Once again, the geek world at large is taking a fantasy/sci-fi mashup to task for being unrealistic. We’re hurtling through outer space at the speed of light and hi-fiving aliens, but heaven forbid that our heroine is good at things. If Star Wars plays any part in your pop culture consciousness, you’ve no doubt heard some polarizing arguments about Rey from the seventh and newest installment, The Force Awakens. She’s frequently accused of being too perfect to be a compelling character, or in other words, a “Mary Sue”. The flick’s been out for almost a month (which is like a decade in Internet years), so there’s no shortage of think pieces debating whether or not Rey is a Mary-Sue, so we won’t dwell too long there. We’re not even going to beat the dead horse for why most Mary Sue accusations are steeped in sexism. Instead, let’s look at the specific charges Rey’s been brought in for. Are they really that bad? The idea is that any good narrative needs a looming challenge, so if Mary Sues are too cool to break a sweat, what’s the point? But why should being cool and breaking a sweat be mutually exclusive?
First of all, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about a controversial term, so we can talk about how it applies to Rey. The most common definition of a Mary Sue is a female character who has little personality, no flaws, a monopoly on the plot, and a ridiculous skill set. She exists purely as wish fulfillment for the audience, or more selfishly, for the author. There’s a male equivalent called “Gary Stu”, but let’s be honest, female characters are slapped with the title far more frequently.
So what parts of Rey’s character is getting people up in arms? Her detractors tend to focus on just one of the above criteria. She has a personality: she’s curious, she’s selfless, she’s graceful yet exuberant. She has flaws: she can be naive, she can be stubborn, she can be closed-off. She’s important to the plot, but she spends a good portion of it seeking help from other people. Heck, as soon as she runs into Han, Chewie, and Finn at Starkiller Base, she’s content to let Han keep leading the mission. That leaves one bullet point for why some folks don’t like Rey: she’s too good at things. That’s it. She’s a pilot, but she’s also a fighter, but she also speaks multiple languages, but she also learns to use the Force way too quickly. People hate Rey because she’s overpowered. Of all the boxes a character supposedly has to tick off to to be a Mary Sue, why is this the one that single-handedly seals the deal?
Mary Sues are eviscerated for being too skilled because films are lazy and boring when the characters aren’t challenged, but The Force Awakens is chock full of challenges, and Rey still struggles with them. Not just that, but most of her skills make complete sense. Sure, she speaks several languages, but that’s what happens when you’re raised amongst scavengers who all speak different languages. She’s a talented fighter because Jakku is a hostile environment, and if you’re defenseless then you’re dead. She understands the intricate mechanics of spaceships because her paychecks depend on her knowing which parts are the most lucrative. That one’s a slight stretch, as knowing how a ship works doesn’t necessarily equal knowing how to pilot a ship, but Rey learns how to pilot on the fly (no pun intended). At first, she can barely get the Millennium Falcon off the ground, but with a little practice she’s bobbing and weaving with the best of them. “But surely learning to pilot a ship like that should take years!” Of course, but where the drama? If Rey was already an expert before she got in the driver’s seat, her and Finn’s grand escape would be boring. On the flip side, if she never learned how the ship works, there’d be no escape at all. With Rey still learning the ropes, the audience can cling to their seats, wondering how the heck our heroes will get out of this fix. As Rey refines her piloting skills throughout the scene, we share her and Finn’s surprise and relief that they’ve made it out okay. The key to drama is to keep ’em guessing, and sometimes that means a dose of luck and some on-the-job training.
Even if you chalk Rey’s skill in more standard arenas to necessity or drama, the hardest part for many to deal with is how quickly she learns to use the Force. The same day she learns that the Jedi are even real, suddenly she’s swinging a lightsaber and using mind tricks with the best of ’em. How dare she! Many Rey defenders excuse this by reminding everyone that Luke Skywalker’s training consisted of deflecting tasers, playing piggyback with a Muppet, and some meditating, not any actual fighting, and he duels Vader without a gripe from the peanut stands. We already saw Luke train in the original trilogy, and that was well and good, but we don’t want the second verse to be exactly the same as the first. We have to evolve. We want to see a new kind of training, with a new result.
You’ll notice that Rey doesn’t use the Force until after Kylo Ren invades her mind, and she pushes back out of desperation, not even meaning to invade his mind instead. In all likelihood, when Rey gets a look into Kylo Ren’s head, it triggers her latent abilities and gives her a headstart. Let’s remember that Rey’s not curb-stomping a seasoned Sith Lord just yet. As it stands, Kylo Ren’s admitted to having doubts about the Dark Side, he just killed his estranged dad, he’s been shot through the side by dad’s best friend, and according to Snoke, he’s not even done with his training. That was no epic duel at the end, it was a scrappy beginner getting the upper hand on a sad, shaggy kid with some major handicaps. But if Rey is already this good without formal practice, imagine how incredible she’ll be when Luke’s done training her. C’mon, we all know where this is going. If the new trilogy really wants to top the original (it’s already left the prequels in its dust), its protagonists have got to rival the original’s. If Luke was kicking ass at the end of Return of the Jedi, shouldn’t he kick triple that ass after decades of practice? And by that logic, his pupil should someday top that. “The student has surpasses the master” indeed.
Characters being good at things does not equate to being Mary Sues, let alone negate how good a movie is as a whole.Where’s the fun in watching a main character screw things up for a solid two hours?Cinema can transport you to a world where the impossible is possible, and sometimes that means a protagonist who can take the supernatural and kick it up one more notch.