In Defense of Jyn Erso

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Feb 7, 2017

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story was an unqualified commercial success. It was also a new opportunity for the beloved franchise to tell an in-universe story that isn't directly tied to the main storyline of the movies. Lucasfilm made clear that this was an experiment: If Rogue One did well, more stand-alone stories set in the Star Wars universe would follow.

Since the film's release, though, many criticisms have followed. Some are ridiculous (if you don't think that women belong in lead roles in Star Wars, I have nothing to say to you). But there are also many valid criticisms you can make about Rogue One (this I say as a person who absolutely loved it) ...

There are just seven women with speaking roles (9% of its speaking characters); the main character is a woman, but she has 78% of the female-spoken lines in the movie. There are plenty of people of color who round out the main cast, but they are all men. The secondary characters aren’t as well-developed as we'd like. Saw Gerrera, the man who raised Jyn Erso (played so well by Forrest Whitaker), died too quickly. Galen Erso, Jyn's father, died too quickly. There was way too much Tarkin CGI, which took away from Krennic's role. There were some strange editing choices, which made for a choppy first third. They all die at the end.

I understand the criticisms that come with the choices made for the ending, though I wholeheartedly disagree with them. I think the ending was brilliant; Rogue One is, at its heart, a war movie. In war, there are sacrifices; your heroes don't always escape by the skin of their teeth.

But there's one set of criticisms that irk me more and more every time I see them. It concerns the main character, Jyn Erso, regarding her capability, likability and motivations. Let's break some of them down.

We Are Told Jyn is a Badass, But We Don't See It

I'm not sure what to say in response to this, so I'll let this gif speak for itself.

jyn erso beats up stormtroopers

Jyn Isn't Likable

We're not used to seeing hardened, weary characters in main roles in Star Wars. After all, both Rey and Luke were earnest heroes. Han Solo was a scoundrel, sure, but he softened considerably over the course of the trilogy (and even just in Episode IV).

Jyn is none of those characters — which is great. There are so many male characters in the Star Wars universe that we have earned the right to have different types of women as well. Not every female character in Star Wars needs to be likable.

In society, women are pressured to be "nice." We apologize for things that aren't our fault. We let others take credit for our ideas. When we speak up for ourselves, we're seen as "aggressive" or "mean," when the same behavior from a man would be perceived as normal. We are conditioned to be nice, to not cause too much of a fuss, and to, above all, be "likable." Jyn isn't. And that's a good thing.

So, in response to this I say: I loved her. But if you didn't like Jyn, that's actually okay. You can be a compelling lead in a movie (which she was) without being likable.

Jyn is a Mary Sue

Frak off. Next?

Jyn's Motivations are Unclear

At the beginning of Rogue One, Jyn Erso clearly wanted nothing to do with the Rebellion. The Alliance convinces her to help them using threats: Take us to Saw Gerrera or we'll put you back in the Imperial prison where we found you. People have criticized the character, then, because she did a complete turnaround by the end of the movie: Jyn appears to become a full-fledged member of the Rebel Alliance.

But if you look more closely at Jyn, her decisions actually make a lot of sense. At the beginning of the movie, she just wants to survive. After her mother was killed, her father was taken from her, and later Saw abandoned her, Jyn learned a difficult truth: She could rely on no one but herself. She believed that no one cared about her, except to use her for their own ends. She's learned to survive in a galaxy that, at best, doesn't care about her and, at worst, wants her dead. She doesn't think of the past because it's too painful; all she focuses on is the present.

But over the course of the movie, that changes. The Rebel Alliance promises Jyn her freedom if they help her, but what she learns is that freedom has many different definitions. The freedom she so longed for meant nothing in the face of an evil like the Empire — she could never be free.

Jyn's Change of Heart Doesn't Make Sense

"The changes don"t make sense, though," people have said. "It's too fast." Well, I'll agree the pacing of the movie is a little off; it's hard to deny that. But if you think about what Jyn experiences over the course of the movie, her change of heart is pretty straightforward.

Everything seems to change for her after she sees the hologram of her father and he tells her he still loves her. Right after that, she leaves her adoptive father, weary from a lifetime of fighting the Empire, his body failing him, behind because he is ready to die, but not before he asks her to save the Rebellion. And then she goes straight from Jedha to Eadu, to hold her father as he dies in her arms — he tells her that he loves her, but not before he tells her the Death Star must be destroyed.

That's enough emotional trauma to transform anyone's motivations. Their fight becomes her fight, because she realizes that they believe in her. Both Saw and Galen think Jyn has the power to make a difference; if they didn't, they wouldn't ask her to save the Rebellion and destroy the Death Star. But Jyn has spent so long fighting against allowing her past to define her that she hasn't stopped to think about who she is and who she can be. Knowing that others believe in her makes her absorb that knowledge for the first time — and open herself to caring about something bigger than herself.

When Saw Gerrera asks if Jyn can live under the Imperial flag reigning across the galaxy, she says, "It's not a problem if you don't look up." But once she looks up, she can't look back down.

Jyn Becomes a Leader too Quickly

When Jyn speaks up at the meeting of Rebel leadership, something irrevocably changes for her. She's fighting for something and willing to take a stand. She leads a team to Scarif against the wishes of the Alliance, and when it becomes clear what's happened, the entire Rebel fleet follows her. Is it too fast?

No. Because we have to remember Jyn's motivations.

This is personal for her — her father asked her to do this, to destroy the Death Star. She's willing to fight for that. This isn't about being a Rebel leader. It's about this one clear goal that she must accomplish, at any and all costs.

Jyn's charismatic, for sure, but the Rebel team she takes to Scarif (minus Bodhi, Chirrut, Baze and Cassian) don't follow her specifically. They, too, are pursuing their own goals: personal redemption, sacrifice for the Rebellion, recovering their own honor. And when the Rebel fleet moves in, it's because they understand the stakes: it's all or nothing. Either they win this one time or they fail forever. Just because we see the story through the lens of one character doesn't mean that she's the center of the overarching plot.

And really, that's what Rogue One did so beautifully — it placed a story we thought we knew, about the retrieval of the Death Star plans, in the context of a much larger universe with so many moving parts. It made it clear, above all, that there's a lot more going on than we ever knew.