Analysis, Criticism

Doing Strong Heroine

This is an opinion piece to illuminate an overlooked angle on the character ‘Rey’ from recent installments in the “Star Wars” series. I hope to dissolve the polarity in the debate about Rey’s character arc, a polarity I think owes partly to  implicit bias on both sides. I hope to entertain readers and wave my colors as a feminist male in the blowing squalls of Internet discussion! A preview for another movie triggered these insights.

In a similar vein, I’m going to share some reactions to “Captain Marvel” later in the post. Feel free to skip below the (very obvious) spoiler line, if that is more enticing. Everything above the spoiler-line should be common-knowledge. Sorry for the click-bait title; this post is not about opioids.

Now that I have your attention, my positionality is heterosexual, cis-male. I consider myself a feminist man [fem-man?] . I want to see films where A) female characters exercise agency, B) female character development rivals or exceeds males’ and C) non-white women are celebrated in meaningful ways. I love social justice but also great characterization and variety: give me a full spectrum of saturated color!

I favor this portrait of Rey because it shows her independence and resourcefulness prior to the rebellion and Jedi training.

I walked into “The Last Jedi” (VIII), sequel to “The Force Awakens” (VII), with a confirmation bias. As a fem-man, I wanted to love Rey. I did: Rey is not so poorly developed that she cannot be enjoyed. I want to clarify that Daisy Ridley’s acting is not a problem (she’s great) and I am not directly attacking the script (I remain neutral). I intend to critique her arc in the most recent film– she was a welcomed surprise and a foil to Kylo Ren in the previous film. They battle at the end of VII, while in VIII Kylo Ren attempts to persuade Rey to join him.

I enjoyed the whole film, thanks to a general bias favoring “Star Wars”. “The Last Jedi” is not so poorly plotted that I couldn’t enjoy watching it unfold. As I began writing this, I realized how many times I saw it: once, which was in the theater. I wanted to know what happened in that fictional universe and experience fun special effects but there wasn’t something resonant that called me back.  I did not expect to be satisfied with one viewing; the snub is unintentional. (Stay with me, the twist is coming).

Luke clings, screams
Luke loses a hand and gets his heart broken in just a few minutes.

Many complain that Rey’s power-level rises to quickly (she doesn’t need Luke in the same way Luke needed Yoda). Luke was a beloved character in IV for many of the same reasons Rey is resonant in VII — we watch hidden abilities unlocked in both of these rural kids. ‘My people’ are other fem-men and the fantastic women we love; I insisted for months that Rey is a great character, aligning to our shared bias. Then, I cooled-off: she’s great but the arc they gave her is only ‘fair’. Luke’s character development is compelling because it mirrors learning processes familiar to viewers– a trajectory that demands multiple episodes. Gaining perspective and mastering new skills is time-consuming and difficult!

Consider the plot of “The Empire Strikes Back” (V). Luke awakened his potential in the previous film (IV) but Obi Wan directs him to seek Master Yoda to develop further; even a great talent benefits from coaching. Then, Luke senses his friends in trouble! Yoda warns that he is not yet ready but he rushes away from his training to be a hero. Not only is he not ready for Darth Vader — he loses a hand! — but Luke learns he neither understood Vader nor their respective places in the universe. Well-meaning Rey fans could counter that Rey is having an inner struggle about her origins, too. *tepidly* Okay, sure. In an action movie, Luke’s moment is more apropos: clinging to a bridge, high winds, psycho-kinetic adversary approaching:

“Join me on the dark-side!”
“You killed my father!”
“No, Luke: I am your father.”
“No– it can’t be true!”
“Search your feelings– you know it to be true.”

Rey’s mirror scene is not the climax of VIII; it is well-done (and Jungian in a great way) but she is not fundamentally transformed. We get to watch Luke master himself throughout the next film (VI) after he has developed more as a Jedi Knight. Rey’s development happened mostly in VII and so VIII fails to heighten the action as sharply as V did. Despite all this, Rey does not necessarily need to develop powers slowly.

This is where I separate myself from the ‘Star Wars Bros’. The knee-jerk rejection of Rey seems like implicit-bias, to me, since mirroring Luke’s arc too closely would draw criticism for being unoriginal and bore moderate fans like myself. I preferred not to wade into this discourse before I saw a preview for “Frozen II”. I know I have a strange fixation with a Disney Princess movie but humor me. Consider Elsa, a character who is over-powered from the beginning of her development. Anna is the heroine but both sisters are protagonists developing throughout the plot. When we see Elsa freeze an incoming storm-surge in the sequel’s preview, we know this display of ability is the culmination of her work to refine her control of an innate, immense power.

Despite the gifts that accompany uniqueness, learning to control overwhelming, eccentric energies (power!) is time-consuming and difficult. Though Anna’s can-do attitude is a draw, Elsa’s growth process is very resonant with me; I have watched “Frozen” six times. Rest assured, my dude-buddies did not invite me to Buffalo Wild Wings for repeat-viewings. Making Rey’s OP status an in-universe-problem incorporates Rey’s surprising rise in power-levels (a choice I like) while still generating suspense. It need not be the main conflict, as it was for Elsa.

I am willing to buy-into her gross strength moving objects with the force as well as great sword-play, on her part, if she is still calibrating her finer abilities. For example, instead of lifting an x-wing I want to see her rescuing baby porgs that fall from the nest. Maybe she needs to flick a tiny switch on a distant console and accidentally mangles the work-station. A moment of triumph could be sensing a guard in an adjacent room, plucking the key from his pocket, and silently floating it to herself without needing to see anything with her eyes. Coordination also takes time, especially if strength is high.

Kylo Ren poster available for purchase here:

In a more extreme re-write, the main conflict could still stem from ‘Kylo Ren’ inviting her to seize control– but instead of seizing control with shared power, perhaps he could offer her control over the Force’s unrefined, staggering power. The obvious choice between ‘the rebellion (light)’ versus ‘dominion (dark)’ could be replaced by a nuanced choice between ‘be righteous but alone with overwhelming power’ versus ‘participate in evil but regain control’. Imagine if Rey’s powers responded to every flickering emotion, like Elsa’s, and demanded constant focus to manage– and if Luke refuses to help her, even when he sees her suffering under the strain?! It would be a better movie, folks *blows smoke from the barrels of his finger-guns* The overall story-arc catches so much flack because V heightened IV so well and Star Wars’ fans Jedi-sense the opportunities missed in VIII.

I can summarize for clarity’s sake. Luke Skywalker underwent a long learning process from rural teenager to psycho-kinetic warrior; audiences resonated with his ups and downs, especially “The Empire Strikes Back”: a film with energy that starts high, gets higher, and leads Luke into crippling failure to set-up the next film. Rey’s rise is meteoric and that is good because we need to be surprised but it would have been more interesting if she over-shot the mark and, for example, compromised the hull of a spaceship while she calibrated her powers (*wink*). “The Last Jedi” is enjoyable, and I will see the next film, but the writers/directors missed opportunities with Rey. “Frozen” showed us how compelling an over-powered female protagonist can be and that another strong female (Anna) could be her key to finding power-proficiency.

Speaking of “power-proficiency”, that sounds like Captain Marvel to me. Unlike the recent Star Wars movies (but similar to “Frozen”), I got misty during the climax. Maybe it’s my confirmation bias but I am so glad I didn’t let anonymous people on the Internet rob me of a memorable trip to the theater. Now, excuse me while I turn into a fan-boy…





The tattoo over my heart.

Soft-start: I will justify my feelings for Brie Larson. I know she’s a gorgeous specimen of a human being but I see that she is also a beautiful example of a person (in my opinion) because of her intentional inclusivity. Give her some credit for being a strong heroine by creating opportunities for more voices to be heard in real-life. *turning to the camera* Brie… you hit me right where I live: “…to seek justice and resist evil.”

The directors made the right call here, too.

Brie Larson looks toward the camera
This is a serious salute to a seriously talented actress. Please look past the heart-bubbles pouring from my ears…

True Start: Carol Danvers is a high-powered female protagonist ready to emerge. Like Rey, “Vers”‘ origins are unclear at the beginning of “Captain Marvel” and like Elsa others stifle her emotions, fearing the power connected to them. Of course, Danvers was deceived about both the nature and origins of her overwhelming powers. She later remarks “I’ve been fighting with one hand tied behind my back” (unlike Luke, whose hand was falling down a ventilation shaft ). Star Wars and Frozen skate around the history of gender discrimination in our culture by universe-building apart from our reality. Flashback scenes in “Captain Marvel” earn Danvers’ legitimacy as a heroine, enrich her character development, and situate her in a history of real, gendered antecedents.

She overcomes amnesia and remembers she already has the self-discipline to manage great power. Still, we get to watch her blast too hard with her photon-hands and breach the hull of a space-ship (YES!). I wanted to see her calibrate herself, like Elsa, but I also wanted to see her bust-skulls from the beginning like the scrappy version of Rey we meet on Jakku. Marvel gets the formula right. She is initially imperfect at controlling her immense power but, as she becomes ‘Carol Danvers’ again, we discover she built her inner strength through a learning process defined by failures and recoveries — she is relatable. I believe she “can do this all day” but I’ll put flesh on my Captain America reference later.

Oh yes: bring it on!

This piece is already long, so I want to touch some highlights. My sister and I discovered that we started leaking (cryingquietlybutnotsobbing) at the same moment in the movie. When Carol is forced to her knees and must commune with The Supreme Intelligence a second time, It tells her that she’s only human. I believe a Cree leader dismissive of her humanity is analogous to men dismissive of her femininity in flashbacks we see. The Cree blood was loaned to her like borrowed patriarchal structures, seeming to make her better but keeping her from her best. Her ultimate power was not only apart from the Cree but stifled by them. So, yeah, I was far more satisfied to see her BLAST Yon-Rogg. As much as I like a good fist-fight, she didn’t have anything to prove; he wanted a kind of conflict he could win but she needn’t entertain his petty challenges.

‘The Daily Dot’ complicates the film’s militarism: …but Danvers sides with the refugees and I appreciate that. Just covering an angle.

I really welcome the comments of women. I’m sure The Internet’s ladies can reflect expertly on various moments in “Captain Marvel” that really resonated. I am trying to be less shy about celebrating great female character development because I feel it deeply, too. Feminism isn’t just about staying on a progressive band-wagon — it’s about loving human potential and dissolving systems that inhibit our possibilities. Men stifle each other, too. There are so many times I felt I could not be expressive without being called demeaning names (one of which starts with an ‘F’).

But I AM a straight, heterosexual, cis-male (and white, to be honest) so I’m going to throw my weight at some bro-isms:

“She wouldn’t be able to just fly without any practice, like that.” <She was a US Air-Force test-pilot. They gave her the most convincing back-story possible for someone who needed to drop from space and learn to fly with photon-hands. That was exciting!

“I can’t believe she’s supposed to be an elite fighter from the beginning” <She trained first with a global super-power (in the United States Military) and then with a Galactic Super-Power (The Cree Empire). Her abilities are comparable to Gomorrah’s (“Guardians of the Galaxy”) but this time there isn’t a Chris-type headlining the film.

Shrimpy-Steve knows struggle.

“We never see her cry; that can’t be realistic” As Ronan the Accuser notes, she’s a hardened weapon. In the flash-backs we see the many points where she stomached failure but rose to persevere; her resilience is well-practiced. We never saw Captain America cry but we understood that a shrimpy Steve Rogers got the stuffing kicked out of him and, thus, the muscly Steve Rogers is an anti-bully. “Captain America: First Avenger” would benefit from flashbacks of Rogers getting pounded as a child and crying. Carol after the explosion is like Steve after the injection but more-so; as a shrimpy-boy and a just-a-girl, they know what it’s like to emerge from a pile of garbage heaped on their best efforts. The “I can do this all day” quote first appeared during an alley fight, before Rogers receives the serum, and repeats during the final battle with Iron Man (Tony Stark) in “–: Civil War”. He won’t stay down, yet I digress…

Carol Danvers surely cried at an earlier point in time. At the film’s beginning she’s been through basic-training, become a test-pilot, and been recruited as a Cree special operative. It is not believable for someone like that to cry in an action-movie– that’s not what we paid to see. If Maria’s little daughter, Monica, died then that would be the time to have Carol cry; nobody wanted that.

I’m appeased.

“She’s just a female super-hero to appease the feminists”
I feel sad for people who espouse this worry because implicit bias will stew them in their juices. It’s fascinating how people of color are content to just abstain from poorly made, culturally white media and most women are content to just abstain from poorly made, male-centered projects. White men trouble themselves, needlessly, with the possibility that shabby productions could happen without being tailored to white-male limitations. In Arabic there is a phrase that means “see some other work to do” — often meant as ‘stay in your lane’ but also as ‘don’t worry about it.’ Let “the white man’s burden” go, gentlemen.

Somewhere, white men are feverishly sifting “Black Panther” for imagined problems instead of enjoying Ocar-winning set-production, Michael B. Jordan’s emotive portrayal of Eric Stevens, and all-things-Shuri (thanks to Leticia Wright). Go ahead and do that, guys, I’ll be over on the progressive band-wagon enjoying myself.

So, “Captain Marvel” doesn’t show us a heroine cultivating her power nor a heroine learning to control that power but a heroine transcending limitations to seize the power she deserves because of the discipline she cultivated in the past. It also addresses misogyny directly — this film seems most feminist of all these movies. A great litmus test: my sister said she felt empowered as a woman after seeing it. I already thought my sister was independently-driven but even she leveled-up!

The final scene would be a disaster without Maria (played by Lashana Lynch).

The ‘representation’ element of Marvel films could still improve but my Dad and I were in for a treat. Little Monica insists her mother Maria (Lashana Lynch) go along on the space-mission. It’s a good thing she went because, once Danvers  is captured, Maria is the only person left who could really fly that plane. It was one of our favorite scenes: the Cree sniper (also female) tails her into a canyon. I exclaimed aloud “–I think Maria knows that canyon!” Sure enough, she out-maneuvers the Cree aircraft and unleashes a spray of machine-gun fire. It was kick-ass. Yet Captain Marvel herself is a white woman. Unless we see more of Shuri, that means the strongest black, marvel actress we’ve seen has been painted green for three films (Zoey Saldana as Gomorrah). I’m not saying that Larson shouldn’t be Captain Marvel and Saldana shouldn’t return as Gomorrah. I’m saying Leticia Wright’s Shuri should have her own cat-suit (even if T’Challah returns from the dust). More Shuri. Do it.

I really enjoyed writing this. I want to thank all of the female friends and colleagues who, collectively, have been my ‘Captain Marvel’. Without their support, it’s hard to imagine “doing this all day.” Thanks for reading.

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