Contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, Marvel’s Jessica Jones, and Mad Max: Fury Road.
Joseph Campbell was an asshole.
I saw Star Wars Episode VII on Christmas morning, and I’m still digesting it. I know I loved it, but I haven’t had time yet to form full thoughts about it. Thus far, all of my responses look an awful lot like my face with cartoon hearts coming out of my eyes while I sigh, “Rey!” (For illustrative purposes, please picture Finn thinking about Poe. If you need further help, may I direct you to the shippy heart of the internet?)
Because the world can be terrible, I have already encountered, secondhand, a fanboy telling a woman that her worldview is invalid, and that Rey is missing from the vast array of The Force Awakens toys not because she is female, but because she was not the star of the movie. If you are baffled, as I was, he helpfully continued by explaining that the story was about finding Luke Skywalker. It is, of course, Rey who finds him, after two hours and fifteen minutes of adventures. By this logic, Episode IV is not about Luke, but is about getting the Death Star plans to the rebel base. (Here’s a helpful hint: Star Wars is about Luke Skywalker’s hero’s journey, which culminates in him saving the day by blowing up the Death Star.)
Of course, the hero’s journey is almost exclusively for boys. Girls and women are simply not allowed to have a hero’s journey. I find the entire concept flawed (eff you Mr. Campbell), but it is widely accepted as The One Way to make a hero. And it is a path that is walked by men and boys. Women and girls are there to make their journeys possible, often by dying to inspire the men to change their lives (this trope is known in comics as women in refrigerators and if you think they don’t end up in actual refrigerators you’re mistaken). On the rare occasion that a woman or girl is a hero, she starts out that way.
The hero’s journey, as described by Joseph Campbell: “A hero ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won: the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons on his fellow man.” In other words, Star Wars.
Episode IV (or A New Hope or whatever you want to call it) begins with the famous opening crawl, text that describes the rebellion and names a single character: Princess Leia Organa, the heroine of the movie. She is risking her life and her position in the senate to transport the stolen Death Star plans to her rebel leader father on Alderaan; when she is about to be captured by Darth Vader, she manages to smuggle the plans off her ship, taking a calculated risk by sending them to someone she has never met and only hopes is an ally. She lies under duress, accepts her death sentence, and takes over her own rescue when Luke and Han don’t have any idea what they’re doing. With the arguable exception of trying to save Alderaan, she never makes the mission about herself — she rewards the pilots who carried out the plan that she made possible. And she does all this without being a chosen one, without being called to the mission. She does it because it’s the right thing to do.
In The Empire Strikes Back, Leia once again protects her people and the mission by ordering the blast doors closed while Han and Luke are out in sub-zero weather conditions that will surely kill them; she doesn’t want to, but she does it because it’s the right thing to do. She is a leader and she leads. (She is not allowed many more notable moments of leadership in the original trilogy — there apparently wasn’t room for her anymore in Luke’s journey — but she does single handedly take out Jabba the Hutt. Nothing to sneeze at.)
More recently, Imperator Furiosa heroed her way into cinemas (and my heart) in Mad Max: Fury Road. She betrayed her boss, Immortan Joe, the dictator of a corner of the postapocalyptic world, by transporting his beloved (and enslaved) concubines to freedom from him. It is implied in the movie that Furiosa went through at least part of the hero’s journey, refusing the mission before agreeing, reluctantly, to help the women escape. But the Furiosa that we meet is already resolved to do the right thing, and while she meets setbacks along the way and has to strengthen her resolve, she does not go on the full journey on screen.
Even more recently, Jessica Jones stormed her way onto the small screen in the groundbreaking Netflix original series, Marvel’s Jessica Jones. If girls are not allowed a hero’s journey, they are really not allowed to be antiheroes. Girls have to be likeable, unobtrusive, and already capable (but not toocapable). Jessica is a fucking mess. She also goes on at least a partial hero’s journey to destroy Kilgrave and become a hero. It’s revelatory.
And then there is Rey (pardon my heart eyes). Rey is somewhere in the middle. By my reckoning, she does not have the full hero’s journey as Luke did, but she does follow some of the path, hesitating when asked to do more than survive. She is willing to do the right thing, to protect BB-8 and to go after Finn without hesitation when the droid tells her he stole Poe’s jacket — but she is, admittedly, afraid to leave Jakku. Once she does, though — and even before her iconic escape on the Millennium Falcon — she shows time and again that she is already capable; that she is a scrappy fighter, a whiz-bang pilot, a good planner; that the force is so strong in her that she can use it without training, something Luke could not have imagined in his wildest dreams.
Rey seems to be on track to be another chosen one. Everyone once in a while, there is a female chosen one (though she usually still needs to be rescued by a man, and/or exists to further his story, as in The Fifth Element). Rey certainly seems poised to balance out Kylo Ren’s dark side with her bright, shining light. And she meets the #1 requirement in the Star Wars universe: she comes from a desert planet. But in The Force Awakens, at least, that is not her story.
Rey doesn’t need a hero’s journey to be the hero we need. She doesn’t need to be an antihero, refrigerated, or the chosen one. She was the hero the moment BB-8 rolled up to her.