworthy in a particularly derivative film that the one major change they did make was such a poor choice. In the original trilogy, Luke had a believable arc.
In “A New Hope” Luke was knocked unconscious by sand people, bailed out by Obi Wan in a bar fight, saved by Wedge and Han in the final dogfight, and needed a beyond-the-grave assist from Obi Wan to hit the thermal exhaust port on the Death Star. If Rey had been roughed up in a fight or lost her hand in a duel, or had Kylo Ren been able to “take what he wanted” from her in a scene in which sexual violence is certainly a subtext - we would no doubt hear critiques of how “problematic” it was to portray violence against women in a society where “rape culture” was alive and well. But if feminists want female characters to have fake movie glory and heroism, then they have to be prepared to accept fake movie damage.
But wasn’t it refreshing to have a “strong woman” as the hero? Not really. It’s almost as though we have not CONSISTENTLY seen that for over 40 years. This includes Leia from the original trilogy and Padme from the prequels. It also includes hundreds of characters from the science fiction, comic book and action-adventure genres. You have to wonder what society the writers and producers of this film think they’re living in to believe that the Rey character was something new under the sun. One can infer that, from their perspective, most movies feature the “helpless woman tied to the railroad tracks by mustache-twirling villain just in time to be saved by the hyper-competent, male hero archetype.” At this point, the “120-lb. woman who beats up guys twice her size” IS the trope and the cliché. It is not bold or transgressive or original or new. Can a woman be a Jedi main character in the Star Wars franchise? Absolutely- if it is a textured, nuanced characterization in keeping with existing lore. Ripley struggled in the Alien franchise and spent most of her time under duress and quite frazzled. Katniss Everdeen learned to bow hunt because starvation is a powerful motivator. You can empathize with and understand their characters and rejoice when they triumph.
One wishes to avoid conspiratorial thinking but there is much fodder to support it in the formulation of Rey’s character. Kathleen Kennedy, executive producer of the new Star Wars films, and director/writer J.J. Abrams have been pretty explicit about getting more women and minorities into the Star Wars universe. Finn's character works and John Boyega’s performance was infectious, but Rey was forced.
In the final analysis, this is a fantasy, ,sci-fi “space opera” movie that is deeply analyzed primarily by nerds [guilty]. But pop culture can program us to accept certain political views. From the perspective of a cultural Marxist, “long march through the institutions,” this film is certainly helping to lay the groundwork for women in combat roles in the military - no matter how often biological realities assert themselves.
Michael Dansen is the nom de plume for a Washington, DC-based political media professional