Rachael Derrick is a licensed mental health counselor focusing on assessment, youth and families, and queer issues. She has experienced the power of fandom and knows that internet friends are real friends. She lives with her partner, John Derrick, and their 5-year-old human whirlwind, Calvin. Rachael & John’s first novel, Bounceback, about a woman sent back in time to relive her teenage life with brand new superpowers, is available now at https://www.amazon.com/dp/1074366999.
Sure, Luke Skywalker is cool, but have you met Rey?
Luke grew up without his parents. Rey grew up without anyone.
Luke worked with his uncle on a moisture farm in the desert. Rey scavenged by herself to survive the desert.
Luke found a message from a Rebel leader asking for help, then took it to an old white man to figure out what to do about it. Rey found a Resistance droid, then stole a fucking spaceship to leave the only home she’d ever known and get the droid back to where it needed to go.
Luke walked uphill both ways in the snow and worked all summer to pay for college. Rey has $40,000 in student loans and can’t afford a mortgage.
Luke Skywalker was an inspiring hero for younger Boomers and older Gen Xers in the early 1980s, when they had started to figure out that sexism and racism were holding them back and self-actualization was on the horizon. The idea that a kid from nowhere could become a noble soldier in a righteous war and bring peace to the galaxy must have been soothing for a nation still smarting from a decade in Vietnam. Luke’s objectives were straightforward — first to live up to his father’s heroism, then to atone for his father’s villainy, and always to fight against the evil Empire. Being a Chosen One with magic powers and a secret twin could only help.
To me, Luke was always the least interesting of the main characters in the original Star Wars trilogy. Han was cooler and funnier, and Leia was the one who knew how to get shit done. And then came The Force Awakens, and not only did we get a trio who are all cool and funny and get shit done, we got Rey.
Rey is the hero I’d always wanted but never knew I could have. She’s the embodiment of my Star Wars experience: young enough to have missed the first wave of fandom but old enough to have attached to it early; young enough to aspire to see reflection of myself in that universe but too old not to recognize the flawed portrayals of women on the screen. For all of their accomplishments, Leia and Padmé are sometimes treated by other characters (but mostly by the filmmakers) as decorative props in ways that male characters just aren’t. Rey’s first triumph was in not being sexualized as her predecessors had been, a not-insignificant feat for a young white female character but a sadly low bar for the creators.
Previous films in the franchise gave characters somewhat limited parameters for growth, and their lineage largely determined their arcs. Luke learned the Skywalker name was a lot more to live up (or down) to than he’d imagined. Leia inherited an even more restrictive role as an adopted Organa, daughter of a queen and a senator. Even Han, a character whose power and potential weren’t linked to a family name, clung so tightly to his self-defined role as a scoundrel that he’s still smuggling contraband and making shady deals 30 years later.
By contrast, Rey’s story is decidedly her own. From her repurposed one-bedroom AT-AT to a small island on a far-flung planet, Rey’s motivations change as she moves through the universe. She is determined not to leave Jakku until her barely remembered family comes back for her, but she teaches herself to fly to prepare for an escape she refuses to make. She risks angering the most powerful person on her planet, blithely committing grand theft spaceship to help a droid and Resistance fighter she just met while insisting she’s just giving them a ride. She loudly proclaims, “I don’t want any part of it!” when introduced to the Force and then Jedi Mind Tricks her jailer before wielding a lightsaber like a pro in an epic final showdown. Rey demonstrates a full range of emotions in just a few hours of screen time, connecting her to the viewers and inviting us to experience this world with her rather than simply watching the story play out.
Through Rey’s journey, as embodied by the incomparable Daisy Ridley, Xennial and Millennial women not only have a place in the Star Wars universe, we have a character who incorporates some of our pervasive experiences. In Rey’s introduction, we are invited to imagine the loneliness of her existence, the emptiness of a desert life focused entirely on survival. And yet there is something comforting about the idea of being alone and responsible only for one’s self, particularly for women who have typically been socialized to perform emotional labor for their (most often male) family members, friends and co-workers.
Rey meets a man who almost immediately insists on physical contact and soon after interrogates her about her relationship status, despite her willingness to help him and their mutually beneficial efforts to complete a shared task. (As much as I love Finn and his relationship with Rey, that sort of clumsy questioning gets the side-eye in fiction and in real life.) Rey reacts to these intrusions as we all might if not for the fear of seeming rude, first by telling Finn not to touch her and second by simply ignoring his request for personal information.
Even if she later downplays her own efforts to save her new friend from hungry Rathtars, Rey doesn’t temper her emotional responses or hide her motivations. She excitedly chatters with Finn after they escape Jakku, she shares her awe at the climate on Takodana and she even explains to Han why she hesitates to accept his job offer. Rey doesn’t bother to hide her fear when Kylo Ren begins to invade her mind nor her determination when she realizes that she can resist him. Her joy at reuniting with Finn on Starkiller Base, her anguish when Han is killed, her fury at Han’s killer: Rey sees no reason not to express herself and feels no responsibility for how others might react to her feelings, an aspiration for those of us who have been taught to moderate our emotions for the comfort of others.
And that final impossible duel between a scared, cold desert-dweller and a man who had already used his considerable power against her without hesitation, the scene that elicited complaints and accusations of Rey being a Mary Sue, is one of the most relatable experiences of Rey’s story so far. With minimal resources in a hostile environment, untrained and out of her element, Rey figures out what she has to do and gets it done. It isn’t flashy or particularly skilled. She doesn’t flourish or gloat. She just keeps fighting long enough to get away. The in-universe explanation for her survival is that the Force wants her alive, but women in our world know that we’re faced with overwhelming challenges every day, and we keep doing what we have to do.
Luke Skywalker is great. Leia Organa is even better, reminding us that princesses can also be generals. Rey is the best — unafraid to show her feelings, honest about her needs and determined to get shit done. As a little nerdling playing Star Wars on the preschool playground and wondering why my role as Princess Leia was limited to being rescued and having cool hair, I couldn’t have imagined a better hero for myself and my son.