The Last Jedi, toxic masculinity, and showing your place in all this
This blog contains spoilers for The Last Jedi. It’s also about white male identity, white male identity crises, and some of the pain and tears required to face up to privilege, entitlement and hegemony. It is not an attempt for the struggles of the privileged to overshadow the struggles of the marginalized. I beg forgiveness of too much self-indulgence.
When the world tells you you’re the hero, it’s hard. (Not as hard as being told you’re not the hero by any stretch, of course. The struggles of the marginalized are always greater than the struggles of the privileged.) You come to expect it of yourself, even if the world doesn’t necessarily tell you *how* to be a hero, or what being a hero means. Often, the narratives we have of heroism are hegemonic. The hero is the one who is better than everyone, even when he’s not.
It’s no mistake I say ‘he’. Heroism, protagonessence, being the best, being supreme is the legacy of whiteness, of patriarchy, of heteronormativity. It is a toxicity that suffuses the identity of young white men, that suffuses my identity. And before The Last Jedi I had never seen it been represented simultaneously so sympathetically, and with so little indulgence of my bullshit.
The major part of dismantling supremacy is the work of centering, uplifting, representing, and giving voice to the marginalised. The lesser part of that is seeking ways for those who’ve held supreme positions in society to step aside. Our culture of hegemonic individualism means too many young white men parse the second part of that as requiring them to leave the stage; that there is no place for them in the new world. (Right now, those men are writing petitions about how SJWs ruined Star Wars.) I’ve felt this too emotionally, even if I’ve known it wasn’t the case intellectually. But The Last Jedi managed to show me it’s not about stepping down, it’s about joining the team.
How? Kylo Ren.
Kylo Ren is a creature of talent. He’s not useless, like poor dear Hux, he possesses *Snoke voice* ‘Raw, untamed power’. He has expectations of himself, ambition, a desire to remake the world and prove himself worthy. But he is buckling under the weight of it, torn apart by his own expectations, lost and seeking guidance and has failed to find it in any mentor or master or father. His privilege and his entitlement — the Skywalker name, his hegemonic whiteness — cause him to squander what he has, because of course it should be easy for him. He’s supposed to be the hero, right? And if he’s failed at being the hero then he can always be the bad guy.
This character, we’ve seen before. Young white men love this guy. He’s tormented by his own whiteness, maleness, bourgeois status. He’s talented enough to know it’s all bullshit.
Of course, Kylo is not our protagonist. Our protagonist is Rey — and The Last Jedi is fundamentally her story. When she offers Kylo redemption, to turn, she does so as our hero and she does so as everything Kylo is not. She comes from nothing. She’s no Skywalker, no legacy, no entitlement, no privilege. And she’s better than him, and he recognises that, and they fight alongside each other as equals. And this is not some sallow white youth allowing a girl into his life and up onto the stage. This is a girl discovering that the stage is hers, that she’s not an imposter, that it doesn’t matter who her parents were, and that she’ll share it with Kylo and show him how to be better.
He needs her. We see that he needs her. But he has to join her. They can be equals — but on her terms. They both want to destroy the bad that has come before and build a world without the mistakes of the past. Until now, Kylo has been almost (almost) noble in this — he has been driven by ego, but he has known no other way. He is the Skywalker — but Rey is not. His mistake here is to think that it’s still his story. He comes to this point, where he has everything he ever truly wanted, and still he cannot abandon his legacy and his supremacy.
And it destroys him, and it is perfect for it.
For you see, The Last Jedi tells us what many other narratives like this do not. Kylo does not *deserve* redemption. There is no cookie for doing the bare minimum of recognising Rey’s worth and right to be the hero. He can only redeem himself by taking his place at her side, joining her team, accepting equality over supremacy. He doesn’t, and for that he receives the most terrible of punishments: being left alone with himself.
Too many stories are about white men being offered too many second chances. There’s only one here for Kylo. Woe betide you who do not learn from his failures.
In this, Kylo’s arc weaves in to the rest of the films meditations on masculinity and how it’s okay to fail. Poe, Luke and Finn all fail in their traditional arcs of masculine narrative. Poe’s longshot plan that just might work…fails spectacularly. Luke recognises that he has failed as a teacher. Finn is denied the chance to sacrifice himself in a kamikaze charge: it is more important that he lives and loves. All of these men fail, and are given a second chance by their loved ones. When they take it, it’s an acceptance not that they be restored to the spotlight, to their position of authority. Rather it is them taking their place in the new world, in the resistance, fighting with friends.
Kylo is offered this, Kylo does not take it, and Kylo falls to the dark side. Not the badass dark side that makes Vader, and Maul so effortlessly cool. The dark side of the Last Jedi is being torn apart, self-destructive rage, impotent rage, and toxic emotions that only end up hurting. We are shown a vision of the dark side that is seductive not because it’s done up in sexy black leather, but because it’s easy.
So yes, The Last Jedi says good shit about toxic masculinity. It does so in a way sympathetic to those battling that toxicity. And it does so in a way that has no time for those who would seek to turn that sympathy into control, ownership, and emotional vampirism. I know that it’s a massive stride in representation for so many marginalized people, but it also shows young white men their place in all this too: that there are narratives other than ‘protagonist’ and ‘nobody’, that they can fulfill them without overshadowing or being in shadow. The stage is infinite. Don’t listen to anyone who tells you it’s not.