SPOILER WARNING! But the movie has been out for over three weeks now, haven’t you seen it at least twice already?
The general consensus with Rey, the hero of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, is that she kicks a lot of ass. She kicks ass at flying spaceships, she kicks ass at working with machines, and she kicks ass with a lightsaber – she does it all. However, there are a lot of people who actually think she kicks too much ass – so much ass that she actually stinks. Peruse the internet for a while and you’ll find a lot of people dismissing Rey as just a bland “Mary Sue.”
For those of you who aren’t familiar with writing tropes, a “Mary Sue” is a pretty serious dig. The term originates from a piece of satirical “Star Trek” fan fiction in which the protagonist Mary Sue is perfect at everything she does and is beloved by everyone. It started as a mockery of a lot of fan fiction writers’ tendency to insert an idealized version of themselves as a form of wish-fulfillment, but the term has grown to be a label for any character that one finds so perfect that it ruins the story. A true Sue can rob a story of all tension and payoff because theirs is a not a story of someone struggling to overcome obstacles and grow, but one of leisurely strolling through conflicts with endless success for no other reason than to affirm just how awesome they are.
So does Rey fit the bill for being a Mary Sue? She is certainly good at everything she does – whether it be piloting the Millennium Falcon, mind-tricking a stormtrooper or defeating Kylo Ren in a duel. Then Finn essentially falls in love with her at first sight, Han offers her a place on the falcon and Kylo Ren hates her for what he perceives to be his lineage choosing her over him. Rey has a vast array of advanced skills, the love and the envy, and if you look at those facts alone on paper, yeah, you could call Rey a Mary Sue.
But I don’t think it’s that simple.
For one thing, more often than not what makes a character a Mary Sue isn’t so much that they’re really skilled, it’s that they are so good at stuff without having earned their skills. Sure, Rey is efficient at a lot of what she does, but that’s because she has worked hard to acquire those skills. In the first few moments we see her, the movie swiftly establishes that she’s a scavenger in a harsh environment: she forages tech parts for food, scours the landscape in her trusty speeder, barters with various species and is scrappy enough to fend off attackers with her staff. It shouldn’t be surprising that she has a vast array of tech knowledge, has piloting abilities, speaks other languages and can hold her own in melee combat – given her background, it would actually be unbelievable if she wasn’t skilled at all of these things. Because if she wasn’t, she would be dead.
It isn’t as if she executes everything perfectly, either, which is the other damning quality of the Mary Sue. When she sits down in the cockpit of the Millennium Falcon, it isn’t exactly smooth sailing. To parallel Finn’s anxiety, she has the same little mantra of “I can do this, I can do this,” showing us that she is taking a risk and going outside of her comfort zone. A Mary Sue, conversely, is always in their comfort zone, always acting without fail. And in a later scene with the Rathtars, we see that Rey isn’t entirely devoid of failure. She confidently switches the fuses, thinking that it’ll swiftly do away with Han Solo’s enemies, only to let loose the wild beasts and wreak absolute havoc, to which even she admits to Finn was a “huge mistake.” Then when she’s presented with the lightsaber after her vision, she doesn’t accept it and start bringing balance to the Force, she books it into the woods without a care in the world and ultimately gets captured. Seems like a significant failure to me.
Ok yes, leading up to that she blasted three stormtroopers away with her first use of a blaster, but if you recall, she wasn’t the best at it either. Her first introduction to gun use is her cockily saying it’s nothing more than pulling the trigger, which Han chides her for, and sure enough, when the time comes for her to use it, she fumbles. She forgot to turn off the safety and nearly gets fried. And her first shot with it? A total miss. Only her second and third shots are hits. Then does she stand her ground and start shooting up everyone in sight? Nope. As soon as another trooper starts firing at her, she retreats, knowing she’s out of her depths and needs to use surprise to kill her target. Is her blaster usage any more impossible to believe than Luke – the plucky farmboy – gunning down upwards of five stormtroopers after witnessing Obi-Wan’s death? I don’t think so.
But let’s talk about the Force. Arguably people’s biggest gripe with Rey is that she was too good with the Force too fast. Luke had to go through two movies before he could ever pull off a mind trick, and yet Rey got it only a few hours after realizing the Force even existed. Even I have to admit, this one is the hardest to defend, as her sudden proficiency with it seems like it either diminishes the abilities of Luke and every other previous Jedi, or places hers significantly above everyone else’s. But if you think about it, her mind trick makes sense given her previous mental interaction with Kylo Ren. When Kylo is attempting to extract information from her, their minds are actually connected through the Force, which she learns when she pushes back and sees Kylo’s fears. Now if you were held captive and you had just discovered that you are proficient with the Force, specifically using the Force to interact with the mind, wouldn’t you take a crack at using a mind trick yourself? And again, it isn’t an instant success either; Rey has to make two attempts before really believing in her abilities and then pulling it off. So while on the outset, it may seem like Rey’s Force usage is unreasonably jumpstart, in actuality, it is more of a response to the rapid speed at which she is thrust into the thick of the Star Wars action.
Speaking of interacting with Kylo, the climactic lightsaber fight is another great point of Mary Sue contention. At a first glance, it feels like it robs all power from Kylo Ren and only serves to place Rey on a pedestal of awesomeness, but upon a closer look, her winning that fight is fitting for the story. First off, it serves as Rey’s “use the Force, Luke” moment. You know what I’m talking about: the scene where Luke is making his attack run at the Death Star and hears Obi-Wan’s voice telling him to let go and let the Force guide him. Like many other moments in the movie, here The Force Awakens is drawing a significant parallel to A New Hope. At the most desperate hour, the hero is doggedly pursued by the villain through the trenches, only to reach the end and be caught in the villain’s grasp. Only then does the hero let go, close their eyes, and tap into the Force at its most powerful. Luke used it to curve two missiles into the Death Star’s tiny exhaust ports, Rey used it to fend Kylo Ren off. People complain that Rey had no training yet annihilated Kylo, but the reality is she spent most of that fight running away and defending herself, and then tapped into the Force to win.
It should also be known that the movie completely sets up Kylo Ren to lose that fight. He takes a direct hit to the gut from Chewbacca’s bowcaster – a weapon the movie establishes several times as incredibly destructive – and is left in a bloody, weakened state. He’s emotionally a wreck at this point as well, having just killed his father, so he’s not thinking clearly at all. Both his physical and mental damage are then only made worse when Finn gets in one hit on his shoulder, and then when Kylo watches as the lightsaber – what he finds to be his birthright, his affirmation as a powerful master of the Force – goes to Rey instead. And what do we see Kylo do when he’s angry and unstable? Throw temper tantrums and go wild. In that fight he’s hacking away like a madman, letting his emotions get the better of him instead of thinking tactically, and losing the fight as a result. Thus Rey did not utterly defeat the same dark lord that can stop a blaster shot mid-air, rather she happened to fight off the hollow shell of that arrogant warrior.
But Kylo is still envious of Rey isn’t he? And all the other characters love her, isn’t that a sign of Mary Sue status? No, not on its own at least. Mary Sues are beloved or envied by everyone, yes, but being liked or envied doesn’t make one a Mary Sue. Again, you have to look at the context. Yes, Kylo hates her prowess, but it makes sense for his character as Rey blows a huge hole in his conception of himself as powerful as Darth Vader. Yes, Han and Chewbacca like her, but that’s because she respects the Millennium Falcon and knows how to get the job done – two traits they admire. And yes, Finn seems to fall for her instantly, but it makes sense; part of Finn really wants to be a Hero, and he sees Rey as a damsel in distress to save, which we see when he keeps taking her hand despite her protests. So yeah, Rey is likable to our heroes and hated by our villains – but that isn’t an inherent formula for a Mary Sue, it’s the building blocks for a protagonist.
Now maybe you still aren’t convinced. Maybe even given the context, you still can’t believe a character has that many skills. Well to that, I would remind you that Star Wars, at its core, is a mythic kind of story. It’s no secret that George Lucas was heavily inspired by Joseph Campbell’s “Hero with a Thousand Faces,” and the influence of myth is abundant, with everything from the dark vs. light motifs to the lightsabers serving as talismans. One of the other qualities of myth that Star Wars adopts is that of the Classical Hero – characters who are always larger than life, whether it be Achilles and his nigh invincibility or Odysseus and his wicked cunning. Anakin and Luke Skywalker were both Classical Heroes in the same kind of fashion. Anakin was born literally of the Force through an immaculate conception, was an ace pilot and was arguably the greatest general during the Clone Wars. His son Luke was born into the same bloodline heavily tied to the Force, blew up the Death Star, took out an AT-AT walker single-handedly and faced his powerful father multiple times. Rey being able to do all of the things she does doesn’t make her an outlier among Star Wars heroes, it actually puts her right in the line of succession – an idea hammered home with the Skywalker lightsaber calling out to her. Maybe it’s because people’s memories of Star Wars are still bogged down with the memory of the prequels making everything technical, or stories like Game of Thrones stripping older conventions away from the sci-fi/fantasy genre, but it seems like a lot of people don’t recognize Star Wars as a mythic, classical story. It should be. And Rey, in turn, should then be recognized as another Classical Hero.
While we’re on the topic of unrecognizable heroes, let’s address the elephant in the room. Rey is a woman. For a lot of people, it’s harder to suspend the disbelief that a woman can be an incredibly capable hero. Just right now, you reading this, what are the first few images that pop into your head when you hear the word “hero?” Most people would imagine something like Superman or Batman, maybe something more classic like Hercules or a knight in shining armor. All of them are indisputably strong heroes that people can believe capable of doing anything. All of them are men. It’s just a fact that throughout all of storytelling, the concept of what a hero is has always been tied to more traditionally masculine ideals: big muscles, stoic determination, a desire to defend… you get the idea. So when we are presented with a male hero, usually nobody questions it when they have a vast array of skills and perfectly execute them. You don’t hear anybody calling James Bond a Mary Sue even though every Bond movie has the same formula of him always getting the girl, using a litany of new gadgets and winning every fight with hardly a scratch. You don’t hear anybody calling Batman a Mary Sue, either, even though the running gag about him is that with enough time and preparation, he can defeat literally anybody. But Rey, with her lithe figure and tri-bun hairdo, doesn’t fit the bill of what we’ve been taught of what a hero is like, and as a result, some people are just going to be inherently more critical of her actions. It might be a sad fact, but it remains that female characters carry an extra burden in proving their legitimacy as a hero.
Finally, and most importantly, it’s way too early to declare anything about Rey as a character. People are saying that Rey hasn’t faced enough adversity or hasn’t had enough growth, even though we still have two more movies coming to flesh all of that out. Comparing her growth to Luke’s transition from farm boy to Jedi knight is entirely unfair because that was a transformation over three movies. Even comparing the growth Luke went through in A New Hope to Rey’s in The Force Awakens is still apples to oranges because A New Hope was made before they thought Star Wars would even be a franchise, and The Force Awakens is clearly an introduction to a new trilogy. Now I agree, if Rey doesn’t have significant growth in the next two movies, it’ll be vastly disappointing, but just think of all the seeds Episode 7 has planted. How will Rey handle her training? Is she still struggling with her family abandoning her, and will we learn more about them? Will Kylo be more focused and driven the next time they fight? Will Finn get more involved with the Resistance, and how will that affect Finn and Rey’s relationship? These and so many more questions are bound to be answered in the next two movies, and they’re bound to peel back several layers of Rey’s character. We just have to be patient.
So is Rey really a Mary Sue? No. Not at all. All of her skills make sense given her background or the events of the movie, she doesn’t rob the movie of tension with any kind of perfection, her relationships with other characters are understandable and she fits the archetype of a Star Wars protagonist. I’m happy to have her as the lead for this next generation in the galaxy far, far away, and I think if you watch the movie again with an eye for detail and context, you’ll be happy with her too. Search your feelings, you know it to be true.