“…and that’s not how lightsabers work!” she fumed. I couldn’t help but laugh.
A few weeks after my first viewing of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I sat down for coffee with my good friend Michelle. Of all my friends, I wanted to hear her thoughts the most. You see, Michelle is the classiest brand of Star Wars fan. Like me, she was raised in the faith– rather, the Force– and grew up completely in love with Star Wars. While I eventually gravitated towards other fandoms, her love for the galaxy far, far away has never waned. Her relationship with Star Wars is something like a great marriage: the passion runs rich and deep, but in a very understated way that is seen only in such couples with a long, storied history together. I know plenty of Star Wars fans, but I probably hold her opinions in the highest regard. Naturally, hearing her commentary, both positive and negative, on the newest installment was a must. She loves Star Wars and I love hearing people talk about… well, what they love.
This is what Star Wars does. Star Wars brings people together, whether they’re two kids playing with toy lightsabers or two twentysomethings getting together for coffee. Star Wars has had such a cultural impact that it has actually elevated itself above the genre of science fiction and found a place more akin to the level of epic myth. What other franchise has had the same influence over genre storytelling and pop culture? Not unlike the Force itself, the love– or at least due respect– of Star Wars flows through all living things. Star Wars is a bonding experience.
However, in the past decade, we have seen a dramatic shift in the subculture of sci-fan fans. At the risk of making a sweeping generalization, I would argue that in the course of the past four or five years, we have witnessed “geek culture” take a turn towards the Dark Side. Even as society itself becomes more progressive and accepting, our subculture has become more closed-off and elitist, to the point of becoming almost inhospitable. As soon as the things we loved began to move into the mainstream– a la Marvel’s successful cinematic universe, DC Comics’ resurgence through prime time television, etc– the old guard began to bitterly claim the new generation of fans weren’t “true fans.” In fact, the past few years have revealed two unpleasant truths about geek culture as a whole: not only is it often elitist and exclusionary, it is often aggressively sexist. Search your feelings. You know it to be true.
Rey, portrayed by the ever so lovely Daisy Ridley, is something new for Star Wars. As a standalone character in a franchise with rich history, cultural attachments, and– let’s face it– rabid fans, Rey is in danger of being not just overshadowed but overwhelmed by the scope of not just the adventure she finds herself thrown into but by Star Wars itself. This is presented multiple times early on in the film with some phenomenal visuals: sweeping wide shots of a silhouetted girl on against a sprawling desert; standing atop the dunes beneath the massive exhaust port of a scuttled Imperial Cruiser; sleeping in the wreckage of an AT-AT walker. The enormity of it all– the political struggle between the Resistance and First Order, the battle between the light and the dark, even Star Wars itself– threatens to overwhelm the orphaned scavenger of Jakku.
Within the context of the story, Rey threatens to be a legacy breaker, a dramatic shift from the Star Wars we have known. On a grander, more meta-text level, she might just bring balance not only to the Force but to the fandom itself. She has the potential to change the way Star Wars fans interact with not just each other but with Star Wars itself, as a living thing. Rey represents an exciting time of potential change for both Star Wars and subculture… maybe even an awakening. (You had to see that coming.)
But what does that look like, exactly? What does Rey do specifically that challenges the problems Star Wars and science fiction currently face? Can one character fundamentally change the nature of a story and how it lives on? Is what Rey brings to Star Wars going to undermine the thing itself by changing how we experience it? As with any proposed change to canon, this is where things come under somewhat excessive scrutiny.)
I am beyond thrilled with the introduction of a female hero for Star Wars. It’s not only a refreshing change for the galaxy far, far away, but it also challenges the misogyny that seems to run rampant in geek subculture. Those who think that sexism is not the problem amongst fans today are ignoring nearly everything that has happened in the past two or three years, from the jabs and critiques sent to Carrie Fischer regarding her appearance and her knowledge of obscure Star Wars trivia to the “fake geek girl” witch-hunt, beginning with passive aggressive memes and mutating to an aggressive challenging or even threatening of women in the science fiction community, be they comic creators or even just fans. Society is trying to be more progressive in terms of what women are allowed to do, but now subculture is becoming restrictive about what women are allowed to like. Both my sister and several of my friends (including my lightsaber aficionado, Michelle) have voiced a heartbreaking sentiment: it is easier as a woman to stay quiet about the things you love and avoid arguing, being tested, and being shouted down than to wear your fandom on your sleeve. Geek culture is no longer an all-inclusive, safe space for the fans and the outcasts. That’s what science fiction certainly should be– particularly Star Wars.
So what better way to begin remedying the issue of misogyny in science fiction than to start with Star Wars, the crown jewel of modern sci-fi? What about introducing a heroine, self-sufficient and capable, into the universe people have such strong feelings for? A heroine whose identity and strength didn’t come from the family of origin or from the established rules of that universe, but who drew her strength and sense of self from within? I would argue that at this point in time there is no reason to have any problems with the introduction of Rey and her abilities other than internalized prejudices. The same goes for John Boyega’s runaway Stormtrooper, Finn. Giving Star Wars a strong female lead could be the beginning restoring balance to a once accepting and inclusive subculture, or at the very least wake people up to the resurgent and toxic issue of sexism in fandoms.
Furthermore, Rey offers a compelling and enjoyable female role model for little girls. In my opinion, science fiction and fantasy have struggled to produce a worthwhile, memorable, and relatable one of those since Buffy The Vampire Slayer. Attempts have been made at replicating that Buffy Summer Formula with next to no success; instead, we are left with characters like perennial damsel Bella Swan of Twilight and the reactionary, emotionally distant Katniss Everdeen of The Hunger Games. These female characters that have actually made their way into mainstream media and receive culture-wide recognition have been disappointing and have fallen short in their potential to be role models. This is especially disappointing when I think about little girls who love Star Wars and sci-fi; do they really have to wait until they’re old enough to watch shows from over twenty years ago to find a hero they can truly identify with?
What my older sister wouldn’t have given for the character of Rey to be available when we were kids running around with toy lightsabers! Looking back, I can still remember her frustrations; why couldn’t Leia have a lightsaber in the movies, if she was the “other” child Yoda spoke of? This led my sister to retconning or even creating original characters all her own when we would play, which I imagine was pretty influential on her journey to becoming the sci-fi/fantasy author she is today. Daisy Ridley’s Rey is the kind of hero I want my daughter to be excited about from an early age: a strong and independent woman who fights to protect others and is willing to be emotional, not distant. Rey is a female role model you could introduce to a 6-year-old that could have a lasting impact. A heroine who not only challenges current issues in pop culture but also has the potential to be a long-standing role model for new fans, even those under the age of ten? Sign me up!
Rey is an understated game changer. She challenges paradigms and internalized stigmas rampant among fandoms across the board, but as I’ve said, she also threatens to be a legacy breaker. At face value, that sounds like a bad thing. I assure you, it’s not.
Intentional or not (I would argue intentional), The Force Awakens also gave us a perfect parallel for the classic Star Wars fan and longtime geeks of the world in the form of Kylo Ren: dedicated to the past, nuanced in the Force, and angry at the new world. With the sacrifice of the expanded universe to make The Force Awakens accessible to a new generation of fans, the diehard and devout are feeling a little unhappy with the new normal. Some are outright bitter. “The new fans don’t have the same history with [insert franchise here]! How could they possibly love it the same?” It’s hard to blame people for being upset. In contrast to Kylo Ren, Rey represents the awakening: the new generation of fans for all things geek. She has no history, no attachment to the past, no known familial relations that would justify her connections to the force…
And that’s okay. In fact, that’s outstanding. As Maz Kanata says to Rey in the film, “The Force moves through all living things… brings us together. Close your eyes. Can you feel it?” If that’s the nature of The Force, why should there be any need for a blood tie to make Rey worthy of Skywalker’s mantle? The notion of legacies, of familial conflict, has been played out at this point in the Star Wars franchise. Continually circling back to the dynamic of father and son ad nauseum– Obi-Wan and Qui-Gon; Skywalker and Sidious; Kenobi and Skywalker; Luke and Vader; Ren and Solo– is not producing the prophecied child who will bring balance to the Force, within the world of the story. Elitism and old-blood aren’t restoring balance to the world of the story or the world of the fans, either. Those things are deepening a divide.
After crippling Finn, Kylo Ren reaches out for the lightsaber left abandoned in the snow, the proverbial birthright and inheritance of the Skywalker name. And instead, in both a wonderful homage to Empire but also a metatextual gesture, that mantle passes itself to Rey. A lot of people cried “Mary Sue!” about the confrontation between the two, ignoring just how many exciting layers there were to that scene.
Kylo Ren has the history and the old blood, and yet somehow is no more worthy to take up Luke’s weapon than some alleged nobody. “That lightsaber belongs to me,” he growls; he’s furious, and only further infuriated that a girl with no training and no right to the weapon is not only holding her own against him, but has somehow connected with the Force itself. You can bet that Kylo Ren, not unlike the oldest of the Star Wars fans, stomped back to his ship after the battle and immediately began trying to figure out how this could happen and who this girl might be. Because the truly bitter fanboys can’t stomach that some random newcomer– let alone a girl– could be an equal.
I don’t think I have to belabor the nuances of that scene any more than I already have. If we look at the scene through a lens of old guard versus emerging fanbase, the message is incredibly clear. For those who think I’m reading into a scene and finding intentions that weren’t there, consider that this is a JJ Abrams film; the man has on more than one occasion voiced his frustration with the state of subculture. A third-act fight that just so happens to address both the issues of sexism and elitism in the world of the geek? That’s no coincidence.
As the things we love begin to divide us more, we’ve needed something that could restore balance to our subculture. In a story about a universe at war with itself and seeking peace and balance on a cosmic level, that’s a Herculean task… one that comes appropriately with the territory of epic myth. To expect one character to fill that role within not only the story but within the real world itself is unreasonable. And yet despite the overwhelming odds, I find I have faith in Rey. Even if she alone cannot restore the balance needed in two worlds– one fictional, one real– she is more than a step in the right direction. She represents an awakening, an awareness of a problem and imbalance created over the past decade that must be set right. Rey is already sending a powerful message: your birthplace, gender, family of origin, and background cannot keep you from making a difference in the world around you, let alone forging powerful bonds and bringing people together.
And isn’t that what being a Star Wars fan is supposed to do?
Curators and creators of modern science fiction, take note: Rey represents the beginning of a dramatic change in our beloved genre. She’s only the first soldier in a rebellion against outdated and toxic tradition. There has been an awakening, and our wonderful wasteland scavenger is just the beginning.