Feminism in Star Wars: Rey Vs. Princess Leia

The new Star Wars film has a woman with a gun shooting people and committing other acts of violence. She also has various other skills. This has been described as feminist by some, in contrast to Princess Leia. If people want more characters (or worse, people) like Rey, then I’m afraid feminism still has a lot to accomplish.

If you praise Rey for her skills and ‘strength’, you’re probably uncomfortable with a female character being a human. This new obsession with resilience, with a power fantasy also leaked itself into discussions around Mad Max. I don’t know which is worse. A power fantasy about violence, or a fantasy about being weak and defined by how a man feels about you.

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Your average Fallout protagonist

Rey has no unique line of dialogue, no reactions that are specific to her that define her personality. Han Solo is a sarcastic, gritty smuggler. Chewbacca is his partner who growls and says whatever is on his mind. Finn is a moral hero who’s too afraid to be a hero. Kylo Ren is an angry teenager dying for a little bit of power. BB-8 is a childish, more energetic version of R2-D2.

What makes Rey unique?

People praised Rey for being strong, for being skilled and ‘surviving on her own’. If you played a Fallout game, you know that’s not much of an achievement. A character survives on a wasteland because the author wrote it so. A character can fix a spaceship because the author put skill points into that area.

Characters are not defined by skills. They are defined by their personalities, their desires and needs and flaws and inner conflicts. These are the qualities that drive stories. If skills were enough, then my Amazon in Diablo II would have been one of the best female characters ever.

The skills of the Amazon don’t move the story of Diablo. Why the Amazon would go chasing after Diablo could be an obsession with morality, or revenge, or desire for glory. Each of these traits would lead to a drastically different story with different themes.

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From one fantasy to the next, we still struggle to draw women as human beings

A hero concerned more with glory would interact differently with characters. They would boast and they would only take missions that will grant them fame. A hero that seeks revenge will have tunnel vision, won’t bother about anything but killing Diablo. In all of these stories the Amazon still has the skills. She can still throw javelins, yet they’re so different.

Princess Leia is more of a human than Rey. She might be a damsel in distress, but that’s her initial role. It’s not her personality. Throughout the film we learn who she is by how she speaks. She’s confident in her position of power. She’s so used to it she speaks to everyone in a bossy way. As soon as she’s rescued she takes command of the gang. Notice how, before they reach Leia they’re a bunch of weird buffons.

Rey doesn’t affect her surroundings like this. I often forgot she even existed. I cannot remember a scene that her personality contributed anything to. There is a bit of ‘tough girl’ persona going on, but it’s not well-developed. Rey screams here and there for Finn to stop holding her hand. Instead of sounding strong, she sounds like a grumpy tsundere. It’s shocking she also didn’t call him ‘baka’.

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Looks feminine, relies on a guy and still has more personality

The tough girl persona can work, of course. Furiosa was a cliche, but the creators (kind of) knew what makes the cliche work. Everything in her appearance pointed to a hero so rugged they have no existence outside of posing with shotguns. She has a distinct look that fits her archetype. Rey’s archetype is more vague. She’s tough, but not in a unique manner. Furiosa was tough in an 80’s action way. She’s inspired by Schwarznegger and Sylvester Stallone – the desexualized human who exists to kill people because it’s fun. Of course, they did tack the whole redemption thing but I already addressed Fury Road‘s failure at feminism.

It’s weird how Western cinema still struggles with female characters. You don’t have to explore anime too much to find diverse casts. Just look to Neon Genesis Evangelion or Attack on Titan. Even shows that rely on sexiness and fanservice, like Freezing, still have a cast that’s as diverse as their design. What’s better is that all of these characters can be developed without hiding their femininity. The characters of Freezing don’t need a tough exterior to fight the Novas.

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Leia isn’t satisfied with just getting rescued – she reacts.

The request for more women who ‘kick ass’ (basically, are violent) is odd. The obsession with power also makes me question whether these people even understand how fiction works. Fiction isn’t a fantasy to escape from reality to. Fiction, like any other art form, brings us closer to reality. It’s supposed to connect to it in some way. It can be anything from exploring pure visual beauty or themes of life and death. A character that is a wish fulfillment is boring.

I wonder how long it will take until this trend will die. Trends come and go, anyway. We now have an obsession with toughness and grimdarkness. We used to have an obsession with escapist brightness. Someday we’ll look at it all and laugh at how stupid we are.

Further reading: Keely’s series of posts on Strong Female Characters

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7 thoughts on “Feminism in Star Wars: Rey Vs. Princess Leia”

  1. I stopped reading straight after “Rey has no unique line of dialogue blah-blah”. Rey has no unique personality? Did you watch the movie at all? She is not only a hero who has been surviving all by herself – strong, capable, tough. She is lonely, angry, touched by the Dark Side. Maybe try watch the movie again instead of drooling over unique men’s personalities.

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    1. I wish you’d elaborate more on what Rey’s unique personality is. I watched the film twice and hoped to see something I missed, but I kept forgetting about her.

      ‘Strong capable and tough’ aren’t character traits. They’re easy to write. Again, my Amazon in Diablo has the same skills.

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  2. This is a really interesting article, I love the nod to Future Diary. That show embraces so many tropes but somehow subverts a lot of them too. With The Force Awakens I felt like the new characters were designed specifically to be the exact opposite of what we might have expected. It doesn’t fully work though, I totally agree that Ren could have had a more developed personality.

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    1. There was definitely an attempt to modernize the SW franchise in VII. That’s why it didn’t feel unnecessary to me – I expected it to be total crap. Kylo Ren and Finn are both opposites of their predecessors.

      Kylo Ren, unlike Vader or Palpatin or the other Siths is weak. He’s a villain who’s emotionally weak, a slave to his emotions instead of being a master. Finn is also weak. Although he has a moral compass, he’s too afraid of dying and concerned about his own survival. They are less mythic than the originals.

      I don’t have this Rey. She doesn’t subvert anything. Leia was already subversive – a damsel-in-distress who refused to stay that way. All I saw in Rey was just violence.

      And yes, Future Diary is fantastic in its oddness. Yuno is charismatic, but I think even the fans don’t realize how unique her character is.

      Thanks for your comment.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Although I have not seen the movie, I have been irritated with how female characters are portrayed in Hollywood as very one dimensional, with under developed personalities.
    I have been comparing this phenomena with how women are portrayed in Korean dramas – one of my favorite genre of television. Although some have warned me that as a feminist I may find the traditional gender roles portrayed in many of these series offensive, I actually find traditional gender roles much less offensive when both male and female characters are well developed.

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  4. I dig this and think it makes some great points. That said…

    “A character that is a wish fulfillment is boring.”

    It’s not boring if you’re not used to having your wishes fulfilled. When I was a kid, I was a tomboy who loved playing pirates, violent computer games and reading fantasy stories about adventure and daring. Yet I was constantly disappointed with the women in the media I was exposed to (admittedly not a lot as we didn’t have a TV) they never fought, they were always the ones being saved. When Xena Warrior Princess came out, I was obsessed. And I adored Mad Max, it was like one giant music video that glorified in its trashiness.

    I think Western media will get sick of this kind of character once they stop being novel and new and then we can move onto more nuanced portrayals of women. For now though, I’m enjoying the catharsis of watching chicks fuck shit up and the escapism it allows me. It is junk food, yes, but it’s a type of junk food I’ve had very little opportunity to indulge in.

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    1. This is a good point. I guess the rarity of it compared to older films means it holds up.

      I don’t think it’ll stand the test of time. I don’t ask for the women to be desexualized or to be weak. What I ask for is for them to have a little more than just the ability to beat people up.

      The anime Freezing relies heavily on sexy characters to attract the audience, yet even it had a big cast of female characters with their own personality. Give me a story about a bunch of warrior women and if you’ll make them sexy I, as a straight male, will be happier. Just make sure their role is bigger than “Sexy and beating people up”.

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