I was not expecting to write this post, but I kept thinking about the idea of Rey as symbolic of a Religious Virgin and what that would mean for the film (and the potential of Reylo.)
In my previous post, I wrote about the idea of Rey staying single in the films. I argued that, rather than being a trail blazing decision, a single Rey would fit the pattern for both the proverbial Woman Warrior Virgin and the Religious Virgin. I also wrote that I don’t think that Disney should use the symbolism of the Religious Virgin since I think that would ultimately fail.
Despite the fact that I don’t think that Disney should use this symbolism, I can’t help but contemplate what that symbolism would be, and how it would affect the story, and the possibility of Reylo.
A cursory overview of the stories of Religious Virgins reveal common themes.
1 The Religious Virgin vows never to marry and/or engage in sex, often going to great lengths to maintain this vow, and this allows her to channel divine power.
The Religious Virgin story always begin with a young woman taking a vow of virginity. These women face strong objections from their families and usually the larger society as a whole. These women will also go to great lengths to uphold their vow. However, the Religious Virgin, by virtue of upholding her vow, is able to channel divine power, granting her abilities we would see as superpowers today. (St. Catherine of Sienna could be in two locations at once; soldiers attempt to burn St. Agnes at the stake but she will not burn; St. Teresa of Avila levitates.) \
Another example of divine power is St. Cecelia, a Religious Virgin who was forced to marry a man. According to the legend, she tells him on her wedding night that she is guarded by an angel who will kill her husband if he dare touches her. Her husband, intrigued, agrees to be baptized, after which he can see the angel guarding his wife. Her husband agrees to respect his wife’s vow and the two never have sex, despite their marriage.
In the Middle Ages, virgins in general were also seen in a mystical way. For example, the best way to see a unicorn was to take a virgin into the woods. A unicorn, being a pure creature, would be attracted to the virgin’s presence and place his head in the virgin’s lap. Even without the addition of superpowers, the Religious Virgin takes the vow of virginity because it is easier for a virgin to achieve salvation than a married woman, and the virgin will enjoy a higher status in heaven than a married woman.
2 Male sexuality is a demonic force.
The Religious Virgin stories are frequently criticized for promoting a negative view of female sexuality. This is not entirely correct. In the Religious Virgin stories, female sexuality is not so much negatively portrayed as it is absent. (Critics will point out that this absence can promote negative attitudes about female sexuality, and they are correct.) However, these stories do strongly feature male sexuality, and in these stories, male sexuality is always a threatening, violent, malevolent force that causes pain, suffering, destruction, and death. (Depressing? Yes. Wrong? Not really.) A man desires to marry St. Agnes, and as a result, St. Agnes is sent to a brothel, tied to a stake and burned, and finally beheaded. A man desires to marry St. Lucy and he has his soldiers gouge out her eyes and then she is beheaded. A man desires to marry St. Agatha and he has his soldiers cut off her breasts and leaves her to die in prison. We see this even in modern accounts of the virgin narrative; a young man desires to sleep with young St. Maria Goretti, and he stabs her repeatedly and leaves her to crawl home alone and die. In these stories, female purity is juxtaposed with male sexuality, the former bringing forth eternal life and salvation, the latter bringing forth death and damnation.
(St. Agatha by Lorenzo Lippi. In this painting, she holds her severed breasts on a plate.)
3 The Religious Virgin suffers greatly.
As I alluded to above, the Religious Virgin suffers greatly, usually at the hands of a spurned suitor, but also from tragic circumstances. St. Lucy, St. Agnes, and St. Agatha suffer horrific mutilations, imprisonment, and execution. St. Therese of Liseux and St. Bernadette Soubirous die from tuberculosis. St. Kateri Tekakwitha is scarred by the smallpox that kills her family. The Religious Virgin will often embrace suffering as a sign of divine favor, and sometimes impose suffering through self-mortification (living in the desert, wearing hair shirts, whipping herself), fasting, or some combination of the two.
(St. Lucy of Syracuse by Domenico Beccafumi, holding her eyes on a plate.)
4 The Religious Virgin dies but her death is seen as a victory.
The story of the Religious Virgin always ends in death, but the death is seen as a victory. St. Ambrose refers to St. Agnes’ death as her “birthday.” St. Therese describes her impending death as an impending wedding, since it will bring about union with God. Virgins who died keeping their vows of virginity were guaranteed great rewards in heaven. These rewards would be greatly increased if they also died as martyrs.
In Eamon Duffy’s excellent Stripping of the Altars, he describes how the average man and woman in medieval England did not view saints as role models for their daily lives. Rather, they were viewed as channels of divine power on which they could draw for their needs. Thus, they were not alienated by saints doing increasingly bizarre or otherworldly actions that they could not hope to imitate. Quite the contrary; the more extravagant the life the saint, the greater the power of the saint’s intercessory prayers. Thus St. Agatha, whose breasts were torn off by pincers, becomes the patron saint of breast cancer patients. Saint Lucy’s eyes are gouged out; she becomes the patron saint of eye difficulties, etc.
(Thumb of St. Catherine of Sienna displayed in a reliquary.)
So, these are the basic themes of the Religious Virgin stories. If Disney applied these themes to Rey and saw her as the Religious Virgin, how would that impact her story (and Reylo?)?
1 Rey’s power to use the Force is tied to her virginity/unmarried status.
We have already seen Rey’s power with the force, easily using the Jedi mind trick, deflecting Kylo Ren’s mind reading and entering his mind instead, and then summoning the lightsaber and defeating him in a fight. These powers have been the subject of much speculation (is Rey Luke’s/Palpatine’s/Obi-Wan Kenobi’s daughter or the reincarnation of Anakin Skywalker?) and much criticism (Rey is a Mary Sue!).
However, if we apply the Religious Virgin tropes to Rey, then her powers make sense. Rey is single and a virgin, and this state gives her an increased sensitivity to the Force, and gives her the ability to draw on its power. This would also fit in well with Anakin’s fall to the Dark Side (Anakin marries Padme, and he easily succumbs to the Dark Side, whereas the Single/Virginal Obi-Wan Kenobi/Yoda/Luke are able to resist), and would even explain why Leia does not seem to be very powerful or skilled with the Force (Leia’s marriage to Han impedes her ability to draw on the Force.)
What does this mean for the future of Rey (and Reylo?)
First of all, it means that Rey must stay single/a virgin. Rey’s survival in the story is tied to her ability to use the Force, and if we apply the Religious Virgin narrative to Rey, then Rey’s ability to use the Force are tied to her remaining single and a virgin. Any romantic or sexual relationship would threaten to weaken her ability to use the Force, and by extension, threaten her life.
Second of all, it means that if Luke is to remain a powerful Light Jedi, Luke cannot be Rey’s father. Luke’s ability to draw on the Force, as well as to resist the temptation of the light side, would also be damaged by marriage and/or sexual activity. (Of course, if Luke has lost his Force abilities or has gone over to the Dark Side, all bets are off.)
2 Male sexuality will play a part in Rey’s story, and it will be an instrument of the Dark Side/Evil.
If Disney applies the Religious Virgin themes to Rey’s story, then male sexuality will feature prominently in the story as a demonic force. In Star Wars, this means that male sexuality, like anger, fear, agression, is a path of the Dark Side, and leads to suffering and destruction. (We see this clearly in the Prequel trilogy. Anakin does not deny his male sexuality, and everyone dies.)
What does this mean for Rey (and Reylo?)
It means that Rey will not desire anyone, since the Religious Virgin does not desire any human. However, Rey will be the object of that desire. Furthermore, that desire will be a frightening, violent, deadly force that works only for evil. This desire will bring great suffering to Rey and possibly death to her and to others. The implications for Reylo are obvious. In this scenario, Kylo Ren will show a sexual obsession with Rey. This sexual interest will not only be unrequited, but it will drive Kylo Ren to hurt and destroy others.
This would fit in very well with the films as portrayed in The Force Awakens. For example, many Reylo supporters feel that Kylo Ren feels jealous of Finn when he sees Finn run over to Rey. He then tortures and nearly kills Finn. That is a perfect example of male sexuality bringing forth pain and suffering.
3 Rey will suffer, but even if she dies, her death will be a victory.
It goes without saying that the Religious Virgin symbolism would mean that Rey will spend most of her time in the coming movies suffering. This suffering will especially be meted out by a man who sexually desires her, and his desire will cause him to torture her, and quite possibly kill her in the end.
What does this mean for Rey in the films, and potentially Reylo?
In the films, this could mean that just as Kylo Ren uses the pain from his wound to draw on the Dark Side of the Force in order to fight, Kylo Ren will use his sexual desire for Rey to draw on the Dark Side of the Force so that he can hurt and (most likely) kill her.
However, Rey’s death will ultimately be a victory for her, for exactly the same reasons that death is seen as victory for the Religious Virgin. When the Religious Virgin dies, she obtains union with the divine and becomes a powerful channel of divine power. Just before Obi-Wan dies in A New Hope, he tells Darth Vader, “You can’t win Darth. If you strike me down, I will become more powerful than you can possibly imagine.” When Darth Vader beheads Obi-Wan, his body disappears; becoming one with the Force. If Rey dies a virgin, and true to the light side of the Force, she will become one with the Force and thus infinitely more powerful than she could ever be in life.
(St. Agnes’ skull displayed in a reliquary)
So, if Disney chose to embrace the Religious Virgin symbolism of Rey’s character, that is how I would see it playing out in the remaining films. Should Disney do that? Probably not.
For one thing, the female virginity = good and male sexuality = bad narrative would be (rightly) criticized as being very negative about human sexuality. It is also noticeable what is absent in the Religious Virgin narrative; love between men and women. The Religious Virgin stories were primarily written during a time when the highest form of love was the love of friendship between two men. In the Religious Virgin narrative,two ideas emerge: Love only exists between a person and the divine, and love, almost by definition, cannot exist between men and women and men and women can have successful relationships only when male sexuality is absent. Both of these ideas would be a hard sell in the modern world, and would not mesh well with the romantic partnership between Leia and Han in Return of the Jedi.
Second of all, while Disney was brave enough to kill off the protagonist of Rogue One, I don’t know if they necessarily want to go down that road in the trilogy. Rey’s loss as a character would be a more difficult one for the audience to take.
Third, I don’t think that either Disney or the audience would necessarily understand this symbolism. Disney will likely not understand these themes at all, and most likely botch them. The average audience would not understand the themes and likely find them depressing and downright creepy. Which they are.
(Severed head of St. Catherine of Sienna. This is not a model, this is an actual severed human head. I believe it is still used in religious processions.)
In part, I hate saying this, because I want Disney to “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy.” But I also want the films to succeed as films in their own right.
Let me put it this way. I would rather the films pursue the Religious Virgin motif for Rey than to follow the “Rey is Luke’s Daughter “train of thought. That would be incredibly obvious, stupid, and boring. This would be less obvious and potentially moving, though they Disney will most likely butcher it and everyone will end up very confused and frustrated. I don’t think Disney should pursue either of these tracks, but if they have to pick one over the other, I’ll pick the “Religious Virgin” symbolism over “Rey is Luke’s Daughter.”