Star Wars: The Last Jedi is a film about consequences.
By Alina Sichevaya, Staff Writer & Treasurer
It’s about the immediate consequences of decisive victory, with the Resistance fleeing from the First Order after the successful destruction of Starkiller Base. It’s about the long-term consequences of impulsive actions, with Luke Skywalker’s almost-murder of Kylo Ren, and how it was the decisive factor in Kylo Ren’s fall to the dark side.
It’s also about the consequences of not talking to young men about toxic masculinity, of instead allowing them to be radicalized, be it by Supreme Leader Snoke or the Internet. It’s about what happens when well-intentioned ideals made up by well-intentioned people include and enforce aspects of toxic masculinity that drive vulnerable young men to extremes of hatred in an attempt to maintain the power given them by same ideology that harms them.
To echo a sentiment expressed by Luke Skywalker–the Jedi needed to end.
The Jedi Code seems good in theory. For the most part, it preaches selflessness, respect for life no matter the form it takes, and defense of the weak–all of which are good things. But from the beginning, the Jedi Code was flawed–it, like the rest of the Star Wars universe, is a story, and stories are made up by people, and people take their flaws and biases into every story they tell and are told. Unintentional or otherwise, those flaws and biases affect the story. The Jedi Code has always relied on elements of toxic masculinity present and rewarded by the same American culture its creators inhabit.
The Jedi Code has always relied on elements of toxic masculinity present and rewarded by the same American culture its creators inhabit.
The Jedi Order is the product of a same culture that teaches men to keep their emotions to themselves, that stoicism and strength are the same thing, and that having power is more important than how that power is kept. It’s the product of a culture in which men die of suicide 3.57 times more often than women,1 and in which the vast majority of mass shooters are white men2. And it’s the product of the same culture in which vulnerable boys who have not yet learned to understand healthy ways of coping with strong emotion can find dark corners of the Internet where other men will tell them where exactly they can place the blame for what they feel.
In America, a young man is less likely to be directed to resources dedicated to helping with mental health problems and anger management than he is to be told to “suck it up” and control himself. In the Jedi Order, the same unfortunate tendency takes the form of masters telling their students to “conquer” emotions and practice strict self-discipline. Male toddlers are told that boys don’t cry, Jedi are taught to “conquer” aggression without much explanation of how to do so. Emotional detachment is the expected norm for men socialized into toxic masculinity. The same could be said for Jedi, who are forbidden from forming strong relationships outside the Order for fear of damaging their loyalties to it.
Kylo Ren is what happens when people, often with the best of intentions, don’t talk to the young men in their lives about difficult things, such as managing emotional trauma.
If the Jedi have resources such as mental health counseling that would help young men learn to manage emotion in healthy ways, they aren’t shown in the films. For the audience, they may as well not exist. In the real world, the act of a man accessing similar resources is stigmatized as weakness, and is still discouraged in many places. This leads to worse health outcomes for men who deal with mental illness, and a deafening silence about the way men manage (or don’t manage) mental health problems.3
It’s into this ideology, reformed in small but insufficient ways by Luke Skywalker, that Leia and Han sent their son. Though it isn’t shown, it’s common sense to conclude that being sent away from one’s family so young is bound to have serious emotional consequences. There is also no exploration of how Kylo handled those consequences, nor is there confirmation of him having had external help doing so.
It’s revealed that Supreme Leader Snoke noticed and began to manipulate Kylo Ren while he was still Skywalker’s student. Luke’s first instinct upon realizing that an external party was manipulating his nephew into dangerous and radical hatred wasn’t to talk to him about what might lead him to choose that path. Instead, in an impulsive moment that he regrets for the rest of his life, Luke sees killing his nephew as the best decision to make, and by the time he reconsiders, it’s too late. His actions become the final motivation for Kylo Ren to join Snoke and the Dark Side.
Emotional detachment is the expected norm for men socialized into toxic masculinity.
From that point forward, Kylo Ren is all the negative effects of toxic masculinity made manifest–he runs on unresolved conflict and solves what problems he can with expressions of extreme anger and violence. He’s prone to violent outbursts, and actively tries to ignore or destroy the empathy he feels for other people in order to become a better apprentice to Snoke. He is trying to let the past die–kill it, if he has to, as he killed his father and attempted to kill his mother and uncle.
He clearly feels emotions other than anger–he’s shown holding back tears when he thinks that First Order TIE fighters have killed Leia–but he has no space in which to safely process that. Instead, Snoke teaches him to rely even more on his rage and rewards him for the apparent absence of empathy towards parties outside the First Order.
To an extent, the Jedi Order is no different–the Code praises a lack of non-Order attachments, loyalty to the Order and the Order only, which can so easily be misinterpreted as apathy. In this, the Jedi Order runs the risk of rewarding the failure or the complete absence of empathy, mistaking it for strength.
Kylo Ren is what happens when people, often with the best of intentions, don’t talk to the young men in their lives about difficult things, such as managing emotional trauma. He is the product of a belief system that can too easily mistake stoicism and apathy for strength, thus further incentivizing it.
When Luke Skywalker said that the Jedi needed to end, he was right–the world of Star Wars cannot afford to idolize a system inextricably linked to toxic masculinity.
When Luke Skywalker said that the Jedi needed to end, he was right–the world of Star Wars cannot afford to idolize a system inextricably linked to toxic masculinity, one that can drive people to dangerous extremes even as it cautions against absolutism.
The same is true of the real world, in which the far right’s survival depends on vulnerable young men it can teach to hate everyone who doesn’t look like them. We can no longer afford to mistake the absence of empathy for those outside one’s social group for strength and reward it, to let young men slip past hard conversations and land in Neo-Nazism. Neither can we afford to continue to idolize a fictional code of conduct so vulnerable to doing the same.
1. “Suicide Statistics — AFSP.” American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, American Foundation for Suicide Prevention, 2016, afsp.org/about-suicide/suicide-statistics/.
2. Haltiwanger, John. “White men have committed more mass shootings than any other group.” Newsweek, 2 Oct. 2017, www.newsweek.com/white-men-have-committed-more-mass-shootings-any-other-group-675602.
3. Doward, Jamie. “Men much less likely to seek mental health help than women.” The Observer, Guardian News and Media, 5 Nov. 2016, www.theguardian.com/society/2016/nov/05/men-less-likely-to-get-help–mental-health.