On Rebel Rising and Jyn Erso, the Unlikable Hero

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This is a rebellion, isn’t it? I rebel.

With one line from the first trailer for Rogue One, Jyn Erso established herself as something quite a bit different from the movie heroes we’d seen before. She was less noble freedom fighter and more scrappy loose cannon. But despite the immediately iconic nature of this line, it didn’t make an appearance in the final film. Nor, for that matter, did most of what we saw of Jyn’s personality. Rather than the antihero we expected, whose fiery bluster covers up a near lifetime of pain and anger, we got someone a little bit softer around the edges, whose main trait seems to be indifference.

Rebel Rising, by Beth Revis, fortunately stepped in to give us the hard-edged antihero promised by the movie trailers. Not only did it build off the movie (and excellent novelization by Alexander Freed) to develop Jyn, but it gave her a harder, scrappier edge than any protagonist we’d yet seen in a Star Wars film. And more importantly, it made Jyn a far more morally ambiguous (and occasionally, straight up awful) person.

Reportedly, part of the reason for the infamous reshoots on the film was to make Jyn less abrasive and more empathetic. Many of the scenes from the trailers hint at this; from General Draven’s laundry list of her crimes, to her mocking “yes sir” and, of course, her defiant “I rebel.” And that early version of Jyn still survives in the novelization, giving us a glimpse of what could have been. Her early scenes on Yavin and with Cassian show a woman who openly mocks authority, is ready to physically fight perceived threats at a moment’s notice, and whose biggest goal is just to do the job with as little fuss as possible so that she can be left alone. We see the morally gray figure Jyn was originally conceived as. However the final cut of the film showed a Jyn with a much less fiery personality. Instead of being hostile and antagonistic and actively insulting Cassian and the others, she comes across as more aimlessly indifferent to the struggle at large. In other words, her fierceness was cut to make her more likable.

But why should she have to be likable?

Rebel_Rising_coverPlenty of male protagonists in Star Wars get to be, well, snarky jerks. Han Solo is, of course, the epitome of this; when we first meet him he’s a drug smuggler for a nasty crime lord, who shoots before asking questions, who openly taunts Leia and Luke for their idealistic belief in the Rebellion, and who makes it explicitly clear that he only cares about himself and money, in that order. And then Rogue One has Kaytoo, who spends most of the movie insulting just about everyone who isn’t Cassian. And while Vader isn’t a protagonist, he’s still considered one of the coolest characters in the franchise, despite burning with anger, pain, and trauma and doing morally repugnant things because of it. These characters are hugely popular; after all, they have swagger, they have some of the best lines, and they’re just plain fun to watch. But they never have to worry about being likable.

Female Star Wars characters, however, generally aren’t afforded the same luxury. The problem with the Star Wars movies in particular is that when you only have one big female character per movie then they have to represent an entire gender. They have to be extremely capable, they have to inspire millions of children, they have to be hopeful, and they have to be likable so we can empathize with them. They aren’t really allowed to be flawed and purposefully make terrible decisions or be self-centered or do bad things. And that isn’t to say that the final version of Jyn in the film is a poorly-written character; it’s just a shame that so much of her fire was left on the cutting room floor.

Jyn is a traumatized little girl, raised by a man whose idea of grief counseling is “shoot things.” She’s angry, she’s openly hostile, and just a touch arrogant. As the book progresses and the weight of the Empire presses down harder on Jyn, she retreats into herself and decides that safety comes from putting yourself first because caring about others only gets you hurt and in trouble. She’s Han Solo with three times the cynicism. In Rebel Rising we see a young woman who has been through an incredible amount of trauma and never really comes to terms with it in a healthy way. Instead she copes as best she knows how: by throwing up emotional shields and being always on edge and alert for new threats. She’s constantly angry: at her father (and then later Saw) for abandoning her, at the Empire for how they’ve treated her and those she cares about, and even at the Rebellion for dragging civilians into the crossfire. As far as she’s concerned, they all did their part to steal any chance of a happy life from her and she wants zero to do with any of them.

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By the time Rebel Rising has caught up to the events of Rogue One, Jyn has a lot of blood on her hands and a lot of moral choices haunting her that she desperately tries to bury away. She bitterly complains about being continually caught between the Empire and Rebellion and never finding the freedom to “be an ant,” as she says. She grudgingly agrees to help the Rebellion contact Saw only because she wants her freedom back; freedom to be on the run and caring only for herself. And all the while she’s mockingly dismissive of the Rebels, whether it’s Mothma’s gentle idealism or Saw’s anti-Empire fanaticism. That makes her story in Rogue One so much more poignant; that a hardened, bitter woman who just wants to be left well enough manages to turn that fury and pain into something to rally behind. And knowing the context of her life, her decision to fight with the Rebellion, an organization that she blames for almost as many of her troubles as the Empire, is much more meaningful.

So many of the major female characters in Star Wars tend to fit a similar mold: they’re heroic leaders trying to always do the right thing, who believe in a higher set of ideals. They may falter but at the end of the day they’re trying to do good in the way they best know how. Even Imperial characters like Rae Sloane or Ciena Ree fit this pattern. The there’s a couple prominent deviations in Mara Jade (at least, early Mara Jade) and Doctor Aphra, but unfortunately neither Legends nor the comics have near as much reach as the theatrical movies do. So we generally see the same female character types repeated.

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And that’s the real rub; that the abundance of major male characters means we get a variety of personalities and no one is concerned that it’s making a Statement About Men. Not to say that Leia, Padmé, and Rey are all exactly the same, because obviously they aren’t. But compare that to the differences between Anakin, Han, Luke, Finn, Poe, Palpatine, Maul, etc. etc. etc. You see a greater variety of personalities and archetypes. But when you only have a handful of major female characters in the franchise then suddenly they’re under far more scrutiny. You don’t get as many character types and the ones you do get still have be likable and capable or else there’s worry the audience won’t empathize with them. But why can’t we have a morally nebulous female character as our hero? We’re getting an entire movie about Han, after all.

And that’s what is so refreshing about Jyn in Rebel Rising. Beth Revis doesn’t shy away from the reality of Jyn’s situation and how that would affect her. Jyn sees her mother murdered and is effectively raised as a child soldier. She’s abandoned by both her father figures and sees her only other chance at a new family cruelly snatched away from her. When left to her own devices, she makes selfish and oftentimes bad decisions and cares pretty much only for herself. Rather than channel her anger at the world into action against the Empire, she bottles it up and tries to scrape by as unobtrusively as possible. Like Han Solo before her, it’s not until she’s (rather unwillingly) dragged into the Rebellion that she finds that last spark of goodwill inside her and does something meaningful with it. Rebel Rising gives us the story of an angry, pained antihero, and that gives Jyn enough depth to make her sacrifice on Scarif all the more important.

5 comments

  1. Rev. Eric J Brown says:

    Excellent article. If I can ask – what do you think reaction would be to a female villain who was fully villainous? Would it be viewed just on the basis of character, or do you think it would be viewed as commentary on women?

    • You know, it’s hard to say. I think it would likely depend on the context; e.g. if the only female characters in the story were all purely villainous, or if they were villified for traits while their male counterparts aren’t, then I would wonder if the creators are trying to say something. With Star Wars in particular it’s less of an issue because you have a history of heroic/noble female characters in the franchise so you can bring in people like Mother Talzin, Ventress, etc. and it adds to the diversity of the setting.

    • Mike Cooper Mike Cooper says:

      The reaction to Phasma was largely around how wasted she was by TFA—which isn’t exactly positive, but was the same reaction I think she’d have gotten as a male character. So in that sense I think fandom accepted her just fine.

  2. Nice overview of what is a really great character study novel (this and Tarkin really provide a great way to get to know more about the GFFA’s key figures that are outside the mainline heroes/villains).

    However…it is not contradictory (staying away from the term: ‘double standard’…for now…) that this article claims that female characters cannot be ‘flawed’, and yet, the main complaint about Rey is that she’s too great at what she does? That’s she’s perfect?

    We can obviously stay away from that discussion, because that issue with Rey is overblown and eye-rolling, but I thought it was an interesting contradiction.

    • Well I suppose I should clarify that when I saw “flawed” what I mean is character/personality flaws, not “isn’t able to shoot a blaster.” You know, you look at a character like Han who smuggles drugs for crime lords, has no problem killing people, was perfectly willing to hang out in hiding rather than try and rescue Leia on the Death Star despite KNOWING she was scheduled for execution, and was planning to take his reward money and hightail it out of the Rebellion the second he was able to. In other words, he behaves selfishly and cares only about what’s best for him, not necessarily what’s best for the greater good (and of course his character development journey basically deals with him learning to be less selfish). And people walked out of ANH like “this character is the BEST.”

      As a person? Han’s not a very likeable guy imo (but he’s fantastic to watch on screen). And I just think that women should be afforded that same luxury, to have deep personality flaws and not be obligated to be the nice, noble freedom fighter.

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