Resistance, Caring, & “Mask”ulinity: The Feminist Message of the Dudes in The Force Awakens
Spoilers to follow for Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
The female characters in Star Wars: The Force Awakens are many and fantastic. I cheered as each one appeared on screen: from the first badass on Jakku, aiming her gun at the First Order ships, to the shot of Rey and (General) Leia, new and old heroines, embracing. They are there. They are present. They are great. It felt so, so good and long overdue. When the lightsaber flew from the snow past Kylo Ren’s expectant, entitled face into Rey’s waiting hands I burst into tears… and applause.
But feminism is a two-way street, and what I also love about The Force Awakens is its male characters and how the “good guys” reflect progressive gender norms. Absent were the violent, aggressive, and controlling action heroes of days past and in their place capable, respectful, vulnerable dudes – feminist, even(!). What’s more, the patriarchy’s chief drone of the film remains on the dark side – Kylo Ren’s arc and his struggles to conform to the dark ways of the Force are a spot-on metaphor for the toll of toxic, performative masculinity.
Let’s break it down. Poe, for starters: Here’s our star Resistance pilot, bold, handsome (Oscar Isaac! I mean), and skilled. In another movie, his character could have embodied Top Gun masculinity: cocky, smarmy, hothead, womanizing, self-centered, and aggressive. Instead, Poe is none of the above. Within minutes of his introduction, we watch Poe get captured, beaten, tortured, and then rescued — throughout, he remains his capable, slightly cheeky self. Instead of being insecure or defensive after suffering these indignities, he meets Finn (his rescuer) with acceptance and respect. Where another character might have been suspicious or competitive, Poe is cooperative and kind.
Later, at Resistance HQ, Poe is incredibly open with his emotions—loyal and affectionate towards his droid BB-8, then embracing Finn with (literal) open arms and promptly gifting him his jacket. Poe shows unabashed delight at the survival of his friends, both old and new. He calls them both ”buddy” unironically. He gives Finn full credit for completing his mission and seems genuinely pleased at his success — where in another film, a male hero might have been threatened or jealous.
Poe is clearly an impressive pilot, but he doesn’t draw attention to himself unnecessarily. In the attack on the Starkiller Base, he doesn’t do anything stupid or show-offy or selfish, and instead remains a thoughtful, kind leader. There’s no posturing for power, no ego-stroking, nothing to prove. Poe Dameron is a far cry from the hotshot male heroes of days past (and unfortunately, present).
Meanwhile, there’s no boy’s club in the Millennium Falcon. Han straight-up offers Rey a job, proving you can be gruff without being sexist. He doesn’t domineer Leia or feign coolness when it comes to her or their son, thereby evading the all-too-common trope of an uncaring father. Instead, invested in parenthood, he meets his son and goes to his death with love, with kindness, and forgiveness. It’s not a fight, not a showdown. It’s not noon at the O.K. Corral. His last gesture is to touch his son’s face; even in the face of violence and betrayal, Han demonstrates genuine physical affection and vulnerability towards his son. In an honorable, admirable act, he makes himself vulnerable for the sake of Ben and Leia, for his family.
And then there’s Finn. The first time we see his face, he is sweating and shaking. Instead of swaggering through battle, delighting in violence, he is visibly moved by his compatriot’s death, by the violence and aggression happening around him, by the murder of civilians and innocents. We watch him choose to abstain from killing. This character is rattled and anxious and traumatized by his experience – NOT stoic and soldierly. He experiences what most would interpret as a panic attack in response to his first battle. Even as he breaks Poe out of lockup, Finn speaks aloud to himself in an attempt to stay calm — a humanizing and relatable moment of emotional honesty.
Finn Has Feelings, and visibly so. But instead of overcompensating for that supposed “weakness,” getting defensive, or shutting off from other people like a Broody Male Hero might, he quickly and easily bonds with Poe, and later with Rey. Recognizing Rey’s abilities and strengths, he accepts her completely as an equal and peer*, and instead of feeling threatened and attempting to control her or one-up himself against her, he genuinely compliments her skill. They gush at each other, actually–it’s suuuper cute and mutually affirming. [Editor’s Note: it’s important to note that the decision to have Star Wars‘ first Black hero be arguably less assured in some regards than the movie’s other protagonists is understandably controversial. The Toast and The Outhousers have both covered this excellently.]
Finn doesn’t balk at helping out, whether it’s passing tools to Rey in the Falcon or aiding Chewie with his injuries. Finn doesn’t talk over Rey or try to make choices for her. They may disagree and banter, but it’s not barbed, and it’s at an even keel. He looks out for himself, but not at the expense of others – when Finn decides to leave for the Outer Rim, he honestly tells Rey his story and how he feels about her, and asks her to come, and then accepts her refusal gracefully. He respects her decisions, her autonomy, and Rey as a person.
Obviously Finn digs this girl — who wouldn’t, she is undeniably The Coolest — and he does ask if she has a boyfriend early on, but after she says “None of your business,” he lets it go. When he could sulk or tease or be possessive or rude toward her, he doesn’t. He adores her, but is happy just to see Rey safe and well. He’s not preoccupied with romance or feeling “jilted,” where another character might resent her for it. When she hugs him on the Starkiller Base, he doesn’t turn lecherous or try to make a move. She owes him nothing, even when he risked his life to come to her aid, and he gets that! He’s not a White Knight, Friend-Zoned, or a Nice Guy. He never tries to “take” anything he wants when it comes to Rey. He doesn’t view her as a thing to take.
If Finn has a defining attribute, it’s caring about other people, as people. Kicking ass is not the priority. Winning is not the priority. His own ego and his own insecurities are not the priority. When Rey is thrown against the tree by Kylo Ren, Finn turns his BACK to the enemy, DROPS his weapon, and runs to her to make sure she is okay. It’s endearing; it’s wonderful. It’s human; and, in creating a hero that subverts society’s typical, aggressive expectations for masculinity, it’s feminist. And he does this, in spite of years of conditioning to kill — instead, he affirms that caring is what’s most important to him. In another movie, he would have fought Ren immediately without a second thought, springing into attack mode. But instead, Finn turns his back on movie tropes, on violence, on toxic, traditional masculinity… for caring. Does he eventually pick up the lightsaber and face the enemy with it? Yes. But Finn running to the aid of his friends and strangers is a recurring motif of The Force Awakens, and it’s what we should all want from our heroes. It’s what we should all want to be, period.
The parallels between Finn and Kylo Ren are the most direct (and stark) in terms of toxic masculinity. Finn seems to reject this toxicity, whereas Kylo Ren is constantly hung up on performing and proving himself strong enough. They are opposites: especially evidenced by the way they treat Rey – how they define themselves against the chief female presence of the movie.
Like Finn, Kylo Ren is also interested in and impressed by Rey. (And he also first meets her when she attacks him.) But instead of treating Rey like a person, Kylo acts out of aggression, objectification, and self-centeredness. He immediately immobilizes her, Force-faints her, and then carries her, bridal-style, to his ship: old-fashioned, exploitative, and gross. His language towards her is incredibly patronizing: “So this is the girl I’ve heard so much about…” He proceeds to insult her friends and threaten and torture her: violating her mind, using her as a tool but also relishing the show of his own power and the taking of something personal by force. “I can take what I want” is simultaneously a threat, a statement of power/entitlement, and a declaration of how Kylo fundamentally views Rey: an object, something controllable to serve his purposes. When the tables turn and Rey reads him, he is incredibly shaken by the subversion of his own authority and control, and when she escapes, he storms around looking for her in a blind rage, pursuing her with a weapon. Even as she’s beating him in the ensuing lightsaber battle, he has the gall to mansplain her own power to her: “YOU NEED A TEACHER!”
Unlike Kylo Ren, Finn uses Rey’s name throughout the movie. Kylo never calls her anything but “the girl” or “the scavenger,” even when addressing her. While Finn helps others without question, is vulnerable, and demonstrates affection, humor, feelings, and honesty, Kylo Ren is the opposite – all about projecting his own power and lashing out. He takes himself and his image incredibly seriously, valuing himself over others and their goals, treating underlings callously and with violence. Meanwhile, Finn accepts BB-8 as something deserving of his respect and speaks to the droid like a person.
While Finn easily cooperates with those around him, Kylo competes and chokes and throws tantrums, exchanging insults with Hux and belittling him at every opportunity, locked in a power struggle even with his allies. As Finn resists hurting the innocent and then straight-up defects over this, Kylo Ren is the one who orders their murders and then tortures his captives. Where Finn removes, and then ditches, his helmet at the first opportunity, Kylo Ren clings to his completely unnecessary, fabricated mask — a face that is not his own, versus Finn’s sincerity. It’s a powerful metaphor, putting on another face to become something else, to assume power. To disguise one’s true nature. The dark side, like gender, is performative — and the mask, in this case, is literal.
But where Darth Vader was authoritarian and fear-inspiring, Kylo is amateurish, angsty, and conflicted. The Force Awakens shows us the downsides of the Dark Side. Instead of embodying the patriarchy’s lie of what masculinity “should” be (aggressive, powerful, solitary), Kylo Ren demonstrates the reality (assholery). The dark side of the force is a spot-on metaphor for toxic masculinity. This is why the Emo Kylo Ren Twitter account (“ren’s rights activist,” sound familiar?) works so well – it parodies not only Kylo but draws parallels between his immature behavior and conventional ideals of masculinity.
And Kylo, fittingly, is miserable. Constantly comparing himself to an outdated, impossible standard of manliness, Kylo is a clear example of how the patriarchy’s emphasis on traditional gender norms hurts both men and women. Kylo hates himself for not being Dark and Man enough: for feeling love for his parents, for having feelings, for being human. His only satisfaction being in the power he can wield over others. According to dark side/toxic masculinity code, the only feeling it’s okay for him to have is anger — and his own proves to be petulant, destructive, and ultimately ineffective. He tears other people apart in order to preserve his sense of manhood – er, darkness.
Ultimately, the dark side, like toxic masculinity, well… to quote Admiral Ackbar, it’s a trap. It hurts people: yourself first and foremost. The authoritarian “First Order” then is aptly named – patriarchy may have come first, but it’s passé. How fitting is it that the Resistance’s General is none other than Huttslayer and feminist icon Leia Organa? And that Kylo Ren’s chief rival will be the franchise’s newest and brightest female protagonist, Rey, her power all light and feminism? I can’t wait for Rey, Finn,, & co. to overthrow the patriarchy dark side and bring balance to the Force. And I’m excited for this and coming generations to have Finn and Poe as examples of what heroes can be.
*Possible exception: the much-debated hand-holding. Is Finn being possessive? Patronizing? Overly forward? Doubtful. The way I see it, he just lost his (Stormtrooper) comrade and his new friend Poe in rapid succession, and he is determined not to lose anyone else—to the point of physically holding onto them.
Kate likes feminism and Star Wars, obviously. She also likes journalism and roller derby. Tweet her your Force Awakens theories at @katebennion.