I started working just on an omnibus spoiler review of The Force Awakens, to go along with my non-spoiler review, but I kept getting distracted by Internet chatter about Rey, and her supposed Mary Sue-ism. And other things, which is why this post is coming a few weeks too late.
Spoilers below the fold.
Who a Mary Sue
Rey? I friggin’ love Rey. She’s awesome. Since when is that a bad thing? But one of the big criticisms of Rey—one of the big criticisms of The Force Awakens—is that Rey is a Mary Sue. Which tends to these days mean “awesome character who I have some problem with.” Let’s step back and breakdown common Mary Sue attributes as identified by TV Tropes. Common traits include:
- a lack of personality,
- informed flaws,
- super awesomeness as a curse,
- inexplicable abilities,
- speaks several languages fluently,
- random powers,
- so beautiful it’s a curse,
I won’t walk through each of those (or address the other traits listed on TV Tropes that I omitted). Some aren’t present (her awesomeness and beauty aren’t a curse). I don’t think she has inexplicable abilities or random powers. She does speak several languages fluently. And she’s good at fighting and knows her way around a ship. All very handy skills for a young woman living alone and trying to scrape by scavenging from derelict space ships. And yes, she’s enormously Force-sensitive, but there is a reason this is a movie about her and not any of the other trillions of people in the universe.
I don’t think Rey suffers from a lack of personality or informed flaws. She doesn’t have Luke’s flaws, but then neither did Leia or Han. What a character really needs are no so much flaws as conflict. Rey has a perfectly good—great, even—conflict driving her arc in The Force Awakens. Her abandonment by her family gives a bit of mystery, shades her decisions, and adds emotional resonance.
But I think the most important and defining characteristic of a Mary Sue is that the creator (and by extension, the other characters) is so much more enamored of her than the audience.
And there’s the rub. Since it boils down to a subjective view, there will always be someone who claims whichever character is a Mary Sue, to the point where TV Tropes doesn’t even bother to list them. At some level, then, there’s no convincing someone who just doesn’t like the character. But like her or not, Rey isn’t a Mary Sue. And the rush to label her as one is indicative of a larger anti-heroic trend within speculative fiction.
Heroes and the Hero’s Journey
And that anti-hero trend has a long history with Star Wars itself.
Luke started as the stereotypical callow youth, a literal farm boy (…IN SPACE), but Han Solo and Leia are badasses from the beginning. Han Solo already has a long and storied career as a smuggler behind him. Leia opens A New Hope shepherding the plans for the Death Star to the Rebel Alliance, telling Darth fricking Vader to fuck off, and grabbing a blaster within seconds of her rescue assistance arriving (Leia doesn’t need rescuing, she just needs help rescuing herself).
Luke is unique among the three main characters, among all of the characters from the original trilogy, really, in leveling up being a large component of his arc, with both Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda serving as mentors. This didn’t stop criticism of his abilities in Return of the Jedi, criticism I always thought was misplaced—he has certainly earned his abilities at that point. The rescue of Han Solo is such a great sequence in part because we don’t just get to see Luke kick ass, we get to see the product of his training from the first two movies (the other part is seeing Leia choke to death the first being to claim there were no strong female characters in the original trilogy).
Luke wasn’t a completely callow youth at the open of the series, though. He was a good enough pilot to show up the best pilots in the Rebel Alliance and make a shot that was one in a million.
And we loved him for it. A protagonist doesn’t need flaws or a lack of heroism, she needs conflict. It’s a character’s humanity, conflict, and arc that drive the story. None of that requires a progression in ability. Raylan Givens and Don Draper started multi-season arcs at the top of their respective games in Justified and Mad Men, respectively. Annalise Keating in How To Get Away With Murder is at the top of hers.
Once upon a pulp time no one questioned the presence of a hero. Did anyone complain that Conan or John Carter of Mars or Eric John Stark kick ass? And it didn’t stop Captain America from winning a Hugo last year.
Pulp Heroes and the Rise of Epic Fantasy
Why the move away? There are a lot of reasons, I think: the move from short fiction to series, Tolkien, the original Star Wars, postmodernism, rise of the origin story. There has been a departure from the Hero’s Journey that Lucas so famously drew from. Nor does the Hero’s Journey itself require leveling up.
Generally speaking, there are two major types of fantasy fiction: heroic and epic. Heroic fantasy– also known as “sword and sorcery’ – focuses on the exploits of a single, larger-than-life character. The literary archetype for heroic fantasy is Conan the Barbarian, created back in the 1920s by the late Robert E. Howard. Epic- also referred to as ‘high (but not on drugs) – paints on a broader canvas, with numerous characters interacting in multiple storylines. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy is the ur-text of modern epic fantasy, and George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones saga is its present-day exemplar.
– Charles Saunders, Abengoni: First Calling
A Song of Ice and Fire (ahem) doesn’t have any heroes whatsoever. The Lord of the Rings arguably has two. But one (Boromir) is a deconstruction and the other (Aragorn) is almost a secondary character, especially in the books. Tolkien wanted to tell a story where his hobbits—basically idealized common Englishmen—could save the world, not through heroism, but through their own basic decency and tenacity in the face of evil. Tolkien was writing against the backdrop of two World Wars, against the death of most of his friends in the trenches of France, against the malaise that overtook Europe after the The Great War, against a second world war that showed the lie of the war to end all wars, against a war against Nazism and fascism with communists as allies. You can see why he wanted to show what the common man can do in the face of events far, far larger than himself. And Tolkien, in turn, influenced the future of fantasy, establishing fantasy as a genre of its own and giving birth to an epic fantasy where the events were large and the heroes were small.
Even The Wheel of Time, with its Chosen One Rand al’Thor rising to become literally the most powerful man on earth, wielding the power to level cities, is a deconstruction of the Great Man Theory taking inspiration directly from Tolstoy’s War and Peace. None of that power protects Rand from the deeply embedded misandry of his world, frees him from the winds of fate, prevents his allies and vassals from continuing to act in their own self-interest, or even presents a viable path to defeating the Dark One.
None of this is bad per se, I love The Lord of the Rings and A Song of Ice and Fire and The Wheel of Time, after all. But it marks a dramatic departure from a canon rich in heroes. In many ways we’ve lost something valuable that we need to get back, something that can stand beside and enrich the epic fantasy tradition.
Final Thoughts on Rey
Leah Schnelbach wrote a wonderful post for Tor.com pointing to heroic vulnerability as the secret to the power of Star Wars, but that requires not only that the character in question be vulnerable but that they be heroic. It’s the juxtaposition that makes it so powerful.
And I found Rey’s character very effective and very powerful because she has that. Rey being abandoned by her parents injects a very real-life tragedy into this grand fantastical story and helps ground it and give it emotional weight. That is why I very much hope the supposition about Rey being Luke’s daughter, about her being a former student of his disbanded Jedi Academy, is false. Because it is Rey’s yearning for a family that left her and will never return that it is the most interesting thing about her. That spark of humanity alone disposes of any question of her being a Mary Sue.