Ever since The Force Awakens came out, fans all across the internet have been making fun of its villain, Kylo Ren, for his whininess (here’s my favorite: Emo Kylo Ren). A new Darth Vader, he definitely is not. And you know what? That’s the point.
This movie has shaken the foundations of the kinds of people who we expect to see as heroes in a Star Wars movie, and it is incredibly significant that the only white male in the new main cast (Oscar Isaac, who plays Poe, is Guatemalan-American) is the villain. And not even a very competent villain. In comparison with the other, more diverse characters, and taking everyone’s actions into account, Kylo Ren really does seem like those entitled white, male geeks who are trying to “preserve” geekdom for others like themselves. And just like them, he is going to fail. He is already well on his way to failing.
Major spoilers beneath the cut, in case you’re one of the two or three people left who haven’t yet seen Episode VII!
Kylo Ren—back when he was still Ben Solo—was born into a life of privilege. Both his parents were heroes of the Rebel Alliance. His mother was a princess, for heaven’s sake. I’m sure their family never wanted for any material thing. Ben received the education of everyone’s dreams—training as a Jedi by Luke Skywalker himself. But like the privileged white male “champions” of “causes” like meninism or Gamergate, none of this was enough for him.
We don’t know the reason Ren turned to the dark side and massacred Luke’s students, but I think we can all agree that there’s no real excuse, no matter his circumstances (which, let’s be real, were pretty good, even if his father may have been emotionally unavailable), just as there’s no excuse for Gamergaters, MRAs, etc. to dox or send death and rape threats.
Kylo Ren, like the white cishet male Establishment, is clawing to hold onto shreds of power that do not rightfully belong to him, and throughout the movie, he faces challenges—and failure—from those who, in our society, have been traditionally excluded from power and geekdom. Poe, a Latino man, leads the charge to blow up Ren’s giant Starkiller weapon (and if giant weapons aren’t a metaphor for toxic masculinity, then I don’t know what is). Finn, a Black man, betrays Ren and the First Order by shedding his Stormtrooper identity, and leads the team that takes out Starkiller’s shields. And Rey, a white woman, continually shows herself to be stronger in the Force than Ren, resisting his Sith mind-rape and beating him at his own lightsaber game. Now she’s going to go on to be the galaxy’s greatest hero, and the first female Jedi protag in a Star Wars movie, while he is going to go on to be… not as strong as Darth Vader.
Ren can’t stand this. His reaction to these threats to his power is literally to, as that article I linked to right before the cut says, “impotently thrash at computer screens with his sword.” The others on his First Order base seem familiar with these tantrums, so it appears they’re more frequent than just the two times we saw them. And they solve exactly zero of his problems. He does not command nearly as much fear and respect as Darth Vader did (even General Hux, his supposed ally, seems to have contempt for him). But he is still undoubtedly dangerous. That lightsaber, even if it’s thrashing about in a whiny tantrum, can kill people (RIP Han Solo). He regularly orders people’s deaths, like that entire village on Jakku at the beginning of the movie. He is adept at mind-raping people and doesn’t seem to have a single qualm about it.
MRAs/meninists/the male geek fanboys unfriendly to non-white-male “encroachment” have similar impotent tantrums. Even in regards to this movie, they were out in the Twitter-sphere complaining about a Black stormtrooper (let Oscar Isaac tell you about it). Whenever a franchise introduces diversity more representative of the actual population, they call it “pandering” and “bringing a political agenda” into something that’s supposed to be “just a story to enjoy” (the fact that they can’t enjoy a movie with heroes who look different from them tells you a lot about them, doesn’t it?). But also like Ren, these sorts of people can be genuinely dangerous too. When they gang up on, for instance, female gamers to dox them or send terrifying threats, that get to the point that these women need to flee their homes and hide, they are causing real harm. And like Ren, they don’t even see the problem with their actions. They hide behind anonymity the way Kylo Ren hides under his mask.
Another parallel is the way Kylo Ren hero-worships a skewed view of history in the form of Darth Vader. He wants to be like Darth Vader (just look at his mask), his greatest fear is that he will never be as strong as Darth Vader, and he keeps (and talks to) Vader’s burnt mask in his quarters, like some sort of trophy or totem. There’s no way his parents didn’t tell him that his grandfather repented and turned back to the light in the end. Ren’s continued insistence on idolizing Darth Vader rather than Anakin Skywalker is willfully twisting history. We hear the same thing from the MRA types, who idolize the days of “chivalry” when there was no “confusion” between gender roles. I’ve heard racist comments before about how the Black community was somehow “better off” during segregation and Jim Crow, because they were more closely knit as a community. And disagreeable fanboys like to idolize the “good old days” when their media was less diverse. Anytime a franchise like Star Wars tries to diversify, they call it “ruining their childhood”. Then there’s systematically ignoring the contributions of women and people of color to history. All of this, like willfully ignoring Anakin’s return to the light, is skewing history, romanticizing a time that may have been better for white, heterosexual, cisgender males, but certainly was not for anyone else.
I think the next movies are going to take this metaphor even further. They seem to be setting up a romance between Rey and Finn (not my preferred ship, but whatever). They also seem to be setting Ren up for an obsession with Rey. Unless he finds out that Rey is related to him or something, I predict that Ren will be furious that Rey dared to choose Finn over him. The cultural resonances in this for our society are striking, even if racism against dark-skinned humans isn’t a big deal in the Star Wars galaxy. What will it remind us of when a white male flies into a rage when a woman chooses a Black man over him? Well, to begin with, it might remind us of Dylann Roof, the Charleston shooter.
But ultimately, I’m hopeful, and I don’t hate Ren’s character (quite the opposite). You see, I think he’s still experiencing quite a bit of internal conflict, and is redeemable. He hasn’t gone quite as far down the path to the dark side as Darth Vader did. I don’t think these movies will pull another Darth Vader, redeeming Ren just to immediately kill him off before he can actually deal with the consequences of his decision. Unlike with Darth Vader in Episode IV, we began to see a bit of Kylo Ren’s internal conflict right at the get-go, in his conversation with
the ultimate piece of Darth Vader fan memorabilia his dead grandfather’s helmet. It will be incredibly important to see a story in which a white man, so evocative of the problematic white men in our society, sees the errors of his ways, comes to accept that others who do not resemble him are in fact allowed to have power too, and realizes that he is not entitled to a woman’s affections, or really, anything at all, except the same rights we all have. I hope this message will get through to all those who most need to hear it. Don’t let me down on this one, Star Wars! Just as you didn’t let me down on diversity!