What Lies Within: Finding the Inner Girl Hero in Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Force Awakens

Episode 12: The Force has Awoken: Star Wars Special Edition

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Toija Cinque

figure-1_rey-image-1There is something darkly broken yet emotionally beautiful about Rey. Like a pair of wings, she carries proudly the troubles of her past and present on her back. Still young, Rey was orphaned as a child, left behind on the planet Jakku, ascribing her disposition as disenfranchised and a seeming outsider (McKnight, 2016). While a scavenger by trade, Rey later becomes involved with the Resistance’s conflict with the First Order when her solitary life is interrupted by BB-8, the droid of ace Resistance pilot Poe Dameron, and a morally-compelled runaway Stormtrooper named Finn. At her elemental core Rey is a female Jedi and a strong adventurer, possessing a nature infused with the Force. The Force is an attitude of mindfulness or finding flow akin to the Japanese warrior philosophy of Bushidō:

a person can go anywhere he[sic] likes by means of simple cerebration. Intuition based on sincerity and moral guidance [a sound moral compass] leads one back to the bedrock Yamamoto Tsunetomo

In the film, Rey is depicted as intuitive, resilient, brave and honest (Sansom, 2016) but it is not until her environment is irrevocably altered that her journey of self-discovery develops culminating in the moment when, held captive by a Stormtrooper, that for the first time she really taps into the Force. At this point, she quashes her fears to manipulate her captor and gain freedom. All for a mature, thoughtful cinematic theme (Greiving, 2016).

figure-2_rey-image-2 Critics might, however, have it right and too much credit is being given to this quixotic notion in an industry-led environment that is, as Larabee (2016: 7) claims: ‘more beholden to its internal industry promotion’ than to a depicted ethos of the Jungian archetype or myth of the ‘hero’ (see Brown, 2013) and long dissected by screenwriters via Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949). Here, a hero’s tale begins when from their everyday life they are summoned to enter an unusual world of remarkable powers and events. They dutifully choose to accept the call to enter a seemingly strange world to consequently confront tasks and trials in order to survive. Frequently, they are helped along the journey. Should the hero survive, their achievement often results in discovering important self-knowledge and wisdom which can be used to improve the lives of others. As the Devil acts as antagonist to Christ, Voldemort is to Harry Potter, Snoke and Kylo Ren are to Rey and Finn. This enduring tale has certainly proved universally reminiscent (reusable).

Further, while this self-rescuing character is not clad in pink, Rey is nonetheless trapped within the Disney princess concept for marketing of ‘princess culture’ and branding affording dolls and dress-up clothes articulating the virtues of rebellious hero but within hegemonic gender roles and still narrow ideals for raced beauty (Johnson, 2014: 897). This is connected in large part to her embodied young, ‘pure’, thin, raced whiteness and the semiotic implications for viewers therein (see Redmond, 2012; Dyer, 1997: 29). In outer-space, Rey is also analogous to the hopes and fears for the galaxy’s future and the Rebellion’s mission to save it, one yet tinged with pursuing with honour certain ‘rights and responsibilities’ via the moral code of whiteness (see Redmond, 2016). On Rey’s white body linger the invisible inferences of race and status vis-à-vis her sexuality and living up to certain societal expectations of being a white female.

This raised for the author critical questions of how the character of Rey in the latest of the Star Wars sagas, The Force Awakens was/is viewed by audiences; Star Wars fans and those that come latterly to the films (since the George Lucas directed Star Wars of 1977). Specifically, to what extent was the ‘princess’ narrative: (a) actively resisted, or; (b) linked in a social network of complicity. As Jenkins has argued, fans are motivated not simply to ‘absorb the text but to translate it into other types of cultural and social activity’ (Jenkins, 1992: 210) This present work then, aims to get beneath contemporary modes of fan engagement that stems from viewing and reception of a text, through the lens of the film Star Wars: The Force Awakens with specific focus on the character, Rey. In the first instance, I gathered primary data using Tableau to ‘scrape’ Twitter data. Secondly, I used Tag Sleuth to draw comments about Rey from Vine, Twitter, Instagram and Tumblr Application Programming Interfaces (APIs) for the public posts, comments, likes, and shares posted in public digital spaces. Finally, I examined posts made to ‘Star Wars Movies’ on Facebook. The findings were applied to my science fiction fan research with particular attention paid to the usage of terms like character name, discussion and timing of messages relating to the film’s release and the replies, shares and likes during the date range 1 December 2015 and 6 November 2016.

I began with an overview of how Rey was described by Australian audiences to determine if she was considered a ‘hero’ in the film. Using ‘Hero’ and ‘Rey’ as Twitter search terms, the following table indicates that 195 people in Australia used the term ‘hero’ in connection to Rey and a lesser number used the term ‘hero’ for Kylo (126). Few Australian Twitter users used the term for both characters at the same time (10 people).

 

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Table 1: Australian Twitter users’ use of the term ‘Hero’ for central characters Rey and Kylo in Star Wars: Episode VIII –The Force Awakens (2015)

What became apparent from this initial data review was that the analysis needed to be extended out to a wider demographic. Facebook commentary during the lead-up to and the month following the film’s release are recorded below. More recent international data was also consequently drawn (between 1 December 2015 and 6 November 2016) from Social Media sites Vine (146 posts), Instagram (4, 565 posts), Twitter (8, 317 posts) and Tumbler (2, 295 posts) to assess the longevity of Rey’s centrality to fan conversations. Outlined in the figures below are the most frequently used words on Vine based on the search term ‘#Rey’.

 

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Figure 1: Most frequently used words on Vine to 28 October 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Figure 2: Most frequently used words on Instagram to 6 November 2016

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The search term ‘#Rey’ on Tumblr found some 4, 937 results of which a number supported the Princess myth, for example, one person, AB, posted in direct terms that Rey is a ‘space princess’ (13/10/2016). Another, ‘naliasurana’ posted on 20/10/2016 11:06:19 AM:

About that Rey falls to the Finn.

Yes, she did it! That’s why I was really surprised when [name removed] said that Rey and Finn are only friends. I mean, it was clear that Finn is attracted to Rey and vice versa?

But now it’s more clear. Rey was so lonely, that she can fall in love with the first person, who isn’t from this cruel rusty world of hers. And, like Kylo is a fan of Vader and Empire, Rey is the fan of Rebellion – she makes dolls-rebels, she wears helm of rebel pilot. Finn for her is a hero from her dreams….

Other fan-fiction recasts the filmic saga (senatorrorgana, 18/10/2016 1:30:53 AM):

By morning, Rey woke up realizing she was still in Poe’s bed, and that despite the warmth, Poe was already up and about for the day. Rey shuffled out of bed and back to the guest room she was staying in, finally putting on her own clothes before heading downstairs. Poe was in the living room drinking some coffee when she found him, and from the looks of it he was drawing something in a sketchbook of his. Something about seeing that pained Rey a bit, she thought she knew most everything about Poe, and that only proved she didn’t, it made her feel a bit further apart from him than the closeness she felt in their bond last night.

There are, however, counter-views, for example reynbowskywalker claims (10/17/2016 11:34:22):

You know, when you think about it … Rey [is] criticized as a character for [being] “too perfect.” She is shown being clever, handy with mechanics, and proving herself to be very capable as a hand-to-hand combatant. She’s displaying typically “masculine” traits by possessing all of the qualities of a typical hero, and as a result she’s written off as a “Mary Sue” and “SJW [Social Justice Warrior] propaganda,” despite representing many girls and women who could feel empowered by seeing someone like them portrayed onscreen in such a heroic light.

The search term ‘#Rey’ on Twitter found some 8, 317 results and a number used additional descriptive terms in their tweets such as ‘ReyofSunshine’ (phoebe_ashling, 16/10/2016) and ‘Rey Princess’ (Sr_Jekyll; nayara_levy29; MarilynCas1; Acbbarrett; jhoneikysm1; between the date range 17/10/2016 and 06/11/2016). To the contrary, however, LBoy stated that: ‘I’m a boy and I’d wear Rey’s costume! It’s not just for girls cz they are just robes. Sandbeige camouflages her on Jakku like a soldier in Iraq’ (30/12/2015 3:44:53 PM). The light beige colour of Rey’s clothes and flowing fabric (see the first image of Rey above), however, certainly acts to denote her femininity and being ‘good’ (white, pure) as differentiated against the ‘bad’ Kylo Ren (dressed in black, evil) in accordance with the significant moral analogy by colour long established in classic Hollywood Westerns.

Other views about Rey on Facebook leading up to the release of the film on 17 December 2015 (searching posts on https://www.facebook.com/starwarsmovies/):

I think Rey will be the Jedi (HCC, 09/12/2015)

When the film opened:

Rey was one of the more interesting characters I’ve seen (NA, 19/12/2015)

Then:

I have to give credit to our latest jedi-may-be-Rey, she has great potential (ML, 27/01/2016)

Rey is the best pilot (DD, 29/01/2016)

As far as Rey goes could she be a new chosen one? Could she have been conceived by the force? … I believe she’s a kenobi but in order for her to be so powerful she would of had to have been conceived with another force user (SB 29/01/2016)

I have seen it twice and I LOVE this movie. Rey is my favorite (DW, 29/01/2016)

Rey is so powerful in Star War 7 The Force Awakens (JM, 30/01/2016)

In conclusion, this algorithmic analysis of Rey as a Girl Hero in Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Force Awakens makes it evident that in a number of important ways, the online fan community respond to, and make sense of, recognised texts such as film, popular literature and the like. The term ‘princess’ is certainly employed by a number with all the connotations attached to the vernacular, but so too is ‘hero’. Further illation and statistical analysis on the (re)presentation of the Hero Girl in science-fiction on screen is warranted because aspects of female roles in film (and television, literature, theatre and other creative arts), and the role of women, are still be being over-looked by some. When ignored, these aspects can become harmful to advancing an appreciation of inclusive gender norms and identity politics.

Bio: Toija Cinque is Senior Lecturer in Screen and Design at Deakin University, Australia: toija.cinque@deakin.edu.au

References

Brown, Robin S. (2013). ‘Beyond the evolutionary paradigm in consciousness studies, The Journal of Transpersonal Psychology, vol 45, no. 2, pp 159-171. http://atpweb.org/jtparchive/trps-45-13-02-159.pdf

Campbell, Joseph. (1949). The Hero with a Thousand Faces. Pantheon Books, New York.

Dyer, Richard. (1997) ‘Whiteness’, Screen, 29, pp 44-45.

Greiving, Tim (2015). ‘John Williams On The Force Awakens And The Legacy Of Star Wars’, Projector & Orchestra, January 5, http://projectorandorchestra.com/john-williams-on-the-force-awakens-and-the-legacy-of-star-wars/ Retrieved February 21, 2016.

Jenkins, Henry (1992). “Strangers no more, we sing’: Filking and the social construction of the science fiction fan community’, in Lisa A. Lewis (ed) The Adoring Audience: Fan Culture and Popular Media, Routledge, New York, pp 208-236.

Johnson, Derek (2014). “May the Force be with Katie’: Pink media franchising and the postfeminist politics of HerUniverse’, Feminist Media Studies, vol. 14, no. 6, pp 895-911.

Larabee, Ann (2016). ‘Editorial: Star Wars and the Girl Hero’, The Journal of Popular Culture, vol. 49, no. 1, pp.7-9.

McKnight, Brent (2016). ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens Writer Reveals How Rey and Finn Came To Be’, CinemaBlend, January 22, http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Star-Wars-Force-Awakens-Writer-Reveals-How-Rey-Finn-Came-107807.html, Retrieved January 22, 2016.

Redmond, Sean (2016), ‘The whiteness of cinematic outer space’, in James S. Ormrod, and Peter Dickens (ed), The Palgrave Handbook of Society, Culture and Outer Space, Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke, UK., pp 337-354.

Redmond, Sean (2012). ‘The Whiteness of Stars: looking at Kate Winslet’s Unruly White Body, in Su Holmes and Sean Redmond, Stardom and Celebrity: A Reader, London: Sage pp 263-275.

Sansom, Lisa (2016). ‘Doing the right thing: Character, Moral Goodness, and Star Wars’, PsycCRITIQUES, American Psychological Association, vol. 61, no. 25, Article 10, June 20, https://www.viacharacter.org/www/LinkClick.aspx?fileticket=BlYAnYDCruE%3D&portalid=0 Retrieved September 14, 2016.

Yamamoto, Tsunetomo (1983). The Book of the Samurai Hagakure, translated by William Scott Wilson, first paperback edition, Kodansha International Ltd, Tokyo, p 7.