We always wanted to write Rey as the central character, but it was just one of the things we knew we wanted to do: to make the film look and feel more like the way the world looks and feels. – JJ Abrams, The Guardian
It is well known that Star Wars is based on the hero’s quest which is an archetypal story that transcends culture and time. According to Joseph Campbell, the hero’s quest is hard-wired in our psyche and so when our hero battles villains and the powers of darkness, it resonates and entertains each generation anew. The hero’s quest never gets old which is why the Star Wars franchise, begun back in 1977, has endured.
The pattern of our hero receiving a call to action, going on an adventure, doing great things, and returning home to great reward is very satisfying and appears in many of our stories:Lord of the Rings, The Matrix, to name just two. However, these stories have only ever had women in supporting roles as temptresses or goddesses, and other stereotypes (prostitute with a heart of gold, love interest, the really hot girl disguised in glasses) while men do the self-actualisation.
In Star Wars: A New Hope, Princess Leia seems to be the only woman in the whole of that galaxy far, far, away. She is a born leader, but still has to wait around for Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and Chewbacca, because everyone is following the rescue the princess trope. She may be feisty (*groan* = a terrible word. Why are men never described as feisty?) doling out snappy one liners and keeping her cool whilst in the clutches of Darth Vader, but she is still doing her best with a terrible supporting role.
Therefore, to watch Rey in Star Wars: The Force Awakens: a female character, a woman centre stage at last, is completely satisfying. And, Rey is not alone in this story. The ever fabulous Princess Leia is now a more rounded character as General of the Rebel Alliance, a mum and wife (possibly ex-wife). Leading the stormtroopers is Captain Phasma. And, wise guru, Maz Kanata, is the voice of Force wisdom. So, we have female stormtroopers, female pilots, and female medical staff in the Rebel Camp. Star Wars has becomes representative of the world we live in today. No one feels the need to explain or justify these women’s place – it is the way of the world – a balanced world of equal opportunity.
The story which contains these women is brilliant. Not least of all because this episode of Star Wars reuses all the best parts of the previous Star Wars episodes, and sets up the promise of a satisfactory ending from the very beginning, whilst continuing to build momentum right to its resolution in the last frame of the film. I didn’t even realise I was holding my breath until the credits started to roll. We follow Rey right to that ending, leaving us to speculate about her full story, and looking forward to meeting her again in the next episode.
We believe in Rey because we first meet her on the planet Jakku where she lives as a scavenger who finds scrap metal and machinery from abandoned space ships to trade for not-enough food. It is a lonely existence in which she has learnt to become self-sufficient, and how to defend herself.
Like all great characters, she has worked long and hard to learn her skills. She is knowledgeable about spacecraft and how they are put together which has kept her alive all these years.
When her lonely existence is interrupted, first by a droid, whom she refuses to trade for food, we know that she is a good person. And, then when she is called upon in a crisis to fly the Millennium Falcon, we are not surprised that, not only can she fly it, but she can fix it too. It is completely plausible and logical that she is a talented pilot. She has learnt through many lonely long days of taking apart spaceships for food. Han Solo recognises her talent and offers her a job.
However, Rey has her own ideas about what she needs and follows the heroine’s quest of answering the call, transcending her circumstances, and creating new ones for herself whilst becoming happy (or at least happier) in the process of self-actualisation, which has only just begun.
At the end of the film, we know that Rey is a brave woman with still as yet untapped skills and powers, who does the right thing. But, she is still a mystery to us. There is still a lot more for her to discover about herself and for us to vicariously experience as she does.
Finally, we have a Star Wars heroine on her quest of her own.
Roll on Episode VIII. I can’t wait.