I could fangirl about Rey from The Force Awakens all day. She is amazing, to the point that I could barely write anything of substance about her in my review of the movie, since my first-watch reaction was mostly just an excited squealing noise in my head. (And, I’ll admit, out loud).
But I think it’s time to get a tiny bit meta, and talk about Rey as a protagonist, and as a Star Wars protagonist in particular.
The Force Awakens is a perfect Star Wars sequel because it blends the old and the new, feeling fresh and innovative while also echoing A New Hope, and Rey embodies that combination. She’s the lost hero on a desert planet who stumbles across a droid and goes on an adventure, and in the process, her story echoes Luke Skywalker’s narratively, thematically and even visually. Yet she’s not a traditional or even particularly familiar genre protagonist. She follows in the footsteps of Luke’s Hero’s Journey, marking her as the clear protagonist of the story, but she’s also a female lead in a movie aimed at all viewers, in a franchise often seen as one for male viewers in particular.
Rey is a reimagining of the classic hero, but the most significant and innovative thing about her character is how traditional she really is.
As Rey is an incredibly talented character, it’s not surprising that she was quickly criticized for her “hypercompetence,” with most of the discussion revolving around the question of whether she is a Mary Sue. This conversation is a pretty sure-fire way to undermine even the most well-developed female characters, and it completely misses the fact that Rey’s remarkableness is, in the context of epic storytelling, unremarkable, except for the fact that it belongs to a young woman. When you compare Rey to Luke Skywalker, there’s nothing particularly surprising about her skills. In Luke’s first movie, he uses the Force to nail an impossibly shot from his X-wing and destroy the Death Star, despite the fact that he’s never even been in space before. Compared to that, it shouldn’t surprise people that Rey manages to (mostly) successfully pilot the Millennium Falcon, has a great knowledge of ship parts after scavenging them for years, and figures out how to use the Force when in great danger.
Yes, she’s a remarkable character in the context of the movie; that’s why there’s a movie about her. But on a meta level, her strength mirrors that of many heroes before her.
And it’s great that the series didn’t soften the “specialness” of its protagonist, or deny Rey the classic Hero’s Journey plotline that Luke received. She’s a Nobody who stumbles into adventure and discovers that she’s Somebody, and that Somebody is still incredibly powerful, once she has the chance to learn. Anyone arguing that she’s “too strong” has either never seen a genre story in their lives, doesn’t like classically-structured genre fiction, or has an issue with the fact that Rey is female.
Because, of course, Rey isn’t perfect. She goes through many of the classic beats of a hero, from initially rejecting her destiny through witnessing her mentor’s death to finally stepping into her powers, but through that structure, The Force Awakens paints her as a competent, well-developed but flawed individual. She has a natural talent for flying, understands ships, and speaks Droid, all of which make sense for her lonely scavenger character. She gets giddy over flying and adventure, is awestruck to see the world beyond Jakku, and is brave when it comes to protecting both herself and others. We see her problem solving skills again and again, as she shuts the door on the monster’s tentacles to save Finn, enacts a plan to steal a ship and escape from the Starkiller, and figures out how to use the Force based on instinct and myths alone.
But although she’s fierce in protecting the people she cares about, she’s very quick to form emotional attachments, and perhaps too trusting too, after her lonely life on Jakku. She’s somewhat naive in her hope that her family will return for her — she’s the one stopping herself from having her adventure as she prepares to wait her whole life for them to return. And, of course, she loses. Repeatedly. She screws up her first attempts to fly the Falcon or fire a blaster. Kylo Ren defeats her in their first encounter. She can’t do anything to help Han or Finn. And although she fights Kylo Ren and survives the end of the movie, she’s saved by the fact that he’s seriously injured before they begin, and by the fact that the ground splits between them, ending the battle. She’s incredibly cool, and incredibly talented, but she doesn’t succeed beyond reason.
Even her use of the Force, while instinctively strong, is far from perfect. Yes, she’s powerful in her fight against Kylo Ren, but she’s also absolutely furious. She practically snarls at him as she gathers the strength to fight back, fuelled not by the idea that it’s the Right Thing To Do, but by her fury over him killing Han and potentially Finn. That’s hardly the behavior of a flawless Jedi knight. In fact, as the previous movies have said repeatedly, it’s the first step to the Dark Side.
Of course, this problem with anger and the Dark Side is incredibly familiar, echoing Luke’s story once again. But the ties to Luke also play an important part in her Hero’s Journey, or rather, in our reaction to it. People would do anything to argue that Star Wars doesn’t have a female protagonist, to diminish Rey’s role as much as possible. So the Force Awakens really hammers home that she’s the spiritual successor of Luke and, to a lesser extent, Han, leaving us in absolutely no doubt about her role in the movie. Luke’s lightsaber calls to her. It flies into her hand over Kylo Ren’s, and when it does, we hear Luke’s theme in the background.
Meanwhile, Han accepts her as a good pilot and offers her a job. She rejects the offer because she needs to find her family, but her reaction to Han’s death when he, Chewie and Finn come to rescue her suggests that now she has found her family. And the movie ends with her flying the Millennium Falcon with Chewie by her side, stepping into Han’s place to continue the adventure.
All of these moments have been interpreted as evidence that she’s either Luke or Han’s daughter, and that’s probably true. But they also work to place her in the Star Wars universe, to emphasize her role in the story — she is the hero, she is the protagonist, she’s the one carrying on this mantle. The more traditional her heroic journey, the harder it becomes for people to shove her aside, and so, paradoxically, the more innovative her role in the story becomes.