How “Star Wars” Is About Toxic Masculinity

by Anna Greer

Star Wars has given us some of the best villains in the history of storytelling. You can’t go wrong with space Nazis. Darth Vader’s breathing is so iconic that as soon as we heard it in the final moments of Rogue One, we knew that everyone in that hallway was as good as dead. The Sith lords that wreak havoc across that galaxy far, far away are the ultimate evil. But they also have an everyday kind of evil many of us are more familiar with: toxic masculinity. Star Wars wouldn’t exist without Skywalker angst or the toxic masculinity that causes it.

Anger is the only emotion you are allowed to show, because it gives you power. You have to be strong all the time. Violence is the preferred way to settle things. You are better than others, especially those who look different from you. You think I’m talking about toxic masculinity, but I’m actually talking about the Sith Order. Toxic masculinity is very present in Sith beliefs and practices. Anger and aggression imbue every aspect of the Sith Order. Villains have been monologuing about the power of the Dark Side from the very beginning. The main theme of all their rants is that anger allows a Force user to wield unstoppable power. Those who choose paths besides anger are weak for not taking advantage of the full promise of the Dark Side.

Sith lords weaponize anger. We know that Jedi lightsabers can be blue, green, or purple, while the sabers of the Sith glow red. Lightsabers are made from Kyber crystals. Jedi find their crystals on certain planets in a rite of passage called the Gathering. The Sith take their crystals from the lightsaber of a Jedi they have slain, and forge their weapons in a process called “bleeding.”

Lightsaber Bleeding d6be1Darth Vader (2017) #1 by Soule, Camuncoli, Smith, and Curiel

Anger alone isn’t a trademark of toxic masculinity. As Padmé says, “To be angry is to be human.” Anger becomes toxic when it is how a person defines their strength or identity. Both Anakin Skywalker’s/Darth Vader’s and Ben Solo’s/Kylo Ren’s story arcs illustrate how damaging an obsession with anger, aggression, and superiority can be.

Anakin Skywalker begins his journey to the Dark Side when he feels an overwhelming need to be the patriarch and protect his family (his mother, Shmi, and his wife, Padmé). His first truly dark act—apart from an overuse of “Yipee”—is to massacre the tribe of Tusken Raiders that killed his mother. In a scene that has generated countless memes, Anakin confesses to Padmé that he murdered “not just the men, but the women and the children, too” and “slaughtered them like animals.” Anakin cannot face his own shame and disappointment in failing to protect his mother and gives in to the only emotion that will empower him: anger. Men protect their mothers. If they fail to do that, then they must avenge them. Either way, violence defines masculine family roles. Calling the Tusken Raiders “animals” makes his failure and anger that much greater. How could he have let such base creatures defeat him? It’s the racist cherry on his toxic masculinity sundae (*cough* Sand People *cough* WTF, George Lucas? *cough*).

After seeing what he believes to be visions of the future, Anakin believes it is his sole responsibility to prevent Padmé’s death in childbirth. This belief leaves no room for Padmé to have any agency. He thinks the only way to save her is to use power from the Dark Side. Many would consider childbirth a traditionally feminine act. Why isn’t Anakin getting Padmé water when she needs to take her prenatal vitamins? He can’t be seen going to prenatal yoga with her in public, but he could take advantage of the Jedi’s vast archives and read up on the Force and midwifery. We all saw what a great doula Obi-Wan was in Revenge of the Sith. The truth is that Anakin doesn’t see real power in the feminine, just as toxic masculinity abhors the “softness” of femininity.

Let’s not forget Anakin’s need for respect. He famously protests, “This is outrageous! It’s unfair!” when he is given a seat on the Jedi Council but not the rank of Master. This perceived insult leads to a mistrust of the Jedi, making it much easier for Anakin to turn to the Dark Side and join the Sith. It was Palpatine that demanded he be put on the council. It’s my headcanon that Palpatine sent him the visions of Padmé dying. The Emperor created the perfect storm of frustration, anger, and fear to snare the vulnerable Anakin in his trap. Toxic masculinity was Anakin’s and the galaxy’s undoing.

13thelastjedi 3 superJumbo 4f53dImage via Lucasfilm/Disney

Two generations later, Kylo Ren/Ben Solo is the poster boy for toxic masculinity. While he isn’t a member of the Sith, Kylo Ren is to the Sith as Tiki-torch-wielding white boys in Charlottesville are to Nazis: young and rebranded, but essentially the same hateful idea. The galaxy’s favorite emo Dark Side user exemplifies the kind of emotional control toxic masculinity demands of men. He honestly thinks feeling anything other than anger weakens him. Kylo Ren doesn’t allow himself to feel the emotions of a vulnerable Ben Solo, and tells his father this in The Force Awakens. “Your son is gone. He was weak and foolish like his father so I destroyed him.”

Having the emotions of a complicated human being is Kylo’s/Ben’s greatest struggle. Conflict is literally his conflict in The Last Jedi. The heir apparent to Darth Vader is riddled with self-doubt. His master, Supreme Leader Snoke, sees this and uses it to taunt him: “You have too much of your father’s heart in you, young Solo.” After this exchange, we see Kylo/Ben destroy his mask in a fit of rage. He has many of these outbursts, and they tend to happen after a dressing down or humiliation. It’s the only way he can regain any sense of power or control. Make himself feel like the Sith lord he believes his grandfather was.

Starwarsbroandsis 647d4Lucasfilm/Disney

Toxic masculinity doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It depends on juxtaposition between a binary, masculine and feminine. We can look to the television series The Clone Wars and Rebels for a direct relationship between a feminine Light Side and a masculine Dark Side. Clone Wars is an animated TV series that features many of the characters we know and love from the films (Anakin, Obi-Wan, Yoda, Padmé, etc) and chronicles their escapades between the second and third movies, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. In one story arc, Obi-Wan, Anakin, and Ahsoka Tano (Anakin’s padawan) come upon a mysterious planet inhabited by a father, his daughter, and his son. They are the Ones: three beings that embody the Force. The Daughter is the manifestation of the Light Side, and her brother, the Son, is the Dark Side. The Daughter is the foil to the Son’s aggression and fury, and he sneers at her compassion and loyalty to their father. This is femmephobia in action: the devaluing of the soft and the terror of being seen as soft.

Yoda, always a fount of wisdom, articulates the connection to femmephobia. “Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.” Seeing femininity as less than leads to a fear of being feminine. Fear of being feminine leads to anger at yourself or anyone else who expresses femininity. This leads to a hatred of being feminine, which can lead to nothing but suffering for people of all genders.

Darth Vader’s fate holds the answer to toxic masculinity in the real world. His strongest moment—as a warrior, as a father, as a husband, as a man—is when he turns on the Emperor in Return of the Jedi. Empathy for his son drives him to fulfill his destiny as the Chosen One and restore balance to the Force. All those boys out there who think it’s unmanly to be sentimental should rethink what they consider to be powerful. Yoda would say we need to unlearn what we have learned. The danger lies in restricting people with arbitrary, binary gender roles. To quote Obi-Wan, “Only a Sith deals in absolutes.”

Epic battles against the backdrop of space can’t fix notions of masculinity, but moments between fathers and sons, husbands and wives, uncles and nephews, friends and allies can let us see—in our own galaxy-—the version of Star Wars that isn’t defined by toxic masculinity. The world in which Anakin isn’t fearful, proud, and angry enough to view violence as the only solution. The world in which he works with Padmé as an equal partner invested in the safety of their children. The world in which Luke and Leia grow up not under the shadow of the Empire, but with the best babysitter of all time: Anakin’s padawan Ahsoka Tano. The world in which Ben Solo doesn’t see inner-conflict and self-doubt as weaknesses, but rather as opportunities for growth and self-realization. That world is lost to the Skywalkers, but we can make it our own.

Top image: Lucasfilm/Disney

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