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Scrutinizing Rey and Finn as STAR WARS Tackles 2015’s Identity Politics

As 2015 draws to a close, we’ve continued to see the dialogue around identity and the fractious reality of living out our differences together seep into many conversations about this here pop culture geek world.
Among them:

  • A renewed diversity wave in television with successes in Empire, Fresh Off The Boat, How To Get Away with Murder, Inside Amy Schumer, UnReal, Mr. Robot, Jane the Virgin and others. 
  • Target ridding itself with boys’ and girls’ toys sections/labeling.
  • More scrutiny of downplaying female characters in action figure lines marketed to boys.
  • The rise of backlashing Sad Puppies, crying tyranny in sci-fi diversity, at the Hugo Awards.
  • Mad Max: Fury Road’s beautiful and brutal post-apocalyptic feminism.
  • Fun Home and Hamilton adding punchy vibrance to Broadway.
  • South Park’s head-twisting satire on so-called political correctness culture.
  • Anticipation and dread awaiting both Wonder Woman and Black Panther’s film debuts.
  • Jessica Jones and its depiction of Kilgrave’s mental powers as rape, and Jones’ trauma related to it, plus superpowered, interracial sex scene with Luke Cage and her history of queer romantic relationships, too.

But that’s not all. Star Wars Episode VII: The Force Awakens dominated the pop culture year, arguably before the film even was released December 18.

It remained shrouded in secrecy and ever-expanding hopes that J.J. Abrams could bring back the magic. Like the Force itself, it was all around us and inside us even when we didn’t focus on it. From the first teaser trailer in November 2014 showing the Millennium Falcon, to the gems out of summer’s San Diego Comic-Con, to fans tearing up when Han Solo said, “Chewie, we’re home” in another trailer, to tie-in campaigns making this movie the Starkiller Base to the franchise’s already-insane two Death Stars, The Force Awakens put its hooks into us.
In 2015, not even a new Star Wars movie could escape the identity issues of the moment.
Online trolls and dunerheads immediately seized on there being a black man in that stormtrooper suit. Some people couldn’t wrap their pea-sized brains around the idea that Captain Phasma, a female character, didn’t need T&A-accentuating fake body armor to be a woman. 
In a film universe totally lacking women of color, there was rightful consternation over putting only Lupita Nyong’o’s voice on screen as a motion-captured CGI character and not her cover-ready face. A debate over the Leia slave bikini became a focal point over how much of Leia’s heroism is overlooked, including that she kills Jabba by strangling him, while wearing that bikini, with the chain that bound her. (I used to own a T-shirt depicting that moment.)
Others more feel the need to write off Rey as a “Mary Sue” – a now-toxic fanfic shorthand for a stand-in character who’s too perfect, too good, too fast.
Really? In Star Wars, a gigantic fairy tale set in space with little to no attachment to reality and realism whatsoever?
(Side note: No one should listen to Max Landis anymore. His 2015 featured two generally reviled bombs, Victor Frankenstein and American Ultra. He can take a seat. Chronicle was pretty good, but he hasn’t built on it, and his opinions instead make him sound like every bit the privileged white guy going to work for his daddy that he is.)
There are many angles from which to hack at this dunderheadedness, and many have already. But ultimately, this boils down to the undue scrutiny all too often attached to female characters in male-oriented entertainment. The use of Mary Sue as a slur is related to gender, through fanfic largely being written by women, and male characters at the center of genre stories typically don’t get the same derision.

And that includes Star Wars.

In A New Hope, Luke Skywalker goes from a reluctant farmboy who prefers hanging with his friends and shooting animals for fun, to Force-wielding fighter pilot who blows up the Death Star on his first time in a ship and in battle. In The Phantom Menace, Anakin Skywalker is a slave at a junk shop who wins a death race, pilots a ship in battle and builds C-3PO at age 9 because he’s so naturally in tune with the Force.
So, in this universe where we already have  a combination of Doogie Howser, M.D. and Mozart, folks are going to say Rey is too skilled? She already came into The Force Awakens as a hardened scavenger with serious mechanical knowledge and self-defense skills honed over years, with some hints at other mysterious training from a family whose return she’s awaiting.
Never mind the fact that Rey grows stronger in The Force every time Kylo Ren tries to use it against her.

Kylo Ren, the emo kid who, out of whatever feelings of betrayal, wants to return to the glory years of Darth Vader and spends half the movie “instructing” his female cohort on what The Force really means. And whenever he messes up, he smashes everything in sight with his rickety homemade lightsaber.

Remind you of any Star Wars pedants you’ve known? Probably hits a little too close to home for the Mary Suethers.
Watching my wife burst with excitement over Rey assuming the central role in a Star Wars trilogy, from taking up Anakin’s lightsaber against Kylo Ren, to saving Finn, to handing that saber back to Luke, was all the joy I needed.
But then I would be giving short shrift to Finn, whom I enjoyed immensely, but has seen his own amount of backlash.
Finn’s detractors come not only from trolls who can’t accept a black Stormtrooper, but from some black fans who felt Finn was an incompetent and neutered character. From those who saw ads of Finn holding that lightsaber, and were ready to see a black man kick some ass in Star Wars as a lead character.
For these fans, Lando Calrissian was a letdown because he betrayed Han and the good guys. Even though Mace Windu gets killed, he gets a serious fight against Darth Sidious. (Never mind that Lando joined the Rebellion, was in Han’s rescue team, and blew up the second Death Star.)
It’s easy enough to knock down Finn as a guy without a name, a janitor, a coward who runs from his first combat, who runs from the Rebellion he lied about joining, and when it was hero time with the lightsaber, gets beat and is unconscious for the rest of the film. A central black character in Star Wars, and he’s a runaway slave.
That’s also a lazy reading, in my opinion.
Finn is a runaway slave, taken from his home and family. He runs after the atrocities of the First Order don’t mesh with the glorious institution it indoctrinates him to believe. Finn frees a captive, talks his way into the Resistance, provides knowledge on how to destroy Starkiller Base, and runs back into hell to free someone he cares for.
In a movie obsessed with inheritance of roles from the first trilogy, and the Skywalker family being the fulcrum upon which cycles repeat with each generation, Finn and Rey’s relationship so far revisits some from 35 years ago, with its own inversions and twists and slippery associations. Rey saves Finn like Han saves Luke in A New Hope. Finn is injured facing Kylo Ren unprepared like Luke is hurt facing Darth Vader unprepared in The Empire Strikes Back.
Finn tries to protect Rey several times, even grasping her hand like he’s saving the princess from danger, only to be told not to treat her like a princess – Leia and Han, anyone?
And all of this is before we even know what Finn’s total character arc will be. Folks may have been looking for him to be Luke, but so far, he’s more like Han Solo. He’s the one staring around at all this crazy stuff and shouting. He’s the one who has to be made to believe, just as Han did.
Remember when Han Solo was simply a smuggler who didn’t want any parts of the Rebellion or the Force or anything beyond getting his reward to pay off Jabba the Hutt? Remember when his whole endgame was “I just want to stay alive, by any means necessary”? Remember how he, in both A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back, he kept turning back from running every time because of a connection to and love for Luke and Leia?
Finn functions as this trilogy’s Han Solo – a non-believer just trying to keep his fat out of the fire, but as he learns more and finds a true connection to someone else/something bigger for the first time, he can’t help but run into the fray. Han had the cool vest, Finn has the cool jacket after Poe Dameron lets him keep his. (Another moment in The Force Awakens’ themes of inheritances both given and claimed.) The Force may not be with him, but his life will be changed by it forever.
And that’s OK by me.
Finn turned up in my Christmas stocking this year, and I couldn’t be happier. I didn’t find the right Rey product for my wife just yet, but we all know it’s coming, as certain as Episodes VIII and IX.
Just imagine what Rey and Finn will be like once they really know what they’re doing.
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