The Last Jedi has attracted a lot of the usual gamergate era nonsense from denizens of the comment sections about how it’s unrealistic that a woman can win a fight with a laser sword – the ‘unrealistic’ thing being ‘woman can win a fight’, not ‘laser sword’ – and that it’s a betrayal of everything Star Wars stands for that Princess Leia is now concerned with issues of social justice.
And it’s clearly fair to say that a lot of this criticism is not based on ‘watching Star Wars thoughtfully’ so much as ‘barely-veiled misogyny, and/or not-even-veiled racism’. There’s a good article here spelling out that case.
That’s part of it. Fifteen years ago, internet commentators tended to make coded references, perhaps even unconscious ones, to the fact Padme was played by a Jewish actress. Nowadays, they’re emboldened, they’ll flat out come out and say it. And The Last Jedi actually gives us so much to work with, and the commentators have moaned so often, that we can establish the hierarchy in these guys’ minds, and by no coincidence whatsoever, it looks like the sort of lists from Victorian books about which of the races of the world were better than others.
From the perspective of these guys, it’s plainly wrong that a woman provides moral instruction to a man (Rose/Finn), it’s wrong that a black man can win a fight with a white woman (Finn/Phasma), but it’s also wrong that a white woman wins a fight with a white guy (Rey/Kylo Ren).
Got that?: women of colour < men of colour < white women < white men.
This is, of course, almost exactly the opposite of what the movie says, if you go by the results. Rose has insight and bravery that Kylo Ren lacks. She’s better, the movie tells us. If you have a choice, be Rose, not Kylo Ren.
But The Last Jedi also twists this a little. The First Order is mostly white guys, but not exclusively. There are a fair number of women. There are some non-white officers – and we know because Finn used to be one of them that not all the stormtroopers are white under that armour. This neo-Nazi group is, on the face of it, more diverse than, say, the board of the Walt Disney Company.
The Resistance goes further by, um, resisting the whole idea of those kind of hierarchies. It’s a military organisation. You are expected to follow orders, even if it means going to your certain death, but within that, there’s no discrimination because of what you are. You’re judged by results, not by your gender, not by your species, not even by if you’re organic life.
If you think men are better than women, then you are baffled by why the general of the entire Resistance doesn’t stop what she’s doing to justify herself to a recently-demoted fighter pilot. If you don’t think that men are better than women, you read that sentence back and go ‘oh, wait, she doesn’t owe him an explanation’.
Now … OK. We need to put a caveat in here. There’s movie logic at work here: we care about Poe more than we do about Holdo. Not because Poe’s a guy, but because we’ve literally only just met Holdo. Now, OK, she’s Laura Dern, so that’s cool. But Poe was the first major character we met in The Force Awakens, and the first major character we see in The Last Jedi. Even though he’s just got a lot of people killed, the audience instinctively takes his side, and not because we’re all a bit sexist, and think this is man’s work.
The movie plays with these kind of expectations quite a lot – Rey and the audience both have ideas about how ‘Luke Skywalker’ will act, for example.
The world of the Third Trilogy is very simple: it’s one full of Star Wars fans who are stuck with the consequences of the first six films. The prequels showed us a galaxy of palaces, silver starships, grand opera houses, massive senate chambers, beautiful landscapes and huge parades. A generation later, that had been swept aside for a galaxy of military bases, factories, farming, mining and gangsters. A generation after that, and Rey and Kylo Ren live in the ruins, physical, psychological, spiritual of over sixty years of war that’s downgraded and smashed and lowered the quality of life for an entire civilisation. The Republic era was beautiful and rich, the Empire was at least functional and impressive. Now, it’s just rubble, with nature reclaiming what it can. Obi Wan was nostalgic for the prequels in Episode IV. The First Order – in their role as the least imaginative fans – are nostalgic for The Empire Strikes Back. Rey or Kylo Ren’s relationship to the past is different. They have only a glimmer of what a golden age might look like … they just don’t know any different from where they are. They’re overshadowed. They salvage from the wreckage. They can reenact, they can’t create. Not at first.
The final battle in The Last Jedi is practically a dogme low budget remake of the ones from the previous movies, with a big gun being dragged along a salt flat standing in for the awe-inspiring Death Star, and a bunch of clapped out speeders instead of the various amazing toys the Rebels have been able to field before now (even at the start of this movie). The great age of heroism got us … this. The only people who have any sort of luxury after sixty years of galactic war are the arms dealers. Because of course they are. Kylo Ren’s entire military strategy is ‘moar AT-ATs, doing more shooting’.
(There’s a beautiful, small moment in The Last Jedi where Rey just lets herself get splashed by a wave. Until a few days ago, she’d spent her whole life on the desert planet Jakku. She’d briefly been able to admire the trees and lakes on Maz Kanata’s planet, but even that quickly turned into a battle for survival. Here, for the first time ever, she gets a minute by herself where she can just savour a whole new experience).
Rey has come to see herself as the protagonist of a Star Wars movie. Luke asks her why she’s here – that’s the answer. She, the protagonist of this movie, is calling in a favour from the protagonist of the previous trilogy … this ought to be straightforward. It’s exactly what Luke did with Obi Wan, after all.
Kylo Ren thinks that actually the protagonist of the previous movies was Vader, and if you count the prequels, he’s got a really good case. At some level, the entire movie is about which out of Rey and Kylo Ren gets to be the protagonist and why. They both think they’re the main character of a Star Wars movie, they both pretty much come out and say that to the other multiple times. ‘Dude,’ the argument runs, ‘this is my movie, not yours, so just do what I say and I’ll win and the movie will end, and we’ll all live happily ever after.’
(The protagonists of the Star Wars saga are C3PO and R2D2. I mean, you know, let’s talk about that later, we can even pretend it’s up for debate, if you like, but it’s them.)
So this is a world of Star Wars fans, it’s a world where knowing how the Star Wars universe operates is the key. And Rey and Kylo Ren are basically operating like the many millions of people who’ve bought a Star Wars videogame or roleplaying game, or played with the toys, or built the Lego. They know the rules, they’ve come up with the silly names, it’s time to get kitted out and decide if they’re good or evil, and what colour robe to wear, then have a fight.
The thing is … George Lucas was consciously working with monomyths, with ‘universal’ stories. He studied in the sixties, when the idea was that we were all the same, deep down, where the future would be the Star Trek melting pot, where we’d all be equal regardless of race, colour or creed. It was a polychromatic world where we looked different, but anyone could be a hero, or a leader, or a pilot, or secretly a Jedi Master.
You can take this two ways. Yoda is small and green, and a Jedi Master. Is his smallness and greenness relevant or not? It matters. One way of looking at is is that we celebrate his difference. Another is that, deep down, it doesn’t matter that he’s small and green.
Neither of these views is wrong, or entirely incompatible, but they do lead down different paths, and they’re broadly consistent with a right/left ideological split, and because of that you can take it to extremes.
A conservative reading would be, to simplify a little, that Yoda is a Jedi Master despite being small and green. That he is, in effect, overcoming a handicap. And only a couple of steps down that same path, you come to what the handicap is: that would define normal as being of average height, with skin colour as … well, at the very least ‘not green’.
This is not a completely alien mindset to anyone, however liberal-minded. Luke and – impossible though it is to remember now – the original audience had expectations of a default value ‘great Jedi master’ and it’s … well, Alec Guinness, only moreso. A distinguished, powerful, elderly actor. Even if George Lucas had cast a non-white actor, Toshiro Mifune say, he would have cast a physically commanding male. It’s meant to be surprising that Yoda is the Jedi Master.
There’s a reading of Star Wars, then, where difference simply doesn’t matter. In a polymorphous, weird galaxy, why would it matter if a human being has dark skin? The political system and history of the Star Wars galaxy is not ours. Lando Calrissian is played by an African-American actor, he’s not an African-American character. Mel Brooks got some great laughs in Spaceballs from imagining Leia as a ‘Jewish princess’.
‘Race’ doesn’t really work in Star Wars like it does in our world. It doesn’t even work like it does in other fantasy worlds like Lord of the Rings, where the different races all conform to the stereotypes, and the closer they live and the whiter their skin, the better they are. Where ‘fair’ is ‘fair’. Middle Earth is basically a UKIP version of Game of Thrones, and it’s no surprise that the ‘alt-right’ tend to love it. I mean, it is worth noting that Star Trek also builds a galaxy where whole planets only have angry warriors, logical scientists or randy bald babes.
But if Star Wars doesn’t conform to that model – and it doesn’t seem to, there’s no ‘planet all the black people are from’, say, like there is in Flash Gordon – surely it’s a category error to start applying our standards of race and gender to Star Wars.
Which, you know, is a really, really handy argument if you happen to be sexist and racist.
In The Last Jedi, ‘white and male and strong’ isn’t the default.
There isn’t a ‘strong’ white man in The Last Jedi. Even if we count Poe as white for the sake of this argument (he’s played by Oscar Isaac, whose parents are Guatemalan and Cuban), Poe’s consistently shown to be brave but wrong. His great revelation is that sometimes you don’t fight, sometimes you do, and it’s best to trust your leaders, which is hardly the stuff of Joseph Campbell.
Where’s the streetwise Hercules to fight the rising odds?
Over at the dark side, where’s the badass?
There are some people who feel the moral of Star Wars is that the Empire is right, that Darth Vader represents true power. These tend to be life’s losers, and the fact that some such men can rise to power and wealth says more about white privilege than any liberally-inclined essayist or academic ever could.
Darth Vader’s badass. Darth Maul was a badass. Boba Fett was a badass. Count Dooku, General Grievous, some of those other bounty hunters. Those guys are cool, yeah?
The men who think that seem to feel that it’s a flaw in the Star Wars movies, some sort of plot hole, that the hapless slapstick Gungans can beat the droid army, or that the Ewoks can take down a legion of the Emperor’s best troops, or that a fully-armed Boba Fett loses a fight with Han Solo when Han’s blind and doesn’t even know Boba Fett’s there.
It’s not a flaw. It’s the point
The whole point of Star Wars, all along, was that these guys who dress up as badasses aren’t cool. The prequels made it absolutely explicit: Darth Vader and Boba Fett hide behind their masks because they’ve never been able to grow beyond being scared little boys.
The guys who identify with Darth Vader and Boba Fett found themselves saying they’re immature losers, paper tigers.
The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi kick this up a notch. George Lucas trusted his audience to be smart and attentive. Episodes VII and VIII just flat out say it: Kylo Ren’s a snotty little insecure kid, who cosplays at being a hard man. And he’s not even the most pathetic – General Hux isn’t even that good, he’s a snivelling little worm. Fans have asked how he got that rank, how he rose so high. Well … not merit, is it? Not his awesome prowess with a sword. He’s got a rich dad, perhaps. The answer, at its root, can only be ‘white male privilege’. And Luke’s revelation in The Last Jedi is simple: it was people who looked like me who ruined everything. We’re the problem, not the solution.
The commander of the Dreadnought knows, in his final moments, that Hux’s poor leadership has led to his death. More than that, the look on his face seems to be that he’s always known that he’s serving a mediocre cause.
The problem the internet trolls have with The Last Jedi is not the strong women, it’s the weak men. Now they’ve seen what’s under Vader’s mask, and it’s an arrogant, pasty dude who … well, is kind of pathetic. They wanted to be Darth Vader. Turns out Vader was them all along.