I have written before about the difference in the male and female human conditions, differences that come from the how each sex comes to maturity. While both become physically mature all the same, with or without society’s input, the culture does indeed have different standards for the mantle of “manhood” and “womanhood”, because the culture at large requires different things from men and women. These standards directly tie into how you tell a story for a male or female audience, because how you structure the events plays to the human condition of the male and the human condition of the female. Star Wars is no exception, and I wasn’t too surprised to find firsthand that the story is written not for boys, but for girls.
First, what are the differences in the male and female human conditions? To summarize, there are experiences that all men share because of how the human male matures. There are also experiences that all women share because of how they experienced their maturity. These experiences are not the same. Similarly, reproduction comes with different costs to men and women, because women get pregnant and men do not. Eggs being valuable mean a woman doesn’t have to prove herself worthy of reproduction – she already is – while sperm being plentiful means men have to demonstrate their value.
This is the shorter version:
“In its most basic form, the male human condition is about becoming a man worthy of reproduction through demonstrable strength, intellect, and/or dominance. That is a man’s purest quest, condensed. However, the female human condition is about holding onto the things that nature, genetics and circumstance have given her without her control.”
In boys, we expect them to display through action that they have ascended from the life of a boy to the life of a man. Tribal rituals throughout the world and throughout time have shown this in the form of spirit journeys, hunting rituals, walkabouts, etc. If a man does not act toward this achievement, then he is not considered a man, no matter how many years he’s been alive.
Girls are different. Girls mature not as a matter of purposeful action, but from the passive passage of time. Girls are considered “women” when they reach a certain age because their fertile years are made clear by her first period, while there is always a question as to whether a boy has the capacity to have children. This was more of an issue when life expectancies were low and the tribe needed to reproduce quickly, but those undertones still have lasting repercussions for us today.
From the first world to the third world, women achieve womanhood not by her purposeful action, but when she comes to some arbitrary age, whereby the culture around her celebrates her sudden maturation. Her main struggle isn’t in acquiring maturity, but by holding onto youth and fertility, while a boy’s struggle is in becoming a man in the first place. This has strong implications in crafting stories for boys and girls.
Since this post is about Star Wars, I’ll start with the original trilogy. It tells a story of a boy, yes a boy, who goes on an incredible journey to… save the day, yes, but also become a man, in a sense. Luke’s story of boyhood to manhood is representative of his Jedi training. In the beginning of the first movie, he is completely unaware that he even has the capability for that power, for it is something mysterious and spiritual. He is told of his great potential but he is also told that getting there will be a long and difficult struggle. It is clear by Obi Wan’s words that his power is something earned through action.
Those powers don’t appear “accidently” or during times of great trial – it doesn’t manifest as a “miracle” or a get-out-of-the-trash-compactor-free card. If it is present at all then it is passive, in the background, but waiting to be awakened, as seen in him destroying the Death Star. The Empire Strikes back shows Luke in the equivalent to his adolescent teenage phase, in which he must test and refine his relatively weak powers. His training with Yoda makes it clear that he has a long way to go. In Return of the Jedi, Luke has his powers, from mind tricks to force pulls, but is now placed in final stages of manhood in which he is given a choice as to how to use his powers.
This is storytelling that speaks to the male’s human experience because the “powers” within embody starting life as a boy and finishing as a man, powers which are not freely given, but worked toward.
Even the prequel movies have some of this aspect in the character of Anakin Skywalker. When we meet child Anakin, he doesn’t show hidden abilities at all. If they are expressed, they are only in the background as he races pods or flies a spaceship. He can’t immediately and consciously use them, and it isn’t until extensive training that he becomes something greater (although the massive time-skip between the first and second movies leaves all this training out).
However, this is not the case for the new Star Wars. It is, in my opinion, storytelling for little girls and young women. (Spoilers incoming)
In The Force Awakened, Rey is the new Jedi to be, but unlike the previous installments of Star Wars, she doesn’t have to work for her Jedi powers. At the beginning of the movie, she shows no indication of being a Jedi. There are no passive abilities as previously seen in Luke’s mental communication with Obi Wan or Anakin’ piloting abilities, and there is no older mentor to see the great potential within her. Instead, her powers manifest almost randomly as a “miracle” halfway through the movie.
When she holds Anakin and Luke’s original light saber, she is suddenly inundated with prophetic visions – visions which only happened to Anakin and Luke after they had been through extensive training. Later, Rey is captured by the new Imperials and is interrogated. In the span of only a few minutes, she is able to resist a Sith’s mental attack as well as use a Jedi mind trick to escape. In doing so, she manages to perform a feat that Luke could not do until Return of the Jedi and Anakin could not do until the second prequel movie, and both only after extensive training. To Rey, it all just comes naturally. Toward the end of the movie, Rey is able to successfully force-pull a lightsaber when her opponent – a trained Sith apprentice who can stop lasers in mid-air – could not.
All these powers randomly appear without any sort of training. She just “taps into” these abilities without any foreknowledge or practice. It’s almost as if these powers are out of her control. Thus, they aren’t a work of her purposeful action, but of passive circumstance. Sound familiar? Sounds to me like an allegory of how girls achieve womanhood.
Girls don’t have to be concerned with attaining their womanhood through active means because their looks, their fertility, their maturity, all are given through puberty and not attained through the young woman’s own action. So of course Rey’s powers randomly appear as if by divine intervention, “unlocking” so to speak, and not earned through hard work like how Luke and Anakin gained theirs, because this is a Star Wars movie written for girls and women, who all have gone through (or will go through) the female human condition of attaining their “powers” through completely passive and unconscious means.
And no, Rey getting the skills of a master within the first movie isn’t due to her being a Mary Sue. Anakin Skywalker was as much of a Mary-Sue (Marty-Stu?) in the first prequel, but that didn’t stop him from needing to work toward his powers. Rey and this new Star Wars seem to be the only exception to the rule that power is something worked toward instead of something “discovered within yourself”. Granted, there are two more movies to go, but already this one has broken the Star Wars mold, and applied a different standard to Rey than her forbearers.
The movie as a whole was not bad in my opinion, serviceable, largely due to the entertaining spectacle of it all, but the mechanics of Rey’s powers are not in line with the previous Star Wars and are clearly a theme of our more female-oriented times. Normally, that wouldn’t be a problem, because there are many good, entertaining stories done in this format. There’s nothing inherently wrong on inferior about such a narrative, but this is Star Wars we’re talking about. Star Wars was first and foremost a fairytale for boys. It spoke to the male human condition in deep and profound ways, and gave little boys and young men an ideal to strive toward, hence why it became so popular in the first place. That core aspect of Star Wars is now lost in favor of a wider demographic.
When more politically correct science fiction fans repeat the mantra that opening these properties to “diverse casts” doesn’t “take away” from anyone else’s fun, they’re unfortunately sorely mistaken because they do not understand the source – what aspects make it what it is, or why it was successful in the first place.