Wednesday, January 6, 2016

This is Our Star Wars: Ladies Rule the Galaxy This Time Around [Contributor: Melanie]

The Force isn’t the only thing that’s woken up.

Ever since The Hunger Games came on the scene with an “unconventional” female lead who had gritty realness and a leadership position, ladies have been on the rise in media. I suppose if we are giving real due, a lot is owed to Joss Whedon, as Buffy the Vampire Slayer made it their personal mission to subvert archetypes and tropes when it came to women in media and specifically action stories. Fast forward to things like Kim Possible and Legend of Korra and we have a healthy dose of awesome female characters (I have a vendetta against the phrase “strong female character” for its insinuation that female characters are inherently less than) in childrens' narratives. But in Star Wars, Rey smashes her own glass ceiling a little differently.

What Rey represents is a change in a time-honored narrative structure and the way we inherently gender a hero. Admit it: when you hear the word “hero,” a very specific image comes to mind; an image that women are not really a part of.

I am guilty of this as well. Back when I read His Dark Materials for the first time, I was actually asking myself why Pullman chose a female protagonist and how annoying that must have been to write. I now want to smack both past-Mel and society for teaching me to view myself as less and my stories as inherently invalid next to the possibility of a man’s. And honestly, we’ve all had to turn off our feminist ideals for a few hours to enjoy most of the blockbuster and Oscar-nominated films we take in. But Rey is a character born out of an awareness of that (proof in the marketing tactic to hide her true role in the film as all TV spots and trailers showed Finn battling Kylo Ren).

The key to Rey’s success as a hero is the subversion of this trained concept. And it goes about it in multiple instances.

I’ve said that phrase a lot recently and I apologize, but it’s a key ingredient in Star Wars and narrative at large. The Hero With a Thousand Faces is a heavily-utilized text when it comes to applying monomyth lenses to media (and it works every time, trust me). But that formula is based on far more ancient traditions and stories about men being called to greatness (Achilles, Arjuna, King Arthur, Odysseus, and so on). And it proliferates to this day in heroes like Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and Jon Snow. This is a male-dominant lens, and a nearly universal one.

But our hero — who, in any other story, might have been Finn or Poe — is Rey. A young woman plucked from obscurity and called to greatness by the will of the universe and the forces of destiny (yada, yada). When is the last time that happened in mainstream media, or, moreover, in one of the biggest films of all time? The “chosen one” tropes are always a boy, prophecies always refer to future men born to do big things. How many times was a woman chosen by the aforementioned powers that be?

Rey is very much a product of a post-Buffy world where the credentials to be the chosen one were simple — be a woman. Rey is a successor to this change in the rules as Finn waffles with the lightsaber and drops it (twice), Kylo Ren attempts to take it for himself, but it chooses only Rey who beats Ren into submission with it and carries it out of the battlefield of victory.

And that scene also stole away an overused trope in adventure entertainment: the sword in the stone. Just as Harry pulled the Sword of Gryffindor from the Sorting Hat in Harry Potter, Azor Ahai burgeoned the sword Lightbringer to destroy the White Walkers in Game of Thrones, and a young Arthur pulled a sword from a stone, affirming his divine right to the crown, Rey has been chosen by a mythical weapon. It was probably the most reacted to moment in the theatre as of my three viewings: Kylo Ren attempts to call Anakin’s lightsaber to him but it doesn’t budge, until it does. And Rey comes away with the lightsaber in hand and forces (ha, puns) Ren to submit, breaking his lightsaber in the process and permanently scarring him. And the metaphor continues as Rey travels to the hideaway of her own personal Merlin — Luke Skywalker — to guide her and train her toward destiny.

Was there another woman in mainstream entertainment who so overtly reused and reclaimed male-oriented narrative elements?

And this development feels almost like an apology for Star Wars of the past, where Leia, as much a child of Anakin as Luke, was denied the right to the title of Jedi despite her apparent, if untrained, abilities in the Force. Furthermore, thanks to the use of Padme Amidala, the only two (yes there were only two) female main characters in the franchise were some form of royalty, giving out orders and being escorted constantly by bodyguards. Though Leia got chances to shine in later films, she felt like the “extra” when it came to the Skywalker twins. And while I’m still quite irritated by her lack of participation in the mythical sides of the plot, Rey is — if nothing else — a worthy character to serve as our first prominent woman Jedi.

Another thing I want to point out here (less to do with Rey and more to do with direction) is that no one comments on Rey’s gender status. Han Solo makes no remarks on a teenage girl being able to pilot his ship. Instead, he offers her a job. When Ren kidnaps Rey and interrogates her, he was offended at her status as a poor scavenger, not that a girl was able to best him. Even Supreme Leader Snoke didn’t remark on her gender, and insisted Ren bring her before him as he desired to use her for her power as he did with him. And it’s really awesome to not have “she’s not like other girls” shoved down your throat. She’s just as dangerous as a man, no questions asked... not even by the dark side.

Ultimately, Rey is putting women back in the narrative of — well — narrative. She’s someone I wish I had as a child when I was relegated to watching my male friends go as Anakin or Obi-Wan as Halloween and playing with lightsabers in my backyard was considered a boyish game to play. And now Rey’s here, not only to save the life of her male counterpart, but also bested a more highly-trained (albeit wounded) man with little fear.

1 comment:

  1. I loved Rey, and I loved that in 2015 had sample several different roles for women, but I still think that Rey had little help from the "script" to her favor.
    I don’t understand why people are so upset that Leia not become a Jedi.She never ran away from a fight, she always use weapons when needed but she CHOSE to be a general. It’s the power of choice, Leia wanted to be a leader, rather than a warrior, I think it's wonderful, just because she was born with something, with a family “tradition” doesn’t necessarily mean that she must follow.
    I don’t understand now the why everybody want to compare two women just because them followed two different paths.