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I'm about to do something that has become a rather unpopular thing on the internet -- especially among liberal and progressive-minded people such as myself. I'm about to explain why I consider Rey to have been a "Mary Sue" in Star Wars: the Force Awakens.

I'm not doing this because I want to hate on the movies for the sake of hating them. I'm also not trying to hate on Daisy Ridley, and Daisy, if you read this, I want you to know that I think you did a fantastic job with the material that was given to you. I'm being critical because I want the movies to be better than they are. I have very high standards and expectations when it comes to Star Wars, and I feel that Disney's efforts so far have been sub-par. So much so that I often find myself using phrases like ... sigh ... "to the prequels' credit". I hate having to say that. It makes my skin crawl every time. I'm at a point, however, in which I find myself pointing out merits in the prequels as a point of contrast against flaws that I perceive in Disney's Star Wars films, as if one set isn't better or worse than the other; but rather, that they are just ... different.

I don't hate Rey. I am critical because I want these characters to be better.

So even though this is kind of old news that's been beaten to death for over two years, let's talk about Rey for a moment. And regardless of which side of this issue you fall on, I hope that you read the following with an open mind. And if you disagree, then that's fine. I'm not going to fight you over it.

"Mary Sue" is a subjective qualifier

Let's start with some background. The definition that I use for a Mary Sue is:

A fictional character (often appearing in fan fiction) who is primarily a vehicle for wish-fullfillment (usually being a self-insert stand-in for the author), and who is unjustifiably-competent in multiple fields -- if not everything.

Typically, these characters are good at everything they do. They get along with other established characters exceedingly well (sometimes even being romantically pursued by one or more of the canonical characters). They have few (if any) flaws. They are an idealized character who is essentially a "perfect" character within the fiction. They are also -- pretty much by definition -- characters who are added to a fictional setting long after its initial establishment.

The term "Mary Sue" is derived
from Star Trek fan fiction.

The term originated in Star Trek fan fiction, having been coined in 1973 after the publication of a parody story "A Trekkie's Tale" in the fan magazine Menagerie. This particular story (written by Paula Smith) was about a 15-year-old female character named Mary Sue, and it satirized the unrealistic nature of many characters in other fan fiction stories. Lieutenant Sue was the youngest Lieutenant in Starfleet and was an expert in virtually everything she did. She was "the best and the brightest" of Starfleet.

First off, I want to get one thing straight: whether or not a character is a "Mary Sue" is a subjective opinion. Whether or not any individual reader or viewer considers a given character as a "Mary Sue" is going to depend greatly upon where that individual draws the line between "justifiably-competent" and "unjustifiably-competent". That line will vary from person to person, and from fictional universe to fictional universe. I draw that line at a much different place for Star Wars than I do for Star Trek. In addition, this line is not always a hard or clear-cut line. It might be very fuzzy. The fuzziness of the line will also vary from person-to-person and from fictional-universe-to-fictional-universe. It's all on a continuum. Even within a single fictional universe, one character may be " more Mary Sue-ish" than another character.

Identifying a character as a Mary Sue also does not necessarily mean that the work of fiction (or even the character) is inherently bad.

Wesley Crusher: the poster-child for official Mary Sue

One of the poster children for a Mary Sue is Wesley Crusher from Star Trek: the Next Generation. I love Star Trek, but I don't pretend that it's perfect. Wesley is framed as being exceptionally brilliant, and everybody in the main cast (except for Captain Picard, who just doesn't like children) treat him like their own protege. In the early seasons of the series, he is right about almost everything and repeatedly saves the ship single-handedly. Wesley makes all the other trained professionals on the crew look borderline incompetent.

Captain Picard expresses a sentiment shared by many early TNG fans.

While Wesley isn't a fan creation (sometimes earning him the additional label "Canon Sue"), he may be a literal self-insert character. Gene Roddenberry (the creator of Star Trek, himself) wrote him into the show, supposedly as an idealized stand-in of himself (as a teenager). Gene's middle name, by the way: Wesley. After Gene was forced out of his producer role in the second season, Wesley's role in the show was significantly reduced before being written out completely in season four.

Why I considered Rey a Mary Sue

The perception of Rey as a Mary Sue begins when Rey and Finn are escaping from Jakku on the Millennium Falcon. After evading the TIE fighters and escaping into space, Rey and Finn unite in a corridor and Finn exclaims "How did you do that?" with regard to Rey's piloting. Rey's response is literally throwing her hands up and saying "I don't know".

Rey herself, literally cannot justify how she is so good at piloting the Millennium Falcon.

Now, this (by itself) does not sink Rey as a character. When I first saw the movie, this line rung alarm bells in my head. She could mean "I don't know how I'm so good at piloting this ship!". Or she could mean "I can't believe I actually pulled that off!". The latter of the two sentiments is a perfectly fine, believable reaction. This line of dialogue, combined with Rey's body language, lead me to interpret it as the former, which cracked my suspension of disbelief enough to make other offenses stand out more.

To be clear, I have no problem with Rey being a competent pilot. Her opening scenes establish that she can operate a vehicle. Being a junker who pilots ground vehicles doesn't necessarily translate to piloting a space ship any more than having a driver's license should qualify me to pilot an F-22 fighter plane. But whatever. They threw in some throw-away dialogue saying that she has flown ships before, but never left the planet. Similar dialogue is all that we got to establish Luke's piloting ability, so I can let this one slide. But we will come back to this in a bit...

Having a driver's license, and having played Ace Combat does not qualify me
to go from driving my Toyota Echo to being able to pilot an F-22 fighter plane.

I'm also not going to criticize her lightsaber battle with Kylo. She probably spent her entire youth fending for herself. She's clearly (and justifiably) established as being competent in melee combat. Kylo was also fighting with a significant handicap from having just had his guts fried by a Wookie bowcaster. Kylo isn't at the top of his game, just like how Luke isn't destroyed by Vader in Empire because Vader is just baiting him. The fact that Kylo is alive and standing after taking that shot is almost enough - by itself - to justify throwing a "Mary Sue" label on Kylo too. But Star Wars has a long-established history of key characters surviving blaster hits, so I begrudgingly give Kylo a pass on this regard.

Rey gets criticized for her piloting and combat skill. I believe these complaints are overblown.

Breaking rules vs setting rules: why Rey, but not Luke?

A common counter to Rey being a Mary Sue is that if Rey is a Mary Sue, then other characters like Luke Skywalker, Captain Kirk, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Superman, Doctor Who (and his/her companions), Harry Potter, and Neo are all also Mary Sues, among many others.

Eh... kind of... but not really...

This is also going to depend on how you define "Mary Sue". Rey's problem, in particular, is that she is a new character who is being introduced into an established fiction. There are pre-existing characters and ground rules to compare her to. Luke Skywalker, Captain Kirk, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Superman, Doctor Who, Harry Potter, Neo, and others kind of get a free pass on account of having been grand-fathered in. They benefit from having been there at the origin, they can't really be breaking the fiction's established rules, because they are the ones who are setting those rules.

Characters like James Bone and Harry Potter also flirt with the Mary Sue line,
but benefit from being part of the fiction at its conception.

Such characters can still seem Mary Sue-ish to individual audiences, and that can certainly affect how the individual perceives those fictions. For example, I don't like the Harry Potter films because I don't like how "Mary Sue-ish" Harry's "chosen one" story is. It's especially bad in the first movie. Everywhere he goes, people are all like "You're the Harry Potter! What an honor to meet you!". It gets so obnoxious, and it quickly ground down my tolerance for the characters and the believability of the narrative. As the later movies become darker and more mature, this gets toned down considerably, and those movies become more tolerable to watch. Despite that, I generally don't care for Harry Potter.

This is only going to become more of a problem, since Hollywood is relying more and more on cashing-in on established (and beloved) franchises rather than writing something original. The Star Wars franchise, in general, has a long, sad history of power creep. This is one of the reasons that I never bought much into the extended universe.

Ignoring Luke having been grandfathered in, why does Rey cross the threshold for "Mary Sue" in my book, but Luke doesn't?

Han Solo basically toggles Rey's Jedi mode by simply validating that the Force is real.

Luke and Neo have similar "chosen one" narratives (along with Anakin, who is literally referred to as a "chosen one" by other characters in the dialogue). A big difference, however, is that chosen ones like Luke and Neo go through substantial character growth. They start out ignorant and incompetent. They train and practice, suffer hardships, and eventually persevere and come out victorious. Rey seems to skip past that second bit. She starts out sort-of ignorant. She never goes through a period of training, practice, and hardship though. Han Solo basically shows up, says "yeah, the Force is real", and flips a switch within Rey that turns on her Jedi mode.

The prequels get away with this by having all of Anakin's development and training happen off-screen between the first two movies.

Had Rey been either a good pilot, or good at melee combat, or a powerful Force user, she'd probably escape criticism. The fact that she is all three, right from the start, without having to grow into them, and despite being in a "fish out of water" role, all combines to teeter over into unreasonableness. This isn't helped by how immediately and completely characters like Han Solo take to her. Despite being initially argumentative and abrasive towards Luke, Leia, and others, Han immediately takes a liking to Rey, and invites her to join his crew within hours of meeting her. Han isn't romantically pursuing her, but this immediate acceptance by a character who has been salty to almost everyone he's met in the previous films doesn't help Rey's case.

Rey's claim to being a competent pilot is acceptable and roughly on par with Luke, though I do think that the original Star Wars does a better job establishing Luke's piloting aptitude. In one of his establishing scenes, Luke comments to Uncle Owen that he wants to submit an application to the Imperial Academy. It's not explicitly stated in this scene, but he is talking about a piloting academy. If he's applying for a piloting academy with any expectation of being accepted, then he either knows his way around a cockpit, or he's completely self-deluded. This is part of Luke's establishing scenes, rather than being brought up at the same time that he's piloting. This is reinforced later, when Luke and Obi Wan are bartering with Han Solo for transport to Alderan. A large chunk of Luke's characterization throughout the movie builds up the idea that he is a capable pilot. The idea is set up, reinforced, and then paid off at the end of the movie.

Luke was planning on applying to the Imperial Academy as a pilot.

In the case of Rey, the fact that she can pilot a space ship is brought up as Rey and Finn are escaping in a ship. Finn comments "We need a pilot", and Rey says "We have one". Mary Sue or no Mary Sue, this is sloppy writing. Stuff like this throws up red flags in audiences' minds, even if given individuals don't understand why they're taking issue with the specific events on screen.

In the case of Luke, his desire to apply to the Academy is also used to establish character. It isn't just a throw-away line to excuse flying an X-Wing at the end of the movie. It shows that Luke is eager, and maybe even a little impatient and brash. Both of these are character traits that will land Luke (and his companions) in trouble in the sequel. What, if anything, does Rey's comment "We have [a pilot]", or the later line that she's flown ships before but never left the planet, say about her character? Not all that much. Did she never leave the planet because she was waiting in vain for her family to return and didn't want to leave? Was she not allowed to leave because she's some kind of indentured servant (like Anakin)? Or was she piloting the ships as part of a job or salvage op, and just never left the planet because the job didn't require her to? The comment is almost completely incidental.

Rey's piloting aptitude is set up at the same time that it must be paid off.

Later in Star Wars, Luke talks about having piloted a vehicle through Beggar's Canyon, which probably does translate pretty well into navigating a trench run. So Luke is established as having the skills necessary to pilot an X-Wing in the final battle of Star Wars. This line is much more of a cop-out excuse than the previous one. In general, it also would have been better to show the audience that Luke is competent in these activities -- hey, I never said Star Wars is a "flawless" movie either! Nevertheless, at least it is established.

Then Luke taps into the Force in order to focus on a shot that he has also (in another throw-away line) been established as having experience executing. He is given a medal, the movie is over, roll credits. He also doesn't (in any of the original trilogy movies) ever perform any piloting feats that make him seem any more capable than the trained and experienced pilots that he's surrounded by. Piloting ability is similarly established for both Rey and Luke, but it's a bit better executed (from a screen-writing perspective) in the case of Luke.

Luke and Rey both receive throw-away dialogue to establish their piloting skills.

Had The Force Awakens left it at that, we'd be fine.

The big issue that distinguishes Rey from Luke is the pace and believability of their arcs as Force-users. In the span of a single movie (and only a couple of days within the fiction), Rey accomplishes -- without any formal training -- acts that Luke is not performing until the second or third movie, which could all be weeks, months, or years apart from each other (depending on how you interpret the passage of time in the original trilogy). Even after spending days or weeks with Yoda in Empire Strikes Back, Luke is barely able to perform telekenesis -- let alone Jedi mind tricks.

It isn't just a matter of Rey being better than Luke, because maybe Luke is actually a dunce, or simply "too old to begin the training", as Yoda surmises. Fortunately (for Luke), we have another example to compare Rey to. To the prequels credit (ugh, and there's the skin-crawling sensation again), child Annakin in The Phantom Menace doesn't do anything more extreme than Luke does. For his age, "Little Annie" is comically and ridiculously over-competent as a racer and pilot. That leads to criticisms of him being labeled as a "Mary Sue" in many circles, which is a classification that I would not disagree with. He certainly feels like a self-insert fan fiction character in The Phantom Menace. His depiction is certainly grating to me, and is one of the reasons that I hate that movie. Nevertheless, Annie is established as being experienced in these activities. What Little Annie isn't doing (despite being a literal and explicit, prophetic "Chosen One") is Force grabbing things or defeating trained Force-users in Jedi Mind Trick battles! He gets a decade of off-screen training from Jedi masters before we see him using such powers.

Other Force-sensitive characters (e.g. Leia and Anakin) are unable to perform Force feats without training.

In fact, every Jedi that we've seen so far has had extensive training and practice before they've done even a basic Force pull. Leia finds out that she's Luke's sister (and by extension, also a daughter of Anakin Skywalker, and probably just as natural a Force user as Luke), but she doesn't suddenly start going around doing telekinesis and controlling people's mind.

Rey on the other hand, is able to perform these tasks without any formal training, any practice, or even without any previous knowledge that she was Force-sensitive to begin with. Heck, she had to be told (earlier in this very movie) that the Force is even real! She is treated like a Force-savant who can just do whatever she tries to do. This certainly fits within the characterization of a Mary Sue being "the best and brightest".

Luke doesn't perform any Force grabs until Empire; whereas Rey is executing them in Force Awakens.

It isn't until the second movie that Luke performs his first Force grab. Even after training from Yoda, Luke is still completely overwhelmed by Darth Vader in the climax of Empire Strikes Back. He's still barely tapped the surface of his ability. Luke isn't a competent Force user until Return of the Jedi (which likely takes place months or even years after Empire), and that's after extensive training with Jedi Master Yoda. Using Luke as a baseline for a Jedi's growth (which is corroborated by the years of Anakin's training that pass between Phantom Menace and Attack of Clones), then Rey certainly seems to be overly competent -- even for a savant. If we use Rey as a baseline, then Anakin and especially Luke look like pathetically slow learners. The reality is probably somewhere in between.

Rey executes an advanced Jedi Mind Trick without any training.

The biggest problem is that -- as of The Force Awakens -- Rey seems to be violating the rules that have been established by previous Star Wars movies.

The Last Jedi changes the rules

The Force being dismissed as "ancient superstition" in Star Wars implies that Force powers are not common within the galaxy. The original trilogy (and the prequels) heavily imply [to me] that using Force powers requires extensive training. The Last Jedi, however, seems to establish that these rules have changed between the original and sequel trilogies. It's unclear whether this is an attempt to retcon the rules (i.e. these have always been the rules, but we've just never seen it), or if the way that the Force works is actually changing as part of the fiction's story.

This is why I got a lot more lenient on Rey in The Last Jedi. The rules have changed. Plus, at this point, she has had some rudimentary training. But when The Force Awakens released, we (as an audience) were not privy to this rule change. The Last Jedi changing the rules does not retroactively invalidate the contemporary criticisms of The Force Awakens. The Last Jedi's penchant for dismissing plot threads that were set up by The Force Awakens also seems to imply that this rule change may be a manner of retcon of The Force Awakens rather than something that was always planned.

The Last Jedi seems to have changed the rules and made the Force more accessible.

Monty Python - Colonel too silly

Quite frankly, I'm also not particularly keen on the idea of a bunch of random kids running around the galaxy with Force powers. It sounds like a Saturday morning cartoon, and the whole thing seems silly to me. The original trilogy were not "children's movies", even though children actually really liked them, and so I'm not happy with the idea of the franchise being aimed at kids. But who knows? We'll see what Disney does with it. Maybe they'll surprise me by finding a way to write a script that taps into a sense of childish wonder combined with themes that are resonant to adults the way that something like The Lego Movie or Toy Story (and its sequels) did.

Anyway, Rey's parentage was supposed to explain her abilities, but now that The Last Jedi has effectively nullified that possibility (unless episode 9 backpedals on that too), we're left with Rey's abilities being unexplained (and therefore, by definition, unjustified). Even using The Last Jedi as a baseline for comparison, Rey still seems over-competent. The kid in the closing shot of The Last Jedi is clearly aware of his powers and exercising them. He's practicing. Rey was never established as having had foreknowledge of her Force sensitivity, nor has she ever been established as ever having independently practiced or trained in its use. Mozart may have been a musical savant, but even he probably would not have been successful if he hadn't been practicing music since he was a kid. Rey was never practicing using the Force.

From a certain point of view

Further, the fact that Rey is set up to act as a metaphorical representation of Star Wars fans makes her (practically definitionally) a "self-insert fan character". The Last Jedi further cements this interpretation. The only disclaimer here is that she isn't a representation of a single writer's wish-fulfillment; rather, she is a representation of the general Star Wars audience's wish-fulfillment. She's not an stand-in for a single fan; she's a stand-in for every fan. This can either be a clever subversion of the "Mary Sue" trope, or it could just be a more generalized example of it, depending on your point of view.

I could go on listing reasons why I think Rey qualifies as a "Mary Sue" until I'm blue in the face, but it really doesn't matter. At the end of the day, Star Wars is a fictional work -- a fantasy work about literal magic space wizards, no less! What you assume to be "un-justifiably competent" is going to be your own opinion and interpretation. Everyone will draw that line in a different place, and rational people will disagree.

Regarding sexism

Now let's get to the big elephant in the room, and the main reason that I wanted to write this whole thing to begin with. Earlier, I said that characters like Luke Skywalker, Captain Kirk, James Bond, Sherlock Holmes, Harry Potter, and Neo get a "free pass" because they are characters that define their respective universe's rules, and that a character like Rey is at an inherent disadvantage because she is a new character being introduced into an established fiction. It also happens that all the characters that get a free pass are male (white males, to be more specific), and Rey happens to be female. It's understandable how a person might see this as sexist.

I assure you, however, that my opinion on Rey is independent of her gender. All else being equal, had anyone else of any race or gender been cast in that role, I would have had exactly the same issues with the character. This would have been true whether John Boyega, or Oscar Isaac, or Gwendoline Christie, or Lupita Nyong'o, or Andy Serkis had been given the role. Though casting Adam Driver as Rey would have been a total mistake, as he totally nails it as Kylo! The above "grandfathered" characters just happen to come from a time before movie studios started actively working on diversifying their leading roles, so they all happen to be white men. Had Carrie Fischer been cast in Mark Hamill's place as -- I don't know -- "Lucy Skywalker" in the original trilogy, or had Nichelle Nichols or Majel Barrett been cast to play Captain "Jane Kirk" for Star Trek, I wouldn't see her as any more of a Mary Sue than I consider the male version to be.

I wouldn't be any more lenient if a man had been cast as Rey instead.

I unfortunately see a lot of people fall into the trap of dismissing claims of "Mary Sue" under the strawman of sexism, and claiming that any arguments regarding Rey specifically as a Mary Sue are automatically illegitimate. Do such people not realize that the classification is subjective, and that people can legitimately disagree about it without either party necessarily having to be wrong? Let alone being sexist or racist or otherwise terrible people? Kind of like how we can disagree over which flavor of Starburst is the best without either of us being wrong. Sorry, that's a bad analogy. Clearly strawberry is the best flavor of Starbursts, and anyone who disagrees is objectively wrong and is probably racist. (psst, that was me being facetious)

I consider myself to be a pretty darned liberal and progressive person. But you know what? I'm not a perfect person. Sometimes I actually do say something that is sexist or racist or otherwise insensitive. I also have a pretty dark and occasionally dry sense of humor, so it's very easy for someone to take some of my off-color jokes the wrong way. I've upset some of my female, transgender, and homosexual friends and acquaintances (and some of my male and straight friends and acquaintances) in the past because I've ignorantly said things (or told jokes) that turned out to be either hurtful or in bad taste. When I found out that I had offended or hurt them, I genuinely felt bad. I've apologized, and I've always tried to be better in the future. I hope I've been better.

So when I bring up these criticisms, and am immediately dismissed as being sexist, it is frustrating. It feels like a way for others to deflect criticism of a movie (or character) that they like, rather than have to actually consider the possibility that maybe there are legitimate issues. There are genuine sexists, racists, and homophobes in positions of influence and power, and friggin' literal Nazis coming out of the woodwork right now. Labeling someone under one of those banners because they are critical of a movie only serves to blur the line between who is and who isn't genuinely intolerant. It feeds into actual sexists, racists, homophobes, and Nazis being able to deflect criticism of them by invoking some variation of Godwin's Law and attacking the accuser's credibility.

Dismissing legitimate criticism as "intolerance" may enable invocations of Godwin's Law
when criticizing legitimate racists, sexists, and bigots.

Now, if you are somebody who believes that Rey is a "Mary Sue" precisely because she is a woman, and a woman should never be as competent (or more competent) than a man, then you certainly are sexist, and your opinion deserves to be dismissed. Yeah, I do hate that I'm in the awkward position of defending their position on this one specific issue. It's the old "a stopped clock is correct twice a day" trope.

Blame the writers, not Daisy Ridley

All that being said, I actually do like Rey as a character. I like Daisy Ridley's performance -- especially when compared to Felicity Jones' flat performance in Rogue One. Heck, her ability as an actor is actually, ironically, part of the problem, because Daisy does such a fantastic job at selling Rey's own surprise at the success of her own abilities. Daisy is great, and I hope to see her in more [better written] lead roles in the future. I just wish that the writers hadn't written such a steep and sudden power arc for her character that strains credulity. I'm not upset with Daisy, or with the producers who cast her. I'm upset with the writers for writing a cop-out script.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember is that if someone is labeling Rey a "Mary Sue", then it isn't necessarily a criticism of Daisy Ridley, or of the casting of a woman in the lead role. It might very well be a criticism of J.J. Abrams, Rick Kerb, and Lawrence Kasdan for sloppy writing.

Comments (2) -

03/14/2018 16:51:09 #

I would say you're dead wrong about the notion that there is no objectivity in a character being a Mary Sue or not. If a character checks every single bullet for the traits of a Mary Sue...the character is objectively a Mary Sue. There is room for disagreement when it comes to gray area and if a character may ride the line a little, but if the character clearly matches the Mary Sue list of qualities to a tee, there's no subjectivity there.

It seems to me that your extreme paranoia about upsetting people, going so far as to suggest that nobody can be right or wrong and everyone's opinion is valid (which sounds very similar to giving out participation trophies and telling every child that he or she is a winner even when they fail miserably...this problematic and damaging modern notion that everyone needs to be coddled and that forcing people to swallow their pride and admit when they're wrong is a no-no), is a symptom of overly sensitive Cultural Marxism now that we live in a world where everyone is afraid of being demonized by the witch-hunting left-wing extremists.

Ironically, now I need to clarify my own politics to avoid this same left-wing extremist witch-hunting by saying I'm not a right-winger, either; I'm just an independent thinker who sees the problems and toxicity in the extremism on both the left and right.

Rey is absolutely a Mary Sue, as she ticks every checkmark for what constitutes a Mary Sue character. People can disagree all they like, but it doesn't make them right no matter how much venom they spit, no matter what names they call you, and now matter how offended their precious sensibilities are. Like you said, it's nothing against the actress, it's just a shame that the character was written in such a way that it breaks down the rules of a well-established and long-beloved fictional universe.

03/19/2018 21:20:26 #

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