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The Cave, Rey, and the Self-Made Heroine*

by Tracy Townsend

(*contains multiple spoilers for The Last Jedi)

For a certain sort of fan, no return to the Star Wars cinematic universe could satisfy expectations. Their perfect text would have to be a recognizable cog in the larger Lucas-founded universe, narratively indebted to its predecessors and moving smoothly within it. And yet, it would also need to be unique in all respects, nothing that’s been seen before. That fan might have been more satisfied if the films had remained Schrodinger’s Star Wars; simultaneously the same saga and a different one, forever suspended between creative states. For such a fan, Rey presents a particular problem.

Rey’s charisma and capability perhaps guaranteed she’d be dismissed as a “Mary Sue.” For some, the only adequate shield against that label is giving her a heritage that “earns” her competence as a hero and aptitude with the Force. “Perhaps,” the logic runs, “if she’s a Solo, a Skywalker, or a Kenobi, we can believed she’d be so capable.”

Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi has plenty of things to say about heritage: the bankrupt assumption that the Skywalker bloodline is a font of both Force-power and Force-wisdom; the strictures and shortcomings of an older generation pressing down on its successors; Kylo Ren as a product of Millennial participation trophy parenting. The hot-take list goes on.

Even the best-written think-pieces about Rey’s origins center Kylo’s words (“They were filthy junk traders who sold you off for drinking money. They’re dead, in a paupers’ grave in the Jakku desert.”), rather than focusing on a critical reading of her descent into the Black Cave of Ahch-To. Johnson describes the scene only as an exploration of dread: a hall of mirrors that answers Rey’s question of identity (“Show me my parents.”) with the fear that she has no one but herself. The Star Wars-conditioned audience is largely ready to go along with that. Hearing “that’s a place of the Dark Side,” and we forget something important:

The Dark Side isn’t actually evil.

It is intuitive. Reactive. Emotional. Inward-, rather than outward-looking. These aspects of the Force would be, if adopted as the whole of one’s values and thought processes, rash, selfish, and ultimately destructive. But that blinkered devotion would be equally destructive in its Light Side form, privileging dispassionate remove from one’s emotions, rejection of intimacy, and treating the dynamic needs of the future as impulsive distractions. The Force is a moral neutral. Any point of access along its spectrum is potentially instructive. The Black Cave of Ahch-To is no exception. Indeed, it’s the most powerful argument against Rey as a Mary Sue The Last Jedi could have offered.

Consider her origins. From early childhood, Rey was forced to fend for herself as a scavenger on Jakku, a planet so barren, even Tatooine native Luke agrees she really is “from nowhere.” She learns to repair machines, to pilot, to bargain, and to fight. She learns how to survive, buoyed only by the expectation that someday, her family will return. All of this is temporary. Every skill acquired gets her to tomorrow. Every tomorrow — every scratch on the hull of her wrecked AT-AT home — is a step closer to relief.

Leaving Jakku for good means giving up her faith in a barely-remembered family and living for something else. When Rey arrives on Luke’s hidden island, she begs for help: “[finding] [her] place in all of this.”

Because this is a Star Wars movie, it’s made clear straight away that this island sacred to the Jedi also holds a place of the Dark Side. Luke is horrified when Rey is drawn to it, reading this as a sign of Kylo Ren’s history repeating itself.

But the cave draws Rey because it’s a place of intuition and need: her need for answers, and the chance to process them. When she finally answers its call, she’s afraid, yes, but also eager. Rian Johnson describes the cave as full of the fear that “in the search for identity, she has nobody but herself to rely on.” But that explanation forgets something critical: Rey’s demand of the space itself.

“Show me my parents,” she says.

What follows is a pivotal narrative gesture: a middle finger to the accusation that Rey strives and succeeds because Rey is only a Mary Sue.

The mirror blurs, and two shapes step forward, merging into Rey herself.

The subtext of the moment reaches far beyond Johnson’s explanation.The Dark Side shows Rey that she is, ultimately, her own creator. Not in some horrible redux of the cosmic space Jesus metaphor by way of Midi-Chlorians, but in a practical, intimate sense. She is the only parent who matters. She forged herself on Jakku. Whatever came before is unimportant.

The Ahch-To cave is a powerful cinematic moment not just for this affirmation, but because it speaks about the strength of a young woman. Kylo Ren’s story is of legacy and resentment, the classic Little Emperor who blames the world for his own disaffection. It’s a core toxic masculine narrative. Rey’s story argues that a young woman’s strength — her very self — is her own creation, not an inheritance. It’s the least fantastical assertion made in the entire film. A young woman lives in a world that preys on her, takes ownership of her, judges her achievements arbitrarily (“one quarter portion!”), and expects her to keep her head down and put up with it. She has to learn the strength it takes to survive. And yet, because that strength is hard-won, it’s assumed it came from somewhere else, someplace (a man’s place — a Skywalker or Kenobi or Solo-place) not her own.

Rey’s story is the story of every strong young woman.

In the cave, Rey snaps her fingers, and the first of her reflections moves, then the next, and the next, and the next. These aren’t truly mirrors, showing every action of every image as simultaneous and predestined. Rey is her own first mover. The Rey of yesterday’s actions shaped the Rey of today, who moves forward the Rey of tomorrow. It is a visual metaphor of her time on Jakku, all those days counted on the AT-AT’s hull, each moving her to the next, each demanding action.

Rey’s scene in the cave affirms her value, se soli. If it’s terrifying, it’s only because it’s true. And if Rian Johnson is right — if the cave is a scene about confronting a fear — it might be our own world’s fear of young women realizing no one else is powerful enough to be their creator.

 

A bit about the columnist:

Tracy Townsend teaches creative writing and sf/f literature at the Illinois Mathematics and Science Academy, a public boarding school for gifted students. She has two dogs and two children, but only one husband. If she's not teaching or writing, she's probably on Twitter (@TracyATownsend) being opinionated about books, comics, movies, and soup. Visit author page

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