The Subversive Feminism of Rey’s Character Arc in The Last Jedi
SPOILER WARNING: I’m going to be discussing The Last Jedi in detail. If you haven’t seen it, go watch and come back to read the article. Consider yourself warned.
One of the most fascinating aspects of The Last Jedi is how it so effectively subverts fan expectations. Not just by knocking them down, but by leaning into them even as they steer the story and characters in entirely new directions. Rey’s character arc in the film is a prime example of this, and I suspect an unintentionally feminist one.
To understand how Rey subverts gendered expectations, let us look at those expectations. Specifically, two very popular fan theories on what Rey’s place is in the story.
- Rey is the secret daughter of an established male character, usually Luke.
- Rey is destined to fall in love with and/or redeem Kylo Ren and bring him back to the light side.
Both of these ideas rest on Rey’s place in this story being intrinsically linked to a man. The parent theory is founded on the very notion that in order for Rey’s use of the Force to make sense, she must get her power from a biological father, a man. Even other theories that she’s Obi-Wan’s daughter or that she’s Ben’s secret twin sister, are still founded on this idea that Rey must be descended from power, namely masculine power, be it from Anakin/Luke or Obi-Wan.
On the other hand, one of the most popular “Reylo” (fandom nickname for the relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren) theories posits that Rey and Kylo’s connection is romantic and it will lead to the redemption/return of Ben Solo. Similarities between Anakin and Padmé interactions to Kylo and Rey’s exchanges in TLJ are often cited to support this theory, predicting a happy ending to counterbalance the tragic romance of the prequels. To be fair, Kylo’s lines at the end of the throne room scene are very similar to what Anakin says to Padmé in Revenge of the Sith. However, this desire to see Rey in a romantic relationship with Kylo Ren is expressing a different version of that same connection to power and purpose, through a man.
Both are problematic, but they also have very realistic basis in media, and even in Star Wars canon itself. The two most notable women in leading roles in the film franchise were the wife (Padmé) and daughter (Leia) of the most powerful hero/villain of the series, Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader.
Fans are merely following the pattern set by the Star Wars movies. And as Rey herself is as much a fangirl as the rest of us, she too uses the patterns of the old stories (legends in her world) to try to figure out her place.
When Rey arrives on Ahch-To she makes her mission clear. She needs a Jedi. Luke is a Jedi. Case closed.
However, it’s very obvious from the moment she holds out that lightsaber to Luke that she wants more. She is hoping, like many fans were, that Luke would reveal her “place in all this.” Instead he toss the lightsaber and stalks off to pout in his hut. Ugh, Skywalker men are the worst.
Rey is longing for Luke to tell her who and what she is, and thus give her meaning. Luke doesn’t give Rey the answers she wants. He refuses to train her, and thus subverts both her and our expectations of her role in the story.
She’s not Luke’s daughter? She’s not even going to train to be a Jedi? Who the hell is she then? What’s the point of her being in the story at all?
Rey is haunted by this questions, as much as we are. That drives her to seek answers by going into the dark heart of that island, where even the great Luke Skywalker feared to tread (because of course Luke fears a giant fucking mirror). Let me say this again to be very clear, Rey goes to a place that is so terrifying that it scares Luke freaking Skywalker, one of the most powerful (men) characters in that world.
When Rey goes to the Dark Cave to ask about her parents, it shows her a reflection of herself. I read this as a direct rebuttal to fan’s expectations as much as it is to Rey. The darkness shows Rey the answer, one we later discover she’s already known all along. Not that she’s nobody, but that she is alone. No connection to anyone of significance in the great stories she grew up on. This truth leaves Rey lonely and vulnerable, because that’s what the dark side does.
In that moment of vulnerability, when she has “never felt so alone,” that is when she reaches out to Kylo and feels a connection with him.
This is what the dark side does.
Not Kylo Ren.
The dark side of the Force.
It plays on vulnerabilities, feeding insecurity and fear to drive people to make desperate and wrong choices. Like contemplating killing your nephew/pupil because you fear he’ll turn into your father. Like convincing a girl that the reason she has such a strong connection to the Force isn’t because she is a Jedi, whether some old dude says she is one or not, but because she is just meant to save the grandson of Anakin Skywalker.
Part of why this works is Kylo’s struggle with the pull of the light side is very real. He is just as tempted by Rey, by the light side of the Force, to be the guy she sees in her vision. If Kylo wasn’t conflicted, was just a one-dimensional villain with no reason for his choices and no humanity under that mask, it would be easy to resist him. A truly conflicted antagonist who gives us glimpses of the Ben Solo still buried deep inside Kylo Ren is an appealing prize.
This idea works on Rey, because an intimate connection with another person is very seductive. It’s tempting to think you can fix someone from love. To see the good in a bad person. There are countless stories about this very notion, and many are targeted directly at women.
Which makes Rey’s eventual choice so powerful. She is offered everything she thought she wanted: a place in the galaxy at the side of a powerful man who knows her secrets and fears. A man who doesn’t care about anyone else, but who very clearly loves her. Rey walks away from him and everything he offers, because she realizes it isn’t what she really wanted.
In the moment when Kylo forces Rey to confront the truth about her parents, he inadvertently gives her what she’s been looking for all along. She was nobody, and yet she is powerful enough to fight side by side with the grandson of Anakin Skywalker, to go to dark places that scare Luke Skywalker. Rey’s power isn’t connected to any of them, and yet she can still feel the Force within her. She, Rey, is the Jedi she has been looking for all along.
At the end of the film this is hammered home when Rey asks Leia, “How do we build a rebellion from this?” And Leia responds, “We have everything we need.” This is right after we see that Rey took the Jedi books, and that all that remains of the Resistance is a few banged up survivors on the Millennium Falcon.
The implications of Leia’s words are that they can build hope from even a small group of people, but also that Rey has the ability to be a Jedi, and the start of a new generation of a Force users, without the masculine figures of power and all the personal baggage that comes with them.
An orphan girl, a scavenger from Jakku, is enough. Rey is enough. That is a very powerful idea. Women don’t need men to give them power, to validate them or to define their place in the world. Women can just exist, with powers and purpose.
Special thanks to Sam Kasse and Jacqueline for their support.