Since the release of The Force Awakens in 2015, the argument over whether protagonist Rey is a Mary Sue has waged on. The addition of The Last Jedi to the ongoing saga has only thrown fuel on the fire. But to dismiss Rey’s character in this way is to ignore so much of her complex history, most of which is inferred in her actions than outright stated.
For those in the dark, a Mary Sue is an idealized or faultless fictional character, often conflated to mean a fan-insert character. Its male counterpart, the Harvey Stu, remains suspiciously absent from most film and media criticism, especially of Star Wars, despite Luke (at least in A New Hope) being pop culture’s most prominent example. As far as Rey is concerned, many of the skills and abilities held up as examples of her apparent Mary Sue-ness have an in-universe and logical explanation, which I’ll explore here.
Even before her parental reveal, we knew Rey was a scavenger on the desolate desert planet of Jakku. There she’d been abandoned and left to fend for herself. With only her own survival instinct and sheer force of will, she survived the desert wastes and kept herself fed and sheltered. She marked every passing day with a scratch in metal, each a hard-fought victory. One of the running jokes of the sequel trilogy is that Jakku is a dusty planet at the arse-end of the galaxy. The First Order even used its unforgiving climate to train child soldiers, and here’s Rey in the middle of it all trying to get through another day.
Being able to eat depended on the scrap she could source, scavenge and clean up. To accomplish this, though, required a thorough understanding of technology, and an intimate awareness of crashed Star Destroyers and X-wings that dot the Jakku landscape. Rey’s continued existence depended on knowing these machines inside and out. When we’re first introduced to her, dressed in upcycled Stormtrooper goggles, she removes a component she swaps for that evenings supper. Later, on Starkiller Base, she removes a remarkably similar piece, opening a door for Han, Chewie and Finn to pass through. “Girl knows her stuff,” Han says with no small amount of admiration.
This awareness of technology lays the groundwork for her piloting skills, complemented by the speeder she uses to traverse the scorching sand. Yet there’s a more poetic inspiration here. She lives inside the downed carcass of an AT-AT walker – a remnant from the climactic battle between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance that waged over Jakku some thirty years beforehand. She’s surrounded herself with technology, picked bare their parts and likely put them back together again. This brings insight and, coupled with the reflexes and aptitude of Force sensitivity, and you’ve got a character one would only expect would possess crack piloting skills. Having grown up in the shadow of the Millennium Falcon only calcifies the fact Rey would know how to get it off the ground. And let’s not forget the inelegance of that take-off.
Surviving Jakku involves more than plucking scrap from the sands and swapping for food. Without a weapon to fend off gangs, thieves and opportunists, reaching adulthood alive would be a minor miracle. Her staff is more than aesthetics, she wields it as if her life depended on it – because it does. The multi-purpose tool allows her to traverse the shifting sands and fight off attackers. She handles it with a finesse and surety only years of use and practice could have accounted for. When moving on to a lightsaber, it’s only understandable that her skills would be applicable to all melee weapons. Though her fighting style is messy and amateurish in her climactic clash with Kylo Ren, by the time we get to The Last Jedi, there is an elegance to her strokes, a testament to years of practice.
Then we come to the bantha in the room – Rey’s Force abilities. Many a disgruntled fan have bemoaned the apparent quickness with which she learned abilities it took Luke years to master. But this is ignoring the obvious. Beyond heightened reflexes and a glimpse into her own destiny, Rey showed no obvious Force abilities, until Kylo Ren peered into her mind. In doing so, Rey was able to gaze back, and take his training for herself. It even explicably says so in the canon novelisation of The Last Jedi, when Rey thinks back to the moment Kylo tried to prise the map to Luke from her mind.
There’s an assumption that Rey is without weakness, completely bereft of faults. Yet she’s stubborn, headstrong and often short-sighted, and its these shortcomings that make her as much an inspiration as her strengths. Rey’s story sees a girl abandoned in the heat of the Jakku desert to fend for herself, left to scavenge machine parts in order to eat, and arm herself to survive. But in all that time, she still watched the stars, held out hope and never lost her faith in other people, despite the pain it might cause her. That’s the makings of a complex, flawed and interesting character, not a Mary Sue.