Defenders of the Gold Bikini 3: In Which Leia Swoons and Dies
So I finally got to see The Rise of Skywalker. You may recall in the first two installments of Defenders of the Gold Bikini, I wrote about how bizarre it is for me to see people constantly complaining about Princess Leia’s gold bikini as sexist while completely ignoring another problematic and IMO far more sexist element, Padme’s death “in childbirth”.
I’m sorry to report that instead of embracing the spirit of the gold bikini, the creators of The Rise of Skywalker chose instead to double down on the female fragility angle, having Leia swoon and die, seemingly pointlessly, to save her son. Not to save his life, really, but to maybe save his soul, breaking through his defenses long enough so Rey could finish him off.
Leia died as a freaking distraction. I can’t even get over it.
Dying to save your kids is a for-real deal. Women have done it many a time throughout history. Sacrificing yourself for others is a noble, remarkable, and entirely feminist thing to do. And to voluntarily give of yourself for the good of that little person (or big person) who you love above all others is part and parcel of the female experience.
It’s not so much Leia’s maternal sacrifice itself that I have an issue with. It was, as is so often the case, lousy execution and the messages that lousy execution sent. Firstly that message of female fragility, of our bodies constantly failing and disappointing us as Padme’s body failed her, leaving Leia motherless. Additionally, Leia’s death also carried an implication that old women needed to get out of the way to make room for younger women to fill our roles. Worst of all, I found Leia’s end representative of that ubiquitous message in which a mother is somehow always at fault for the sins of her child and must be willing to do whatever it takes to redeem them, even at the expense of their own life.
If you haven’t seen the movie yet or need a refresher, when Leia dies, Kylo and Rey are having a showdown on the remains of the Death Star, where it lays crashed in an ocean on the forest moon of Endor. Leia is halfway across the galaxy with the Rebels, and in order to make one last effort to get through to her son, to turn him from the path of evil (because, of course, it’s somehow HER responsibility to do this, while Kylo himself remains entirely passive about his own redemption) she used up her own life energy to contact him just for a split second. It distracted him enough so Rey was able to get the upper hand, and ran him through with her lightsaber. Then Rey used the Force to heal Kylo, who had somehow returned to being Ben Solo again, because she is magical and can do anything and everything effortlessly.
Now, some may correctly point out that the death of Carrie Fisher complicated the completion of the Star Wars saga hugely. They had to use footage they happened to have from other movies to complete the story. It wasn’t like they could send Leia on a rescue mission or have her say anything of any depth since the actress who portrayed her was sadly no longer with us. But I refuse to believe they couldn’t have done better by Leia. Luke went out much the same way, using his life energy for a long-distance holographic face off against Kylo, but he got to be heroic about it, saving the very Rebellion itself in the process. He also managed to live longer than .5 seconds when he did, I assume because he’s a man and men aren’t quick-dying p*ssies.
Leia’s death frustrated me greatly because they could have easily, easily, with absolutely no changes to the plot whatsoever, had Rey get the better of Kylo, who was already plagued with and distracted by self-doubt (rather than portraying him as a passive ninny easily controlled first by evil emperors and later on by the machinations of his mommy and space girlfriend). Then at THAT point Leia could’ve given up her life energy to bolster Rey’s power and allow her to heal Kylo/Ben.
To bolster the power of a younger woman, because the younger woman wasn’t strong enough or knowledgeable enough on her own. Not as a distraction, a necessity. A younger woman needed something an older woman could offer her. Imagine that, an older woman had something vital to share with the next generation — some wisdom, some strength, some moral support. That’s a plot I’m sad to say I don’t see much anymore. In modern movies, older women are far more often treated as jokes rather than sources of strength or wisdom. Older women are so rarely allowed to be heroes, and even less often allowed to be needed by anyone for anything. It was an opportunity they shouldn’t have passed by.
Believe it or not, old women used to have a lot of social power. Many see old women now as annoying and useless entities that should be pitied whenever young people are forced to encounter one, and ignored the rest of the time. But not so very long ago many old women were formidable entities who wielded a respectable amount of social power. Old women once imparted great wisdom and much-needed assistance to younger women. They were in charge of the food supply and providing medical care, helping to birth babies and raise children. They made romantic matches to forge alliances between noble houses and directed the fortunes of young men by creating job opportunities for them. And as anyone who has ever read Jane Austen knows, they were stern enforcers of social norms (for better or for worse).
So my question is, why did JJ Abrams, et al., not embrace Leia’s power in The Rise of Skywalker? Why was the swan song of Leia’s remarkable life to reach out to her son and say his name, then swoon and die — her spirit not even able to transform into a Force Ghost till after her son had died too? (According to Hollywood, a mother’s entire existence is dependent on what her kids are up to, she has no life or motivation of her own, so even her death should fit conveniently into their schedules.) It would have been so much more heroic and meaningful for Leia’s sacrifice, for her POWER, to be actually necessary to save her son’s life, and not just a temporary distraction so some other chick could do the heavy lifting instead.
I happen to know the answer to that question of why, and in my opinion it’s one of the biggest flaws of the Star Wars sequels. Rey is an insufferable Mary Sue and even though I think Daisy Ridley is great in the part (ironically, when so many good Star Wars characters have been undermined by terrible acting, the shallowest, tropiest characters of all, Rey and Kylo/Ben, are carried brilliantly by the actors playing them) the incessant focus on her at the expense of all the other characters really hurts the narrative.
Rey is not even a character; she’s an Everywoman. Everyone inexplicably adores Rey, right from the start. Han loves her. Leia loves her. When Han dies, Leia ignores Chewbacca and rushes to comfort Rey, who was practically a stranger! After a brief period of completely out-of-character prickliness, even Luke loves her. Both Finn and Kylo fall madly in love with her. That’s right, all the original characters and EVEN THE BAD GUY adore Rey.
The Rise of Skywalker even opens with Rey’s friends Finn and Poe mad at her, not because they were actually mad at her, but because “they needed her to help them”; without Rey, these two otherwise resourceful and talented dudes were lost and useless, unable to survive without her. In addition to being a super good pilot somehow despite being stuck on a desert planet without driver’s ed, Rey also has mystical Force powers that far surpass anything we’ve seen in the past and she manages to save the entire galaxy far far away without any training. Oh yeah and it turns out she’s also Emperor Palpatine’s granddaughter and was abandoned by her parents not because they were inebriated monsters as claimed in The Last Jedi, but for her own protection, because they totally loved her all along. She’s also super nice, generous, tolerant, thoughtful, and so selfless that she ends up nearly sacrificing her life for everyone else, except for that luckily Ben loves her so much he totally sacrifices himself instead so that she may live.
Rey is the fullest embodiment of Mary Sue that has ever been put forth in a major motion picture. Rey is so Mary Sue she’s like a 14 year old girl with very low self esteem wrote her or something. I’m flabbergasted someone was actually paid to write the character of Rey because they could have found millions of fan fictioners who would have done it for free.
In that Mary Sue playbook from whence Rey sprung, there is no room for another woman doing anything other than telling Mary Sue how great she is. Whether or not Carrie Fisher herself had died, Leia was doomed from the start. She had to die because in modern day fictional female wish fulfillment, there is no room for any other female characters, particularly beloved ones, to compete with Our Heroine. Rose Tico? Nah. Rose doesn’t get the boy (Finn spends most of the movie comically trying to tell Rey how he feels about her) and she barely gets a speaking part. Aside from Rey, the other female characters have but a throwaway line or two. Fricking Charlie from Lost WHO WAS NOT EVEN IN ANY OF THE OTHER MOVIES has more lines than most of the non-Rey female characters.
Above all else, no Leia, because Leia IS beloved by generations, and will be beloved far longer than Rey is even remembered.
And that is not feminism. Even if you super like Rey, she’s not a feminist icon, she was something created by Hollywood focus groups to sell action figures and cosplay outfits.
I have argued in the past about how the term and even the concept of Mary Sue is not inherently sexist. Mary Sue can be a thing that women like because we feel we have to be perfect all the time in every arena, so it’s no wonder that we sometimes enjoy seeing a character that achieves perfection in at least SOME arenas. But the manifestation of Mary Sue that is Rey Palpatine-Skywalker is completely sexist because she earns nothing. Everything is given to her, undeservedly, via magic and lousy writing. Her perfection ruins not only the movies she’s in but the movies we loved growing up, yet we’re all supposed to clap our hands and gush about how great she is or we’re told we’re politically incorrect or something.
Well, I ain’t clapping, and the reason I am not clapping is because I loved Leia. Leia was not perfect, she was kind of a bitch, actually, a bitch who didn’t know what she wanted (who can’t relate to that?). She wasn’t superhuman, but she was badass and brave and clever and funny as hell. I have never once laughed at any amusing thing Rey said. To be honest, I can’t even recall anything Rey said. Even Padme had more memorable snappy comebacks than Rey. Rey is just a cookie cutter girl power heroine with no depth and no meaning, her abilities gleaned from magic sprites. She’s a gimme, a placeholder, an avatar for women who want everyone to adore them blindly, who cannot withstand the slightest bit of criticism and who cannot rise to any challenge without everyone making it easy on them. Rey was not made to be relatable, but to placate a bunch of whiners who refuse to understand that a good character is NOT a perfect character that gets everything handed to them because they’re magically delicious, but one who overcomes actual challenges like falling in love with a scoundrel and having your whole damn planet destroyed because you messed around in subversive politics.
I don’t say this to take away from whatever it is that younger women find in Rey (if anything). I say this to defend the interests of the hordes of 50 year old women who grew up idolizing Leia and wanted to see something MORE than just Leia swooning and dying from a malignant case of motherhood. We matter too, and if anything we matter more because we’re the ones who made Star Wars an Official Thing. The makers of Star Wars owed it to us to do better by Leia. Leia was a hero, she paved the way for all the female action heroes who came after her, and she deserved a hero’s death. She did not deserve to die because her son chose to be a galactic asshole and she most certainly did not deserve to die to make way for a younger, hotter, more anodyne version of herself.
It is against everything both Leia Organa and Carrie Fisher stood for to have Leia go out not with a bang, but a whimper. It’s a huge FU to both Star Wars fans and actual feminists, as scarce as we apparently are. As Carrie Fisher herself said, youth and beauty are not accomplishments, and as Kristin Devine said, or at least is saying now, ladies, your life isn’t over just because you had a child. More than half your life will happen after you have a child. You continue living and wanting things and some of those things may even transcend motherhood, as great an experience as being a mother is. You may choose to die for your child or your cause, but that doesn’t mean that was the sum total of why you LIVED. A woman’s life has value and meaning beyond her role as “Mom”.
Furthermore, older women are not just an irritating obstacle to be gotten rid of to make way for younger and cuter people. Carrie Fisher was only 60! ONLY 60! She could easily have gone on saying witty things and being inspirational for another 30 years, as could the character of Leia, who in case you had forgotten, was a Jedi and a general in addition to possessing a uterus. That the makers of Star Wars so-obviously viewed her as nothing more than a plot device to make Rey the most Mary-Sue-ish Mary Sue who ever Mary Sued for the wish fulfillment of a generation or two of women who have had more of their wishes fulfilled already than all the rest of us previous generations combined, well, I think that’s just about inexcusable.
No matter how I turn it around in my head, I find it simply appalling to send one of the most beloved female characters in my lifetime out like a delicate waif in a Victorian dime novel dying bravely, yet passively, of consumption as an inspiration to others, and that many of the people who bemoan a gold bikini worn 40 years ago as being like, the most sexist thing in ever, have absolutely no problem with any of it, is even more appalling.
The Rise of Skywalker was fine. It was adequate. It was good, even, in places. It was a hell of a lot better than The Last Jedi, that’s for sure. But Leia deserved better, and Carrie deserved better, and those of us who loved them both deserve way better.