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“The Case Against the Jedi” Takes on Toxic Masculinity in Star Wars

The brilliant minds over at Pop Culture Detective changed the way that I see the Jedi Order in Star Wars in a mere 25 minutes.

The same folks who created the excellent video about “adorkable” misogyny in The Big Bang Theory and coined the “Born Sexy Yesterday” trope have a new video that’s a must-watch for Star Wars fans. In examining the “remarkably male-dominated and male-identified” Jedi Order—all Jedi speaking roles in the two trilogies are men—Pop Culture Detective identifies the “unhealthy and deeply stoic ideas about masculinity” that are baked into the most fundamental of the Order’s teachings.

The Jedi are depicted as an honorable and heroic collection of warrior-monks with hard-earned skills and often incredible abilities. We’re meant to sympathize with the Jedi—but it’s intriguing to watch, as laid out above, how strictly the Jedis impose a lack of sympathy for others on their trainees.

We watch a very young Anakin Skywalker being rejected by an entire council of Jedi for being “too emotional,” that is, a child still daring to care about his enslaved mother and existing in a state of distress for her wellbeing. He is roundly mocked and rejected by such luminaries as Yoda and Mace Windu for not being able to instantly shut off his emotional valve. As a child.

“Emotional detachment is valued above all else in the Jedi Order,” Pop Culture Detective points out, showing scene after scene in which Jedis push the suppression of feelings as the way to be stable and successful, while fear of loss/love/pain/anger are the paths that lead directly to the Dark Side.

“Anakin Skywalker is asked to wear a mask of emotional invulnerability,” and when he consistently fails to do so—his dangerous emotions generally sparked by his ongoing relationships with the women in his life—the Jedi philosophy suggests that Anakin ends up wearing another mask, that of Darth Vader, because he has failed in this essential task of total emotional detachment.

The video drives home that this Jedi way is reflective of our own real-world injunctions set upon young boys and men from childhood on, from the minute they’re told to “be a man,” that is, toughen up, push through a difficulty, and don’t dare show any emotion that could be construed as an exploitable “weakness.” And this expression of society’s toxic values is not only found in the less-loved Star Wars prequels. “Bury your feelings deep down, Luke,” Obi-Wan’s Force ghost warns Luke Skywalker, lest he betray his love for his sister Leia and open himself up to that emotionally slippery path to the Dark Side.

What’s illustrated well here (and somewhat encouragingly) is that like his father before him—but to better ends—Luke refuses to listen to these Jedi maxims. He ignores Yoda and Obi-Wan’s pleas to complete his Jedi training on Dagobah and let Leia and Han be sacrificed for a “greater” cause and hops into X-wing to save the day.

“Luke doesn’t take the Jedi orthodoxy surrounding emotional detachment to heart,” Pop Culture Detective notes. “Luke Skywalker is at his very best when he doesn’t follow the path of the Jedi.” It’s Luke’s caring heart and his trust in the innate emotional bond of family that turns the entire tide of the original Star Wars trilogy. And it’s the former Anakin Skywalker’s lingering, unsuppressed emotion for his child that allows that to happen.

Many of us know Yoda’s famous Phantom Menace speech, played in its trailers again and again: “Fear is the path to the dark side … fear leads to anger … anger leads to hate … hate leads to suffering.” But in the video, they explore how this “emotional domino theory” constructed by the Jedi is deeply flawed and hugely problematic, not just for the characters in a movie but for the generations of people who grow up idolizing the Jedi. It is the continued insistence that men not show fear or grief or sadness that is often the instigator of anger and violence, not the mere existence of those initial emotions. Bottling up emotions causes them to fester and explode. Yet this is exactly what the Jedi promote.

Also extremely problematic is the way that the movies, especially the prequels, imply that “it’s loving relationships with other persons that leads men down the path to evil … close relationships with women, in particular, are framed as the most dangerous—emotional bonds with women are framed as something that eats away at a man’s sanity.” We see this happen to Anakin twice, in his reaction to his beloved mother’s death and in his adoration of his (secret) wife, which is mingled with fear for Padme’s safety:

It’s made abundantly clear that Anakin turns into Darth Vader because he’s unable to suppress his love for the women in his life … embedded in that plot point is a toxic idea, that emotional intimacy and connection with women represents a loss of control for men.

“That women are the catalyst for men’s loss of control is a deeply sexist worldview,” Pop Culture Detective emphasizes. They highlight a scene in which Anakin, upset over disturbing dreams about Padme, goes to Yoda to ask the great Jedi master for counsel, and receives what they term “the worst advice in the history of the galaxy” from Yoda: “The fear of loss is a path to the Dark Side … train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”

When you step back and look what Yoda tells Anakin to do, Yoda is prescribing a cold, self-enforced emotionless state utterly separated from anyone and anything that Anakin has dared to care about. He is, in short, describing how to become Darth Vader. And now I’m pretty much done looking at Yoda as a source of wisdom ever again.

Ultimately, the video concludes:

Jedi philosophy gets it entirely backwards: emotional detachment doesn’t prevent men from turning to the Dark Side, emotional detachment is the cause of men turning to the Dark Side. Listening to the teachings of Yoda and Obi-Wan is a guaranteed recipe for creating lonely, angry, broken people.

This was an intriguing and eye-opening interpretation for me that I largely agree with. Anakin’s experience in the prequels puts forth the narrative that it was his emotional involvement that made him vulnerable to manipulation and a turn to evil; a lifetime with the Jedi and their creed only twisted him and made him doubt his every instinct until it was too late. Empathy was his downfall, those movies suggest. He cared too much for others when he was supposed to feel nothing and look where it got him.

Ironically, Luke’s journey, filmed decades before, showed that involved emotionality from a man can lead to ultimate heroism and help take down an Emperor. But Luke wasn’t raised by the Jedi in his formative years, and his training with both Ben Kenobi and Yoda was brief. He was free to access the sentiment that helped guide Darth Vader back to being Anakin Skywalker in the end. No Jedi power could have accomplished that. In his success, Luke accomplished a sounder refutation of Jedi philosophy than all of Anakin’s destruction.

As the movies moved into a more modern age, they appear to have gone backward in their understanding and depiction of heroic masculinity. It’ll be interesting to see what, if anything, Star Wars does with the Order and their teachings in the future. Up until The Last Jedi the matter went largely unaddressed—save for highlighting the continued missteps and almost total disappearance of the Jedi. It seems like the Jedi failure rate has some pretty massive repercussions. Might be time to rethink that curriculum.

(via Pop Culture Detective, image: Lucasfilm)

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Kaila is a lifelong New Yorker. She's written for io9, Gizmodo, New York Magazine, The Awl, Wired, Cosmopolitan, and once published a Harlequin novel you'll never find.