'Star Wars: The Last Jedi' and its unexpected examination of toxic masculinity (spoilers)

Hanna Flint
Snoke, Poe, and Adam Driver all struggle with a very modern view of masculinity (Disney)
Snoke, Poe, and Adam Driver all struggle with a very modern view of masculinity (Disney)

Science fiction has often been used by writers and filmmakers as a medium to indirectly comment on the societal issues of the day. During the mid-2000s, Battlestar Galactica was seen as a political and social allegory for the Iraq War, while the 1951 Godzilla film played on post-nuclear fear in Japan.

In the last couple of years, gender politics has pushed its way to the foreground of the social landscape with the growing debate over the gender pay gap, women in positions of power and, in recent months, an unprecedented discussion of women’s rights, safety and equality in a male-dominated society. Feminism has become such a monumental talking point that Merriam-Webster dictionary named it their word of 2017.

With these things in mind I can’t help but wonder if Star Wars: The Last Jedi was intended to be a comment, or a cautionary tale as it were, about toxic masculinity and women fighting to subdue it. I certainly can’t see the film as anything else after watching it this week.

Writer-director Rian Johnson (Looper) says he didn’t deliberately intend for the film’s themes to be so timely.

“I don’t think it’s ever good to try and be current or try and speak directly to hot button issues with these movies,” Johnson explains to Yahoo Movies in our exclusive interview above.

“I think you just try and create good drama and you try to speak to universal themes.”

Rian Johnson’s first stab at the Star Wars universe doesn’t just continue the narrative established by The Force Awakens, and George Lucas’ previous trilogies, it moves it forward and opens it up to allow women to take on more significant roles. However, for these female characters it is not made any easier by their male counterparts especially a certain Poe Dameron.

(If you’re worried about spoilers, please stop reading now because I’m about to go deep into my dissection of the plot and narrative of The Last Jedi.)

Oscar Isaac’s fighter pilot went from being a daring hero in The Force Awakens to a frustrating liability in The Last Jedi. He is positioned as pretty much the poster child for toxic masculinity, displaying an arrogance, dominance and devaluation of his female superiors that leads to the death of numerous comrades and pretty much allows their enemies, the First Order, to get the upper hand for most of the film. All so he could brag about taking out one of their big fleet ships. What is most disturbing is his utter contempt for the command of Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo.

Laura Dern joined the Star Wars universe as a seasoned leader in the Resistance who takes charge after General Leia is incapacitated. Interestingly, Holdo’s appearance and demeanour is the very antithesis of what you’d expect from a military leader, which only adds to the conflict.

“[Holdo] is a leader that leads with her feminity, and even sensuality almost,” Dern explains, “As opposed to masking it by trying to fit into a man’s role. And I thought that was a great starting place for the character.”

From the minute Holdo is announced as the interim commander Poe takes issue; first by showing surprise that she was the same Holdo of rebellion fame (Shock horror! It’s a woman!) and then by questioning her tactics and decisions in front of the rest of the crew.

By undermining Holdo’s authority, Poe begins to act like every dudebro misogynist who has felt threatened by a woman in a superior position of power. Even the way he gets up in Holdo’s face, demanding to know her plan and why combative action hasn’t been ordered, is a textbook example of a masculine intimidation attempt.

Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo has to deal with an annoying male subordinate
Laura Dern’s Vice Admiral Holdo has to deal with an annoying male subordinate

However, in true boss lady fashion, Holdo does not buckle in the face of his aggressive and condescending attitude. She puts him in his place, reminds him of how his own decision making cost the lives of many and the loss of several ships. Of course, he doesn’t listen and tries to orchestrate a coup against her which nearly works until Leia literally shoots him into submission. Only then does he actually stop and listen to his more experienced female superiors and understands the tactics Holdo put in place. Throughout this whole storyline you can feel the frustration emanating off both Holdo and Leia (Carrie FIsher) as they try to get Poe in line, something women in the real world have to contend with everyday.

A study by Bocconi University in Milan, led by Dr. Ekaterina Netchaeva, found that men felt more threatened by female bosses, even those who believed in gender equality. “The concept of masculinity is becoming more elusive in society as gender roles blur, with more women taking management positions and becoming the major breadwinners for their families,” Netchaeva said of the results. “Even men who support gender equality may see these advances as a threat to their masculinity, whether they consciously acknowledge it or not.”

Poe Dameron could certainly fit into the latter category. His affection and apparent respect for Leia shouldn’t distract from the very clear insubordination he actions during the opening of The Last Jedi and the later display of disobedience towards Holdo.

Kylo Ren is a product of toxic masculinity influences (Disney)
Kylo Ren is a product of toxic masculinity influences (Disney)

Poe learns his lesson by the movie’s end but he isn’t the only man to exhibit signs of toxic masculinity. Supreme Leader Snoke’s (Andy Serkis) shaming of Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) for exhibiting conflicting emotions, after murdering his own father Han Solo, is typical of the harmful paradigm that teaches boys to suppress their emotions unless it’s aggressive. Though we can’t give Snoke all the credit. We learn that Luke attempted to kill his nephew after seeing the dark side of the Force growing inside him. The Jedi says he changed his mind in a split second but seeing his mentor hovering over him with a lightsaber, seemingly unwilling to teach him a better way, pushed the boy further towards the dark side and under Snoke’s toxic influence.

Later, when Rey (Daisy Ridley) tries to help Kylo find a path back into the light it proves unsuccessful as he continues to yearn for power and goes to great and dark lengths to secure it. His whole existence in the Star Wars universe highlights the danger toxic masculinity can have on both men and women, and really it’s women who are its biggest combatants.

Rey is the one who doesn’t give up on Kylo and tries to bring him back into the fold. Rey is the one who finds Luke and forces him to address his responsibility to not just his nephew but also the Republic who need the last Jedi to fight with them once more.

So while Star Wars: The Last Jedi warns against the dangers of a hegemonic masculinity toxically fuelled by misogyny, it also supports the idea that mutual respect between different genders is the only healthy way to exist.

And that, my friends, is probably the most important message the Star Wars franchise has ever encouraged.

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