“I want to be great, or nothing.” -Amy March, Little Women (2019)
“You don’t just have power. You have his power.”-Kylo Ren, The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
If you’ve been to the movies over the holidays (or in the last twenty years,) you’ve probably noticed the growing popularity of the ‘strong woman’ archetype. The ‘strong woman’ in a movie is typically athletic, stern, and far more capable than her peers; she is likely violent, and if not, bears witness to violence; she is unbothered by those ‘feminine’ traits of compassion, or of overwhelming feeling, and relies on her logic and tact to see her through difficult problems. This archetype was a mainstay in the 1980s and 1990s, with characters like Sarah Connor from Terminator, Ripley from Alien, and the Bride from Kill Bill all slicing and punching their way across the film industry, and even in the 2000s and 2010s, characters like Laura Croft, Black Widow, and Captain Marvel have followed in their combat-boot trodden footsteps. These characters that we identify as ‘strong women’ can feel empowering to watch, especially if they’re the face of a popular action flick or a blockbuster story, and in a lot of ways I and other female writers owe a debt to these movies that allowed women to take up space in their narratives.
But, as the 2020s begin to dawn and we leave the 2010s behind, the time has come to reassess whether or not the ‘strong woman’ archetype is all it’s cracked up to be. Two new films that came out this Christmas that attempted to answer the dilemma of the ‘strong women’ problem, The Rise of Skywalker and Little Women, went in opposite routes to give their female leads agency and power–and today, I want to look at what worked, and what didn’t, about the character arcs of Rey and Jo March.
At first, it may seem like Jo March and Rey don’t have a lot in common–after all, Jo’s story takes place in Massachusetts during the Civil War, and Rey’s story takes place a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. But, if we look at the characters themselves, both Jo and Rey are outspoken, fiercely loyal characters, who are driven to explore a power that is unique to them and makes them feel like they are inherently different from their peers. Jo’s desire to write and thus make her own way in the world functions as a mirror to Rey’s journey in the Star Wars sequel trilogy, in which Rey explores her unique connection to the Force and tries to find her place in the galaxy. Both women also struggle with anger and loneliness as a result of their ambition; they find it difficult to hold on to lasting relationships and feel as if no one truly understands or ‘knows’ them. In short, both narratives recognize their heroine’s unique abilities and desire to seek a higher call, while also exploring how this call leads them to self-isolate. In stories like Jo’s and Rey’s, in which the hero seeks creative/spiritual fulfillment as well as community and love, the heroine seems to want everything–but if you’re the ‘strong woman’ of your story, it might stop you from experiencing a happy ending. And this is where the trouble starts–once a movie establishes their ‘strong woman’ lead, then there is an expectation for how she will behave and what her ending will look like, and for stories that try to tell a more nuanced story involving a female lead, those expectations that may not match up with the larger story or with the desires of the characters.
Despite its original intention to increase the prevalence of women in fiction, the ‘strong woman’ archetype has in recent years become a stand-in for character development, replacing good writing with cold, untouchable leads that only vaguely resemble real women. It was into this very narrative pit that The Rise of Skywalker fell, as, in an effort to make a Rey a badass, writers JJ Abrams and Chris Terrio failed to allow their protagonist to be a human person, and instead deny her agency, happiness, and love, all to make her appear ‘strong.’ Throughout the 2 hour runtime of The Rise of Skywalker, Rey is disempowered in almost every way imaginable. She is denied ownership of her power, anger, and darkness, all of which are instead attributed to her genetic tie to Emperor Palpatine. (Yes, Palpatine, the melty scary ghoul, is her biological grandfather…don’t think about the mental image that brings up for too long). She is denied friendships with Finn and Poe, who spend the majority of the runtime chasing her around the galaxy, but never really talking to her (in fact, her miscommunication with Finn becomes a running gag/unanswered question by the end of the story.) And finally, even after she explicitly expresses her desire to be with her enemy-turned-partner, Ben Solo, Rey only shares one kiss with her ‘dyad in the force’ (Star Wars speak for soulmate) before he tragically dies in her arms, leaving her utterly alone in the galaxy, relegated to a desert planet and the company of ghosts.
In The Rise of Skywalker, we see how the ‘strong woman’ archetype has become yet another tool for patriarchal standards in the age of pseudo-empowerment. To give her ‘independence,’ Rey’s story disavows her of agency and love, of desire and reward; she is less than human, and, strangest of all, her ending is treated like a happy one. The final shot of her alone against the Tatooine sunset was probably intended to evoke nostalgia and empowerment, but when observed as an ending for Rey’s story, a story in which all she wanted was to have a family and a home, it is utterly hopeless to watch her walk out into the world with no one at her side. Maybe that makes Rey a ‘strong woman,’ but it denies her humanity, her hopes, and her dreams; she regresses from a complex, powerful person into a child with no agency and no destiny.
So, if Rey isn’t a well-written heroine, how do you give your lead agency and purpose (and still imbue her with strength?) It’s a good question, and one I was asking as I left the theater after seeing The Rise of Skywalker. Thankfully, I didn’t have to wait long for the answer, as it arrived a mere five days later in Greta Gerwig’s adaptation of Little Women. Gerwig’s retelling of Louisa May Alcott’s masterwork is full of beautiful acting, set design, and a gorgeous score, but more than anything, Little Women succeeds in telling an honest, unpolished, brilliant story about the life and struggles of the four March sisters, and it accomplishes this simply by letting the girls act like human beings. The protagonist of the story, Jo, is hearty, brave, and lacks self-consciousness entirely; she is given to social faux pas and impatience and is she is a force to be reckoned with, especially in defense of the people she loves. She is a deeply flawed character, whose anger often gets the better of her; she yells at her friend Professor Bhaer when he tries to help her with her writing, and almost loses her sister Amy in an ice-skating accident after Jo storms out of the house to get away from her. All of these traits–being emotional, headstrong, and loyal–are powerful to see on screen, not because they make Jo strong, but because they make her human so that she comes alive when she’s standing next to the other female members of the March family. Jo’s tenacity and her lonely streak are allowed to exist together, and are given equal weight in a way that feels precious and rare; Jo is allowed to have her dreams, but she’s also allowed to worry about whether or not they will come true, too. Unlike Rey, Jo is allowed to make bad choices and learn, to feel sorrow and share her emotions with her family; and, most impactful of all, she is genuinely allowed to believe in herself and her work. Jo believes that she is a writer, even when the world is working to prove she is not; like Rey, she is talented, but unlike Rey, she knows that she is good enough, and always has been good enough, to have her stories heard. Jo may not be physically strong or effortlessly capable like a proper ‘strong woman,’ but she has faith in herself and her talent, and it is this faith that carries her story. Because she believes in her work and is learns to put it first, Jo, in the end, is allowed to mature, to look outward, and finally, to fill her life with both creativity and love–she is allowed to live fully and to live freely, the master of her own life at last.
The Rise of Skywalker and Little Women show us two depictions of what it means to be strong and a woman. In The Rise of Skywalker, the heroine’s strengths, as well as her weaknesses, are attributed to a distant man, while in Little Women, the heroine’s strengths come from within, and are nurtured in her heart for years before they are revealed to the world. Rey and Jo provide proof of the kind of harm the ‘strong woman’ archetype creates in fiction, and likewise, how ignoring the archetype entirely makes the women in our fiction more flawed, more interesting, and, ultimately, more human than ever before. And in the end, isn’t telling human stories the point?