Star Wars: The Last Jedi. A Progressive Feminist Interpretation; Not What You Think.


What if "Star Wars: The Last Jedi" can be framed as a reflection on current political resistance and, most pointedly, that resistance is the province of historically marginalized people of color and women? Is it all in my head? Fine. That’s where I live anyway, so hear me out. This is what happens when an intersectional feminist walks into a movie theater...

The emerging theme of the Star Wars franchise is that the past must die. Why, though, is not completely clear and each character has its own definition of what the past means. Let’s take, as a starting point, Luke Skywalker who says that the “Jedi Religion” must die. The Jedi Religion, with its absolutes, where the Light Side and the Dark Side are all-or-nothing propositions, where people must pick a side and stick to it, never wavering, is in fact problematic. As a feminist, I was always bothered by the events that purportedly pushed Anakin Skywalker to the “Dark Side” and to become the monster he became. The traditional narrative is that Anakin was somehow doomed, that he had been “turned,” but I always saw him as a man in love with his wife and desperately trying to protect his unborn children from dangers he couldn’t quite make out. Remember that Anakin’s metamorphosis comes hand in hand with his terrifying dreams of Padme, his wife, dying in childbirth. When he turns to Yoda and to Obi-Wan Kenobi, the people who are then his surrogate family, they have nothing to help him other than platitudes and reminders that attachments are dangerous. This denial of emotions is the same message society gives to men: emotions are a weakness, you are warriors above all else, there is no space for love. Isn’t this what we tell boys and men? We break men this way; we don’t let them live the full range of their internal existences, and we break them.

Fast forward several (fictional) decades and the situation is not much better. The Light and the Dark are battling and Kylo Ren, with the “mighty Skywalker blood” is now on the Dark Side. The genesis of his turning is again presented using the same old trope: the Dark Side had turned him already, it was just a matter of time. The idea being sold to us is that those lost to the Dark Side were doomed from the start. But each time, those lost to the force are just struggling with normal angst, stuck in the intractable world of the “Jedi Order.” That same system treats doubt and conflict as though they are inevitably the death knell of goodness. Luke falls prey to the same fallacy. In a moment of terror and self-doubt he thinks—merely thinks—of harming Kylo. And for that fleeting thought, he too deems himself forever un-redeemable. He gives up everything and exiles himself on a hidden island in the middle of nowhere.

Enter Rey and, maybe for the first time, the notion of nuance. Rey does blame Luke, but not for his lapse in judgment against Kylo. He blames Luke for giving up on Kylo so quickly and for thinking he is forever gone. She blames him for not seeing the shades of grey that exist between the Light and the Darkness. She believes in Kylo’s redemption so firmly that she delivers herself to him and an army ready to cut her down. When she gets called by the Dark Side of Luke’s island of exile, she jumps in. Luke looks on, repulsed, his absolutist rules of conduct dictating that this behavior only leads to loss. But Rey knows better. Her strength, real strength, is the ability to face darkness, within and without, and stare it down knowing her own strength. Rey stares into the abyss and comes back out. It is not an all-or-nothing proposition. There is Darkness and Light in all of us and being able to live with both is the key to real balance.

Which brings me to the saviors of the saga. In the face of angry white men who either turn to violence (Kylo) or abandon ship (Luke), the Resistance is led by a woman general, the Force-sensitive-but-not-Jedi Leia. She has been the constant in this tale, despite the heartbreak, loss, sorrow, and defeat in her life. Bringing new blood, and hope, to the Resistance, are a black man fleeing a state of violent anonymizing slavery (Finn), an Asian woman mechanic hidden from view most days (Rose), and a woman “from nowhere” (Rey). They are, quite literally, the “unseen.” Finn is one of countless Strom Troopers, fashioning a name for himself from his serial number—an arbitrary de-humanizing naming system. It may be a coincidence, but there is strong imagery at play seeing a black actor play that role. Rose is a mechanic, played by Asian actress Kelly Marie Tran, literally coming out of the shadows to become a field operative. Rey is from “Nowhere” (as Luke confirms for the audience) and, as far as we know, is the daughter of nobody. Yet, these three unseen characters come to the forefront of the battle at a time of most dire need. In the current political climate, it is impossible for me—and likely for other progressive activists—to view them as anything but our contemporary heroes: people of color, women, marginalized people, those historically unseen, joining forces to #Resist. Seen in that light, the behavior of all principal white men in the franchise becomes a severe condemnation of men generally. Whether these male characters choose to turn their back on crucial battles or opt for unbridled violence in fits of anger and resentment, the failure is theirs alone.

Kylo Ren is an angry young white male with parents who loved him and an uncle who tried to train him and yet furious at the world and behaving as though the world owed him something and failed to deliver. Why? Unclear at this point. What? Just as unclear. That description, though, resonates. All we are told is that by the time he became a teenager, he was already so full of resentment that Snoke stoked the fire. Yet, at that juncture, Kylo’s family was unable to deal with those complicated coming-of-age emotions, much as the Jedi Order was unable to cope with Anakin’s natural desire to protect those he loved, and both of them disappeared into the Darkness. Similarly, Luke, when faced with failure and loss chooses to disengage from the Force and flee, leaving his sister to pick up the pieces of her life and lead a Resistance facing overwhelming odds. And what about Han Solo? Facing Kylo’s departure to the Dark Side he too abandons Leia, leaving her to deal with her own loss as a parent, alone. Even the “good guy,” Po is well-meaning but misguided. He distrusts his female leader, Amilyn Holdo, sets up his own haphazard covert mission, and blows the entire Resistance’s cover by being loose-lipped over coms, explaining that the Resistance will be fleeing on escape pods, and giving Benicio del Toro’s character (the “slicer DJ”) something to trade with the First Order (who then uses it to shoot down Resistance fighters like fish in a barrel). While the women are “getting it done” Poe creates devastating chaos out of hubris. (The same flaw that Luke identifies as the Jedi Order’s failure, “The legacy of The Jedi is failure, hypocrisy, hubris.”) He is right, and therefore, at this juncture, the Star Wars saga begs the question: Where are the men and what good are they? The progressive movement has been asking itself the same question with less-than-stellar responses and has overwhelmingly turned to, and needed, the support and strength of historically marginalized people. From Virginia to Alabama, women—and especially women of color—have “gotten it done.”

In the face of all this, our “unseen” heroes, both in fiction (as Rose, Rey, and Finn) and reality, fight to protect those they love and the institutions that bring us hope. As expressed so perfectly by Rose, “That's how we're gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, but by saving what we love.” Is that not another way to announce that “Love Trumps Hate”? This effort to protect out of love rather than fight out of principled hatred is antithetical to the Dark v. Light Jedi / Sith narrative. The latter doomed Anakin, isolated Kylo, did nothing to salvage the Skywalker family and left the Resistance decimated and on the run. Similarly, #WeAreTheResistance is about building a better world, not just destroying the old one. It is especially a fitting rallying cry as we live through the darkness of the Trump era: we won’t win by fighting him and his acolytes, we will win by saving those things that we love and that truly make America great. And those things will be saved by the historically “unseen”: people of color, women, the LGBTQ community, coming together to join the resistance. #Resist #ArgueLikeAGirl

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