YOU'VE SEEN THE LAST JEDI, NOW LET'S TALK ABOUT THE PATRIARCHY
This weekend marked the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the eighth episode in the Star Wars decadology or whatever it is. As beloved as the movies are (except the prequels, boo forever), and as much as we all bow to Carrie Fisher as our queen, it’s interesting to consider how little women have done in the movies until this century. Aside from Princess Leia, only three women have lines in the originals (credit to Vulture’s super cut) That’s pretty...well...something. Of course, we are in a new century and we have a female main character in our spunky Rey, the powerful Force wielder ready to learn the ways of the Jedi and bring balance to the universe (again). Leia has promoted herself to General Organa, leaving that heavy princess baggage behind. The Force Awakens played with gender, allowing Rey to rescue Finn and battle Kylo Ren, but The Last Jedi explodes the patriarchy.
Heavy spoilers follow, so enter at your own risk.
The Last Jedi has a few plotlines running simultaneously, but we open on the Resistance fleet, under attack by the First Order. The fleet is decimated, the Resistance and the feeble Republic that sponsored it, in fragments. The First Order closes in, and Poe Dameron, played by the sexiest man in this galaxy (Oscar Isaac), is eager to strike a major blow against them. He has a plan to blah blah blah blow up shit. Poe is brave and foolhardy in equal measure. His spectacular plan has extremely mixed results: he destroys the giant bad spaceship, but at the expense of many lives and important ships. General Organa and her Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, played by Laura Dern with purple hair and an exotic turtle neck dress, are not happy with the way things turned out. Poe is impetuous and not too interested in listening to these older women, and the first thing Leia does when she sees him is slap him in the face and demote him. He argues that the results justified the means and the damage done/lives lost.
Poe is put out by all these women bossing him. I’d be lying if I didn’t think of the 2016 election. The Resistance certainly visually mirrors a Hillz presidency.After the fleet retreats, they are hit again by the First Order and Leia is severely injured (more on that later), and Vice Admiral Laura Dern steps up to command. She is even more irritated with Poe and his grandiose plans, and lets him know he’s in big trouble. Poe snarls at her authority--if he didn’t listen to Leia, a literal living legend, why would he listen to Purple Haired Laura Dern? Prominent in these scenes is the second in command, Commander D’Acy, also a woman, also a real buzz kill from Poe’s perspective. The fleet retreats again in what amounts to a slow speed chase, and Poe snaps really obvious orders like, “Full thrusters!” I was so annoyed that I leaned over to my husband and said “Oh, thanks! We were keeping it in third gear this whole time.” Poe’s like real mansplainy/man-ordery, even after he’s been demoted.
Meanwhile, Finn attempts to find Rey, which also happens to look a lot like running away to new character Rose. Rose’s sister was the brave bombardier who gave her life to destroy the enemy ship, and Rose is a committed Resistance member (basically, over the course of this movie, the Resistance thing starts to fall away for the more familiar Rebellion. It’s just good branding, ya know?). These two team up to find some blah blah blah thing that will prevent the First Order from tracking the remains of the fleet. Finn is defined by his desire to run (perhaps he’s a space Sagittarius?) but Rose calls him on it and joins him to try to save the fleet. They have a little interlude at a casino and things happen.
Meanwhile, Rey hands Luke Skywalker his lightsaber. He throws it away. So Luke has been sulking on the island for years and years, and is not happy to see Rey. He denies her over and over, and she follows him like a good apprentice as he weirdly milks some creature and just goes to town on its gross ass green milk while making too much eye contact. Rey begs Luke to train her, and he is unwilling to engage with her seriously. Considering the Joseph Campbell framework upon which this whole thing is built, it’s not surprising that Rey is at first stymied by her mentor--being turned away is part of the whole deal, a way to test the resolve of the hero. Yoda pretended to be a weird swamp dude to run Luke off, remember. But Luke is more than pretending. He genuinely does not want to teach her. He feels that the Jedi should vanish with him. He jerks her around a bit, and is horrified by her power. We also get the Rashomon backstory of Kylo Ren, from Luke and telepathically-linked-to-Rey Kylo.
So here’s the truth: Luke has always sucked. He’s whiny as f, all the time. He’s Chosen One’d his way through the first three, and apparently, when it was his turn to be the boss, he messed up so badly that he managed to turn Kylo all the way to the Dark Side by contemplating murdering him while he slept. THAT SUCKS, DUDE. As an educator, I can say that is not best practices!
Luke is not a good teacher. This is proven twice: by Kylo’s turn and by his complete contempt for Rey. He is also selfish: ready to let the ancient order die because he’s unhappy with the way he’s mismanaged it. He is so bad that Yoda has to come back from the dead and whomp him on the head for stupidity. Even R2D2 curses this asshole out. He’s abandoned his sister after a double tragedy: losing her son to the Dark Side and her ex-husband (I mean, I assume they were divorced, but maybe not) to her son. He could have sent an email, at least, instead of hiding out on an island planet, drinking green milk and having fish lady servants.
Finally, we have some jockeying between Kylo and the foul ginger, Hux. Snoke (who I call Snope in my head) is pretty cool with pitting them against each other. Snoke is super evil. I had previously hoped that when we met him, he would be like, three feet tall, but instead he’s super tall, so that’s a bummer for me. Snoke is obviously the alpha patriarch here, the head honcho of the Toxic Masculinity club. He belittles everyone, he wears a gold bathrobe (and we all know that bathrobes are the loungewear of choice of the toxic patriarch.) He taunts Kylo about his face and his mask.
So let’s catalogue the men we have here:
Poe is an over-confident mutineer who mansplains and refuses to follow orders given by women, leading to massive loss of life and equipment
Finn is...not a coward, exactly, must overcompensate for that
Luke is a selfish, petulant child, ready to destroy a whole religion and abandon his only living relative (Light Side Division)
Snoke is a big big bad guy in a bathrobe
Kylo Ren is an anger junkie prone to smashing things in rage fits
And what do we have on the other side of the gender divide? We have Generals and Vice Admirals of a certain age, making the best decisions they can under terrible circumstances. It’s useful to consider how long Leia has been fighting this battle, the fact that she is not just a fighter but a diplomat and a tactician. She has a real sadness here. She also is 100% witch, the truest form of female power, as demonstrated by her surprise Force use when she’s blown out of the ship during the second First Order attack. This bitch flies! Unfortunately, she’s sidelined for most of the movie by the injuries she receives, but I see that as screenwriter’s convenience: if Poe had been fighting and mutinying against Leia, he would have lost a big chunk of the audience who remain loyal to the OG characters. Instead, he gets to fight with Laura Dern.
Dern is not wrong to do what she does. Retreating is the only move they have available, as much as it chaps Poe’s handsome and impatient hide. The fleet would have been better off if they hadn’t lost all of the bombers and most of the X-wings. She makes the practical decisions, not the splashy ones. And most importantly, Dern becomes a big hero in the over-long third act, when she stays behind on the big ship and rams the First Order ship at lightspeed.
Rey is guided by compassion and bravery. She seeks to understand Kylo, and to reach out to him. As she uncovers the truth about the end of Luke and Kylo’s relationship, she feels real empathy. She has great power, and unlike those of Skywalker blood, she’s not genetically destined. (Okay, a true Star Wars nerd might @me re: midichlorians, but okay, whatever. It’s very significant when we learn that Rey is exactly nobody: a child traded away by junker parents for drinking money. So much of this series has been about bloodlines that it was a true surprise that Rey wasn’t Luke’s daughter/Kylo’s secret sister/Luke’s clone/Obi-Wan’s love child.) She faces her power, her past, and her enemy, and never for even one second did I believe that she would come close to turning. For the men, anger and rage are the first steps to the Dark Side. Rey fights with true ferocity, but she is not seduced by anger.
It’s also a denial of the toxic masculinity that threatens to drown the male characters. It’s interesting that Benicio Del Toro plays the louche codebreaker (in a subplot that adds up to exactly nothing) who stares at Rose like a horny cartoon wolf. His character shows himself to be a louse, which is not surprising. He’s basically the only sexual male character and he is a scumbag. Poe, previously seen flirting with everyone and adding a faint queer subtext to the proceedings, is tamed here by his petulance. The only romantic moment is between Rose and Finn after she saves him, and that is like a grade school kiss. (Although I’d argue the most romantic moment is when Poe is reunited with BB-8.)
The most noble character sacrifice is not Luke, who goes full attention hog, strutting out to confront the First Order on the mineral planet. Instead, it’s Laura Dern’s choice to stay behind on the ship. I fully wept at that scene between Leia and Dern, no doubt deepened by the loss of Carrie Fisher last year. Dern is a woman ready to face the impossible and save as many people as she can, which was her controlling desire through the whole movie.
I’d like to talk about the least among them, Rose. Rose embodies many of Rey’s positive qualities, but on a smaller scale. She is a fighter, too, and she’s more politically aware than any other younger generation character. She sees the decadence at the casino for what it is--the vulgar display of the war profiteers who work to keep billions enslaved by the First Order. She also makes a major statement in the last act, by preventing Finn’s heroic suicide. Star Wars has always been pretty into the heroic sacrifice. There are, like, three in this movie alone. But Rose refuses to let Finn destroy himself to fight the First Order. She choses life and love instead of honor and death. That, in itself, is pretty revolutionary.
Luke overextends himself and Jedi dies after his display on the mineral planet. Meanwhile, Rey manages to save the rest of the Rebellion with her incredible Force powers, and she rebukes and denies Kylo Ren’s invitation to power. Leia guides the Rebellion to live and fight another day, and we leave the movie on a last shot of some little kids, moved into future political action by Rose. The feminine power focuses on capability and ensuring the future. Male power in this film rests in toxic masculinity and begins to dissolve, just as Luke dissolves on his island.
The patriarchy is dead: long live the matriarchy!