Opinions, Column

Why Female Protagonists Like Rey Aren’t As Feminist As You Think

I find it extremely necessary to start this off with the fact that I am a woman. This piece is not me trying to be sexist or say that women shouldn’t be protagonists. In fact, I want to prove to you that we deserve better female protagonists than Rey Skywalker. 

A good protagonist is given to us with a lot of the traits us normal people have. They have likes, dislikes, skills, strengths, and weaknesses. They succumb to their desires sometimes, and sometimes they just plain old lose. Over the 100 or more years that movies have been made, we’ve gotten thousands of male protagonists with just that: Indiana Jones, Forrest Gump, Woody from Toy Story, and many more.

Luke Skywalker from Star Wars is the perfect example of a well-written protagonist. He makes mistakes, loses, learns new things, creates new bonds, but most importantly, he goes through a character arc. Luke is written in the way that Rey, the central protagonist of the Star Wars series since her first appearance in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, should have been. We meet Luke in A New Hope as a kind of whiny brat who learns about his father and chooses to embark on a journey with his wise mentor Obi-Wan to learn about the Jedi Order. After he loses his mentor in The Empire Strikes Back, he eventually seeks out another mentor, Yoda, and has to learn even more. While training, Yoda shows Luke an image of Darth Vader, and he tries immediately to kill him because he hates the most powerful, murderous Sith Lord in the galaxy. He ultimately fails the exercise, as Yoda was trying to test his patience and teach him not to jump headfirst into anger. 

When Luke is faced with the image of his friends in danger, Yoda warns him that his training is not finished, and he shouldn’t rush. But, Luke goes anyway, and in battle with Darth Vader, he learns about his true past—that the formidable Sith Lord Darth Vader is his father—loses a hand, and almost dies. Luke didn’t heed the warning, made a mistake he was prone to, and suffered consequences because of it. 

In the final battle of Return of the Jedi, Luke is finally able to learn his lesson, and he fights against his hatred, brings his father back from the dark side, and topples the leader of an empire. Over the course of three films, Luke learns a valuable lesson: patience is key in quelling hatred. But his path to learning that lesson is anything but straightforward. He loses a lot along the way. 

Now let’s look at Rey’s character arc in comparison. Rey starts out with struggle—she is a scavenger whose parents abandoned her, an absolutely classic Disney narrative. She finds out about the Force rather quickly, since this is the sequel in the trilogy, and everyone already knows about the Force and Jedi. She is Force-sensitive, but the nail in the coffin is when she is presented with what was once Anakin’s, and then Luke’s, lightsaber. She goes through no training in The Force Awakens and immediately is able to master the Jedi mind trick to escape capture, and in the final act, defeats the most powerful Sith Lord in the galaxy. And she does all of this with no training. In A New Hope Luke doesn’t use a lightsaber in combat, and in The Empire Strikes Back, he fights the strongest Sith Lord in the galaxy and loses horribly. Rey goes through no arc in the first film, and she doesn’t even begin an arc that could last three movies like Luke’s. All we know about her is that she is nice, valiant, extremely skilled despite no prior experience, and her parents are either special Force-wielders or irrelevant jerks. 

In The Last Jedi, Rey finally goes to get some training from Luke Skywalker (I won’t discuss the destruction of his character by Rian Johnson and this movie) and finally learns a little. And even saying a little is generous, as most of the screen time on Luke’s island is spent listening to Luke’s exposition of his time with Ben Solo and why the Jedi suck. Rey hears the dark side of the island, a kind of swampy hole, call to her, and she immediately goes to it, only to be shown her reflection and I guess learn that her parents were junkers and nobodies. Afterwards, Luke destroys her hut when he learns that she has been talking to Kylo Ren, the strongest (and hottest) Sith Lord in the Galaxy. To her credit, Rey, influenced by the dark side, does attack Luke in response, but when she pulls her lightsaber Luke yields and uses the opportunity to develop exposition. 

Rey is not held accountable for these actions, and they instead help Luke come to more realizations that develop his own character. Rey fixes everyone and everything without any prior experience to give her the knowledge to do these things. Eventually she leaves the planet, and confronts Snoke in the throne room. After she and Kylo defeat some red guys, Kylo asks her to join him but she says no. This decision is not impactful because there are no character traits that Rey has that could make me think she’ll say yes or no. We have no basis for any of her decisions except for the fact that she’s the protagonist. 

In the beginning of The Rise of Skywalker, we finally see Rey do Force training that is similar to what Luke did on Dagobah with Yoda. She finally has a mentor in the Force, Leia, and learns from her. She genuinely tries, as a protagonist, to learn a lesson. Absolutely bonkers! 

In a confrontation on the desert planet Pasaana with Kylo Ren and gang, she is immediately ready to face Kylo again. And honestly, what possible tension could there be? We know that Rey will win because she won last time, and now she has a teeny bit of training under her belt. Loss is obviously out of the question because unlike Luke, she hasn’t been training this whole time to kill her archnemesis, so of course she’s up to the challenge. She does reveal her flaws though when she gets angry, loses control, and thinks she killed Chewbacca by destroying the ship he was on with Force lightning. For those of you who don’t know, Force lightning is used exclusively by Dark Side users and is a sign of evil. Later she learns that she is the great Sith Lord Palpatine’s granddaughter, and denies joining Kylo Ren again. They then have a confrontation later and Rey of course wins but decides to heal Kylo. We don’t understand why she is doing any of this beyond “she’s nice” and “it’s what she should do.” 

Rey then talks with Luke, where he asks her her greatest fear, and she says that she is a Palpatine. Okay, finally, a fear! She fears she will fall to the dark side. Valid fear. Finally a little character development, something that we as the audience may relate to. At the climax of the movie, Rey defeats Palpatine by connecting with Jedi of the past. Okay but uh what did she do to deserve these connections? Anakin Skywalker is a brilliant character who went through so many trials and tribulations, while Rey feels like she is constantly on a fetch quest in a video game. She doesn’t defeat Palpatine by herself or by learning a lesson—she gets help. There is nothing wrong with getting help, but she did nothing to establish that she deserves this help or even has access to it. When Luke defeated Vader, he simultaneously learned his lesson that he had needed to learn for three movies. Learning that lesson and growing as a person is what made him able to defeat the Emperor and turn his Vader back to the light side. Rey’s fear, that she would turn to the dark side, doesn’t affect her or the story at all. Anakin’s fear that Padmé would die is what led him to the dark side, and we saw that process. Luke’s fear of his friends dying led him to leave Dagobah too soon, and we saw that process. Rey’s fear has little to no effect on the plot, and it certainly has no effect on her character.

Rey has no process or development or character arc. This is why Luke and Anakin are far more beloved protagonists—even by women—than Rey. We, man or woman or enby, can relate to someone who goes through atrocities and learns a valuable lesson along the way. That is what made the original Star Wars trilogy and made the ideas of the Jedi so captivating. People grew up alongside Luke and Anakin Skywalker, and they learned just as the characters did. 

What can young kids or even adults learn from Rey? #girlpower? Rey has practically no flaws, and that is because studios want female protagonists, but they don’t know how to write them correctly. They are terrified of negative backlash from social justice warriors, so they make their female characters flawless. I can’t relate to Rey at all, but I can relate to Luke and Anakin. And what makes their dichotomy so beautiful is that Luke learns the lesson that Anakin cannot, and so Luke is saved, and Anakin falls to the dark side. Rey has nothing special or valuable like that. She is just perfect. 

We as women deserve female main characters we can relate to—characters that share our woes and weaknesses and fears and who make the same mistakes we do. We should be able to grow up alongside a woman like we do with Hermione from the Harry Potter series, although she isn’t the title character, or Ripley from the Alien franchise. 

Hollywood, I know that everyone tells you this, but do better.

And you guys out there—feminists, Star Wars fans, random people reading this column—I hope this made you see protagonists, and especially Rey and Luke Skywalker, differently. We deserve more female protagonists who we can relate to, because while Rey is handed everything effortlessly, we have to work and make mistakes like Luke does. We shouldn’t see a female main character and automatically love her and the movie just because she is a woman. 

We. Deserve. Better.

Featured Graphic by Liz Schwab / Heights Editor

February 28, 2022