Swords, Soapboxes, and Why Rey Never Gave a Fig

I’ve been thinking lately.

And all the people said “Oh no.”

This time, I have been thinking mostly about Rey from The Force Awakens. She is by no means a typical character (ie archetype) for the big screen these days, but that does not necessarily mean she is a good character. Originality does not guarantee excellence; just take a look at the uniqueness of the junk on television every day. Then again, originality is not necessarily bad; if Rey is so different from the majority of characters on screen, chances are that she and I have a lot in common.

But… to determine if anyone fits a definition, we need to know what that definition is. So here is my claim: a strong character needs neither a sword nor a soapbox to be a well-rounded, dynamic role model in a story. Get it? Got it? Good.

Let us begin with “well-rounded.” Well… yes, Rey is well-rounded. In fact, of all the characters in the movie, Rey is the most developed. For all you Myers-Briggs enthusiasts, my guess is that she’s an INFJ. She is hard-working (competent at her job of scavenging) and she is loyal and organized (keeping a record on her wall). At the same time, she has a sentimental side; don’t tell me you didn’t see the little flower on her kitchen table and the old doll on her shelf.

Still of Kiran Shah and Daisy Ridley in Star Wars: Episode VII - The Force Awakens (2015)

Hey! Did you know that the alien is played by Kiran Shah? (image credit)

Further into the movie, Rey proves that she can be tough without losing her gentleness. She can scare off a freaky-little-alien-thing riding a freaky-big-alien-thing with her staff, but she does it to rescue poor BB8 from being scrapped. She attacks Finn, but only because BB8 accuses Finn of killing his friend Poe. She isn’t afraid to cry when her friends are killed or injured. And I dare anyone not to chuckle when her face lights up and she says proudly, “I bypassed the compressor!” Yes, I’d say she has depth to her character.

Secondly, Rey is a dynamic character. She isn’t turned into another flat soapbox like Tauriel the redheaded activist (ugh), but she grows in her feminine confidence without turning feminist. More tangibly, at the beginning of the story, Rey refuses to take Finn’s hand, claiming that she can run by herself. Well, duh. It’s the old boys-opening-doors-for-girls problem. Maybe we are feeling a little bit insecure about ourselves, Rey?

Yet I had judged her too soon. By the end of the movie, Rey is the one grabbing Finn’s hand and borrowing his jacket in a snowstorm. Don’t believe me? Look at this. And all this just makes sense; if a guy was in Rey’s place, he would be dragging his friends away from danger and accepting a coat when a blizzard starts, too. It’s not chauvinism; it’s common sense. And all this is to mirror her development as a powerful Jedi who fights evil in the galaxy (which we had better see in the next movie!). Rey learns to be confident with who she is and where she is going, and thus she becomes a stronger character.

Finally, Rey is what I generally call a “role model.” This is what most qualifies her as a strong character. Remember when Finn is getting dragged away by a really-big-freaky-alien-thing aboard Han Solo’s freighter? Of course you do. Rey figures out how to close the doors just in time to free Finn from the tentacles. Nice. The scene is intense, awesome, and undeniably original. But- did you notice what Rey said to Finn after rescuing him from imminent death? Just “That was lucky!”

In many other stories- and even at the beginning of Rey’s story- the girl might have replied with something along the lines of, “Yes, I know. I’m the one who did it, because I am a smart empowered female. I know how things work.” (Yes, I just took a shot at Tomorrowland. I’m not sorry.) That is what makes the difference in Rey’s character: she has a certain maturity, a unique sort of strength, that intensifies over the course of the story. I no longer have to squirm when my sister dresses up as Rey or chooses her for a Disney Infinity character; I know that Rey won’t be influencing her or any other girls to become self-absorbed featherheads who worry about all the wrong things.

At the end of the day, a strong female character (as well as any male one!) should be able to stand on her own feet. She shouldn’t have to stand on a soapbox to look taller, nor should she need a sword to make a point. Both puns were very much intended. If you want to write a strong female character, stop worrying about proverbial glass ceilings and start worrying about how you will write a strong character who will make all of your readers admire her and the rest of your work. Be like J.J. Abrams.

That is, unless you would rather be George Lucas.

So- is Rey a strong female character or not? Comment below and share your thoughts. 

AND I have one quick announcement: I’ll be sharing a few first-draft snippets from Alen’s War on Facebook this week. You can check that out here– and definitely do so because you won’t want to miss all these wonderful sneak peaks. 

She-Elves, Princesses, and Assassins: Let’s Bust Some Archetypes

Confession time.

We writers, especially young writers like myself, pride ourselves on breaking stereotypes and making the world of literature a better place. We purge our stories of anything that even hints of cliche and strive to write earth-shattering plot twists. We find the cleverest ways to work in a “soapbox theme” without coming across as preachy. Occasionally, we have even gone “indie” and published on our own. We don’t need no stinking Big Four or stock characters to make it.

But it’s time to admit the truth. In the midst of our fight against author- and story-stereotypes, we have allowed Hollywood to take over in other areas. We have allowed them to decide on what exactly is a Strong Female Character.

So, today, we’re going to sit down and do what we writers do best. We are going to rethink the standard that Hollywood has given us, and maybe we will even break a few archetypes. I’ve chosen three which pop up everywhere in movies and books these days- and a bonus, they haven’t already been analyzed on at least fifty different blogs. The bad news is that I won’t get to pick apart Katniss or Bella. The good news? You don’t have to read yet another post about Katniss or Bella.

Hear me now: All this is not to say that the characters I will talk about are bad characters. Some of them did a good enough job in their respective stories. But, by definition, these ladies are not strong. We hold male characters to certain standards of “strongness,” and we should do the same for female characters, right? Of course right. So here we go.

The Soapbox Suffragette: Tauriel of the Hobbit trilogy is the captain of the entire elven guard, a favorite of the king, and everyone’s love interest. She can do no wrong. Moreover, she suddenly finds it feasible to rush off after her boyfriend Kili a pack of orcs, dragging Legolas and the rest of the kingdom to war like a redheaded Joan d’Arc. All this is in direct defiance of royal orders- but that’s perfectly okay, right? She is an empowered heroine who is doing the right thing!

Now, the first problem we notice is that Legolas, for instance, could have done every one of these things (save falling in love with Kili), but instead he had to take on the role of Thranduil’s indoctrinated minion. He was villainized by her very presence in the movie. And one does not simply villainize Legolas.

So if Legolas could easily have filled her role, why bring Tauriel into the story in the first place? According to TheOneRing.net, writer Philippa Boyens “created her… to bring that energy into the film, that feminine energy.” Feminine energy? Tauriel is in the movie as a beacon of girl power- but in a fantasy tale about the dangers of greed and pride? That has nothing to do with the story! Tauriel is ineffective because she distracts Kili, Legolas, and the whole audience from the real story. Now I think we have a name for that sort of character… oh, right. The damsel in distress. Not only is Tauriel irrelevant, but she is a self-defeating character.

The Immature Ideal: Rapunzel from Tangled is gullible, naive, positively grubby, ditzy, and a bit- well, um- vague. And she has a million different hobbies, but she feels that every one of them is pointless; when will her real life begin? Everybody loves character like that. Don’t they?

What Disney may or may not have realized is that Rapunzel- and every other young protagonist they write- becomes a role model for millions of kids worldwide. Little girls and big ones dress up like Aurora, sing “Let It Go,” and pretend that they have magic hair that glows when they sing. This is not necessarily a bad effect; for at least fifty years, Disney produced mature models like Snow White and Cinderella. But then came the age of Ariel, Jasmine, and Rapunzel.

As cutesy and relatable as Rapunzel is, everything that Mother Gothel says is true of her: she is immature and naive, all too ready to disobey her mother’s commands in favor of getting what she wants. Watching this movie and others, little girls are bombarded with the message that they must follow their heart’s desires. That’s right, the heart that tells them to disobey authority and run away from home with a man of poor reputation. Just like Lydia Bennet. Is that the sort of role model parents want for their children?

I think not.

The Ambiguous Assassin: Natasha Romanoff, AKA Black Widow, is the kick-butt fighter from pretty much every Marvel movie ever made. She has the mental capacity of Alan Turing, the weaponry of the ancient Chinese, and the strength of Arnold Schwarzenegger. There is no beating her. End of story. When I look at any character like Natasha, I try to figure out her place in the metanarrative, if you will. Yet this is well-nigh impossible to do.

Natasha isn’t a role model/Mentor. None of her stunts, however awesome they look with CGI, makes her a role model, even in the grayish context of the Marvel universe. If anything, she takes on the role of student rather than teacher. Yet she isn’t the Young Protagonist, either, for she undergoes little, if any, character transformation. She is not a suffragette like Tauriel. She is not here to preach girl power or fight chauvinism; she is here to fight Bad Guys.

As a primary or even secondary character, Natasha is ambiguous. She has no inalienable role in the movie- unless that is to look good, knock down bad guys, and balance out an otherwise all-male cast. But, of course, they could have gotten Thor to do all three of those things. (I’m sorry, I’m sorry…) So where does Natasha fit? Well, we have a seat for characters like her, and it isn’t on the stage of Strong Female Characters. It’s on the bleachers with the tertiary characters and the Foils.

Remember- I’m not saying that Tauriel, Rapunzel, and Natasha have no use in a story. I’m saying that they are mislabelled as strong characters and thus are given too much credit for the job that they do. Put them in different roles and they are just fine. Otherwise, I’d call these archetypes busted.

What do you think? Should we bust these archetypes, or did I overlook something important?