Star Wars: The Force Awakens has been praised for its diverse casting, the use of real sets and effects, its healthy helping of nostalgia, and, most importantly, for not being ANYTHING like the prequels. But I believe TFA‘s biggest contribution to film, and to society at large, is the character of Rey. Upon a recent re-watching of TFA in theaters, I overheard a little girl say, “I want to be like her,” when Rey came on screen. A smile immediately spread across my face as it dawned on me that the emergence of Rey as a role model is one of the most magical things to ever come out of a Star Wars film.
Rey is independent, hard-working, unapologetic, vulnerable, and kind—basically, a real young woman. All too often, women in film are sorted into binary categories—strong or weak, overly emotional or stone-hearted, one of the guys or a girl’s girl. Female characters who value their careers and are content to handle their own affairs (rather than to rely on a man) are considered “hard-asses” or “spinsters in the making.” In TFA, Rey supports herself and is the master of her own life, and no one has any problem with it. No one asks her if she wants to be taken care of. No one tells her that girls shouldn’t be mechanics or fly spaceships. Rey is the rare female character who does not rely on anyone else, but isn’t portrayed as an outcast from society because of that.
Another rarity is Rey’s complexity; she has competing fears, ambitions, and dreams. It’s oh-so-common for any female who displays emotions to be labeled as weak, flighty, angry, or angsty (whereas by contrast, a man who expresses his regret, pain, or longing is considered complicated and in touch with himself). Women are often reduced to stereotypes of helpless “nice girls” if they want to express an opinion or feeling. But Rey, despite her undeniable strength, is also a very vulnerable character. She longs for a family after her abandonment, and she feels lost in the responsibility being hefted upon her when she learns of The Force. She’s given the opportunity to react as anyone would in similar circumstances, without anyone pointing out how feminine and foolish her emotions are.
The fact that Rey is respected by her male counterparts is also profound. While Leia certainly has incredible leadership prowess and very high intelligence, she was often reduced to an abrasive voice in the background, complaining about whatever mess she, Luke, and Han were in, or forced into attire like this. Rey is talented in more ways than one, and this talent is acknowledged by everyone around her (you guys, just bypass the hyperdrive motivator already!). Finn sees immediately that Rey is someone who can deal with her enemies, defend her friends, and has almost limitless technical capabilities, and Han offers her a job after realizing how much she would bring to any ship’s crew. Once the male protagonists get to know Rey, there’s no question in their minds that she is an equal—in fact, they see her as someone from whom they could learn a thing or two. And their initial surprise at her self-assurance and capability makes them seem like the ijits, not her.
One reason that Rey’s relationships are able to develop into strong bonds of trust and friendship is that she is never presented as a sexual object. From her practical costume to her complete confusion at the necessity of hand-holding, Rey defies the rule that a woman can be a movie’s hero only if she is scantily clad or lusted after my male characters. It’s almost impossible to find a film that doesn’t have a female lead who dedicates at least some of her time to figuring out her feelings for a man (it evens happens to Katniss). Rey instead focuses on figuring out how she wants to live her life, who she wants to be, and helping the Resistance in any way possible. Yes, she develops a friendship with Finn that has the potential to become something more, but her love for him as a friend is so solid that it hardly seems to matter if there’s “romantic tension.” They both have bigger things to worry about.
The reason I was so thrilled to hear that little girl express her excitement about modeling herself after Rey is that Rey isn’t given limits. She isn’t forced to be feminine OR masculine, because what she does isn’t classified by those words at all. A mechanic, a pilot, and an engineer may be traditionally considered male roles by some, but that is never a consideration for Rey, or anyone else in the film. The men in her life value her skills and determination, and don’t categorize her based on her pretty face. She is a force to be reckoned with, and no one will be able to stop her once she decides what she wants to do with her potential. I want the next generation of little girls to grow up as unaware of stereotypes and ridiculous double-standards as Rey is. I want them to see her and understand that they too can take on the world as people who have flaws and talents, vulnerability and strength. I want them to expect respect in all their relationships, and know that anyone who doesn’t give it to them isn’t worth their time.
And most of all I want them to be unafraid to be exactly who they are, and to think to themselves in times of doubt, “What would Rey do?”
Is Rey your new hero? Did you have a female film role model growing up?