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Star Wars: The Rey Controversy Awakens

TT_NotTheFandom

One of the hottest topics about the new Star Wars film seems to be the lead character, Rey, and whether she’s a Mary Sue or not, speculation about her ability with the Force, and how she’s so different from her original trilogy counterpart, Luke.  She’s been the topic of heated debates on Twitter, lengthy articles on various sites, and sometimes nasty arguments on social media. I’ve been watching it all just shaking my head.  The biggest part of the debate seems to be whether she’s a Mary Sue or not, so let’s entertain the notion that it even matters for a moment and look at what that means.  There are two definitions of Mary Sue, a literary one that most writers recognize, and the popular one that is used by commentators and reviewers most commonly online.

First, let’s look at the basic literary definition of a Mary Sue.  This type of character is usually referred to as the author’s insert, or wish-fulfillment.  It is a character that usually matches the author in many physical aspects, but often carries traits the author wishes they had, or that the author thinks are appealing in an individual.  The Mary Sue is usually a side character, but central to the plot for no other reason than everyone in the story wants to be with, or around this character.  They are the plot vortex, where everything that happens is related to them, but they have no actual impact on the plot itself.  Writing a Mary Sue is often done by new writers who will insert themselves into the book, not as the hero, but as a character to give perspective to the story through their eyes.  It’s pretty easy to say that Rey does not fit this definition of a Mary Sue.  She’s not a side character, she obviously doesn’t physically resemble authors Michael Arndt, J.J. Abrams, or Lawrence Kasdan, and while central to much of the plot she is not the center point of all of it.

The second, and more nebulous definition of the Mary Sue can’t even be agreed upon by anyone who writes about it.  Generally speaking, it’s a character that everyone likes, is beautiful, skilled at everything she needs to be skilled at for the story, usually the focus of every other character in the story, and never fails at anything.  Since no one can really agree on what this type of Mary Sue is specifically, let’s look at some of the most common complaints about Rey that seem to make her guilty of fitting this role.  We’ll use this little meme, that, like so many memes on the internet, is not very well informed, but it seems to be the popular one.

mary sue meme

“She beats up four guys by herself.” Yah, you mean like how anyone competent with a metal quarterstaff could beat four unarmed goons?  Whenever the hero of the movie beats up a few unarmed goons, it’s usually pretty bad-ass, even when done with bare hands, but not this time?  This scene, in the market in Jakku, is to show us that she has learned to use her staff.  Sure, they could have given us some montage of her training, but as the old writing adage goes, “show, don’t tell.”

“Knows more about the Millennium Falcon than Han does.”  Whoever wrote the meme can’t even spell an iconic ship’s name but whatever.  To the statement, does she?  She knows about one part that her boss installed, a part she advised against installing.  Why doesn’t Han know about it?  He didn’t install it and apparently hasn’t seen the Falcon in years.  I know it was easy to miss, but it was another one of those moments if one was paying attention, it was right there.  Now again, they could have given us some drawn out montage of her working on the Falcon, or learning to fly, but then we’d be getting into prequel territory, where there’s too much explaining and not enough story.

“First time she flies the Millennium Falcon she outmaneuvers TIE fighters in a large ship with an awkward cockpit position.”  What?  Has the position of the cockpit ever been a factor, ever?  We’re going to discuss cockpit position but not atmospheric flight for aircrafts that aren’t even aerodynamic?  You want to get nitpicky, TIE fighters don’t have shields while the Falcon does.  Their blasters didn’t do much to the Falcon in previous movies, so it was really just a matter of staying in the air so Finn could shoot them down.  Hell, Han let TIE fighters pummel the Falcon on several occasions to no ill effect.  All that aside though, what’s the biggest way the Force displays itself in the untrained?  Luck.  Luck is a big part of the theme of Star Wars, luck and instincts.  We’re also expected, throughout all the movies, to assume in this universe that being able to fly one thing makes you a pilot of pretty much everything else.  Luke basically goes from his puddle-jumper T16 right to the cockpit of an X-Wing as if going from a stunt plane to a fighter jet is no big deal.  Han can fly the imperial shuttle no worries, and Chewie is adept and operating an AT-ST his first time out.  Even Poe can fly a TIE fighter having never been in one, as if his X-Wing and the imperial fighter are even remotely designed the same way.  Why no questions about those?

“Instantly skilled at using a light saber and wins a fight against Kylo.”  Ok, so someone trained with a staff gets a weapon that is similar to wielding a staff by one end.  This one does have a little merit, but still, someone who has basic martial skills, can obviously fight, fought a battle to a stalemate against an opponent that had a gut shot from a bowcaster that was throwing other people across rooms.  The apprentice she fought had just killed his father, was underestimating the ‘girl,’ and was doing pretty well despite all that until she tapped into the Force.  More on that with the next one.

“Instantly knowledgeable about probing minds, telekinesis, and using Jedi mind tricks.”  I guess I have a different definition of knowledgeable.  She looked just as shocked as I probably would when she caught one of Kylo’s surface thoughts, or when she got the trooper to do what she wanted.  Do you remember when she rescued BB8 from that other scavenger?  How’d she get him to give up such an obviously valuable prize?  She had a knife, he had a staff…  There’s something important that could explain it, and a very good reason we weren’t shown it.  Check this out for a sec, from the knowledgeable folks at Wookieepedia, Force Adept.  Known to use quarterstaffs, “This generic concept of Force Adepts often depicted them with little to no formal Jedi training in the Force and often coming from primitive planets.”  That’s just one explanation among many, but if Rey is a force adept, no one would know it, there is no one with perspective in this movie to explain to the audience what that is.  Her life as a scavenger, fighting for scraps, bargaining for parts, food, water, climbing, surviving, all the while she could have been using the Force without even knowing it.  Heck, we already saw her doing exactly what was part of Luke’s initial training with Yoda, right?  Of course there are countless other theories, that’s just one I like.

“Instantly trusted by the Resistance to go on a mission to find Luke, even though they barely knew her.”  Was she?  Remember when Han said at the beginning, to Finn, “Remember, women always know the truth.”  Remember when Leia hugged Rey when she got back, ignored everyone else and hugged Rey as a mother, or other close family member might?  Even if Leia doesn’t know her, how long was it between that scene and her leaving to find Luke?  Days, couple weeks?  Hours?  We don’t know.  This is just a case of not seeing it so it must not have happened.

“Speaks droid and wookie.”  Um…so?  She lives on a planet where droids are prevalent, so are scavengers, bounty hunters, traders, and merchants.  Did you want a montage of seeing her learn to speak wookie?  Would that have driven the plot forward?

“Instantly liked and trusted by everyone.”  Again, was she?  Finn, sure, he has some sense of honor about him and saw a woman starting to get attacked, then the droid, etc.  Han wanted to put her on the first planet they could find along with Finn, didn’t even want her around at first.  Maz liked her, because Maz knew who she was.  Who else did she really meet until the end?  Kylo didn’t like her.  She didn’t meet Luke or Leia until the end of the movie (see above). Who else, Chewie?  Do we know if he liked her or was just following Han’s lead?  There was very little interaction between the two, and neither of us speak wookie, right?

We could go on for hours like that, but it doesn’t really matter.  If you have convinced yourself that the only explanation is that she’s a Mary Sue, there’s nothing at all I can say to change your mind.  Me?  I’ll keep an open mind, because honestly I never cared about all the other movie heroes that are awesome at what they do.  I don’t need hours of backstory to see how Batman became so bad-ass, or how John McClane, an average city police officer, is so good at taking out international terrorists all on his own.  I’d rather have those minutes devoted to story and plot, with little bits of explanation sprinkled in than another Gods Damned Spider-Man origin story to show me how he got to be so good at what he does.

Rey isn’t Luke, just like Kylo isn’t Vader.  I see a lot of people complain that TFA was too much like ANH, but then criticize the characters for not being like characters from the original.  Do we want a reboot?  I didn’t think so. I was glad to see them go very different ways with the characters.  So there’s my rant, I guess.  End of the day, doesn’t really matter whether she is or not.  It’s a debate no one wins, but that’s my take on it anyway.

This isn’t the Pop Culture You’re Looking For

TT_NotTheFandom

Few other cultural groups are as invested in their particular loves as geekdom, and I use that term in the most loving and proud way, as I am a geek myself. When we fall in love with a movie we don’t just want
to know how it ends, we want to know everything. We often buy the art books, encyclopedias of our favorite fantasy worlds, history books of fictional places, novels, comics, and anything else that expands the universe we love. Many of them have histories, mythologies, and people as diverse and complex as that of the real world. We know these planets, universes, hobbit holes, and starships like they are real places.

The other thing we are is welcoming. Every geek I know would love to sit you down and tell you all about their favorite Jedi, or the best scene in Aliens. We can talk for hours about the differences between Star Wars and Star Trek, and we’d love to give you a rousing rendition of the time our 12th level fighter/mage bit it while swinging across a chasm trying to fight the last great dragon of the depths. Sometimes that can be overwhelming, but believe you me, if you sit and listen to these stories without rolling your eyes, sighing, or talking about how childish it is, you’ll have a friend for life.

I’ve watched this culture grow over the years, sometimes slowly, and recently by leaps and bounds. No longer are geeks reviled…in most areas, and it’s even cool to call oneself a geek in most places. The drawback to this being fashionable, is suddenly you have people doing it because it’s cool, not because they’ve found something they love. Don’t get me wrong, there’s nothing wrong with not knowing, being ignorant if you will. There’s nothing at all wrong with dipping your toe in because you liked Avengers, or Star Wars has caught your interest with the new movie. What really gets under our skin, those of us who have been living this our whole lives, been bullied, pushed around, called names, and suddenly seeing people wave a geek flag to be cool, what really flips our asshole switch? Fake. Don’t…be…fake. Don’t pretend you know something, ask. Remember above? There’s not a geek alive that wouldn’t love to tell you all about whatever it is you want to know. If you’re doing it just as a fad, well great, that R2D2 dress looks great on you, but don’t mind me if I go find something more interesting to do. I’m not into fashion trends, clothing or otherwise. I’m a geek remember?

So, the point of all this. Worse than the fashion geeks, who are really harmless people looking for the next thing that will make them cool, are the pop culture writers who couldn’t be bothered to actually learn a little of what they’re writing about. Like a school of pilot fish following the biggest shark, pop culture writers latch onto whatever is trending and write articles that fit whatever narrative their particular outlet is in love with at the time. Sadly, to the general public, and those new to geek culture, these articles often make a lot of sense, and lead to a great deal of ignorance.

Take, for example, this piece for the Sydney Morning Herald, Please make a Muslim hero character, J. J. Abrams, – we need it. The writer claims to be a fan of Star Wars and Star Trek, but is he? Or does he have just a passing interest in them? The writer would like to see a Muslim hero in a Star Trek or Star Wars movie, one where humans have given up all pretense of religion, and another where Earth, and her religions are a long time in the future and far, far away. How can anyone not expect the geek community to get upset about this? In order to insert such a character into either franchise would be the definition of tokenism. It would just be for the sake of representation, because it would entirely defy the lore of both universes. Now, while Star Wars has real world equivalents, there would be no such thing as Arabic, or Islam. It just isn’t possible. In Star Trek, however, there have been characters of Middle Eastern descent, most notably in DS9’s Julian Bashir, and recently Captain Robau in the new alternate reality movies. Could we see a main character/hero of Arabic descent in Star Trek? Sure. Why not? But Muslim? Or in Star Wars? How would it even make sense without being 100% tokenism?

Another frustration for me as an avid lover of SciFi all these years are all the articles coming out about how Rey, of the new Star Wars: Episode VII is somehow this breath of fresh air in science fiction (Star Wars is fantasy, but I’ll let that slide), and completely erasing all the strong female leads we’ve had since I was a kid. For frak’s sake people, Google is a thing, you know. It takes roughly ten seconds of research to find out that of all the movie genres available, SciFi has been one of the most prolific for female leads. Hell, the top search result, The Top 40 Kick-Ass Female Sci-Fi Characters, is quite honestly a kick-ass list, and not even complete. Rey is awesome, I liked her, and I do not agree with a lot of the criticism, but let’s give it some perspective. She is not the first, and thankfully won’t be the last, kick-ass woman to wield a blaster, or light saber. Even in the Star Wars universe she isn’t the first, and it sucks to see people act as if all those who came before are meaningless.

On a final note of absolutely ignorant clickbait, for the sake of what’s popular…

 

The title of the article doesn’t match the tweet, “Female superhero movie fastest to reach $1 Billion”, but the article itself does say, “TFA’s success is a testament to the storytelling and history of the franchise. But it also should be a nail in the coffin of the myth that a female superhero movie can’t be successful.” First of all…Vox…if you’re going to write about Star Wars, you really should learn that it’s not a superhero movie. If you really want to write commentary on geek culture, geeks will welcome you, but we can spot a fake a mile away. Of course they link to, The Long List of Successful Action Movies Starring Women which is an article about other non-superhero movies staring women that doesn’t at all support if there’s a myth one way or the other. It actually states that some have been successful and some haven’t, so really…not a myth at all. At the end of the day, the entire thing is manufactured, and ignorant. It’s just another example of people trying to cash in on what’s popular, currently geek stuff, and really not knowing what it’s all about.

I can’t say it enough, if you want to explore geek culture, you are very welcome, but if you’re going to treat it with disregard while you’re ‘slumming it,’ no thanks. We love to read about what we love, so take some care and do some research. We’ll watch endless documentaries on actors from our favorite shows going to conventions to talk about those shows we love. What we don’t love is people who clearly have no knowledge about the topic trying to get involved, especially when that involvement turns to politics, shaming, or chest beating for your favorite pet movement.