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Pop-Theology! We Have A Place In This Story

One of the first things that drew me to writing about religion and pop-culture was a long-held belief by Catholics I knew that the Jedi Order was modeled after the Jesuits. Just a random google search shows how popular this theory is.

I think the broader generalization, that Jedi are priests (or any men in traditional leadership), works just as well for this discussion. And if Jedi are priests, they also represent typical patriarchal structures and the chains that bind them.

In the Star Wars universe, the Jedi are men (and some women, though the initial films really did make it a point that Jedi were men) who are born set apart. They have a calling that will, should they choose to respond to it, make them leaders in their communities, champions of hope and good, and mentors to others who will also follow their callings and vocations.

And yet, the story of the Jedi, as noted by Yoda in The Last Jedi, is one of failure. It is one of high ideals balanced on human shoulders. And human shoulders fail. And this failure is ok if it is acknowledged--to fail is to be human. The problem is when we refuse to accept our own fallibility.

Most of the Star Wars films (and most fantasy/sci-fi) have relied heavily on a grand narrative plot device, painting good and evil in shades of black and white, plotting the course for messiahs to rise and evil to fall. The Last Jedi, however, moves away from this to dismantle a larger problem in grand narratives--the male problem (cough cough :: toxic masculinity). It takes on the idea that Jedi = good and turns it on its head. People doing good = good. What side they are on, as noted by Benicio del Toro’s DJ in the film, is not only irrelevant, but problematic. Sides are a facade. There is no black and white.

The film addresses toxic masculinity and the problem with traditional male heroes and hero narratives in two particular character plots--Poe/Leia and Rey/Kylo Ren.

In Poe Dameron, we encounter the deep-set ingrained toxic masculinity that many of us, men and women, participate in without knowing. Since The Force Awakens, most of us have been smitten with Poe, the dreamy Resistance pilot with a serious case of recklessness. Similar to Han Solo, he is the epitome of both traditional masculinity and the hero narrative. He is charming, good in battle, and self-assured. Because he is part of the Resistance, there is an assumption that he can only do good--an assumption that is challenged in the film.

Director Rian Johnson is not interested in the Han Solo archetype. He seems to be casting it off, more interested in critiquing what we originally found attractive in the Han Solo character (and in Poe). He has a different vision for how we define heroes in his Star Wars universe (that is not to say Poe is not or will not become a canon hero).

In Last Jedi, Poe's ingrained ideas of masculinity, heroism, and brotherhood get in the way of doing good--and unlike most films that deal with a hot-headed hero, he is actually put in his place and made to think about who he is and what his actions have cost the Resistance. He is not placated due to his charm and gender, but held accountable due to his position and privilege.

When his refusal to take orders from (female) superiors costs the lives of his fellow pilots and launches an unnecessary mutiny, he is both demoted and chastised. Refusing to accept that he does not know better than those leading him, he spends most of the film making mistake after mistake, questioning everyone around him with an unsure grin and excuse at hand. He is blind to his own folly and at the mercy of luck.

But when the realization hits him, after being told to sit down and listen by Leia, that he is not the hero in this particular story, you see him process a slice of humble pie and sit with himself. And this is such a good thing. We rarely see male characters have to process their own failure. But Poe does. Under the guidance and patience of Leia, we see Poe grow not from winning, but from losing. We see this in his more mindful mentorship of Finn when they face a death mission. We see him learn from someone other than himself and metaphorically pass the mic.

When speaking about an actual hero, Admiral Holdo, Leia says, " She cared more about protecting the light than seeming like a hero."

In so many patriarchal structures, we see the struggle of protecting the light vs. being a hero become a reality. When scandal and abuse of power rises, we have tragically seen so many leaders and organizations in power protect their image as heroes over protecting the light they are supposed to be serving. When ego drives heroism, it is inevitable that heroes will fail.

The solution to this failure, as Rian Johnson makes so very clear, is to listen and learn from others. It is to practice empathy. It is to practice self-reflection. It is humility. It is a true brother/sisterhood built on equity and equality. It is embracing flexibility and the unknown.

The solution is deconstructing the hierarchical structures that define patriarchal structures that prevent equity and equality from being pillars of the human experience (using human loosely as we discuss fantasy/sci-fi).

When we meet Luke in The Last Jedi, he is a pathetic example of the harm toxic masculinity can cause even the best of men. Unable to face his own failures, Luke has isolated himself, abandoning everything that matters to him--the Jedi order, his family, and the Resistance. He lacks basic skills in communication, grieving, and self-reflection. His toxic identity has turned him into half a man. Without glory, he is no one. Without his vocation as a Jedi bringing him success, he loses himself and his way. The problem here is that his vocation became success--and this worship of “winning” is a path to self-destruction.

While Luke does eventually come around, it takes a young girl, challenging his understanding of failure (particularly the permanence of failure), to bring him back to life. And this still required some ego stroking and begging...

Which brings us to Kylo Ren and Rey.

Kylo is a broken man, failed by the Jedi and lured to the Dark Side (similar to Luke, he has run from his pain and failure instead of confronting it). He is a man with a superiority complex, wrapped in rage issues, struggling with a deep inadequacy problem (only exacerbated by Luke's failure to mentor him and then to practice reconciliation when he failed him). He is every single alt-right male we have seen pop up in the last year. His identity is entirely caught up in his perceived greatness, hinder by his lack of said greatness. He is both resentful of everyone and beholden to no one. He is every priest and leader who revels in his vocation/position, blind to their actual calling because the calling itself has become the only thing they identify with.

Kylo is the heir to Vader. He is Han Solo's son. He is Leia's son. He is Luke Skywalker's student and nephew. He comes from a long line of Jedi. He feels called by the force.

Consumed by these identities, Kylo seems lost when they leave him empty and no more notable than anyone else. No title, identity, or vocation innately makes him a leader or a hero. And having spent his whole life thinking that they would, he unravels.

One of the lines that took the air out of the room, for me, from Last Jedi was spoken by Kylo to Rey during their post-Snoke battle scene.

When Rey refuses to join Kylo in his mission to "destroy the past" (not necessarily a bad idea) and then rule the galaxy together (100% a bad idea), he utters cruel words that, as a woman and minority, I feel most of us have heard at one time or another from someone in power.

He says to her, "You have no place in this story. You come from nothing. You are nothing."

Here, in this line, is the heart of not only the new Star Wars battle, but the triumph of Johnson’s vision. Like many men with power (amped up on being "chosen"), Kylo Ren refuses to accept that someone like Rey, an unknown woman, could challenge him or his vision. He cannot stand the idea that she may feel called as well. Though he initially admires her and wants her at his side (he considers her an "exception" to his own truths, not a challenge), her refusal to accept his plans cracks open his inadequacy issues, setting off blind rage and trauma. As she establishes herself as a formidable opponent with agency and a mind of her own, he cuts at her in the only way he can--letting her know that someone like her, with no special background (vocation) and no special family to speak of (leadership pipeline) will never be a hero in their story.

But by speaking this insecurity out loud, it is clear that she already is everything he says she cannot be.

Rey is all of us. Rey does not have a special background story with all the bells and whistles of a messiah come to save humanity. Though even she believed for a long time that she needed that special background, that special vocation, the special parents with special blood, she eventually comes to realize that this is simply not the case. She never needed a virgin birth or royal parents to be called to greatness. It is enough to be an ordinary person undertaking impossible tasks from a place of hope. That is greatness.

And Luke was right about one thing--the force does not and never did belong to the Jedi alone. That is heresy. It belongs to everyone, including an ordinary and very brave girl from Jakku with no important lineage to speak of. This here is what dismantling white male supremacy looks like in film.

It is Rey's ordinariness that threatens not only Kylo, but Luke. Rey does not know her place--or better yet--refuses to accept the place these men want her to be in. The act of rejecting their narrative--rejecting the narrative of men with power, is a transgressive act that frees the Star Wars narrative of the traditional grand narrative we see in so many stories (Narnia, Harry Potter, LOTR). In accepting that she does not need these men, their orders, or their power, she becomes a perfect hero for 2017.

To take it one step further, in refusing to see her calling as saving Luke and Kylo so they can save the galaxy, but instead heeding the call to "do good" and to do something herself, she shatters the structures that bind Kylo and Luke. She proves that all it takes it persistence (#neverthelessshepersisted) and will. She does not need ancient books, magic lightsabers, or an older man to train her to succeed. She already has, as Yoda wisely noted, everything she needs.

Rey "smashes the patriarchy" and establishes a new hero archetype--similar to other women Star Wars has highlighted recently (Rose and Jyn come to mind).

It will be interesting to see how the story develops in Episode 9, but if one thing is clear after The Last Jedi, it is this:

This is our story. The Resistance is our story.

And our time to put toxic masculinity in a corner and to smash the chains of patriarchy has come, one female pilot and ordinary woman (and man) at a time.

We will all be better for it.


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