“Every Generation Has A Legend”.
That we fade from Rey to these words in the Rise of Skywalker teaser is of cultural significance: that a woman would define a generation. In the exhibit hall at Star Wars Celebration, the declaration drew a thundering howl of approval from the audience. However, I found myself affected for another, more personal reason. When examined through a queer lens, Rey’s journey from “no one” to “legend” can be interpreted as the acceptance of one’s aromantic and asexual orientation.
The path of the Jedi is one that’s long been associated with adulthood, and the burgeoning maturity of our leading characters. By their powers through the Force, we see our own adolescent journeys amplified. All of our emotions and choices – for good and ill – are made physically manifest as these characters form into Jedi or Sith, the adults they will become.
Most of our heroes actively pursue their paths of dark or light. Those that need extra prompting are usually granted it by the loss of a parental figure, frequently by the death thereof. It’s a metaphorical shedding of childhood to take their first steps into the larger world of adulthood.
For Rey, this aspect of childhood was shed long before we meet her in The Force Awakens. Yet she doesn’t immediately embrace the path of the Jedi laid out before her. She rejects it to the point of running away from the first offer of a lightsaber. This carries into other areas in her life: avoiding job opportunities, the chance to have her own ship, and other milestones that could define her adulthood. She keeps trying to press pause on her own life.
In our world, society likewise marks our paths to adulthood. We have achievements like driver’s licenses, certain levels of education, employment, or housing. Emotional milestones like one’s first love or sexual awakening which lead to socially-treasured events such as marriage or the loss of virginity. The lack of any of these is usually interpreted as an adulthood on pause, the indicator of something childish, repressed, or stagnated.
Rey keeps delaying her journey as a Jedi because she doesn’t see herself as one. It’s how I once felt I was holding myself back from maturity because I wasn’t matching the narrative of adulthood that I was watching play out around me. It’s how I felt before I embraced my identity as aromantic and asexual.
The word “aromantic” would have been useful for me to know back in 2010, when I entered my first relationship. In a discussion about this new stage in my life, it was revealed that a middle-aged woman of our acquaintance not only wasn’t married but had never had a romantic relationship in her life. My immediate reaction of “Girl, she’s living the dream” would have been quite the hint.
“Asexual” would have been useful for me from an even earlier age. After the first abstinence talk, all the repeats sounded like they were actively trying to convince me that sex was the best thing in the world, and I was totally going to want it someday. It got to the point that I feared that I was wrong, morally wrong, for not wanting it in the first place.
As aromantic and asexual, “aro/ace” for short, I don’t experience romantic or sexual attraction to others. I can think well of a person’s character or think them aesthetically pleasing or want to befriend them, but I won’t feel the desire to date or have sex with them.1
Failing to recognize this part of me led to many frustrations and griefs over the years, especially as the end of college loomed. Peers all around me were not just graduating but also getting married. They were setting forth into their next chapter with a partner at their side, all while I was steeling myself to break up with the last boyfriend I would ever have. As I accepted invite after invite to wedding after wedding, it gnawed on my mind.
They were moving on with their lives, and by returning to singleness, I had just hit pause on mine.
Never mind that I was demonstrably an adult in every other way, from my job, to paying bills, to working toward my career through grad school. I didn’t feel like an adult because I didn’t match the narrative that been handed to me.
Rey is demonstrably a Jedi and a Hero by the end of The Force Awakens, and yet she doesn’t see herself as such in The Last Jedi, because she doesn’t match the narrative she grew up with.
She seeks out first Luke and then Ben as the Hero she thinks the Resistance needs. In the latter’s case, she also tries to match her narrative to Luke’s. She cites Luke’s redemption of Vader to him mere moments before her declaration that she won’t fail him as a student. It’s this legend that, as Rey declares in a deleted scene, drives her to action, because she believes in it. It’s this legend which she follows when Luke refuses to take the lightsaber after encountering her with Kylo. If Luke won’t teach her, then maybe by recreating his journey through the redemption of Kylo Ren, she will at last be worthy of being a Jedi.
I too tried to recreate the journeys of others to grasp at the notion of adulthood. Both times I entered relationships – with good and kind men, for the record – I found myself trying to reflect the emotions of the couples around me. I conjured up more than one giggly smile in response to friends’ and family’s needling. I lied about how happy I was, how excited I was to be in it. Even the very act of entering into a relationship was about my conforming to the narrative of others. I enjoyed the company of these men, and they like-liked me. That must mean I like-liked them back, right?
Rey too endures assumptions of romantic tendencies despite being one of the few female characters in Star Wars without a love interest. Finn asks if she has “a boyfriend? Cute boyfriend?” waiting for her back on Jakku. Luke has a cut line where he accuses her of going to the dark side for “a pair of pretty eyes.” It’s a twisting of motivation that undercuts a person’s opinion or goals.
I’ve been cut out of conversations with the dismissal that I was only there to talk about sexy men. I’ve been told that my decision to attend a STEM college was merely a means of getting a boyfriend. As if these reasonings would suddenly give sense to my actions and life decisions. But whenever I did take that step into romance, everything got worse. There was no sense to be found, only confusion.
I recall a day in the beginning of my first relationship, standing alone in the dorm’s communal bathroom. I stared at myself in the mirror and repeated, “I am a girlfriend. I am his girlfriend. That’s his girlfriend. That’s what a girlfriend looks like.” I tried to reconcile the concept with the reality of the face that stared back. But like the answer to Rey’s plea – “Let me see them, let me see them…my parents, my parents…” – His Girlfriend, or even A Girlfriend never appeared in the mirror.
It was just me.
It’s a disconnect that leaves you feeling alone, because the world suddenly doesn’t have a place for you.
In 2012, Sherlock’s showrunner rejected the idea of the titular character being asexual because he claimed it didn’t make for an interesting story. He states that Sherlock’s avoidance of sex is “the choice of a monk, not the choice of an asexual. If he was asexual, there would be no tension in that, no fun in that.”
Another sting came from CW’s Riverdale. The character of Jughead, who had recently been confirmed to be asexual in the comics and easily interpreted as aromantic, was paired with Betty. While Jughead’s actor did speak to the importance of asexual and aromantic representation in an educated way that we don’t usually hear from others, he still gives shipping preferences the same weight – if not more – as this frequently overlooked community.
This consistent treatment of aromantic and asexual individuals is summed up neatly and acerbically in Once & Future, a queer retelling of the King Arthur myth. After consistent accusations of being the reincarnation of the adulterous Lancelot, the ace knight Jordan finally calls out the reincarnated Arthur:
“If you had lowered yourself to ask me one question about my personal life – one – you wouldn’t have suspected me of stealing your lover. None of you would.”
However, even this callout resounds hollowly, as the story of Once & Future itself failed to take any interest in Jordan. Characters with romantic potential – both lead and supporting – were given far more attention and depth, leaving our sole ace as nothing more than a red herring for the twist.
Whether it’s simply assuming that all people must have romantic and sexual tendencies to be people, or the active rejection of us – both in media and in reality – the message comes across loud and clear to the aromantic and asexual communities:
“You have no place in this story. You’re nothing. Nothing.”
That’s the message that keeps Rey’s life on pause. That’s the message she’s been telling herself for years. The very first line that we ever hear from her, given in the second trailer for The Force Awakens, is, “I’m no one.” It’s a message that follows her throughout the two films, this Rey From Nowhere. The message that our stories – especially those of women – aren’t worth telling unless we’re cleaving ourselves to another bloodline.
“You’ll make someone a great wife someday.”
Those words were years old by the time of this particular dinner with my family. My boyfriend absent, I was once again the seventh wheel. On the verge of a breakup that I would initiate, I felt my place in my family’s story slipping. Because those words had clung to my chest, festering alongside the narrative of the culture around me. My place in my family was now contingent upon finding a husband. This is what kept me clinging to the relationship well beyond the time I knew I didn’t want it. I was so desperate for adulthood, to secure my place in my family’s story, that I stayed trapped.
Rey and I both sought a narrative and a partnership that was never meant for us. One that was “supposed” to move us forward into adulthood, but instead latched on and stagnated our journeys. A narrative that shouldn’t be pursued but rather defied by the recognition of one’s self.
When Rey turns down Kylo’s offer in the throne room, when I announced to my family that a breakup was imminent, we were each rejecting a false narrative, but it wasn’t an embrace of our true narrative. Not yet. We didn’t yet know what the narrative was that we might claim as ours. We rejected a surety and leapt into the unknown, to the aid of a dying fleet, to a world that seemingly has no place for you. It’s terrifying and tearful, but we do it anyway, and suddenly, we find our identity waiting.
Self-recognition is a powerful thing. It’s an empowering thing. A recognition of flaws gives you the power to change. A recognition of identity gives you access to the power you’ve held all along, held back by lies and doubts.
“Something inside me has always been there…..but now it’s awake.”
Learning that words for my identity existed clicked everything else into place. It didn’t erase the expectations of the romance- and sex-focused media, but it empowered me to lift the burden of them away from my life. No longer viewed as indicators of childishness or stagnation, my aromanticism and asexuality was the threshold over which I had passed to embrace my adulthood. Rey likewise comes into her own maturity – her Jedihood – by performing an act previously derided as childish:
She does it on her own – no Luke, no Kylo, no romance, no bloodline – in defiance of the narratives that had been pressed upon her. Narratives that she almost bought. See, Rey is crushed by the vision of the mirror because the message was twisted. The dark side screams at her “you’re alone!” when the Force had been trying to say, “you’re enough.” She becomes a Jedi by finally accepting that.
In doing so, she raises herself out of obscurity and into the story. No longer “Rey from Nowhere”, her introduction is simply –
– and that’s enough.
“We have everything we need.”
There’s no grand coming-out for me to compare to Rey’s display of her powers; I’m technically “out” to only two members of my family.2 However, the end of The Last Jedi is as important to her story as lifting the rocks. Rey is shown again and again to be loved and validated by Finn, BB-8, Poe, and Leia. And that is my story too.
After announcing my final breakup to my family, my place in their story didn’t slip away. Instead, it solidified. As the years of singleness stretched on, as I began to stress the permanence of this state, their support never wavered. Even that old festering message of a “great wife” was revealed to have been twisted from its original intent. Not by some insidious force, but by a fumbling of words from someone trying to express the value I bring to their life: I’m enough.
Rey’s journey from obscurity to legend, when interpreted through an aromantic and asexual lens, amplifies the experiences of this circuitous path to adulthood. Doubts, victories, and even simple acceptance are made physically manifest as she becomes the Jedi she is meant to be.
By Rey embracing her identity as a Jedi, and by me embracing mine as aro/ace, we pull our lives off pause. We recognize that the single face looking back from the mirror doesn’t need to be reconciled with anyone’s narrative. We accept that our journey doesn’t need to be reconciled with anyone else’s measure of adulthood. We defy the lie that we don’t have a place in the story. We become our own legends.