Over the weekend, even as most of us were celebrating the fact that a new Star Wars movie did not in any way suck, some portions of the internet got sucked into a pointless, silly debate. Is Rey, the film’s hero, a “Mary Sue”? The answer is no. Next question?
Some spoilers for The Force Awakens ahead...
I wrote about this on my Tumblr, but wanted to get into it in a bit more depth. So here goes.
“Mary Sue” is one of those terms that had a useful meaning in fan culture at one point, long ago, and has now become both vague and toxic. Originally, a “Mary Sue” was an author surrogate, inserted into fan-fiction. The “fan fiction” thing is important, because part of the fantasy of the “Mary Sue” was the fan-fic author getting to live at Hogwarts or travel on board the U.S.S. Enterprise. And this thinly veiled copy of the story’s author is incredibly good at everything, to the point where all the established characters marvel at her (usually it’s “her”) wonderfulness.
The “Mary Sue” is a very specific wish-fulfillment fantasy, in other words. It’s about getting to hang out with Harry, Ron and Hermione, and having them admire you. There’s nothing wrong with that kind of fantasy—we’ve all had it, when we get especially invested in a particular universe—but the term acquired a pejorative meaning because people felt it made for bad stories. Fair enough.
Over time, the term “Mary Sue” has broadened until it means “any female character who is unrealistically talented or skilled.” Which is insane for a couple of reasons: It makes this “trope” so vague as to be meaningless, and this is also purely a way at tearing down female characters who are good at stuff.
So without getting into heavy spoilers, Rey has one element of the “Mary Sue” character locked down: She’s a newly added character in an existing universe. But she’s among a bunch of new characters in the first chapter of a new story, so it’s not like she was introduced halfway through Return of the Jedi and suddenly started out-Lukeing Luke.
Meanwhile, is Rey unrealistically competent? She’s good at fixing machines, having spent her entire life as a scavenger taking apart the crashed spaceships on Jakku. She’s a good pilot, and maybe figures out how to fly an unfamiliar spaceship rather quickly. And she’s strong in the Force, learning to use Force powers incredibly fast. Just as most of The Force Awakens is pretty explicitly patterned on A New Hope, Rey is basically this movie’s answer to Luke Skywalker. Luke touches a lightsaber for the first time about 45 minutes into A New Hope, and is using the Force pretty brilliantly by the end of the movie.
But still, Rey’s prowess in this film is pretty incredible, considering that she doesn’t have Obi-Wan to train her. There are lots of hints that she had some training when she was a child, but in any case, this seems to be one of those “just go with it” things.
(I’d also argue that—SPOILER ALERT!—Kylo Ren teaches Rey a lot about using the Force. Every time she gets better at using it in this film, it’s right after Kylo Ren has tried to use it against her. She sees what he’s doing, and copies it. I thought it was fairly explicit that Kylo Ren is Rey’s “teacher” in this movie.)
But in any case, this is a convention of these sorts of movies. Kingsman also has a protagonist who is useless at the start of the movie and is an invincible badass by the end of the film. Most superheroes have a freakishly steep learning curve, even if they don’t have any powers. (Especially if they don’t have any powers.) If you are worried about realism, go watch My Dinner With Andre.
The thing about Rey, and characters like her, is that she subverts the actual awful trope that is ruining everything: the female character who is badass until the final act of the movie. Most films, with a character like Rey, would have her be ridiculously competent and brilliant until the final 20 or 30 minutes of the film, at which point she suddenly becomes useless and Finn has to solve everything. This is a trope that I have seen in approximately seven billion movies: the super-awesome woman who becomes suddenly less awesome as the male hero takes control of his power.
So yes, Rey is a tad unrealistic. Not unlike everything else in this universe with a magic space elf and fantasy mind powers and spaceships that can jump across the galaxy at the push of a button. What she isn’t, is more unrealistic than most of the other characters.
What the “Mary Sue” thing shows—other than that people will find any craptastic excuse to tear down female characters—is that memes have a decay rate. After a while, they wear out and you gotta find new ones. Fan culture is good at putting its finger on that one thing that’s bugging us at this one specific moment, but then absolutely terrible at generalizing and extrapolating, until you reach the heat death of criticism: total loss of information. This is a failure mode of fan culture, and it’s something to watch out for.