We Need to Talk About Kylo

We Need to Talk About Kylo

*Includes spoilers for The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi.

You may have heard that a new Star Wars film dropped before Christmas, to a fairly mixed reception. As someone who isn’t a huge follower of the franchise with no cherished childhood memories at threat from the modern sequels, I had the luxury to disregard the crunchy bits and focus on the element that really spoke to me - the standout narrative of toxic masculinity. And we really need to talk about Kylo.

Over the years, the Star Wars universe has presented us with a variety of competing masculinities, from roguish fly-boys to violent, emotionless leaders, the jack-booted followers of orders to the pure of heart and morally rigid heroes. The Force Awakens introduced a new villain, Kylo Ren, with a new kind of masculinity which is more relevant than the chattering jury of the internet may realise. Some fans have been less than impressed with their beloved franchise’s latest bad guy, yet I would argue that Ren presents a frightening and more complex representation of masculinity than surface viewing would suggest.

Sociologists have identified a series of restrictive and sometimes contradictory cultural rules that dictate what it means to be a ‘real man’ in Western societies. These hegemonic rules1 form a hierarchy of acceptable masculine expression, with machismo, aggression and ruthlessness highly revered and feminine traits (and females) firmly at the bottom of the social pile. Men are socially encouraged to pursue these masculine ideals to toxic extremes2: intense competition with other men to the point of force and violence, the devaluation of women and anything feminine, suppression of all emotions other than anger, complete self-reliance and an unwillingness to admit weakness. These toxic masculine traits are present in all aspects of social interaction and subsequently many men feel pressured to live up to their narrow ideals out of fear that they will be negatively judged and rejected by other men and women if they fall short.

Let’s return to Ren. In The Force Awakens, we see his intense need to compete with other men – especially the equally competitive General Hux – and his striving for approval from his male superior, the bullying, withholding Snoke. He expresses his desire to finish (and presumably surpass) the violence and domination that his grandfather started. He wears a mask which hides all emotion other than his rage and frustration; he stalks the corridors, screams with rage and breaks shit, he wipes out an entire village when unable to retrieve the droid he is looking for. When injured, he strikes out at himself in frustration at his body’s weakness. He uses violence to (unsuccessfully) resolve the emotional conflict he feels for his father and as a result ends up more lost and uncertain. When Rey tells him that she can see his fear of not being strong enough, or Snoke dismisses him as merely ‘a child in a mask’, his only response is more rage.

His interactions with Rey, his light-side female counterpart, are also interesting. During an interrogation, he threatens her by telling her “you know I can take anything I want” and is later dismissed by Snoke for letting her ‘resist’ him; although this is the language of ‘the force’, it is hard not to read these as veiled threats of sexual/gendered violence. The film pulls back from obvious misogyny yet Rey’s gender is repeatedly used to belittle and humiliate Ren for being “bested by a girl”; the ultimate insult to his constructed masculinity.

These hegemonic pressures are also apparent in the now infamous shirtless scene, when Rey finds Ren half-dressed in a moment of force connection. For such a brief scene, it has generated a huge amount of online discussion, with many commentators deriding it as unnecessary fan service. On first watch, I thought it was a great way to show Ren as vulnerable and human as he sheds his uniform of hate and is caught off-guard by the interaction, yet after subsequent viewings and discussions I see it as another manifestation of the unrealistic expectations on young men; his extremely muscular physique suggests he has been seriously hitting the gym, a sadly uncommon practice as more men are turning to extreme exercise, dangerous dieting and steroid use to obtain the competitive male ‘ideal’ of strength, dominance and self-control.

Ultimately, masculinity under these terms is a fantasy and unattainable within the real world. And that is why we need relatable representations of what happens when these rigid restrictions are not dismantled: emotions build up, unexpressed. Violence becomes the language of frustration. We feel ridiculed and disrespected by others. We do not get what we want. We become isolated, bitter, lonely. Angrier. We shut off compassion for ourselves and others. It is not an enviable lot.
(Ok, not everyone goes on to wipe out villages or slaughter their father but we have plenty of tragic examples of what happens when masculinity is taken to such horrific extremes. I don’t feel the need to list them here).

Whether intended as social commentary or not, Kylo Ren is a great example of just how toxic these notions of masculinity can be to young men and the people around them. It also demonstrates how masculinity does not occur in isolation but is taught to us by other men; as the son of Leia and Han, he is blessed with Skywalker blood and noble lineage, so what went wrong? We don’t know if he grew up consuming Fox News, if he took Frank Underwood from House of Cards too literally, if he had posters of Rambo and Dutch from Predator on his walls or followed Milo Y on Twitter. We do know that he was rejected by the parental figures in his life - Han, Leia, Luke, Snoke - for not being ‘enough’ (not good enough, not strong enough, not evil enough) and is left with a dead monster as role model. In The Last Jedi, he invites Rey to join him in tearing down the structures that are dictating who and how they should be and when she rejects his offer (and subsequently rejects him), he shuts himself off fully from conflict and empathy to embrace the role of Supreme Leader: the irredeemable Big Bad.

Interestingly, many viewers do not seem to relate to Ren’s struggle to find his place in the world. ‘Whiny’, ‘emo’, ‘punk-ass bitch’ are some common descriptors and several parody Twitter accounts have sprung up in dedication to his ridicule. The character is derided for his lack of emotional control and for being weak and impotent, rather than for his violence or cruelty, and the shirtless scene has spawned memes and comments both mocking and sexualising his body (let’s hope Adam Driver doesn’t use the internet). This is how toxic masculinity survives – we reward conformity and deride men for their failings, rather than empathise with the struggle to live up to these highly damaging and unattainable pressures. We tell young men to ‘man up’, ‘grow a pair’ and not be a ‘pussy’ (the triple whammy of intermale competition, emotional suppression AND derision of women. Be proud). Fan rejection and vilification of Ren mirrors his treatment within the films – and the responses that many men receive in the real world - and no one seems to find this troubling.

Rather than just providing us with an interesting character study, these films also suggest a solution. The Force Awakens starts with Ren as a mini-Vader - callous, merciless and not much different to the villains we have seen before – yet by the end of the film he is maskless, injured, weakened and alone: the masculine ideals to which he has subscribed are not working for him. The Last Jedi extends Ren’s development as he gives up his masks (both his own and Vader’s) and allows himself to experience his conflict. We see him as having little human interaction (for example, his physical injuries are treated by robots rather than people) until his force connection with Rey, which shows us his very human needs: to understand himself, to be accepted, to feel safe. Although she initially dismisses him as ‘a monster’, Rey moves to understanding him, telling him he isn’t alone and believing that he might be redeemable. Despite everything, she accepts Ren for who he is – he is ‘enough’. It is Rey, and not the other men in his world, who reaches out with compassion. From a feminist perspective, this is not a new thought; it has long been argued that tearing down patriarchal structures and fostering acceptance of all expressions of masculinity will greatly improve life for men as well as for women.

In the real world, 2017 was the year we saw real Nazis take to the streets and had to seriously question how best to combat hate in person, online or through political rhetoric. And from those debates came a call for compassion – that we should meet hate with understanding and look for similarities rather than difference, to forge connections and engage with genuine empathy. At risk of hyperbole, I think Star Wars has added to this discussion by presenting us with a more subtle villain in the mould of Dylan Klebold or Elliot Rodger rather than Darth Vader. Ren has been sold the same patriarchal lie as the rest of us but does not have the necessary social buffers to reconcile the ‘shoulds’: he is denied unconditional love from family, meaningful relationships with men and women, supportive mentors, alternative role models. He is the kid from school who can’t control his temper, the loner in the office we laugh at, the friend of a friend that nobody likes. He is the epitome of toxic masculinity unchallenged; the budding rapist, the school-shooter, the serial killer.

Considering all of this, Kylo Ren is an important addition to the binary, black and white world that proliferates most of the Star Wars universe; his character softens the edges of the absolutes and allows space for humanity. He suggests that we should try to meet hate with compassion above all else. Much has been written about Poe Dameron’s arc from gross disdain of female authority and demonstrative machismo, but why should he be more redeemable than Kylo Ren when his reckless actions also resulted in many deaths? Is it because Poe is dashingly brave and charming, stereotypically handsome and generically ‘good’ - all the qualities we expect in a real man? And if so, is his form of masculinity any less toxic than Ren’s?

It isn’t my intention to defend or absolve Kylo Ren, as I think it is important to show representations of toxic masculinity as just that - toxic. But we do not have to ridicule or give up on him, either. Recognising the damage that our hegemonic, patriarchal standards inflict on young men is crucial because on some level, these messages affect all of us. And in fantasy worlds dominated by Thors and Tony Starks and Captain Americas – as unapologetically hegemonic as it gets – the need for more subtle, fallible representations of masculinity and alternative ways of responding to them is more important than ever.

1 Connell, R.W. (1987) Gender and Power, Stanford University Press: USA.
2 Krupers, T. A. (2005) Toxic Masculinity as a Barrier to Mental Health Treatment in Prison, Journal of Clinical Psychology, 61, 6, 713-24.

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