The Problem of Rey, or Why Not Being Sexy Is Not a Virtue

By Emily Joy Allison-Hearn

 

 Rey_1

 

Okay, let me say one thing right off the bat: I love Rey. LOVE her. I wanna be her for Halloween, I think she’s an interesting and nuanced and well-cast character, and I will personally take it upon myself to make sure each of my sisters sees The Force Awakens and has the opportunity to soak up her feminist awesomeness. She’s compelling, powerful, innovative, mysterious, quick on her feet, and a total badass. I really have no qualms with how the film’s creators chose to portray her in this movie.

 

K? K.

 

But here is a thing that troubles me: I’ve seen quite a few people [dudes] lauding the character of Rey and praising her on social media precisely because of her lack of any discernible sexuality. It’s kind of true. Finn is clearly into her, but it’s completely ambiguous whether she is into him or whether she is even into men at all because they don’t seem to play any part in her decision-making processes. She follows in the footsteps of Princess Leia before her with a series of modest, cleavage-covering outfits that are purely functional, not fabulous* (for those of you about to be like “Well, actually, SLAVE LEIA!” please read on to the next paragraph). There’s almost nothing “sexualizable” about Rey at all throughout the entirety of the movie.

 

And on the one hand, I get why this is a breath of fresh air. Sexualization of women and particularly young girls in media is a huge, huge problem. Take it from this author, who recounts looking for the Princess Leia toys that she remembered from her childhood for her nieces, and only being able to find a slave Leia costume—representing the one scene in the entire franchise that Leia wasn’t covered from head to toe (which wasn’t even by her own choice). Especially in the superhero/scifi genre, women have historically been included more as excuses for boobs than characters with important contributions to make to the film and the world it takes place in.

 

So I think at this point anyone who’s paying attention realizes that the way popular media represents women and girls is often diminutive, monolithic and catered unapologetically to the male gaze. Feminism 101. Moving on.

 

On the other hand, I want to say this: Rey is not virtuous because of her lack of sexuality. That’s what a lot of these people [dudes] have been implying. That it’s her lack of sexuality that makes her a good role model for girls. That she is a character to be emulated because she is not sexy or sensual or seductive, because her sexuality takes a back seat to everything else about her.

 

And that, frankly, is nonsense.

 

It is refreshing to see a girl cast as a main character in a historically male-dominated franchise who positively contributes to the world she exists in through her creativity, her skills, her experience as a person and her desire to do the right thing. She doesn’t have to “use” her sexuality to get ahead or accomplish her goals. She is in full possession of herself. Yes and amen.

 

But if Rey stays the way she is in this film throughout the films to follow, I think we’ll be missing a lot. If we never learn more about her sexuality, if we never see how she wields it, if she never experiences love or heartbreak of any kind, she will be in some sense forever unrelatable, because love and heartbreak is one of the most basic human experiences. In my estimation it is far better for young girls to emulate a character who experiences sexuality in a compassionate, honest, consensual and age-appropriate way than one who does not experience it at all. I look forward to the next Star Wars installments because I’m excited to see how the filmmakers will develop Rey’s personhood, sense of self, story, and yes, her sexuality too.

 

Side note: What I’m not saying is that she needs to experience heteronormative sexuality in order to be a fully developed character. Love and heartbreak and sexuality come in all shapes and sizes, and sexual minorities are vastly underrepresented in popular film and media as it is. She doesn’t even have to have a romance in order to be a fully developed character. But sexuality, from one end of the spectrum to the other, is still sexuality, and not being able to tell what someone’s sexuality is because it’s repressed under layers of loneliness and years of isolation does not automatically mean someone is a good role model. That’s what Rey came off to me as: repressed. We saw glimpses of her true self, in her kindredness with Han Solo and her show of affection for Finn at the end of the movie. But they were just that: glimpses.

 

This may seem like a fine hair to split but I think it’s important. I’m all for praising Rey for all her many virtues—it’s just that “not being sexual” should not be one of them. This is personal to me because in the faith communities I grew up in, shutting down all sense of sexuality was considered the goal. It was considered God’s will for you as an unmarried human, to refrain from all experiences or consideration of sensual things until you got married, at which point you were expected to flip a switch and go full-throttle, ready to do and see and experience all the things you’d been pretending didn’t exist for the previous two decades of your life. Thankfully, that’s not how it happened to me, because I worked very hard to escape that mindset and had quite a bit of luck along the way—but that is how it happened for lot of my friends, to the detriment of their marriages and their sense of spirituality and their very own souls.

 

I’m afraid that if we’re not careful, Rey will become a sort of purity culture golden child. That our daughters and sisters and young friends will begin, under the guidance of these people [dudes], to look to her as an example of how to succeed and gain approval in the world by shutting down their sexuality to the point that it is almost imperceptible. I’m afraid that the reason Christian dudes love Rey so much is that she is basically the Star Wars equivalent of homeschooled—untouched, inexperienced, unaware of the extent of her own power (for now).  If I have daughters someday, I hope their role models are women who experience sexuality fully and honestly and without shame, conscious of how their choices effect others and with a heart to engage openly with their partners and with the world. And I hope that’s what happens to Rey as the story unfolds. I like her. And based on what we know of her so far, I think her chances are pretty good.

  2 comments for “The Problem of Rey, or Why Not Being Sexy Is Not a Virtue

  1. Autumn
    December 25, 2015 at 1:58 am

    While I understand what you are saying, and to a large degree agree with it, as an  aromantic asexual woman, Rey was such a breath of fresh air. I have many female friends – all empowered, all comfortable with their sexuality – who felt the same way. Because love and heartbreak are not limited to romantic feelings. Because not everyone’s emphasis is on love. Or even lust. I have an extremely hard time finding stories without romance or sex – stories that have the priories I care about and that I can relate to on all levels. If she’s not sexual, that’s wielding her sexuality as much as if she were sexual. A woman owning her sexuality for herself is important, but asexuals – and aromantics – exist, too. And they are as human as everyone else.

    • FlawlessProject
      December 27, 2015 at 8:15 pm

      Hi! Okay thank you so much for saying something, I’m really glad you did because I was trying very hard to leave room with my language choices for experiences like yours, and I guess I fumbled that because I am completely tracking with what you’re saying. For my part, that’s what I was trying to leave more open-ended by using words like “love” and “heartbreak” rather than “lust” or “sex”… because it’s my understanding that love and heartbreak are still part of the human experience even for those who identify as aromantic or asexual? My hope for the movies is that we learn more about what her sexuality is and see a fuller picture of it, not that it turns out to be anything specifically. I’ll try to edit that paragraph to make that a bit more clear. Thank you for sharing your experience here and helping to broaden my understanding!!

      -Emily

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