Spoiler warning: I’ll be discussing plot elements from the latest episode of the Star Wars saga.
The most recent trilogy of Star Wars movies, the Sequel Trilogy, encompasses episodes 7, 8, and 9, and was released in theaters between 2015 and 2019. And… those are the only non-controversial things I can say about it. Yes, the debates surrounding these three films were more superheated than the climate of Mustafar. Some loved them, while others publicly renounced them. And the astronomical dissent around this space opera all seemed to orbit one single star: Rey. Not only was she the main character, but she was a female main character in a previously male-dominated franchise. You can imagine how the inevitable gender issues didn’t exactly calm the debates. Some called Rey a strong female role model. Many more called her a token girl who was only good for boosting Disney’s woke egos. Flame wars ensued.
As an SJW, I have a responsibility to discuss gender issues, and as a nerd, I have an itch to discuss Star Wars, so of course I was always going to address the Rey controversy. And now seems like a good time. It’s been a year since the Sequel Trilogy concluded, feelings have cooled, and squabbling fans are reuniting in their raptures over The Mandalorian. The galaxy far, far away is at peace once more. Right?
First, what’s my personal opinion on Rey? The short answer is that I dig her. The long answer is that I dig Daisy Ridley’s performance. She brings life and emotion in spades to the character, even in moments that aren’t written spectacularly. When Finn rescues Rey from Starkiller Base, her only line of dialogue is “thank you”, but her teary eyes convey a flood of information: All she’s ever known is abandonment, and having a friend come back to save her is overwhelming. Two movies later, when she thinks she’s accidentally fried Chewbacca with her untamed Force powers, her look of devastation gives me chills of cosmic proportions. That’s all I need in order to care about a movie character. No backstory, no journey, nothing that makes them “interesting” – I just need them to have convincing emotional reactions to the things that happen to them. Rey more than delivers on that front.
What did people have against Rey, then? Why is she still despised by half the internet? From what I can see, there are two camps among her detractors: the idiots, and the rest. The idiots are those who detest Rey for blatantly sexist reasons, who insist that “women shouldn’t be main characters in Star Wars.” They’re the same idiots who cried “so men aren’t allowed to be leads anymore” when another female protagonist was assigned to the spinoff film Rogue One: A Star Wars Story in 2016. But then there’s also the (thankfully) larger camp of people who aren’t sexist, but disapprove of Rey on narrative grounds. They don’t mind that she’s a woman; she’s a poorly written character, plain and simple! To their credit, people of this camp have a number of concrete arguments at their disposal, the most popular few of which I enumerate below:
- Rey has no flaws.
- She doesn’t go through a hero’s journey.
- She’s much too strong with the Force for a novice.
- She overshadows her far more interesting sidekick, Finn.
- Her being related to the villain comes out of nowhere.
- Her inner conflict is shallow.
- Her final spoken line, “Rey Skywalker”, was the biggest facepalm of 2019.
If I’m being honest, they’re not wrong. Rey isn’t well-written. Actually, I don’t much care for the writing in the Sequel Trilogy overall. Too much is recycled from the classic Star Wars films, the wrong elements are focused on, and the story seems to fumble in the dark, visionless. I enjoyed every chapter on its own, but as a trilogy, they suffer. Sadly, Rey is emblematic of all their problems. She’s recycled, she’s visionless. She’s the half-baked centerpiece on a soggy smorgasbord of expired ideas. And I know I just said that I don’t need much in terms of writing to care about a movie character, but if that character is to carry an epic, story-driven trilogy, just being “careable” isn’t going to cut it. Then the narrative requirements really start to apply; then the character does need development, conflict, and an arc that will have changed who they are by the end. Rey lacks that. As much as I dig her, I can’t say she feels much different now from when I first met her.
But here’s the thing that troubles me. Since when are the masses experts on storytelling? Since when do casual movie fans demand complex characters with dynamic arcs? I understand why snobbish pseudo-critics like myself whinge about Rey’s narrative shortcomings, but half the internet? That’s unprecedented. I suppose you could see it as consumer maturity; moviegoers are growing more aware of film theory and demanding more sophisticated entertainment. That’s an observable trend, one we can probably attribute to the popularity of Nostalgia Critic, Lindsay Ellis, and a gazillion other video essayists. But it doesn’t explain why Rey was, and still is, specifically and passionately targeted by so many. Why she’s the subject of more critical video essays than any other character in pop culture right now, and why those videos have so many likes and sycophantic comments.
No, I believe sexism is at play still. Most people are probably fine with a female main character in Star Wars, in their conscious minds. But subconsciously, it bugs them. In fact, I think most men, and some women, have an instinctive tendency to dislike female characters in film. Perhaps it’s a reflection of society’s enduring disdain for women. Perhaps it’s a fear of disrupting the pleasantly male status quo. Or perhaps it’s our inner toddler, who interprets female representation as a parental mandate and throws a tantrum in response. Regardless, it’s an example of subconscious misogyny. A hidden, sexist part of our minds. And it can’t stand Rey. The sight of a female icon on the top shelf of the sci-fi canon, of a woman’s face taking up more than 5% of a Drew Struzan-style ensemble poster, infuriates it. Diabolically, this sexist part of us retaliates not by revealing itself to our conscious minds, but by making us look for flaws in Rey. We begin to thirst for something to justify our subconscious hatred of her.
And what could be better justification than her lackluster writing? Like I previously admitted, Rey has a weak character arc, a shallow inner conflict, and a multitude of other narrative flaws. Here’s what I think happened: As movie fans became aware of those flaws, either on their own or by watching YouTube reviews, their subconscious misogyny latched on to the complaints, magnified them, and made sure they were aggresively voiced. Since the concepts of character development are discouragingly sophisticated (I still don’t fully grasp them myself), many others took their word for it and joined in the roast. And gradually, an extreme anti-Rey culture emerged. Legitimate criticisms were hijacked by hatred. Sexism took the opportunity to masquerade as narrative critique.
Let’s pretend that Rey was a man, but otherwise stayed the same. I think the criticisms would also be the same, but much less passionate, and much less ubiquitous. Don’t you think so too? The video essays would criticize his incomplete journey and lack of depth, but not consider him an insult to Star Wars. And the larger number of less narratively inclined fans wouldn’t mind him at all. But since Rey’s a woman, she turned everyone into grumpy film theory majors. People’s subconscious misogyny prompted them to exaggerate their interest in character development and bash her accordingly. Believe me, there’s nothing that subconscious misogyny relishes more than the opportunity to criticize a woman fairly. To insult a woman but still deftly evade the PC police. To hate a woman without being a woman-hater.
This is, to a large extent, how sexism works nowadays. Blatant misogyny is by no means extinct, but to
society’s women’s credit, it’s not the universal norm anymore. Most people don’t actually believe that women should be subservient to men, or can’t be main characters in Star Wars. That extreme camp of woman-haters is comparatively small. Sexism now primarily survives by discreetly mingling in the larger camp, in the subconscious of normal people (of course, mostly men). It doesn’t make them hate women, but it does make them look for faults in them, talk about them in demeaning terms, and consider their representation in media contrived. The same is true for racism. Most people don’t believe in white supremacy. But many (of course, mostly whites) are reluctant to accept deviations from the white norm. When Idris Elba was rumored to be the next James Bond, the comments sections were teeming with people who asserted that they had nothing against black people (a choice of words quite offensive in itself), only “forced diversity” and “social lectures.” Once again, the problem wasn’t people with blatantly racist beliefs, but people who picked and adopted any arguments that legitimized their subconscious racist skepticism. Most of them didn’t even understand the arguments themselves – when asked, few could explain exactly how a black Bond would be forced or constitute a lecture.
Most people aren’t racist or sexist. But racism and sexism can still exist in everyone’s minds (see this post, coincidentally also about Star Wars, for another example). That’s why they’re so hard to defeat.
Of course, Star Wars fans have been accused of sexism many times before. It’s been a common argument from Rey defenders, that geeks are unwilling to accept a female star in their beloved galaxy far, far away. But the geeks always counter with one, single argument:
We love Ahsoka Tano!
Ahsoka is a female Jedi and star of the animated hit show Star Wars: The Clone Wars. She’s indeed beloved by the fanbase, so much so that the internet exploded with joy when she featured in The Mandalorian, played with finesse by Rosario Dawson. Isn’t that the ultimate proof that the Star Wars community isn’t sexist? Well, no. Like I was getting at before, subconscious sexism is sneaky in that it doesn’t automatically make a person dislike all women. It only makes them judge women more harshly. So a female character who’s great, like Ahsoka, will be celebrated, but a female character who’s mediocre, like Rey, will be thrashed. And a bad female character, like Rose Tico, will face so much harassment that her actress has to quit Instagram. For this reason, Ahsoka isn’t a strong enough argument against my suspicions of a culture of sexism. She’s an example of a female character who survived and triumphed over patriarchal disapproval. That doesn’t mean that said disapproval doesn’t exist.
But what about Anakin Skywalker and Jar-Jar Binks? They’re male Star Wars characters who incited even more hatred than Rey. How could that be, if the community is so misogynistic? Well, I personally think the two characters were bashed too hard, as were the three actors who portrayed them. With that said, both characters were freakishly annoying. Anakin’s monotonous delivery and stilted dialogue resembled a RoboCop parody, and Jar-Jar’s juvenile antics hijacked the story on far too many occasions. Rey doesn’t come close to being that irritating, and yet the magnitude of her backlash isn’t far behind theirs. The double standard is clear. Male characters have to be actively bad for fans to disown them. Female characters must reach Shakespearean heights of complexity for fans to approve them. Or be sexualized, of course.
In conclusion, I believe there’s a significant degree of sexism involved in the online derision of Rey and, by extension, the Sequel Trilogy. I believe that people, men especially, jump at the opportunity to disguise their subconscious misogyny as objective critique. I believe that every female character in entertainment faces a disproportionate amount of criticism as a result. The mediocre and bad ones are loathed. The good ones are used as tokens, to prove that those who loathe aren’t really sexist. This is an observable and pernicious facet of misogyny, and it worries me deeply.
Perhaps you, the person reading this, are one of Rey’s haters. Firstly, well done getting through this whole text if that’s the case. Secondly, I do understand your frustration. It must suck to be called sexist when you think you’re being completely fair and objective. You have sound arguments, you have other female characters that you like, and you’re trying to conduct a debate completely detached from gender. You’re upset about the lame storytelling surrounding Rey, darn it, not the fact that she’s a woman! I understand that when you’re accused of misogyny anyway, you only become more convinced of what you already suspect: Entertainment is infested with logic-resistant SJWs, who will viciously tear you down if you voice even a slightly negative opinion of a female character. It must frustrate you to no end. Still, I think subconscious misogyny is definitely a thing, and it might be radicalizing your opinions on Rey without you knowing it. So, how about we make a deal?
I’ll listen to your problems with Rey, and I won’t accuse you of sexism.
If you dive deep into your mind and ensure that you really hate her for the right reason. 🙂