Apparently, the sexism is strong with me because I think Rey was seriously overpowered. Before you dismiss me as some sex starved man’s right activist, however, I want you to know that I am a woman, and I am feminist as fuck. Additionally, I know a little bit about women taking on historically masculine roles. I have been a programmer for about a decade in an industry that was, last time I checked, 95% male. Before that, in high school, I was the first female captain of my wrestling team and the first women to win or place at various local tournaments. I know what it takes to do things that no one thinks you can do because you are female. And, despite all the excitement about what a “strong” female character Rey is, she continues to foster a mindset that is damaging to real-world women succeeding in historically masculine roles.
It’s not that Rey isn’t strong — it’s that she’s too strong. (Brace yourself for the spoilerz.) Rey rarely fails, and definitely never fails at anything important, and is never shown to be suffering in any significant way. I guess she closed the wrong door when that weird raptor thing was smooshing about the ship, but nothing bad actually came of that. And, while I think she should have lost that fight to Kylo at the end, I would have accepted her win had it taken every ounce of her fucking energy. Like, she should have been vomiting from excursion. And, it’s not because zomg, clearly it’s SUPER HARD for a woman to beat a man. It’s because Rey’s character has nowhere to go. Rey has no fucking mission, no serious nemesis. If she’s *this good* now, what the hell’s going to happen when she’s actually trained? She’ll just imagine all her enemies exploding, and immediately win.
Depriving Rey of significant avenues of character growth is sexist bullshit, and it plays into stereotypes that, when internalized by women, seriously hinder them. A large part of oppression against women has been valuing them for things they have minimal control over — traditionally, appearance. However, in Rey’s case, it’s that she’s naturally a ridiculously awesome fighter. This, again, is something innate, and something she did not cultivate. Her fighting ability isn’t something that was *earned* by her. Yes, Luke was super-powered too, but there was a whole Yoda training montage, and his like, loss of hand and shit that he overcame to become a great fighter because he has agency. Rey had NO agency. The actions and decisions of male characters are difficult, take time to execute, and matter. Rey, after a 5 minute break of considering not fighting evil, basically just does what is expected of her extremely well. Nothing she decides for herself is ultimately of any consequence. Luke’s story basically says “if you persevere, and work hard to train your natural abilities, you can overcome great obstacles.” Rey’s story (so far) says “if you are magic, you can beat a man!”
The deeper, more insidious insinuation is that a woman would *have* to be magic to beat a man. We live in a world where we can’t imagine that a woman would be less capable than a man, train to get better at what she does, then via her agency earn abilities that are superior to a man’s. I know from personal experience that this isn’t true, but years of believing it was really fucked with my shit. When I started wrestling as a freshman in high school, I got my ass handed to me. I considered quitting, I was so ashamed of being a terrible wrestler who was letting woman-kind down. I assumed I must not have what it takes to excel at wrestling, and the secret question I asked but told no one was “is it because I’m a woman?” But, then I thought, fuck all the women who think I’m letting them down. They’re not out here, they’re not training. If they hate me for being a bad wrestler, that’s on them. At least I tried.
By my senior year, I had women crying and hugging me when they saw me win my matches. I got standing ovations at tournaments. I realized then, that *all* freshmen are bad at wrestling because they are inexperienced. Through my hard work, I accomplished things I didn’t know were possible at the outset. But, those crying women didn’t see all that. They didn’t care about all my training and hard work. They didn’t see me, maybe I looked magic to them. Truth is, I was always an average athlete. The only thing I had going for me is that I didn’t let failure stop me. However, the way I won my matches against boys wasn’t interesting to people. Only the fact *that* I won them. Deep down, no one really believed girls could beat boys at wrestling, and I was a counterpoint.
That’s really what I think this whole shebang is all about. Women just want to see a woman beat a man, because on some level, they don’t think women can beat men. But, when we watch a *fictional* woman beat a *fictional* man with her inaccessible superpowers, we actually reinforce the notion of female weakness. We set ourselves up to *not* be like Rey, because unlike her, we are not naturally exceptional. When we fail, we will take it as a sign we are not worthy and as women we are so used to being valued for our innate attributes it might not occur to us that we can earn our victories. And, Rey sure as hell didn’t earn hers.
Women need to have the freedom to fail just like men. Women need to be seen overcoming obstacles, just like men. Girls tend to take failure harder than boys do, and also are more likely to give up after failure. We need strong, female characters who will inspire girls to overcome obstacles with their agency. That we are not producing them in the media is a testament to continued cultural sexism. That the only articles I could find on this topic unanimously fawned over Rey’s awesomeness as a strong character is a crime! We’re dropping the ball on this one. We are not understanding what girls and women need to help them excel, we are only indulging in infantile wish fulfillment.
It’s really not that hard to play with the “big boys.” Under men’s rule, we have experienced wars, genocides, global warming, slavery, various forms of class, race, and gender oppression and many other terrible things far too numerous to mention. The bar’s not that high. Why do we think we have to be magic to do better than that?