Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens is universally loved by critics and moviegoers. Finally, a female lead in Star Wars!—so the praise can be boiled down to.
I’ve seen Episode VII twice now and I agree, Rey is a great character. I have no complaints about her, unlike some, who think she’s “too good” at the stuff she does.
However, women critics are absolutely gushing over her portrayal, as if Rey was the female sci-fi heroine we’ve been waiting all of human history for. And now she’s arrived, ushering in a new area of equality on the big screen.
But are these praises justified?
Let’s look at what women are saying about Rey.
Patricia Karvelas’ column in The Guardian, headlined “Star Wars is a game-changer, awakening the feminist force in little girls everywhere,” speaks of Rey in prophetic tones. Karvelas writes (emphasis added):
[Rey] never doubts herself, the scenes of her flying the Millennium Falcon are the most empowering scenes the Star Wars machine have ever produced. The dialogue between her and Han Solo finally provides the feminist punch-the-air moment we’ve all been desperately waiting for.
She goes on to say:
The character of Rey is a game changer for the little girls around the world who have been disgracefully ignored by the Star Wars empire for decades.
While it’s true that the Star Wars movies don’t have a lot of female characters (ignoring the wide Expanded Universe), is Rey really the character we’ve been desperately waiting for?
Rebecca Carroll describes Rey as “a next generation badass boss bitch that we and Princess Leia can be proud of.” I’m not even sure what that means. Rey isn’t really a leader in Episode VII.
The Force Awakens is, in many ways, a feminist reinterpretation of the original Star Wars movie that wowed audiences nearly 40 years ago.
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.
So I guess Rey is as good as female characters will ever get. There’s no possible way they can be improved. Should storytellers pack their bags and go home now?
Casey Cipriani wrote for Bustle, in a piece entitled “Why Rey in ‘The Force Awakens’ is the feminist hero we’ve all been waiting for”:
Thanks to its passing of the Bechdel test, its group of significant female roles, and, most majorly, its lead character of Rey, this newest Star Wars installment is doing wonders for women in film.
While the most vocal supporters of Rey, for good reason, are women, men are also falling over themselves to praise Rey. Shawn Binder wrote for Distractify:
Rey, played with aplomb by Daisey Ridley, is a tour-de-force of feminism and general badassery. Sure, there were other women in the Star Wars universe before her who were tough and powerful in their own right, but Rey is the first complex hero of the franchise that just happens to be a woman.
When Rey lit up the screen for the first time, girls everywhere finally had a major player in a blockbuster they could relate to.
Notice how the great female characters of the Star Wars universe are so quickly pushed aside. Princess Leia is great, but she wasn’t the main character. Complex heroines like Mara Jade or Ahsoka are glossed over because they didn’t appear in the main Star Wars movies.
Again, this post isn’t designed to take anything away from Rey as a character. She’s a great character in her own right. But a revolutionary, transformative character? Only if you define the parameters for “revolutionary” so narrowly that she’s the only character who can meet the criteria, namely, that to be revolutionary, a female character has to be the main hero of a Star Wars movie specifically.
But what of all the other female characters in fantasy and science fiction? Feminists aren’t looking hard enough if they believe that Rey is the character we’ve all been waiting for. As David French wrote in the National Review:
But for the feminist Left, the past is a yawning abyss of sexism. It’s almost like they haven’t actually watched the last 40 years of science fiction.
Over the last month, I’ve witnessed the praise for Rey with disbelief and confusion. Maybe I’m getting something wrong. Was there really no good female character before Rey? Is Rey really a game-changer for little girls? Have we really “arrived” at a utopia of equality?
I can think of scores of strong female characters, from a variety of media, who were trailblazers long before Rey was conceived. Ripley from Alien. Faye Valentine from Cowboy Bebop. Blossom, Buttercup and Bubbles from The Powerpuff Girls. April O’Neil from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. Cheetara from the ThunderCats. All the Sailor Scouts from the Sailor Moon series. Melfina, Aisha Clanclan, and Suzuka from Outlaw Star. Kagome from Inuyasha. Terra and Celes from Final Fantasy VI. Tifa from Final Fantasy VII. Yuna from Final Fantasy X. Lightning, Fang, Serah, and Vanille from Final Fantasy XIII. Lara Croft from Tomb Raider, and Bayonetta from Bayonetta.
The list goes on. Whether the medium is film, television, animation, comics, or video games, there are plenty of likable female protagonists for girls and boys to look up to. Are there as many strong female characters as there are male characters? Probably not: the Lord of the Rings is very male-heavy. Our fictive landscape still needs new female characters that speak to a modern audience, just as we still need new male characters that speak to a modern audience.
Humanity is incredibly diverse, and storytellers haven’t yet exhausted the well of character possibilities.
What bothers me most about the excessive praise of Rey is that feminists are erasing the accomplishments of previous female protagonists. I’m not sure why. To perpetuate this narrative that women are criminally disadvantaged compared to men in all measures of success, including representation in sci-fi and fantasy media? I don’t know why they are doing this.
Remember back to May 2015. Mad Max: Fury Road was released to near universal acclaim. And for good reason: I think the movie is every bit as awesome as people say. One of the most surprising aspects of the film was the depth of the female co-lead Furiosa, who was proclaimed as a feminist hero. Women media critics everywhere praised Furiosa. They spoke of her in the same prophetic tones now reserved for Rey: we finally have the female action hero we’ve been waiting for!
So what happened between the release of Fury Road and the Force Awakens? Did equality take a step back in six months? Of course not. They’ve simply forgotten their own history of progress.
The evidence for game-changing female characters goes back decades. For a useful point of comparison (not that this character was the game changer, but simply a game-changer long before Rey), look at Sarah Connor from the Terminator series. Released in 1984, the Terminator gave audiences a very strong character in Sarah Connor. She’s an everyday woman, down on her luck, but through her strength and courage, she faces and triumphs over a robotic threat.
In 1991, we return to Sarah Connor in Terminator 2. She’s gotten even stronger, and she has a conviction that the world is ending, even though nobody believes her. Integral to Sarah’s identity is her status as a mother, something that should not be overlooked.
Some feminists believe that having a female action hero who simply beats up a lot of people isn’t enough, and is actually sexist. That’s the argument Celina Durgin makes in the National Review about the new Supergirl TV show. A female character who is simply strong is just a male character in female clothing. That essence that makes women different than men is lost.
For Sarah Connor, her femininity is tied to motherhood; she’s the protector of John Connor, the leader of the resistance against the machines. But she’s also a herald and prophet of the end-times, doing anything she can to prevent the machines becoming self-aware.
She’s was game-changing feminist hero—30 years before Rey graced the silver screen.
To conclude, Rey is an excellent character and a worthy addition to not only the Star Wars pantheon of heroes, but the pantheon of sci-fi and fantasy heroines. Critics could do well to remember the long, transformative history of female characters in sci-fi and fantasy media because Rey is hardly breaking new ground.