Toxic Masculinity Is the True Villain of Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Time to talk about the competent women and the emotionally-challenged men of Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
This article contains MAJOR Star Wars: The Last Jedi spoilers.
When Oscar Isaac's Resistance pilot Poe Dameron took to the screen in Star Wars: The Force Awakens, many saw him as this new generation's version of Han Solo. The comparison, while not perfect, is sound. Like Han, Poe is a dashing young rogue defined by a good-natured hot-headedness that has helped him get out of trouble as much as it has led to him to get into it.
Poe's character, while not one of the main protagonists, has even more to do in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. However, while he may be filling the role of the dashing pilot that Han did in the Original Trilogy, director Rian Johnson is using the archetype to say something completely different about heroism, leadership, and—perhaps most importantly—masculinity.
In the Original Trilogy, Han is presented as the ultimate dude. In heteronormative terms, he is the character every man should want to be and every woman should want to be with. In The Last Jedi, Poe is presented as a character who needs to stop with the mansplaining and learn from the more seasoned female leaders in his life.
That's not to say that Poe isn't likeable. Both the film itself and the characters within the cinematic world admire Poe's character, but, and here's the kicker, not as a leader. At least not yet.
Instead, the film supports General Leia and Admiral Holdo and their measured maturity over Poe's machismo-driven exuberance. "She cared more about protecting the light than seeming like a hero," Leia tells Poe about Holdo's sacrifice, subverting the tired narrative trend of the alpha male hero as the only viable or best leadership choice. "Not every problem can be solved by jumping in an X-Wing and blowing stuff up," Leia tells Poe before demoting him. Skilled X-Wing piloting is a solution to some problems, sure, but for Poe to think his is a skillset that solves all problems is pure hubris.
Poe is far from the only character getting tangled up in notions of masculinity. The Last Jedi is filled with male characters on both sides of the dark/light divide who cause and endure suffering because of their inability to deal with their emotions in healthy ways.
For Luke, this means running away to a remote island and abandoning his family, religion, and cause because he cannot face his failure. For Kylo Ren, this means trying to take over an entire galaxy (as you do) because he cannot deal with Luke's betrayal or the murder of his father. He cannot face the things he has done. While Luke is having trouble forgiving himself for his perceived part in Ben Solo's turning, a form of ego itself, Kylo Ren is unable to take even the smallest amount of accountability for murdering his classmates, his father, and much of the galaxy.
Kylo Ren is a character who is easy to make fun of (which also happens to be his worst nightmare), but that doesn't take away from his power as a villain. He is scary because he reminds us of the real-world men whose anger and frustration and sadness have curdled into something ugly inside of them, causing them to lash out at those they perceive to have robbed them of what they deserve.
As it often does, the emotional labor necessary for both Luke and Kylo Ren to (at least partially) work through their issues is undertaken by a woman: Rey. In the same way that Leia and Holdo help Poe work through his hero complex, Rey spends much of the movie trying to get Luke and Kylo Ren to work through their emotional issues so that they can save the galaxy for the good guys.
While she manages to eventually get through to Luke, with an assist from Yoda, Kylo Ren has no interest in learning from his mistakes. It's a life philosophy that is reinforced by his chosen mentor: Snoke. It's no coincidence that, while Leia looks for opportunities to share and pass on power to those around her, Ren's only path to leadership is to kill the authoritarian leader who came before. It is a violent, unsustainable system that does kill the past, taking with it all of the potential wisdom it represents in the ego-driven pursuit of accruing more power.
Ultimately, the showdown between Kylo and Luke is a distraction, as most pissing contests are—an illusion that an able-to-learn-from-his-mistakes Luke is in on and Kylo Ren is not. It only has power if you give it power, and Luke is no longer playing this game. He puts aside his shame and self-loathing to help save the Resistance.
It's what sets him apart from Kylo. He understands that it's not about killing the past; it's about learning to face the emotions it stirs inside of you. I'd even go so far as to say that building that emotional intelligence is the difference between the dark and the light.
"I can't lose another person," Leia tells Holdo, before the latter sacrifices herself. "Sure you can," Holdo tells her friend and general, without doubt. It's not because Leia doesn't feel—quite the opposite, as we see in even the smallest moments, like Leia feeling the loss of all the men and women the Resistance lost in the destruction of the First Order dreadnought—it's because Leia learned how to process her emotions a long time ago, probably around the time her entire planet was destroyed.
Leia doesn't need to use the Force; she already has a superpower.
From Leia's quashing of Poe's ill-advised mutiny to Rose's quashing of Finn's suicidal run for glory, The Last Jedi is filled with women trying to explain to men that their actions have consequences outside of their own hero's journey, that glory and pride and victory are never the most important thing—at least not for the larger cause. That the decision that is best for the group is the one made bythe group and its chosen leaders, not by the alpha male hero who thinks he knows best.
In the Original Trilogy, Han's rogue heroics generally save the day and, when they don't, the consequences mainly fall back on him alone. It's a nice fantasy: that we can exclude ourselves from the accountability of society. It's one that Benicio del Toro's codebreaker thinks he can live in. But, as Rose makes clear to Finn on Canto Bight, it's a willful delusion, one often propped up by the privilege of being able to look away and the socialized capacity to put one's own pride or vanity over the collective good.
It's a game The Last Jedirefuses to play. Here, Poe's rogue heroics—sending Rose and Finn to Canto Bight, for example—not only don't work, they lead to the near-quashing of the entire Resistance force. Hundreds of people die, and it's at least partially because Poe had visions of glory.
However, rather than punishing Poe for his well-intentioned mistakes, Leia and Holdo take the time to explain to Poe why his plan failed. This is a gift of energy and compassion and forgiveness that Leia and Holdo bestow upon Poe, and an effort that stands in stark contrast to Snoke, whose leadership style is about manipulation rather than teaching. To share knowledge is a form of relinquishing power, something Snoke's ego-driven philosophy will never allow him to do.
The film is a step in the right direction when it comes to gender diversity not only because it gives us more female characters with more to do, but because it refuses to glorify its male heroes in simplistic ways that create unrealistic, harmful expectations for everyone involved. True gender diversity in media and in real life will come by recognizing that the system of patriarchy we live in benefits no one—not even the Poe Damerons of the world.
The Last Jedi is a story that recognizes that we won't "win" by fighting the things we hate, but by saving the things we love—and by being able to tell the difference between someone who is unable to accept any degree of accountability for their actions, the Kylo Rens of the world, and someone who has the capacity to recognize his mistakes and learn from them. It is a deeply empathetic story that explores the dangers of toxic masculinity, the competency of women, and the boxes we all must break out of to be free.