Buckle up everyone, I’m about to address an extremely controversial topic. Politics, perhaps? The election? Not quite. Star Wars. Specifically, Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker. Contrary to popular opinion, this is a movie I greatly enjoyed for a variety of reasons. So much so, in fact, that I went to see it three times in theaters (What? It’s the last movie of the Skywalker Saga...Psych. We all know Disney isn’t going to let that happen).
While I appreciated TROS for a variety of reasons, today I’m going to focus on the dually adored and despised pairing of Rey and Ben Solo. Now, full disclosure, I myself wasn’t on board with Reylo until the end of TROS. Like a good many people, I was concerned about how their relationship could slide into an abusive one and also wondered if they would end up being related. We’ll never feel safe after The Empire Strikes Back.
After learning about Rey’s parentage and seeing how events played out, I felt more comfortable with the relationship, especially as I began to recognize all the heartbreaking symbolism, the parallels between episodes, and the depth of the characters themselves. TROS is a purposefully and skillfully written piece of work. The metaphor and raw emotion of moments like Rey and Kylo Ren fighting amid the ruins of the death is poignant and memorable.
As the main character of the Star Wars sequel trilogy, Daisy Ridley shines as Rey, who is vulnerable, strong, and compelling. To me, she’s the emblem of the strong female character that is thankfully becoming somewhat more present in Hollywood. Rey isn’t objectified and her story arc is all her own, despite the significance of her dyad with Ben. While Ben looks cool, Rey is the one who actually defeats Palpatine, which is a welcome reversal of gender stereotypes.
At the same time, TROS didn’t discount how healthy relationships can fuel us onward in our personal growth and didn’t attempt to make Rey superhuman by eliminating her need for fulfilling relationships of all kinds. Rey’s search is one of identity. She finds close friends in Finn and Poe, parental figures in the original triad, and yet she still struggles with her feelings of abandonment and an unsatisfied yearning to know her own history.
Ridley’s character has always experienced a stinging loneliness that she can’t seem to shake. In fact, that’s been her great struggle throughout this entire trilogy. The struggle for identity and belonging is nothing new, for certain, but it’s also a classic for a reason.
In The Last Jedi, Rey starts to connect with Ben Solo in a substantial way, which leads her to begin a friendship of a sort with him, one that’s raw and vulnerable on both sides. She’s startlingly honest with him at one point saying, “I’d never felt so alone.” Rey initially rejects the dyad connection until they each inevitably confide their pain to each other. While Kylo Ren is constantly trying to pull her to the dark side to abate his own loneliness, she believes that he still has good in him and can see beyond the mask (see what I did there?).
“There’s still good in you,” has been a consistent theme in the Star Wars universe, but I was initially frustrated with the idea that Disney would use a major female character to redeem a male character through a romantic relationship. Too often this dynamic is glorified in the media and that thought process can lead real women to enter into abusive relationships if the woman thinks she can change him. At that point in the narrative, I was holding my breath, nervously waiting to see what direction the writers would take the story in.
Then she refused his hand.
Even at her loneliest and most vulnerable moment, standing in a desolated throne room with the revelation that her parents were no one important, Rey has enough self-respect to reject a relationship with someone she loves. She’s at her lowest, loneliest moment. She wants to take his hand.
Not once, but twice she rejects it.
Rey determines that her own control over her life and values must take precedence and she walks away.
That itself is beautiful to me because it’s the kind of strength female characters are rarely shown to possess. The narrative however, is strengthened even further in that it doesn’t force Rey to reject her emotional responses or compassion, but rather demonstrates how strong those forces can be when they are balanced with a strong sense of self-respect.
When Rey finally does learn her heritage, I find that it is carefully woven into the same theme. The blistering revelation forces Rey to face her conception of herself and choose what legacy to claim. Rey makes a conscious choice to forge her own identity after realizing that she’s been searching for it in other people for too long. Knowing who she is, in a powerful moment, she finally declares “I am all the Jedi.”
Redemption is an enduring theme because it’s easy to realize how we all are in need of it. No one is perfect. That’s just a fact.
Rey continues fighting Kylo and his darkness while they still barter and bargain, each earnestly wanting the other to join them in their goals. Through their force connection, Rey continually shows compassion for his lost soul until she finally kills Kylo Ren both metaphorically and literally.
In a moving moment she reaches down and heals him by sacrificing some of her own strength, a Jedi skill hitherto unseen on the big screen. Healing her enemy and then walking away is the pivotal moment that brings Ben Solo back to the light for good.
The parallel of him later using the same skill she taught him - healing - to bring her back to life is stunning. Ultimately, Ben Solo had to learn from Rey. In the Force Awakens he tells her, in a classic example of male ego taken to the extreme, “You need a teacher.” Well, the exact opposite ended up being true.
Add in the parallels to Anakin’s fall and the story becomes truly epic. I was personally always disturbed by how the Jedi, our heroes, presented attachment as a dark path because of where it could lead and that ideal ended up being true in Anakin’s case. His love for Padme combined with confusion and fear propelled him to the dark side because he thought that was the only way to save her.
But here’s the thing. Love in general isn’t a bad thing, so why is it portrayed that way?
In fact, most people would agree that love (of all kinds, not just romantic) is a fundamental element of a healthy individual, societal, and spiritual life. The Jedi approach was wrong and TROS demonstrates this by bringing the saga full circle.
The difference between authentic love and self-serving love is highlighted as Rey and Ben’s story plays out against the backdrop of Padme and Anakin’s. Anakin is ultimately afraid for himself because he wants Padme’s validation and presence in his life, which becomes painfully obvious when he force-chokes his pregnant wife. Does he love Padme? Sure. But it’s a selfish love that breaks down when any pressure is applied. Ben, on the other hand, gives up his own life to revive Rey in a moment of pure self-sacrifice and Rey has also saved Ben by never giving up on him, but keeping her distance all the same. Ben had to decide to come back to the light himself. Only after he’s proved his allegiance to the light, do they kiss.
Love can save, but as Anakin discovered, darkness and self-preservation in the guise of love never will. With these parallels the cycle has been completed, which I find satisfying, heart-wrenching, and ultimately, epic.
At the end of the day, TROS may have plot holes and move too fast for some viewers, but the emotional weight of Rey's story paired with the cinematography made me fall in love with it. Rey Skywalker is a strong role model and we need more characters like her in our books and movies. The image of a woman who is fully herself, makes her own decisions, recognizes her own value confidently, and claims her own identity shouldn't be underestimated.
Thanks for reading and keep a lookout for more hints about my upcoming release Starlight Seized!
When I was ten years old, combing the library shelves for something interesting to read, a librarian recommended Ella Enchanted by Gail Carson Levine. She said that her daughter loved it. I took one look at the cover and that was enough for me. Set in a charming fairy tale world, the characters were unique and interesting, refusing to be boxed in by social expectation. There was no quest to save the world or rescue the princess in the tower. Instead, Ella, the main character, was on a personal journey to save herself in a fantasy setting.
Ella was the kind of character you would want by your side in a crisis. She was gutsy, determined, always clever, and she possessed a truly admirable mental strength. Needless to say, my ten-year-old self was instantly captivated. I read that book cover to cover at least twice within two weeks, which surprised me because I didn’t normally like reading books more than once. Especially not twice in a row!
At the time I didn’t understand why Ella Enchanted spoke to me in such a poignant way and it would take me years to identify the reason. It’s still one of my favorite books and I’ve now read it more times than I can count. As an author, it has taught me that superficial measures like word count have no correlation with impact.
Ten was the age when I began writing in earnest, determined to complete a book. It was also the year that my obsessive-compulsive Disorder really set in. I knew I had OCD, but at that point I didn’t realize how much of what I was experiencing were symptoms of the disorder. To me OCD meant my tendency to touch the table in multiples of five or count in my head. Unaware that my intrusive thoughts and mental compulsions were part of the experience, I had difficulty separating my personality from the disorder.
Oftentimes it felt like I was drowning in my thoughts. Irrational fears led to irrational responses because even though I could identify a thought as irrational with 99% certainty, the 1% of uncertainty tripped me up. I worked through rituals where I thought I’d done something “wrong,” so I confessed it. This led to me telling my parents every time I had an uncomfortable intrusive thought that I felt was my fault.
At that point, I thought the obsessions were me, which caused a major amount of anxiety because I felt like a bad person. If I didn’t say what I felt was the exact “right” combination of words when I was speaking to someone else, I would confess. If I lightly bumped my head on any surface, I would “confess” it because I’d heard about concussions after I hit my head hard one time. I wasn’t worried about a possible concussion as much as I felt compelled to tell my parents about it because that was what I was supposed to do. OCD told me it was the “right” thing to do and if I didn’t do it, I was a “bad” person.
Internal shame and guilt came with each confession, but I still did it because confessing temporarily alleviated the anxiety for a moment so I could breathe. Then the next incident would occur. I could spend hours going over a moment in time, trying to figure out whether it qualified as having “hit my head on something” or not. These mental gymnastics were absolutely exhausting. I took each day as it came, trying to plow onward. Trying not to remember something I did wrong years ago. Trying not to give in to a new obsession. I thought this struggle was just an inherent, frustrating part of my personality, which didn’t help how I felt about myself.
When I was about fourteen, I read a thorough description of OCD and I gasped. It was a revelation as I read through categories of intrusive thoughts and example after example. I had experienced some of those exact thoughts. It was eerie. Enlightening. Freeing. Suddenly I realized that the irrationality and intrusive thoughts I so despised were not my fault. They were a part of my OCD.
When I first read Ella Enchanted, I was experiencing OCD in full swing. On a subconscious level, I related to her. I yearned for her strength.
Ella was cursed to obey orders, even though she was anything but timid and obedient. I had a monster in my mind forcing me to spend hours of time obsessing and confessing. I didn’t feel like that neurotic process was China, but I was frightened at the same time that perhaps it was.
If Ella tried to ignore an order, the curse would cause her to be unbearably uncomfortable until she gave in. If I tried to ignore an order from OCD, the anxiety became extreme until I complied.
Despite her curse, Ella persevered and remained completely herself. I found myself wishing for her confidence and her guts. I wanted to be completely China, just as she was completely Ella. I held onto her journey as if it was my own. This book connected with me in a deeply personal way and helped me feel strong when I felt helpless in my own mind.
Literature is priceless. Our stories help us work through life and understand ourselves better as we subconsciously apply their framework to our own struggles. We draw strength from tales told and retold, from characters created out of thin air. The way stories can move us is exquisitely beautiful and one of my favorite parts about being human.
At the end of the book, Ella managed to break her own curse. That victory moved me. The scene played over and over in my head and I immediately read it again. I haven’t broken my curse and it’s possible I will never be rid of it completely. I still fight with OCD on a daily basis, but that’s the point. I am fighting and someday I will win. Just like Ella.
If you are dealing with OCD specifically or any other mental health issue, the National Alliance for Mental Health is a wonderful place to find resources. You don’t have to struggle alone. There is hope!