Rey is not a role model for little girls (major spoilers ahead)
December 21, 2015
I hate to break it to you, but Rey is not a role model for little girls.
The Force Awakens has been out all of a few days now, and already I’m over hearing this.
“Oh, she’s so powerful and strong — a perfect role model for little girls!”
Don’t keep saying that.
Because the thing is: My daughter, her friends, their circle — and millions like them around the country — they already know.
Do you think in their play time and imaginations that they’re not the hero?
Rage spoilers ahead, so watch out.
Seriously, stop reading unless you want to know major plot points and more about the epic finale — which I think is a watershed moment.
Still with me?
You’ve been warned.
OK, here we go.
Do you think in their play time that girls don’t fly the Falcon?
That they don’t beat up jerks with their staffs?
Or tinker, engineer, fly, run, jump, call lightsabers, become the chosen one, and save the universe?
No, Rey is not the perfect role model for little girls.
She’s a role model for boys.
Indeed, she’s the perfect role model for little boys, and a whole bunch of supposedly grown ass men as well.
She’s the role model they need.
Frankly, she’s the role model our expanding universe of epic sexist bullshittery needs.
And it’s about damn time, really.
Rey is for the legions of script writers and movie producers who think they’re doing a great job in Grrl Power by creating yet another “minority feisty” female character who is awesome and strong and amazing — a character who very often trains the idiot, lazy, “chosen one” boy character who goes on to become the hero and ultimately claims the girl as a prize. Rey slices that trope in two. So let’s be done with it once and for all.
Boys can be the unapologetic hero.
Girls can be the unapologetic hero.
It makes no difference to the viewing pleasure of the audience.
The Force Awakens proves this once and for all. The debate is over. Boys, girls, men, women — they all cheered just as loud at the end. And then they paid hard money to see it again.
Rey is for all of us parents who have watched those movies and waited, just waited for the “powerful, strong” female character to get punted to the sidelines so the boy character can save the day. I don’t see a lot of movies with my daughter for precisely that reason.
It gets old. Fast.
But man, at the end, when Rey calls the lightsaber to her and it sings through the forest and thrums to life in her hands. That was a new kind of chills. Cry chills. Happy sob chills. It was embarrassing, really, and I was so glad the movie theater was dark.
Because the thing is, up until the moment when that lightsaber was actually in her hands, my guard was still up — despite all the breadcrumbs that Rey really was, finally, the new chosen one. I was waiting like Charlie Brown in front of a football for pretty much any other character to catch it.
Han. Chewie. Finn. Jabba the Hutt brought back to life to bikini slave everyone.
Anyone but the woman.
Honestly, it was probably the most satisfying and thrilling moment I’ve ever had at the movies. Cinematically, it was pure joy to watch. It ranks up there with the best movie moments of all time, if not the moment of all time. Culturally, it was profound in ways I’ll get to later. But to hear an opening day theater crowd erupt into cheers — full on, clapping, shouting cheers — I could barely stand it. I can’t even begin to tell you how many times I spent pretending to be stuck upside down in some yeti’s cave on Hoth, willing a lightsaber to my hand to escape just like Luke in Empire Strikes Back. And this scene. Wow. It is such a perfect nod to that moment.
Which brings to me the following.
Rey is for a new generation of boys and girls who will be playing pretend Star Wars in backyards and schoolyards for years to come. Something about Star Wars has created a cultural touchstone over generations, and this isn’t the article to discuss why. But I like what director JJ Abrams had to say about the series — the originals and the prequels. Something about how each generation seems to gravitate toward the ones that were released in their time. In the 70s and 80s, my time, it was all about Luke’s saga. Those were the best. Then there was Darth’s saga and kids who saw the prequels in theaters seem to enjoy those the most, or at least don’t rank them as outright horrible.
And now, there’s no denying it. A new generation is at the start of Rey Skywalker’s saga. (Seriously, this whole becoming a Jedi business has always been a family affair in Star Wars — the pilot tinkerer from a desert planet yearning for adventure, so it’s no real leap to just go ahead and give her the family name to go with the blue family torch.) She’s on the first steps. And it thrills my heart to the core to think of an entire new generation of Star Wars fans lining up and camping out to see Rey’s journey, pretending to be Rey, playing with Rey … oh wait.
Here’s where the movie starts to reach outside of the silver screen and make some connections about how women are viewed in movies and in society as a whole — and why a character like Rey is culturally important and worthy of a thorough review.
For starters, Rey is a great role model for HasBros toy company and others like it who marketed entire boxes of Force Awakens toys without the main character. Rey was in all the posters, trailers, TV ads, you name it, as the character front and center. But browse a toy aisle and she was available occasionally on her own but completely left out of toy packs. Just imagine, for a moment, how laughable it would seem to have a package of toys from, say, Indiana Jones without mother fucking Indiana Jones. Or the original Star Wars toys without Luke Skywalker?
Silly, right? It’s almost impossible to imagine.
It just wouldn’t happen.
And yet, you can buy toy packages with seemingly every character but Rey. Go surf around on HasBros web site. It’s the worst. It’s literally a shame of humanity to see toys divided by gender the way that company does. Click on “girls toys” and, well, you can imagine the glitter parade of sexed-up dolls and wide-eyed stuffies. But click on “boys toys” and you get Star Wars up the ass — except Rey has become, of course, a “Jakku Scavenger” instead of actually bearing her name. Because what a god damn travesty that would be, right? To have a boy play around with a girl hero toy.
Again, could you imagine Indiana Jones being marketed as just an “archaeologist” on the toy package? Or Luke as a farm boy? Han as just a “smuggler”?
No, he’s freaking Han Solo.
Whereas Rey is a “scavenger.”
Get with the times, HasBros. Why are your toys gendered at all any more? Are they sex toys you need certain genitalia to use? And why are the shitty, sexed up, bullshit toys labeled for girls, while the cool Star Wars ones are labeled for boys? You’re literally setting artificial boundaries for the play time of children. Not cool.
For the record, Disney itself has done a better job at putting Rey out there. I was able to easily find a men’s shirt with Rey front and center on Disney’s online store, and they’ve consistently put Rey and Phasma toys out there — even if others, looking at you Target, have entire toy aisles devoid of female characters. The photo above? I couldn’t find one female character. Not One. (Seriously, knowing what we know now about Rey, take a closer look at the toy aisles and ask yourself if you could imagine Luke or Han toys being underrepresented or missing altogether in the ’80s. And don’t give me the “Oh, they were just waiting for the movie so as not to spoil it” line of defense. No, we’ve seen this over and over again. It’s no mistake. Girls get the shaft in the toy department, because toy company executives — and here they should be called out by name as the assholes they are — somehow can’t fathom that boys and girls can have the same interests and imaginations. Over and over again, girls are sold sex appeal. Boys are sold adventure and hero worship.)
And this is where the deeper connections with how girls and women are portrayed in movies, toy aisles, magazines, TV shows, you name it, come into play with how women are treated in real life.
I know a lot of you are probably thinking, “Come on, dude. It’s just a movie.”
But here’s the thing. Take one toy, one T-shirt, one shitty sidekick movie character, and it’s not a big deal. I get that. I agree with that.
But add everything together, and it’s a big deal.
It’s not just Rey washing, it’s girl washing, it’s woman washing. It’s a pattern of consistently making girls and women the lesser.
And then what happens?
I hope to make that case soon.
But first, I can’t help but celebrate that Rey is for us, the “complainers” and social media “whiners.” Her character reminds us that our collective outrage actually can have a positive impact that does indeed go beyond “just the movies.” If women make up more than 50 percent of the population, why do they make up 20-30 percent of movie roles decade after decade? Why are they so often the amazing sidekick?
When the original cast photo of the new Force Awakens movie came out, people, myself included, flew into fits and rages about the appalling lack of new female characters. And you know, it worked. Writer Lawrence Kasden says they cast Captain Phasma as a woman instead of the man she was originally written as because of the outrages and, well, why the hell not? It took nothing from the movie to have some bit role be a woman, or to see more Rebel fighters cast with women actors. In fact, it made the whole experience better. It made the fictional universe we all know and love feel less like a penis party and more like a fully realized, believable world.
It’s a small, important step — to make an informed decision to populate a movieverse more like a real one. How god damn awesome was it, in the months leading up to this movie, to debate who the new Jedi was going to be?
The woman or the black guy?
Perhaps it’s what happens when your head MFIC for Star Wars is a powerful woman in Hollywood?
And yet, just like the Force is strong in some, so is the Sexism.
Rey is, mostly, for that.
Rey is for the legion of internet halfwits who, even after seeing that lightsaber scene and knowing from another scene that the Force is so strong in her that the bad guy can’t break her, still argue that somehow Kylo Ren was “taking it easy” on her, or that he was too weak and injured to really put up a fight, or that he wanted to lose.
Seriously, the excuses for a girl winning are vast and endless.
She’s for the sorry lot of us who have been so brainwashed by the steady drip drop of sexism that they just can’t believe a female character can kick so much ass. If you need to make excuses for why she wins that duel, you’re doing the Force wrong. Because she Forced up and owned that dude. Owned him. Injured or not, it was clear on so many levels: Even untrained in Jedi ways, she’s. just. got. more. power. than. him.
It’s fucking awesome.
Her journey is literally going to be unlike anything you’ve seen before. Let the Force in and enjoy the amazing ride.
So this is where all the connections come together. Because it’s not a stretch to posit that one of the reasons women earn less money than men, are subject to votes on what they can and can’t do with their own god damn bodies, are not expected to excel in certain fields — the list literally goes on and on — is because great gobs of people actually believe women aren’t the same as men, that they will always be somehow lesser.
The reactions to Rey that I’ve seen in just a few short days provide practically a case study for these biases.
When faced with a nearly flawless fictionalized female character who does all the same damn things a nearly flawless fictionalized male character does in every other movie, people start making excuses.
A woman? Saving the day? Being the hero?
It can’t be!
Well, it can.
And it was.
And it was amazing.
I like this essay that better expands upon this idea. But in short, no one makes excuses for why Superman or the Green Aquahulkman win battles. Did these same people question whether a whiny farm boy from some desert planet could save the day? Was Luke being too hero-y? Or jesus, that even more whiny little boy from Episode 1 who flew speeder races against adults and won? Was that even questioned?
No, of course not. They just watched the story, nodding along. It matched their preconceived notions that boys, men, are the chosen ones, the heroes. So there’s no questioning.
What’s more, did anyone question Leia being a flawless fictionalized hero in the originals? Of course not. She was the sidekick, the minority feisty, the love interest. She didn’t upset the idea that men are the story, so no one questioned her abilities.
Same with Padme Amidala in the prequels. Suddenly she goes from senator and queen — a person who over and over again just wanted to talk it out — to wielding a blaster and escaping weird lizard creatures? That was never questioned, because she was always the sidekick, always the love interest.
But oh boy.
Slap a vulva on a lead hero, on the new chosen one, and suddenly for everything to be “believable” it’s like they need to hear Rey say, “Sorry. Do you mind? Excuse me. Can I just? Kick your ass with this lightsaber? Sorry.”
Never mind she actually had more real-life experience as an on-your-own desert scavenger than both Luke and Anakin before any of their adventures began. In his first scenes, Luke whined about going to get more Legos or whatever at Toshi station. In her first scenes, Rey rappelled through the innards of a mother fucking star destroyer and then beat the shit out of some desert bad guys.
And she’s the one who’s not believable as the hero?
Mostly, though, and this is what really planted the seed for this rage essay, Rey is for the little boys about my own daughter’s age in the row in front of me on opening day.
When one of the movie previews showed Batman and Superman getting their asses saved by Wonder Woman, one of the boys cat called her and whistled.
Never mind that she. just. saved. Batman.
For these boys, all of 9 or 10, Wonder Woman is already about her looks, not about what she can do.
Is it any wonder, really?
When these young boys go looking for movie toys to play with in their real lives, they find largely men — even men who aren’t the heroes in the stories they’re seeing. When they go to movies, they usually see women as the sidekicks and love interests to be won. When they do see powerful, strong female characters, those characters usually yield to the boys at some point.
And even now, when they see a woman finally become the chosen one, they can go online and see how really, deep down, the guy character let her win or that her flawlessness is really a major flaw.
How sad. To think that these boys will be dissuaded from playing with the hero of this saga simply because she’s a girl.
We can change that.
We can remember and tell them, talk to them, that Rey is as much for boys as she is for girls.
She’s a role model for the boys in front of me — and the millions like them — who continue to grow up under a steady drip drip drip of societal sexism that says even fictionalized female heroes are unbelievable, let alone that our real life heroes shouldn’t be paid as much as their male counterparts or be in control of their own bodies.
It made me so happy to think those boys just watched two hours of Rey absolutely kicking ass. No excuses. No “I’m sorrys.” No further justification that a hardened desert scavenger with more raw Force abilities than anyone in the universe can obviously win a lightsaber duel.
There’s A New Hope alright.
And boy, do we need her.
Look, I’m being facetious.
Rey is, obviously, a tremendous role model for girls. In fact, it could be argued she’s the greatest movie role model for little girls.
I’ve often said I wanted to see a girl hero have the same opportunities as a boy hero. What I mean is, when a story revolves around a boy hero, he usually has adventures and has to save everyone. When there’s a girl hero story, she also has to figure out where she fits in a boy’s world. I think of Merida from Brave. Awesome. But come on. The entire set-up revolves around not if she’ll ever get married but when.
Rey finally just gets to do all the cool hero shit. Girls need to see this.
I saw the movie on opening day, while my daughter was in school. I can’t wait to take her to see it. I think it’s actually important that she sees it. Finally, the Star Wars stories she loves will be told from a woman’s point of view for her generation. Finally, the woman is the chosen one. Finally, she’s the unapologetic hero in a saga that has somehow tapped into the quick of our culture for decades.
From a movie perspective, it rocks. From a cultural perspective, it’s a revelation. If there are indeed connections to be made between the way women are treated on screen with the way women are treated in real life — and I do indeed believe there is some connection; one seems to reinforce the other and the other way around — then this is a moment when very clearly art is not imitating life, a moment when, in fact, judging by the reactions, art is parsecs beyond life.
So no, Rey is not the role model girls need. Yes, she’s great for them. There’s no denying that. As much as I want to see that lightsaber scene again, I have a feeling I’ll be watching my daughter’s eyes instead.
But Rey isn’t just for her.
She’s not the role model girls need.
She’s the role model everyone else does.