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Why Ahsoka Tano Is The Strong Female Character We Need Right Now


There has been a lot of talk about “strong female characters” over the past several years. I know because I’ve contributed to some of that talk. I also put that term in quotes because it’s one of those terms that people love to throw around, but don’t quite know how to define. The only time most people use it is to complain.

This has been an especially hot topic among “Star Wars” fans lately, a conversation to which I’ve also contributed. It was fairly obvious from anyone who saw “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” that the producers at Disney wanted to promote more strong female characters. The extent to which they succeeded is debatable, but the fact that someone made a “defeminized” edit of the movie should tell much of the story.

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Now, I can understand why Disney and other big movie studios would make a push for strong female characters. I think it has less to do with their commitment to inclusivity and more to do with improving their brand. They could probably care less about gender politics. They just know that a brand that appeals to more than half the population is a brand that’ll make more money. That is, at the end of the day, the primary goal.

With Disney and “Star Wars,” though, that effort almost seems desperate. Characters like Rey and General Holdo were portrayed as so strong and so capable that they didn’t always come off as interesting or very likable. The movies just can’t seem to get any female character not named Princess Leia correct.

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The real irony is that “Star Wars” already created an amazing female character who was more compelling, more likable, and more endearing that Rey or Holdo could ever achieve over the course of a single trilogy. In fact, they created her back in 2008 and put her through a journey that endeared her to men, women, and those of unspecified gender.

Her name is Ahsoka Tano and if the term “strong female character” is to have any meaning, she deserves to be the new standard by which all others are measured. She’s not Rey. She’s not Holdo. She’s not Princess Leia either. She’s very much her own character and it’s a character that we need more of in these fragile times.

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To those who only know “Star Wars” through the movie, they probably don’t know much about Ahsoka and that’s a true shame because her journey is very much in line with the larger themes of “Star Wars.” I won’t go so far as to say it’s on the level of Luke Skywalker’s journey, but that’s okay because Ahsoka’s journey is compelling in its own right.

In the lore of “Star Wars” that extends beyond the movies, Ahsoka’s story takes place primarily between “Attack Of The Clones” and “Revenge Of The Sith.” She was a young, immature Jedi who was assigned to a pre-Darth Vader Anakin Skywalker shortly after the Clone Wars broke out. To say she had the makings of a great female character at that point would’ve warranted a billion Jabba the Hutt laughs.

From the beginning, Ahsoka was not capable or likable. She wasn’t even that crucial a part to story surrounding the Clone Wars. She wasn’t that well-received by the fans either because she came off as annoying, immature, and distracting. That was somewhat forgivable since she was a kid, but she didn’t drop many hints that her journey would be that compelling.

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That changed considerably over the course of five seasons of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” a highly underrated and very well-done TV series that only got better with each successive season. While this series didn’t really affect the movies that much, it is recognized as official canon. That helps make Ahsoka’s story more meaningful.

That meaning takes time to develop, though. Yes, she starts off as childish and annoying as most would expect of someone so young, but she steadily grows and matures. She becomes an integral part of Anakin Skywalker’s story in that he now has this kid sister to look after that he never asked for. Considering what a whiny guy he was in “Attack Of The Clones,” he really needed that.

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What makes Ahsoka’s story most compelling though, especially with respect to strong female characters, is how so much of it is defined by the hard choices she makes. Ahsoka is not like Rey, Holdo, or even Leia in that she often finds herself caught up in situations she doesn’t seek out. Ahsoka is an aspiring Jedi knight. She charges into those situations, making for some pretty dramatic moments.

She’s given no special treatment. Just being a female Jedi who happens to be the Padawan of Anakin Skywalker gets her no passes. She’s held to the same standards. She’s expected to rise to the occasion, which she does time and again. She doesn’t have to be forced into that central role. She becomes part of it like any other non-droid character.

What sets her apart, though, isn’t how well she plays the part of an aspiring Jedi. It’s how she’s allowed to make mistakes, learn from them, and make tough decisions along the way. She’s like Luke Skywalker in that she guides the story through the highs and lows of the conflict. There are times she learns a hard less. There are times Anakin Skywalker learns a lesson too. She both complements and supplements those around her.

In that sense, Ahsoka directly contradicts the Galbrush Paradox that often hinders a female character’s ability to struggle, fail, and mess up without becoming a trope. She’s allowed to be a little flawed while retaining a healthy level of femininity. She gets emotional, but not in the same way as Anakin or other male characters. She’s like an alien Buffy the Vampire Slayer, but with a light saber.

Ahsoka accomplishes all of this without relying too much on sex appeal. Granted, she’s not desexualized in a way that feels overt, which other franchises have tried too hard to do, but her looks are always secondary to her skills and the choices she makes. Yes, she’s cute in ways that men with sexy alien fantasies appreciate, but that’s never the primary appeal to Ahsoka.

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Her biggest appeal is how she navigates the same story as Anakin Skywalker, Yoda, and Obi-Wan Kanobi in her own unique way. That story is full of choices and actions that really set her apart. This is best exemplified in what I feel is the most defining and heart-wrenching part of Ahsoka’s story.

At the end of the fifth season of “Star Wars: The Clone Wars,” Ahsoka is accused of taking part in a secret attack against the Jedi Temple. As a result, she is imprisoned, but escapes to prove her innocence. She eventually succeeds and is even welcomed back into the Jedi Order. However, at that point, she decides that she has no place in the Jedi Order anymore.

It’s a sad, but bittersweet moment. It’s a moment that breaks her heart and that of others, but one that those who saw “Revenge Of The Sith” knows is the right choice. She chooses to leave the order that she did so much to serve. In doing so, it makes for a truly emotional goodbye between her and Anakin, which also doubles as another sign of his eventual fall.

It’s easy to tell in that moment how much it pains Ahsoka. It pains Anakin just as much. That kind of heartbreak in the face of so much struggle is the kind of impact that helps define a character, regardless of their gender.

It’s that same impact that makes Ahsoka’s later role on “Star Wars Rebels,” another show that takes place before “A New Hope,” every bit as meaningful. In that show, Ahsoka continues following her own path, fighting her own battles, and proving her worth along the way.

It’s in “Star Wars Rebels” where Ahsoka Tano officially outgrows the part of being the snippy side-kick of a pre-Darth Vader Anakin Skywalker and becomes an integral part of the larger “Star Wars” mythos. She’s not hardened or jaded like a Sarah Conners type character. She’s still full of heart, hope, and love, doing her part to make the galaxy a better place. Honestly, what more could anyone want of any character?

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Whether you found Ahsoka annoying at first or didn’t care for the female characters the movies tried to push with “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” it’s hard to look at the person she became and not be impressed. She has complexity, personality, and even a little sex appeal as an adult. In terms of quality female characters, she checks most boxes.

After the recent finale of Star Wars Rebels,” which left fans like me drowning in tears of joy, Ahsoka’s story is far from over. It’s a story that offers unique appeal through a remarkable female character from which little was expected. In the end, that ability to transform from that annoying side-kick to a truly endearing character that makes Ahsoka Tano the kind of female character that appeals to everyone, regardless of gender.

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Why Rey From “Star Wars” Is NOT A Mary Sue

There are a handful of character types that tend to evoke a collective groan from most audiences. Being an ardent comic book fan, as well as a general fan of sci-fi, romance, and fantasy, I’ve listened to those groans and even contributed to them. At a time when it’s easier than ever to share opinions and/or voice frustration, these frustrating characters tend to be more vulnerable than ever.

Chief among those groan-inducing characters is the dreaded Mary Sue. Chances are you’ve heard that cute little colloquialism after browsing gaming and sci-fi message boards for more than five minutes.

Usually, it applies to a female character, but can just as easily fit apply to a male character as well, often in the form of the equally groan-inducing label of Gary Stu. Sometimes it’s a criticism of a character. Sometimes it’s a flat-out insult. In most cases, it rarely has a positive connotation.

It’s for that reason that characters slapped with the Mary Sue label tend to be either controversial or destructive to an underlying narrative. Many writers, myself included, go out of their way to avoid crafting characters that might attract that label. I certainly made that effort when I wrote “Skin Deep” and “Passion Relapse.” I doubt I’m the only one who tries to avoid it.

These days, though, there’s one particular character getting slapped with that label and it has been generating discussions for a couple years now. It comes from “Star Wars,” one of the biggest franchises in the history of modern fiction and one of many productive cash cows for Disney. The character in question is Rey and I know that discussions about her tend to bring out the dark side in any “Star Wars” fan.

Now, I personally really like Rey. After seeing “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” she solidified herself as one of my favorite “Star Wars” characters of all time. I wasn’t entirely sold on her potential after seeing “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” but I’ve since been convinced. Rey is a great character and one of the best things to come out of this new generation of “Star Wars.”

That said, I’m aware of the criticisms levied against her. She is very much at the center of an ongoing debate about female characters, in general, and what constitutes a Mary Sue. I tried to avoid those debates after “Star Wars: The Force Awakens,” but I feel comfortable entering the fray now after seeing Rey develop over the course of two movies.

Before I offer my assessment on whether or not Rey deserves the label of a Mary Sue, it’s helpful to highlight just what a Mary Sue is. There’s actually not any clearly-defined criteria, to date, and that criteria is constantly evolving. According to TVTropes.org, the simplest definition of a Mary Sue is a character that’s just too good to be true. More specifically, those traits include the following:

  • A bland, shallow personality that’s overly pure, overly good, and incorruptible
  • Flaws that are forced and only ever meant to glorify her purity and goodness
  • Beauty that is either flawless or idealized for any given world, fictional or otherwise
  • Physical skills that are exceedingly good to the point of never facing any real challenges
  • Mental acuity to the point where she’s never wrong, never foolish, and always on the moral high ground
  • Unlimited and contrived access to every tool or resource, be it something mundane or a Deus ex Machina
  • Always ending up with the perfect romantic partner and/or forging friendships with every meaningful character
  • Being at the center of every plot and sub-plot by default

Again, these are just a few traits associated with a Mary Sue and there are likely more. There are far more thorough insights into the traits of a Mary Sue, one of which was done by the YouTube channel, Overly Sarcastic Production. After their wonderful breakdown of strong female characters, I would put their assessment far above my own.

Whatever the criteria, the Mary Sue is such a fluid concept, which is part of why it’s such an empty criticism. However, it has become a more serious criticism and since it’s being applied to “Star Wars,” it’s definitely carries more weight than usual.

With all that said, does Rey fit that criteria? Is it a valid criticism to call Rey a Mary Sue whose portrayal is weighing down the overall narrative of “Star Wars?” It’s a debate I’m sure will continue for quite some time, but here’s my definitive response, for what it’s worth.

No. Rey is NOT a Mary Sue…for the most part.

Now, I’m aware I’m being somewhat vague by adding that little caveat at the end. However, there’s a reason for that and I’m fairly confident that they qualify as reasons and not excuses.

For one, Rey’s story is not complete. That much needs to be said from the beginning. It’s something that I find many debates involving Rey tend to overlook. Yes, her story is lagging a bit more than those of Luke, Leia, and Han Solo did in the original trilogy. There are other reasons for this, but they’re unrelated to the debate at hand.

Even with an incomplete story, I believe that Rey has done enough over the course of two movies to prove that she’s not a Mary Sue. I think she established that shortly after her appearance in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.”

In terms of appearance, she comes off as someone who could put on a set of clothes from Wal-Mart, walk into a typical high school, and not generate much reaction. She doesn’t radiate the kind of beauty or royalty that often defines a Mary Sue. Even if she later proves to have a special destiny, that basically puts her in the same category as Luke Skywalker and every other legendary hero.

In terms of personality, she’s not exactly gushing with love and likability, which is another key trait of the Mary Sue. In many respects, Rey is somewhat cold and detached when she first shows up. She doesn’t whine or lament about her less-than-extraordinary life, nor does she eagerly jump at the chance to join the resistance when she encounters Finn. Hers is a more complex journey.

In terms of skill, this is where I think most of the Mary Sue accusations come from. I admit that I thought her excessive skill with the Force, flying the Millennium Falcon, and defeating Kylo Ren pushed the bounds of her character a bit too much. Even I was tempted to throw that label on her after seeing her accomplish so much with so little training.

However, when I step back and look at the larger plot, as well as incorporate the events of “Star Wars: The Last Jedi,” I see that those traits aren’t enough to warrant calling her a Mary Sue. They are a flaw in her character. That much, I don’t deny. Just having that flaw, though, doesn’t make her a Mary Sue.

I think “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” did a lot to help distance her from that label. It did so by having her make a few bad judgment calls while also not winning her battles quite as easily. When you look at the sequence of events in that movie, she didn’t actually succeed in most of what she sought out to do. Most of the success in that movie came from others, namely Kylo Ren, Finn, and Poe Dameron.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Rey failed miserably in her efforts, I think “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” established that her skills have limits. She has all sorts of natural talent, but she doesn’t always apply it effectively. That’s not unusual for real and fictional characters. You could even make the argument that her missteps help really help to improve her likability.

A Mary Sue is supposed to be sickeningly perfect and hopelessly ideal, so much so that there’s no need for a plot since they just fix everything with their charm. Rey isn’t like that in either movie. In fact, the final battle in “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” didn’t really involve her. More than anything else, her role really complemented all the others by the end of the movie.

Now, I’m certain there are more than a few ardent “Star Wars” fans with X-wings tattooed on their chests who will claim I’m dead wrong. Those arguing that Rey is a Mary Sue have more than a few points to make and I don’t deny that some of those points are valid. I just don’t think they’re sufficient.

Rey is a great character, but one with some obvious flaws. I would call her overpowered and over-skilled, but you could levy that criticism against other iconic characters like Superman, Wonder Woman, and even Batman. Unlike those iconic characters, though, Rey is very new to the cultural landscape and her story still has room to unfold, as director Rian Johnson has pointed out.

I don’t doubt that debate over whether or not Rey is a Mary Sue will continue for quite some time. While I don’t think the next “Star Wars” movie will definitely resolve that, I’m of the opinion that it doesn’t have to be at this point. I think Rey has done enough to subvert this dreaded label.

She’s still a great character with a number of conceptual flaws. I think she has a bright future in our culture. She’ll always have her critics, but all great characters do. It’s just a matter of how they navigate that criticism. Given the cultural weight “Star Wars” carries, I’d say she’s handled it much better than most non-Jar Jar characters could ever hope.

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