Of Star Wars and Mary Sues

Last Thursday, the first teaser trailer dropped for Rogue One, this year’s Star Wars movie (apparently we’re getting one every year for Christmas now) and it looks pretty damn good, particularly considering very few people cared a whole lot about a prequel/sidequel story like Rogue One.

Though I’ve been a Star Wars fan since the age of five, I was one of those people who weren’t particularly excited about Rogue One. I wasn’t all that keen on going back in time once again (and I actually like the prequels for what they are). Never mind that what little we knew about Rogue One made it sound like “Star Wars does Grimdark” and we all know how I feel about Grimdark. To be fair, I wasn’t all that excited about The Force Awakens either (and still have some ambivalent feelings about the film), but of course I went to see it anyway and promptly fell in love with Rey, Finn, Poe and BB-8 like the rest of the geek world.

As for Rogue One, that teaser trailer looks pretty damn good and has made me a lot more likely to go and see the movie come December. Besides, I’ll be happy to watch something labeled Star Wars that for once is not about Jedi (I’ve never been a huge fan of the Jedi anyway – ninety percent of the bad things that happen in all Star Wars movies are the direct or indirect fault of the Jedi) and people named Skywalker. It seems that the folks of Lucasfilm have finally noticed what the various tie-in novels, comics, videogames, etc… knew all along, namely that they have got a huge universe in which you can tell lots of different stories. And not all of these stories have to be about Jedi and people named Skywalker.

Apparently, I’m not the only person who thinks that the Rogue One teaser trailer looks pretty good. Within a few hours, Twitter was all ablaze with people excited about the trailer. And within 24 hours, the Internet was full of speculation, analysis and frame by frame breakdowns.

But with the excitement also came the ugly. Because you see, the protagonist of Rogue One is a woman, Jyn Erso played by Felicity Jones. Now this isn’t exactly new – it’s been known for a while now that Felicity Jones would be playing the lead in Rogue One. Nonetheless, certain dudebros on the Internet were shocked – shocked, I’m telling you – that two Star Wars movies in a row would have a female protagonist. Never mind that we’ve had six Star Wars movies in a row with male protagonists – two Star Wars movies in a row with female protagonists and actors of colour in more than bit parts (Rogue One also promises Diego Luna, Donnie Yen and Forest Whitaker among others), now that’s political correctness gone mad and proof that the Social Justice Warriors have taken over Hollywood and that a ban of movies with straight white male protagonists is imminent (well, maybe that would solve the “Oscars so white” problem).

It’s all quite silly and part of the futile attempts of certain very insecure white men to turn back the clock to a time when every single piece of media catered to them and them alone. The same sort of people also proclaimed a “boycott” of The Force Awakens due to its stars being a white woman, a black man and a Hispanic man and we all know how much impact that “boycott” had.

The most common complaint about Jyn Erso, the protagonist of Rogue One, was that she is a Mary Sue. Now this is quite a remarkably conclusion, considering that we know next to nothing about Jyn apart from what we have seen in a ninety second trailer. Which basically comes down to: Jyn is an angry young woman with a shady past who winds up working for the rebellion not quite voluntarily. In short, she’s basically a female version of Han Solo. Oh yes, and she is a fairly slight young woman who is seen running around the Death Star (okay, really just Canary Wharf tube station) and beating up and shooting Stormtroopers (who are not exactly known for being formidable opponents, though what they lack in skills, they usually make up in numbers). Of course, the trailer also gives us a blind man with a staff (played by Donnie Yen) beating the crap out of some Stormtroopers, but seeing a able-bodied woman doing the same means that she must be a Mary Sue. Because you see, Jyn Erso is a woman, a competent and attractive young woman who is good at something. So of course she must be a Mary Sue.

I’ve blogged about the problems with the term “Mary Sue” and its current application to pretty much any competent female character before. And the dudebros complaining about Jyn Erso on the basis of a ninety second trailer, wherein most of the spoken dialogue is actually provided by characters other than Jyn, is a perfect illustration of the phenomenon. And indeed, Jessica Lachenal has posted an open letter to all the angry fanboys calling Jyn Erso and Rey Mary Sues at The Mary Sue, while at Film School Rejects, Alisha Grauso asks what’s so bad about being a Mary Sue anyway.

Now the Star Wars movies, particularly the original trilogy, are set in a universe with a seriously skewed gender balance, a universe that seems to be approximately eighty to ninety percent white and male. The prequels are a little bit better about that – indeed I still remember how stunned I was to see female Jedi – all non-human supporting characters who had barely any lines – in the prequels, because up to then I had assumed that women couldn’t be Jedi, since Obi Wan and Yoda only showed any interest in one of the two potential Jedi available, namely Luke. Even though Leia was shown to be a lot more competent at pretty much everything than either Luke or Han from the moment she was introduced. Just as Padme was a lot more competent than Anakin. But now that competent women actually get to be the heroines of their own Star Wars movies rather than supporting characters to a male chosen one, we have the usual suspects crying Mary Sue.

Never mind that everybody ignores the clearest and most obvious Mary Sue in the entire Star Wars universe (and indeed one of the clearest example of a Mary Sue in pop culture). And this Mary Sue is neither Leia nor Padme nor Rey nor Jyn, it’s Luke Skywalker.

Let’s look at the evidence: Luke is an orphan with a mysterious background who grows up in obscurity, is nigh effortlessly good at some extremely arcane skills and goes on to rescue the princess and save the day. He is severely tested, finds out something horrible about his birth family, has a limb chopped off, resists the dark side and saves the day again and topples a whole evil Empire in the process, an evil Empire that people a lot better trained and more skilled than Luke could not topple. Oh yes, and he shares a name (sort of) as well as a passion for racing with his creator. And like his creator, Luke grew up in a sleepy desert town where nothing ever happened, in a country that was billed as the best and most perfect place to live in, even though the cracks were only too visible to anybody who made the effort to look. The parallels become even clearer, if you’ve seen George Lucas’ previous film American Graffiti, which is not just partly autobiographical, but also an indispensable companion piece to Star Wars. In short, Luke Skywalker is a Mary Sue, one of the most obvious male Mary Sues in popular culture along with James Bond, Conan and Old Shatterhand. But for some reason, no one ever complains that Luke is a Mary Sue.

In fact, the very Mary Sueness of Luke was part of what drew me to Star Wars in the first place. Because the story of the adventurous young man from a sleepy desert town where nothing ever happens, who can see all the problems in the supposedly perfect system he lives in and wants nothing more than to get out of his sleepy little town and put everything right, written by another young man from a sleepy desert town disillusioned with his supposedly perfect country, its corrupt leaders and senseless wars, resonated across time and space with a young girl living in a sleepy small village where nothing ever happens, a girl who was told all the time by parents, teachers and the media that she should count herself lucky to be living in such a wonderful free and democratic country, even though she, too, could see all too clearly that the system and the country were far from perfect and how could anybody not see that?

I’m always amazed how many critics fail to see how political the Star Wars movies really are. After all, the original trilogy is a not all that subtle allegory for the America of the Vietnam and Watergate era and the disillusionment of the postwar generation who grew up in what was supposed to be the best country in the world, only to find that their leaders were corrupt and their friends were dying in senseless wars no one wanted. The original trilogy radiates George Lucas’ anger and disillusionment at the US of the Vietnam and Watergate era and Star Wars was Lucas creating a universe where he or rather his fictional counterpart gets to take down the system and fix everything. And though I didn’t know a whole lot about either the Vietnam war or Watergate, when I first watched the Star Wars movies, I could still sympathise with Lucas’ anger and his desire to make things right.

Leia was who I wanted to be – beautiful and good at everything with adoring men and Wookies fighting for my attention – and Han was who I wanted to have. But though Leia is a great and inspiring character, few of us are princesses, senators, spies and rebel leaders at twenty (ditto for Padme, who is a queen at twelve and a senator at twenty*). What we are instead is Luke, the kid from the nowhere town who looks up at the stars. Luke is the most obvious audience identification character, because few of us are as accomplished as Leia or as cool as Han. No, we’re Luke, the dorky small town kid with the big dreams.

Now the new Star Wars films have given us new characters to identify with and aspire to: Rey, Finn, Poe and soon Jyn and whoever else Rogue One will give us. These new heroes are a lot more diverse than the old ones and that’s a good thing, because it’s no longer 1977 and white men are no longer the only group deemed worthy of having a hero to identify with. And if certain dudebros have problems with that – well, tough luck.

*I’d argue that one of the main problems with the prequels is the lack of characters the audience can identify with. Both Padme and Obi Wan are rather inaccessible, since few of us are Jedi masters or accomplished teenaged diplomats and rulers. And as for Anakin, who the hell wants to be Anakin Skywalker?

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