I didn't know how much I needed Rey until I met her.
I'm one of those children of the Return of the Jedi generation--in the sweet-spot of Kenner marketing for Star Wars toys but a little too young to have seen Star Wars or Empire Strikes Back in the theater. But by the time Return of the Jedi came out my little brother and I were primed for it. It was the first and only time we would see a movie at the one screen movie theater in our hometown. They tore down the theater two years later.
Star Wars was so woven into the fabric of our childhoods. My first crush was Han Solo, natch. And from a Harrison Ford obsession I found myself cutting clippings out of movie magazines, learning about filmmaking, and finally becoming a student filmmaker myself.
In my later life, I even helped launch the Star Wars Fan Film Awards at AtomFilms. I visited Skywalker Ranch and saw the original lightsaber. And if I did nothing else in my film career that was a really good day.
But like many childhood things, you put them away. In a wave of nostalgia (selling the last of our original Star Wars toys at a family yard sale a few months ago as my mother was moving out of our childhood home) The Force Awakens came at a propitious time for me. I was curious about where this story might go and I dragged my brother out to see it on Christmas at the multiplex at the nearby mall. But it turned out I did not need the relic of my past as much as I thought I did. What I wanted was a new future, brimming with hope and for me that is what The Force Awakens has provided.
SPOILER BASED DISCUSSION OF THE FORCE AWAKENS. Do not read further unless you have seen the film.
This brings me to Rey. Having avoided all spoilers or even buzz about The Force Awakens I had no idea it had a female heroine--a protagonist who is loyal, hard-working, dedicated to her friends, and as she discovers, a damn good pilot. Alone on her planet and waiting for her family (taken from her by force it would seem) to return to her, she lives a dull, repetitive existence with little adventure and not a lot of comfort. Her life is defined by hostility. Totally can relate, Rey. I live in New York City. It’s like that shitty desert outpost with bad housing, pig-like men who somehow control your fate, and everything costs way too much.
But Rey manages to keep pushing forward despite this world of hers which hardly encourages her at all. We see signs of her imagination (a Resistance fighter doll she keeps on her shelf which looks homemade, playing with a Resistance pilot's helmet), her dreams of beauty (a dying flower that she keeps in her house, her dream of the ocean, her wonder at the green), and her willingness to act to help others.
Her journey through The Force Awakens is not only our discovery of Rey but Rey's discovery of herself. She is an invisible girl who becomes seen.
One could argue this is her role both in the film and for the audience. Female representation on screen has never felt so pronounced. At time where images of women still fall into boring and limiting roles as the girlfriend, wife, mother, or sex object, here is a woman who is none of those things.
As Luke Skywalker's lightsaber leaps into her hands the power she possesses becomes more than just that of Jedi or warrior. She is the chosen one, passing by Kylo Ren who thought he had all but beaten his master, earning the right to this lightsaber. There is delectable glee in watching a mediocre white man be shown up by a remarkable woman. I mean he’s been studying and practicing his powers for years and here she arrives, learns the words “the Force,” and manages to hold her own against him in a fight. I’d argue this is light side over dark side working rather than that Mary Sue bullshit people seemed to get all up in arms about. But I was ready to leap from my seat as she swung that lightsaber.
I've been an addict to chosen girls all along. Quickly finding myself on the Buffy The Vampire Slayer bandwagon back in the 90's and devouring Philip Pullman's prose when he introduced the small girl who needed to save the world in his series, His Dark Materials. I lost a little faith in this path with Twilight and The Hunger Games--with female characters who never felt self-possessed to me (to be fair I only saw one Twilight movie and only read one Hunger Games book before giving up on those frustrating heroines). Though I suspect the success of those series at the box office paved the way for Rey.
And if those women spoke to you, great. But for me I was waiting for Rey. She takes action. She rescues BB8 and fights to protect him. (Is he a him? Why gender a droid and yet here I am doing just that). She commits to BB8’s mission at her own personal sacrifice. She is a girl who is publicly appreciated for her quick thinking, technical know-how, and repair skills with the Millennium Falcon by an aging, older gentleman (who miraculously does not hit on her). She is celebrated openly by her peer for her piloting and flying maneuvers. She breaks out of her captivity with the First Order on her own merit (with a little help from the “Force”). And her “rescue” comes in the Pretty Women vein of “and I rescued him right back...”. But at no point is she glanced over by the camera with lasciviousness.
When Finn first sees her, maybe he sees a pretty girl in distress (malegazeapalooza) but in a moment he sees her as a woman who can fight off multiple assailants all on her own. The joke of him taking her hand is that she does not actually need his help. He needs hers. It’s a moment that resonates for women dealing with a lifetime of mansplaining. We laugh at his bone-headed assumption. We’re not laughing at her.
She grieves with Princess Leia over the loss of someone they cared about but it's not two gals gabbing about a cute boy they both are checking out. Not that there's anything wrong with that. But for the longest time it feels like that's all we've been given. And I love a little Peeta-Gale love triangle as much as the next person. But when that's ALL you get. Over and over. And you can never see women be anything but a pawn in men's plans...you can get tired of that male gaze pretty damn fast.
And The Force Awakens is not devoid of the male gaze. But god damn it feels like a shift. Even an incremental one. Until I had met Rey, I think I had given up hope that in my lifetime I would see this change take hold. I witness sexism every day in my life. I chafe at people proclaiming feminist intentions in work that still for me feels so entrenched in using the negative stereotypes it’s hard to see them transcend them (Ex Machina I’m looking at you). That a major motion picture could put the story in the hands of a female character in this way, feels liberating--like a massive rainstorm after agonizing drought.
But mostly, I feel like I know Rey. In my bones. Her struggles are ones I recognize and relate to. Yes, I’m Tumbling the shit out of photos of Oscar Isaac and John Boyega because they’re super-cute and their onscreen romance of sorts is delightful. But I’m crying in the movie over Rey. When she is powerful I feel more so. And it has been a long time since I felt that kinship.