This is going to be a composite post, and a long one at that. Brace yourself.
Part 1: What I Want
First of all, I am going to talk about my want for Rey. In several posts, I have said that I want Rey to have a female friend. In fact, I want Rey to have more than one female friend.
I had written in Why Wonder Woman Can’t Win Part 1 why it would be revolutionary for a character like Rey to have even one female friend.
Where is Jyn’s female friend in this picture?
Where is Black Widow’s female friend in this picture?
Where is Wonder Woman’s female friend in this picture?
My mom was recently on a bit of a Michael Moore kick, after she saw his film Where to Invade Next on Amazon Prime and insisted I watch it too. Since I had never seen a Michael Moore film, I acquiesced. One of the women in the film, in Iceland, talked about the law that a company’s board must have at least 40% women (or 40% men). She describes how they discovered that one woman is a token, two is a minority, but once the board had three or more women, they started to see cultural change in the board.
I wonder if there is a similar dynamic in these kinds of films.
The filmmakers believe, perhaps rightly so, that it is mostly men who see Star Wars or super hero movies, and the women who attend only attend because of the men in their lives. The filmmakers don’t want to be seen as sexist or misogynistic, but they also don’t want to alienate the men who make up the majority of the audience. In order to do this, they create one woman character who is the stereotypical woman warrior. There are a number of results of this decision.
1 Since there is only one woman, she is often portrayed as “one of the boys.” She adapts to the cultural norms of men, rather than the men being forced to change their cultural norms. If there was more than one woman, the men may be forced to change.
Just like this poor man.
The horror. The horror.
2 The idea of a woman gaining equality by abstaining from sexual and romantic relationships with a man is nothing new. Consider what St. Jerome, who lived in the 4th and 5th century, during the waning years of the Roman empire. He wrote a letter to a man named Lucinius. Lucinius and his wife had taken vows of continence, ie they had given up sex. St Jerome is thrilled with this decision (of course) and he writes to Lucinius to assure of him of the blessings he shall receive. Here is one of them.
“You have with you one who was once your partner in the flesh but is now your partner in the spirit; once your wife but now your sister; once a woman but now a man; once an inferior but now an equal. Under the same yoke as you she hastens toward the same heavenly kingdom.”
St Jerome’s Letter 71 To Lucinius
Did you catch that? Lucinius’ wife, Theodora, has sworn off sex, and she is now the equal of a man. She is even referred to as a man. We see a similar dynamic in the arc of Sarah Connor in the Terminator movies.
These ideas have been around for centuries, so it actually makes sense for films to draw on them. It is one reason why we focus on the never married Susan B. Anthony, and ignore her married and mother of seven partner in crime, Elizabeth Caddy Stanton.
It’s also why I get annoyed when people talk about how revolutionary it is to show a woman without a man in film. “Oh, we are so revolutionary! We have co-opted ancient Christian ideas that originated during the Roman Empire! How original and counter-cultural we are!”
3 What is original in these movies is the idea of women living without the companionship of other women. This is not how the warrior virgins/religious virgins are historically portrayed, and also how they historically lived. Historically, most women who rejected marriage lived in communities of women.
These women were estranged from men and mostly estranged from their biological families, and encouraged to sever ties with them. Chapter 9 of St. Teresa of Avila’s The Way of Perfection counsels her nuns to shun their blood relatives.
Oh, if we religious understood what harm we get from having so much to do with our relatives, how we should shun them!
I am astounded at the harm which intercourse with our relatives does us: I do not think anyone who had not experience of it would believe it. And how our religious Orders nowadays, or most of them, at any rate, seem to be forgetting about perfection, though all, or most, of the saints wrote about it! I do not know how much of the world we really leave when we say that we are leaving everything for God’s sake, if we do not withdraw ourselves from the chief thing of all — namely, our kinsfolk.
Still, they did not live in isolation. St. Teresa continues.
Believe me, sisters, if you serve God as you should, you will find no better relatives than those [of His servants] whom His Majesty sends you. I know this is so, and, if you keep on as you are doing here, and realize that by doing otherwise you will be failing your true Friend and Spouse, you may be sure that you will very soon gain this freedom. Then you will be able to trust those who love you for His sake alone more than all your relatives, and they will not fail you, so that you will find parents and brothers and sisters where you had never expected to find them
In other words, St. Teresa is encouraging her nuns to look upon their fellow religious as their family.
The women in these kinds of films (Sarah Connor in Terminator 2, Rey in Star Wars) are expected to reject the romantic and sexual companionship of men in order to achieve equality with men. Nothing new, as I have said above. What is new, in my opinion, is that they are also expected to reject the companionship of other women as well. What is the result?
4 These result is that they create a completely unattainable standard for the women in the audience. These women are the equals of men, but they are completely isolated from all companionship, men and women. They are also the only women that we see in the films. The implication is clear. If women want to achieve equality with men, they must isolate themselves from all human relationships. The woman’s isolation is both the cause, and effect, of their equality.
It is at this point that I must make a distinction between the reward (equality) given to these women in films and the reward (salvation) given to the women in religious communities mentioned above.
St. Jerome, a man of his time, was a great proponent of celibacy. He believed that the unmarried would be saved more easily than the married and that they would experience greater rewards in heaven than the married. However, St. Jerome did acknowledge that married men and women could still hope to be saved. He acknowledged this grudgingly to be sure (the man was a brilliant scholar but he had the temperament of an internet troll), but he did concede that while the unmarried were running to eternal life, the married were also limping there as well.
This is a harsh message, no doubt about it. But the message of the films is even harsher.
The message of the film is not “Women with friends or boyfriends can also have equality with men, but it will be much harder for them and they will be less equal than other women,” which would be analogous to St. Jerome’s position. It is clear that there is no hope for equality outside of total isolation. This is brought home by the complete dearth of women in these films. The women either exist in isolation, totally adapted to the rules of the boys’ club, or they don’t exist at all. The message of the films is, “If you don’t destroy your need for human contact, you will never be the equal of a man.”
It is because of all this that I want Rey to have a couple of female friends.
1 It would establish that women do not need to be completely isolated in order to have equality with men. Rey could be showed enjoying the company of her friends, drawing on them for support, and sharing triumphs and sorrow with them. If she could experience all of this and still be treated as a equal by the men in her life, it would be a powerful statement that women do not need to cut themselves off from all relationships in order to achieve equality with women.
Frank Pellett worries that if Rey becomes involved with Kylo Ren, it would make her common. If Rey had two female friends, she would be both uncommon and common. She would be uncommon in the sense that it is completely unheard of for a female protagonist in films like these to have even one female friend, never mind two! She would also be common in the sense that the women in the audience could see themselves and their relationships represented. They could see her enjoying the same kinds of friendships and having the same kind of conversations that they have, and they can also see that the men in the film treat her as an equal. The implication is clear. Women do not need to abandon all relationships in order to deserve equality with men.
2 It would signify a change of culture in these kinds of films.
We saw this most significantly two years ago with Mad Max Fury Road. Furiosa is great, but I felt that I had seen her before many times. My favorite characters in the film were the wives. They were prisoners seeking freedom, but they were not passive victims. The story of the film is women who have been kept as sex slaves (breeders) desperate to escape their captivity, to the point where they convince Furiosa to take them away. I watched this film the same day I watched Room with Brie Larson and the basic story is the same (yet the two films could not be more different.) Without question, my favorite moment in the film is when one of the wives tells Max, “We’re not going back.” There is a tremendous amount of controversy over the kinds of stories we tell about women in these types of films. Many people who saw Avengers 2: Age of Ultron were upset that The Black Widow’s subplot revolved around her struggle with infertility. I am not going to comment on that because I have not seen it. But I am thrilled that Mad Max Fury Road tells the story of women escaping sexual slavery because it proclaims loud and clear that women’s stories (and this is not a story that could ever be told about a man) have value.
This is a remarkably different kind of story than we normally see in these films. In most films like these, the story is entirely about the men. The women are not characters as much as props. They are things.
Mad Max Fury Road has the opposite point of view.
Mad Max Fury Road is told through the perspective of the women, and forces men to view the events through their perspective. And men loved it.
OK, enough about what I want. Now, I want to talk about what Rey wants.
Part 2: What Rey Wants
It’s quite simple. Rey wants a family.
This is made perfectly clear in the film. Rey lives in pure survival mode, eeking out an existence day to day by scavenging for parts. She marks off days on a giant board, counting the days that she has been left on Jakku. I think this is partly why she eventually takes to BB-8. She is offered a tremendous amount of food in exchange for the droid, and while she is initially tempted, she turns down the offer. I think this is because BB-8 is the only family she has known since a child.
We get an even greater sense later of how strong her desire for her family is when we discover that Rey is a capable pilot. She could have stolen a ship at any point and flown off of Jakku, but she never does. Even when she steals the Millennium Falcon to help Finn and BB-8 escape, she wants to return home to Jakku. She does not tell Finn why, but we know that this is because she is waiting for her family.
In a way, Rey is portrayed as childlike. She still keeps a doll in her AT-AT home. There’s also a sense of childlike play when she puts the helmet on as she sits outside in the sunset. Most of all, her greatest desire is for her mom and dad to return and for her to resume her life as a daughter.
Rey advances towards this goal, with relationships with Finn and Han Solo, but by the end of The Force Awakens she seems no closer to her goal of a family. Han is dead. Finn is gravely injured, and she must leave him behind to go find Luke.
The role of this want (the desire for a family) and the rest of the story (including the possibility of Reylo) depends on a very simple question: Is it a good thing for Rey to desire a family?
This question is not straight forward. If we look at families through the lens of the Prequel Trilogy, then families are dangerous. Anakin is unable to detach from his mother, and then he attaches himself to his wife. The Jedi Council is fearful of Anakin’s attachment to his mother, since they fear that his love for her could lead to his fall to the Dark Side. Yoda and Obi Wan worry that Anakin’s love for Padme could also lead to the Dark Side.
Their attitude towards families could best be described as this.
If anyone comes to me and does not hate father and mother, wife and children, brothers and sisters—yes, even their own life—such a person cannot be my disciple.
Anakin does not hate his mother, wife or children, which precludes him from being a Jedi.
If the Prequel Trilogy agrees with Jesus that a Jedis (disciples) cannot be Jedis without hating their biological family, then Rey’s desire for a family is not a good thing, but a weakness and a temptation to be overcome. Only when she overcomes this weakness can she fully be a Jedi.
In this scenario, any relationship between Rey and a redeemed Ben Solo (or Finn or anyone else). Furthermore, in this scenario, Kylo Ren must attack her weakness (her desire for a family) in order to be an effective antagonist.
An antagonist is only successful as an antagonist if the antagonist pushes the protagonist, nullifying strengths and attacking weaknesses. So far, Kylo has been a terrible antagonist for Rey. She has only had two conflicts with him and each time she has defeated him easily. This is also the flaw of Rey in the script, since the writers made her so good and competent that her desire for a family is her only weakness. (Seriously, how does she speak Wookie?)
In this scenario, Kylo Ren can play upon her weakness in several different ways. One way would be to have Kylo Ren be her cousin, but this would be an exceptionally weak choice with very low stakes. There is a vast difference between killing a cousin and killing a father or brother or a lover. Not many people are close to their cousins in any meaningful way, so the drama would be minimal. (West Side Story wisely changed the plot so that the Romeo character would murder Juliet’s brother, not her cousin.) I think the writers would be wise to ignore this possibility, since they desperately need to raise the stakes in the story, and a cousin relationship will not help them. A cousin is better than say a, father’s brother’s cousin’s nephew’s former roommate, but it’s not that much better.
The other possibilities as well, which would be more in keeping with the idea of Reylo. One would be for Rey to fall to the Dark Side and hook up with Kylo Ren. She would then need to kill the man she loves in order to return to the light side. That would be an incredibly difficult decision, and the conflict is very real. Drama likes conflict and difficult decisions.
However, I am not sure that The Force Awakens agrees with the Prequel Trilogy (or Jesus for that matter) that families are temptations to the Dark Side that must be avoided at all cost. Han Solo attempts to bring is father back to the light, and Snoke implies that Han Solo must murder his father to prove his devotion to the Dark Side, rather than the light side. Rey, on the other hand, is inspired by the death of Han Solo (and and the wounding of her friend) to take up the light saber and accept her destiny.
Further more, Maz tells Rey that “the belonging you seek is not behind you, it is ahead.” This implies that Rey will receive belonging, not just status as a Jedi.
It is interesting to compare and contrast between Rey in The Force Awakens and Luke in A New Hope. Both Rey and Luke seem a bit young for their ages, but this is where the similarities end. While Rey seems childlike, Luke seems immature. Luke whines and complains like a child while pretending to fly toys. However, he wants something fundamentally different than Rey. Luke wants to escape Tatooine and become a pilot like his friends, most of whom have already left the planet. Luke wants adventure and excitement, like many young men his age, and longs to escape the confines of his aunt and uncle. Rey does not want adventure at all, and wants to return to the safety of her family. In that sense, Luke is more mature than Rey. Luke wants to leave his family and seek his fortune in the wider world. Rey, on the other hand, is a young woman, and she seems to believe that if her parents return, they can simply pick up where they left off, which is a fantasy.
If Rey’s belonging is ahead of her, then she will not gain belonging from her parents, but possibly in the context of a relationship.
If Reylo were to happen in this context, this would mean that Rey would have to seek belonging with a redeemed Ben Solo (Kylo Ren.)
I think this scenario could definitely work, though Disney will need to avoid several pitfalls. (Note: the presence of pitfalls does NOT mean that Disney shouldn’t pursue a risky course. Take chances, make mistakes, get messy!)
1 This actually cannot be the A plot of the movie because it simply would not work as the A plot in Star Wars. It must serve as a minor plot.
2 This will require tremendous character growth from Kylo Ren; to transform him from the antagonist to the love interest. It would be incredibly difficult to pull off; the risk for failure is real. (It is a risk that Disney should be willing to take though, I would rather see them risk and fail than play it safe and succeed.)
3 This will require some character growth from Rey, but not very much. This is the biggest problem with this scenario, is that it does not test Rey or develop her character. Unfortunately the writers messed up when they created Rey; they made her a Mary Sue. She does not struggle enough; she seems to exist without significant weaknesses. I don’t know what weaknesses they can invent for the next film, but she will need them. Rey will also need a significant challenge to work towards (perhaps creating a new Grey Jedi path?) that goes beyond simply Training and Defeating the Bad Guy or Falling in Love. Neither one will get her (or the writers) to the end of episode 9.
One thing that struck me while writing this post is how poorly the character of Rey is drawn. She’s not dreadful (I’ve seen worse) but she’s not all that great either. In addition to a total lack of weaknesses, she doesn’t even really want much either.
Does Rey even want to be a Jedi? She certainly accepts her destiny at the end of episode 7, but why does she? To save her life and Finn’s life? That would explain why she fights Kylo Ren at the end of episode 7, but is that a strong enough motive to seek Luke out and train with him? I don’t think it is. First of all, nothing that Rey has experienced has actually suggested to her that she needs training. She easily used the Jedi mind trick, called the light saber to her, and defeated Kylo Ren without much effort. (Yes, he was injured, but the experience does not suggest to her that she needs training to use the Force.) With that in mind, leaving Finn exposed to potential Finn in order to receive unnecessary training from Luke does not make sense.
A character’s motivation must be strong in order to move the plot forward, had her weaknesses substantial enough to contribute to conflict. I don’t know if Rey’s wants or weaknesses are strong enough to do either of them.
Whatever the writers decide to do with Reylo, they desperately need to fix Rey’s character for episodes eight and nine.
I found this a compelling post, but I’d offer that Rey, in my estimation, is not really a Mary Sue. There is a YA book which tells part of her backstory to explain how she gets to be who she is. However, based solely on TFA, I can see why she seems to be the dreaded Mary Sue. She is, in fact, remarkable with her technical skill set, but much of what she can do with regards to the Force, she took from Kylo Ren’s mind. She definitely needs the training that Luke can provide (if he chooses to do so.) I think and hope we’ll see more of her weaknesses in TLJ, and truthfully, I expect we WILL see them. Again, I very much enjoyed the post! I just thought I’d offer a slightly different point of view. 🙂
I agree it is certainly possible (and if there is a Force Bond, likely) that Rey got her abilities with the Force from Kylo Ren’s head. Plus, while she did easily defeat Kylo Ren, it is possible that it was not a fair fight because he was wounded and Kylo Ren was under orders to bring Rey back alive to Snoke. (Plus, if Kylo Ren is attracted to Rey, he may not have been fighting too hard for another reason as well.)
Rey is not entirely a Mary Sue. She has been left on a planet by her parents and forced to scavenge for meager portions of food. Still, she has far too few weaknesses to sustain a drama. The writers will either have to give her weaknesses or they will need to create an antagonist capable of nullifying her strengths.
I didn’ see any episodes of Star Wars yet, so can’t comment on it unfortunately until I have had the opportunity to watch it.
I’d like to expresss my astonishment about that excerpt from Chapter 9 of St. Teresa of Avila’s ‘The Way of Perfection’ cited in your text. I can’t imagine Theresa’s opinion being common to all women saints in the catholic church ; I think for instance of St. Hildegard who lived a couple centuries earlier (Hildegard von Bingen, Benedictine (1098-1179)), who founded a vibrant convent herself, and who apparently had a very different kind of life experience from St. Theresa’s.
I’ve been temporary professed myself as a benedictine monk long time ago, in my early twenties. I never did have to hate my family at any time, neither to join them and stay with them, nor to leave them. Contacts with my family were normal and cordial.. Equal treatment was mentioned somewhere in St.Benediktine’s rule if I recall correctly, but taking into account everyone’s weaknesses without this necessarily having to be a reason to become jealous of one another in the community.
I think the meaning of Luke 14 :26 is presumably different from the one suggested in your post, but I should read and inform myself before being able to write anything about it as it’s not an easy topic to write about.
I like your blog a lot btw.
I am glad you like the blog!
I don’t know whether other women saints would have gone as far as St. Teresa of Avila does, but they clearly did want the women in their convents to be devoted to the order and separated from their biological family. Even today I know that some nuns are only permitted to see their families through a screen or grille, which speaks volumes.
As for Jesus’ comments, I can only speak for myself as a somewhat lapsed Catholic. Jesus in the Gospel does speak in terms of parables and hyperbole, so people are not wrong to interpret them without taking them literally. But I also don’t think we should sanitize them. I don’t think St. Jerome or St. Teresa of Avila would have had any difficulty accepting his words at face value. I think that Christian attitudes towards families have changed substantially over the centuries, and I don’t think it does any good to pretend otherwise. Earlier Christians would not have had any trouble believing that Jesus meant exactly what he said, but as the family grew in importance in Christianity, it became increasingly necessary to interpret these words symbolically and for Christianity to distance itself from the views of the past. But as it is, I’m not interested in getting the answer to exactly what Jesus meant, because I am not interested in answers anymore. I prefer to live with mysteries.