A long time ago in a galaxy far, far away we met Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill). A young man raised on a farm who soon becomes the saviour of the galaxy. Boys everywhere looked up to him, and they still do. Over 30 years later we follow a similar story with Rey (Daisy Ridley), a young woman who rises up from nothing to become a hero. Despite this, men struggle to view her in the same heroic light as Luke.
I’ll always remember being sixteen and seeing The Force Awakens in the cinema for the first time. I felt emotional at the sight of Rey. Finally, having a woman as the galaxy’s saviour. She was and still is very important to me. Growing up I didn’t have many truly heroic women to look up to in film. I spent my time watching things like Charlie’s Angels; although badass, it was still created for the male gaze. Even in Star Wars there was Leia (Carrie Fisher), who had heroic moments, but she was still ultimately the damsel in distress. Something was missing.
Then Rey came along, and altered everything. She proved that women can lead big blockbusters just as effectively as men and that women are heroes too. With fans nicknaming her a ‘Mary Sue’, it’s clear some people struggle to accept a woman as the face of a franchise that has always had men at the forefront.
The major criticism of Rey as the hero is that fans know her as a ‘Mary Sue’. Meaning she’s a character with strength and power that isn’t justified. A ‘Mary Sue’ by definition is a character who possesses no major flaws. Lacking in realism, they are characters who are virtually flawless therefore never suffer. Her character is claimed to be unrealistic in a world of wizard samurais in space. They believe she was solely constructed as a semblance of girl power and feminist agendas. As if it were difficult to believe there could be a female lead without it being an agenda or threat to men. They claim she doesn’t have the proper training to succeed in flying or fighting despite Luke also having virtually less training than Rey. Yet one is deemed an acceptable hero and the other is a ‘Mary Sue’.
Luke as a ‘Gary Stu’
Now if we follow the same rules applied to Rey, we end up with Luke who can be considered a ‘Gary Stu’, the male counterpart to ‘Mary Sue’. When we first meet Luke in A New Hope, he’s a mere farm boy with big dreams of becoming a pilot and joining the academy. He lives a fairly sheltered life for a Tatooine resident. He has a guardian looking out for him, rescuing him from any peril. Suddenly he is thrust into the hero role, but doesn’t have much difficulty adapting to his new purpose.
In A New Hope, Luke is surrounded by Tuskan Raiders, who knock him out, almost killing him. Obi-Wan (Alec Guinness) then saves Luke from his peril, scaring the raiders away. Showing Luke doesn’t have the combat experience or training to save himself. Yet when he and Han (Harrison Ford) go on a rescue mission to save Leia from the Death Star, he’s able to outlast attacks from Stormtroopers; who have spent years in combat training. The rescue was a success that wouldn’t have occurred if the franchise had the ‘realism,’ fans claim it to have.
With Leia’s rescue complete, Luke decides to enlist in the rebellion as a pilot; a role he isn’t qualified to do yet. He has basic pilot training. He mentions using womp rats as target practice, but it’s hardly a good substitute for the trained pilots he’ll be fighting. With no real training Luke still enters a dangerous space battle and somehow fares better than his enemies and rebellion allies. Ultimately helping destroy the Death Star and save the day.
In The Empire Strikes Back Luke spends a small amount of time training with his master, Yoda (Frank Oz). He then leaves Yoda to rescue Han and Leia, not finishing his training. Towards the end of the film, Luke has to face down Vader (David Prowse) in a lightsaber battle. Luke barely has any experience with lightsaber combat at this point, and he now has to face, undoubtedly one of the most dangerous men in the galaxy. Somehow he manages to keep up with Vader in this conflict, although it ends up with him losing an arm and almost dying. He still puts up a fight for longer than he should.
Rey as the Hero
Now we take a look at Rey, who takes a similar journey as Luke once did. When we first meet Rey in The Force Awakens, she’s scavenging for parts. We immediately learn she lives alone on the remote backwater planet Jakku. Being alone on a dangerous planet warrants her being capable of defending herself. Meaning Rey would know how to use her staff to fight enemies and be proficient at doing it.
When Rey meets Finn (John Boyega) for the first time they are placed in immediate danger, having to flee from First Order troops. Rey pilots the Millennium Falcon so she and Finn can escape. The First Order sends well-trained pilots after the Falcon to try and stop them, but Rey is able to out-pilot them with ease. Some say it’s unreasonable for Rey to be a great pilot. Despite Rey being a self-proclaimed experienced pilot to Finn. It’s these same people who don’t take issue with Luke being a great pilot in A New Hope. Later Rey then proves her knowledge of ships to Han when the Falcon fails to go to lightspeed; it’s Rey that fixes the issue to Han’s surprise. Being around ships her entire life means she’s learnt how to pilot and repair them, it’s not unrealistic that she would have flight knowledge from this experience.
At the end of The Force Awakens Rey has to face down Kylo Ren (Adam Driver), who is fully trained in the force and combat. Fans say she won this battle easily when she should’ve died. But what these fans seem to forget is that prior to his showdown with Rey, Kylo is shot with Chewbacca’s (Peter Mayhew) bowcaster. (A reminder that this is the same weapon we see kill various stormtroopers with one shot.) When injured, he then has to fight Finn, who puts up a respectable fight. After all this he then faces Rey, who struggles to keep up with him at points but ultimately wins. Although the fight would’ve been much different had he been at his full potential.
In The Last Jedi the outcries of Rey being overpowered became louder. Although in this movie she doesn’t do anything to warrant it. The film for the most part focuses on her meeting Luke and her connection to Kylo Ren. She spends about as much time training with Luke as Luke did with Yoda. She then decides to confront Snoke (Andy Serkis) before finishing her training and turn Kylo to the Lightside. Her plan fails because she isn’t ready. Snoke wants her killed and the only reason she survives is because Kylo saves her. Similar to how the only reason Luke survives his confrontation with Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) is due to Vader’s help. This doesn’t really seem like a character who is overpowered and faces no struggles. Afterwards, the only other thing we see Rey do with the force, is pull a lightsaber and move some rocks, hardly anything out of the ordinary for Star Wars.
The Hero’s Journey
As we can see, Rey and Luke follow very similar paths. They both enter dangerous situations they shouldn’t survive but ultimately do. But they also both face many struggles in their journey. It’s ultimately unfair to label Rey as a ‘Mary Sue’ but not label Luke a ‘Gary Stu’. In reality neither of them deserve this label. So the question still remains, why do men find it so difficult to see Rey as a strong character like Luke? Is it because men aren’t ready for a woman to be the main hero? Or maybe because they simply didn’t pay attention to any of the films, new or old.
Now, even I acknowledge that both the characters of Rey and Luke are ridiculous. If their journeys were realistic ones (which they were never meant to be) we know they wouldn’t be capable of saving the galaxy. But that’s just how heroes work. It’s the classic hero’s journey. It adopts the typical conventions just as many other stories do. There’s always a hero who comes from nothing, but is able to do amazing things better than anyone around them. It’s been a common characteristic in many stories ranging from books to movies. It’s hardly a new concept. That’s what makes the Star Wars discourse so odd. The whole franchise is built around this hero’s journey. With the original trilogy, following this story exactly. Somehow there is a large part of the fandom who still believe men are the only ones capable of this journey. Despite the shift in media culture proving otherwise.
The criticism directed at female characters is never fair in comparison to the critiques of male characters; who are seemingly able to get away with anything. Rey is a character who goes through many struggles with confidence, identity, fighting, etc.. As the audience, we see her character evolve and become stronger slowly but surely. Even in The Rise of Skywalker she still possesses a lack of confidence and emotional trauma from everything she’s been through. She struggles to finish her training with Leia. She faces issues trying to control her emotions with intense outbursts of anger and sadness. To say she faces no struggles is simply ignoring her development. As for her being overly powerful, she is no more powerful than Luke, who shares a similar journey with her and a powerful force lineage. If her character were a man would the same criticisms still exist?
I for one, am grateful to Rey for changing the Star Wars film canon forever. Pushing women from supporting roles to the forefront. Being an inspiration to young girls everywhere. I only wish I had someone like her to look up to when I was younger.
by Ashleigh Holmes
Ashleigh (she/her) is a film student and aspiring writer. She has an unhealthy obsession with Glee. She can debate Star Wars all day much to her friends dismay. Her favourite films include The Force Awakens, The Last Jedi, Clueless, and Hereditary. You can follow her on Twitter.