Who Cares If Rey Is A Mary Sue?Posted: December 20, 2015
Wikipedia defines a Mary Sue as “a fanmade character…a young or low-rank person who saves the day through extraordinary abilities. Often but not necessarily this character is recognized as an author insert and/or wish-fulfillment.” It’s generally been considered a negative aspect of fan fiction, and Mary Sues are often referred to in a derogatory fashion by geeks. But now, that term is being used by some to describe Rey from Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which I consider to be an unfortunate and stupid criticism. Not because Rey isn’t a Mary Sue (she absolutely is) but because WHO CARES?
So yes, Rey certainly does fall within the parameters of what constitutes a Mary Sue. She’s an original character who has many impressive talents (she’s powerfully Force-sensitive and harnesses that power with little difficulty, she’s a skilled pilot, mechanic and fighter and she speaks at least four languages) and wins the favor of classic characters like Han Solo before winning the day on her own. This is completely true, and I will not deny that. But to act as if such a capable, cool character is a) uncommon or b) inherently bad is absurd. And given the number of male examples of this sort of character it’s hard not to see such criticism of Rey as being anything but sexist, or at the very least motivated by curmudgeonly, possessive nerd rage.
Think of it this way: Rey might be an orphan with extraordinary abilities who carries the weight of the world on her shoulders while having no other problems except the weight itself and whose greatest failure is a discomfort with her apparent purpose. But so is Batman. And James Bond. And Harry Potter. And Spider-Man. And both Anakin AND Luke Skywalker. But no one has ever dismissed those characters as being Mary Sues because they are ultimately power fantasies for the regular ol’ straight white male geeks who have dominated geekdom forever, so they are considered to be the status quo. Yet when a female equivalent of those heroes is presented — in a franchise that has previously been dominated by the aforementioned male protagonists — it is suddenly pandering and creatively bankrupt.
Perhaps it’s worth considering that the rise of the “Mary Sue” trope in fanfiction came about precisely because of this gender disparity. Maybe female fanfic writers wanted to see more characters like them in the universes they had grown to love and so created some for themselves. And MAYBE Rey exists because the people in charge of one such universe finally got it into their heads that perhaps it was worth officially creating a character like that themselves rather than leaving it for the fans to do it unofficially online. In fact, I would argue that the blatant Mary-Sue-ness of Rey is part of her design, that JJ Abrams and Lawrence Kasdan and Kathleen Kennedy wanted to dramatize the feeling that all fans (but especially female fans) have in interacting with their favorite franchise and their mythological heroes.
To me, the only question about potentially Mary-Sue-esque characters is simply: do they function in the story being told? If a character is properly dramatized it shouldn’t matter how much of a wish-fulfillment fantasy they are. In the case of Rey, I think she is dramatized enough to make her a worthwhile character. Sure she is extraordinarily capable no matter what challenge she has to face, but along with that comes a decent amount of internal conflict. She is weighed down by the false hope of her past and intimidated by the overwhelming potential of her future. Rey attempts to flee her calling, only to fall right into the hands of the enemy and complicate the entire finale. While a lot more could still be done with Rey as a character (and with Rian Johnson writing and directing Episode VIII I’m sure there will be), I think there is more than enough in The Force Awakens to make her a functional character to go along with the invigorating power fantasy she represents.
My great enjoyment of The Force Awakens stemmed largely from the engaging cast of characters, and Rey is a major part of that. She is an incredibly fun and exciting figure that I connected with, and that I’m sure many other fans did as well. For me, Rey is just the latest in a long line of cool Star Wars characters, but for many fans she’s much more than that. For those fans, she’s the wish fulfillment character that Luke was to me in a way he could never be for them. And while her presentation in The Force Awakens might not be perfect I think it is obnoxious and infuriating to immediately try and dismiss her as being something phony or cheap, ostensibly because she’s a woman. And if you have a problem with that, why don’t you go whine about it at Tosche Station with your power converters.