When Jedi Knight Obi-Wan Kenobi was first introduced to audiences in the 1977 movie A New Hope, he nostalgically described the fallen Jedi Order as a benevolent organization. From his perspective, the Jedi Knights were “guardians of peace and justice in the Old Republic.”
As more and more installments of the Star Wars universe aired, however, this initial impression became increasingly harder to justify. This was the organization that “obtained” orphaned children from battlefields across the galaxy, and rather than give them therapy, turned them into unfeeling child soldiers. It was the entity that pressured children and teenagers to bury their feelings of anger and love so deeply that if they ever slipped up, then they were told that they could become some of the Galaxy’s worst monsters.
To be a “good” Jedi or Sith, you had to go your entire life feeling either rage or nothing at all. It is toxic masculinity as a religion, and we see this mindset with both the light and the dark.
The Dark Side Of Masculinity
The Force — the cosmic entity that flows through all living things — is all about balance. The dark and light sides are described as interconnected aspects of the same whole, and so we cannot talk about the Jedi without also first addressing the Sith.
The most famous Sith in the public imagination is Anakin Skywalker, father of Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), who is known infamously by his moniker Darth Vader. The legacy of his image lingers with us even today. We remember Vader for his deep-sounding voice (brought to us by the magic of James Earl Jones) and his sickening black cape, but there is another aspect of his personality that always lies just below the surface — his rage.
We see Vader throughout the first three films choke rebel alliance foot soldiers, freeze dissenters in carbonite, and give the order to destroy entire worlds. The Empire and Sith are modeled loosely off of Nazi Germany, so unsurprisingly, this violence is embedded into the code of the Sith Religion itself. The first line of the Sith Code begins by claiming:
“Peace is a lie, there is only passion.”
The Sith are not talking about the entire spectrum of emotion here when they use the word passion. The only type of emotion we see them express care in cultivating is anger. As Emperor Palpatine (Ian McDiarmid) tells Luke Skywalker in Return Of The Jedi (1983):
“Let the hate flow through you”.
In one of Vader’s most well-quoted scenes, he is arguing with a subordinate (Richard LeParmentier) about the force. He then utters the line, “I find your lack of faith disturbing,” and uses the force to choke his dissenter into submission. His application of the force here is the ultimate expression of masculine anger, powerful, but unexpressive at the same time.
Vader is chill, which is to say that he is holding in barely contained rage at all times.
The ability to express yourself through physical violence while not being able to handle your emotions is an integral part of toxic masculinity. When discussing the link between masculinity and anger, the American Psychological Association posted the following in the fall of 2018:
“In early childhood, violence and aggression are used to express emotions and distress. Over time, aggression in males shifts to asserting power over another, particularly when masculinity is threatened”
To be a man, you have to be willing to hurt those trying to expose your natural limitations, and if there’s one thing Vader is, it’s a man.
In the force choke scene described above, the subordinate is expressing the fear that the Rebels — who have just stolen plans for the Empire’s planet-destroying superweapon the Death Star — will uncover an exploitable structural weakness. Vader dismisses this legitimate concern and then waxes poetically about the force. His subordinate scoffs at his religiosity, and that is when Vader intervenes with a good force choke.
This scene is meant to demonstrate Vader’s power, but in retrospect, it makes him seem weak. Vader’s inability to examine his weaknesses — both tactically and emotionally — leads to the destruction of a starbase the size of a moon.
The latest trilogy still lives in the shadow of Anakin’s performative anger. Minor antagonist Kylo Ren (Adam Driver) stares longing at Darth Vader’s crushed helmet whenever he needs inspiration or direction. He looks up to him as a role model on how to behave, and he replicates that raw masculine energy constantly. Rather than process his own emotions, Kylo will do things like smash computer terminals with his lightsaber.
Vader and Kylo Ren’s violence are toxic by design. They are the “bad guys” in these films, and we aren’t supposed to think of their behavior as redeemable (until we are).
While substantially less violent, the light side of the force isn’t much better. It possesses the same emotional stagnation as the Sith.
Like most men, the alternative to anger is nothing at all.
May The Patriarchy Be With You
The Jedi code is about duality, and this fact is echoed within the naming conventions of the primary characters. The word Luke is a derivative of the Latin word lucere — a verb meaning to shine. Luke is literally the light side of the force.
If the Sith are all about unrestrained rage, then you would think that the natural duality to that end of the spectrum would be learning to process your emotions. The Jedi would conquer the Sith by taking that pain and anger and channeling it productively, and compassionately. We would see an Order devoted to cultivating people’s love and joy.
The Jedi, in a way reminiscent of real-world Buddhism and Taoism, instead, focus on the principle of non-attachment. Their entire order is built on not feeling any emotions at all. The Jedi Code begins with the phrase:
“There is no emotion, there is peace.”
For most of the in-universe lore (and indeed all of the movies), Jedi are not allowed to marry. They are discouraged from forming significant attachments outside of their paternalistic relationship with their masters. We see this sentiment echoed with Anakin. We learn from The Phantom Menace (1999), that before being whisked away by mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi, he was a slave on the desert planet of Tatooine.
To become a Jedi, he had to commit to not only never see his mother again, but never to feel anything about her at all. When he consults Master Yoda about visions of someone in his life dying, he is told to stop thinking about it:
“Careful you must be when sensing the future, Anakin! The fear of loss is a path to the Dark Side. Rejoice for those around us who transform into the Force. Mourn them, do not. Miss them, do not. Attachment leads to jealousy, the shadow of greed, that is. Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”
It should be noted that telling a person with PTSD to cut off their emotional past is not healthy. Anakin would bury these feelings of trauma deep within himself, and like a lot of men, it meant he was ill-equipped to handle future disappointment and pain. This pressure to hide his feelings behind a facade of detachment is an integral part of toxic masculinity. As Bell Hooks explained:
“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence towards women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves.”
When Anakin inevitably developed feelings, in this case, romantic ones for Queen Amidala or Padmé (Natalie Portman), the shame instilled in him by the Jedi Order caused him to handle everything in secret. By the time people like his master attempted to provide emotional support, Anakin had become the very thing the Jedi had feared. As he told Padmé in Revenge Of The Sith (2005):
“I won’t lose you the way I lost my mother. I am becoming more powerful than any Jedi has ever dreamed of, and I’m doing it for you. To protect you.”
Rather than an inevitable outcome of emotion, however, this consequence seems to be a result of his improper support system. One has to wonder if the trauma of losing someone “like he lost his mother” would still be as potent if he had had the emotional space to process that pain. As Dr. Nakia Gordon, a professor of psychology at Marquette University, remarked to Discover Magazine about Yoda’s philosophy:
“The first thing I thought of when you sent this request was my interpretation of Yoda as asking Jedi not to feel any emotion (which would just be bad). You need emotions to make informed decisions, and more recently, research has demonstrated that people make more cooperative decisions when they made a choice quickly and emotionally, rather than thinking “rationally” about it.”
The Jedi were constructed to respond to emotion not as we feel them, but as most men think they should be. This toxic mindset is one that has continued into the present day.
Compassion Without Feeling
There is a scene in The Return Of Skywalker (2019) where Jedi Rey (Daisy Ridley) is on the sands of Pasaana fighting with Sith Kylo Ren over an escape shuttle. They are both using the force to push the craft back and forth, and in a flash of anger, Rey loses control and releases a wave of force lightning. The blast eviscerates the ship, and as a result, we are led to believe that her Wookie friend Chewbacca has died.
Her emotions killed her friend.
It’s clear here that even as our norms on masculinity have evolved, the Star Wars universe continues to struggle with how the Jedi should operate in a more equitable world.
On the positive end, the movie demonstrates several examples of Rey showing compassion to creatures and entities that past Jedi would have sliced down without a moment’s hesitation. There is one scene, in particular, where Rey heals a menacing-looking sandworm, in a way that nicely juxtaposes to how Luke Skywalker killed a Rancor in Return Of The Jedi.
She questioned the sandworm’s right to exist, while Luke did not.
Women are often given the role of “the healer” in fantasy films, though, so it remains to be seen whether this is a breaking of a masculine role or the enforcement of one.
Additionally, as with most Jedi, Rey is still not allowed to feel. When her emotions become too potent, as they did on the sands of Pasaana, they fall beyond her control and are immediately weaponized. This follows the “traditional” model of masculinity that we have spent this entire article critiquing, and it makes one wonder if this franchise intends to truly evolve at all.
There was an attempt in The Last Jedi (2017), the second movie in the latest trilogy, to deconstruct the toxic masculinity in the Jedi Order. We had an entire subplot where Rey pushed against the stubbornness of a much older Luke Skywalker, who had retreated to the edge of the galaxy to avoid dealing with his perceived failures. The primary one being that he had attempted to preemptively kill Kylo Ren because he feared the young Jedi was heading to the dark side. Rey chastized him for this extreme measure:
“Ben, no! You failed him by thinking his choice was made. It wasn’t. There is still conflict in him. If he turned from the dark side, that could shift the tide. This could be how we win.”
She was advocating for a message of understanding and compassion that did not categorize the world into dark or light. This conversation was refreshing to many feminist critics, but a fan backlash seems to have caused the franchise to reverse course.
Sadly, The Rise Of Skywalker does not deconstruct what it means to be a Jedi but instead speaks of the force in the same dark-light dichotomy that has existed since the first movie. When discussing how Rey “brought balance to the force,” co-writer Chris Terrio told IndieWire:
“I think that the balance is restored, because the dark had been growing much, much more powerful than the light. By Rey striking this blow, it doesn’t mean that everything is happily ever after forever, but it means that at least for this moment in time, the dark has been held off as the light has pushed back.”
This interpretation, while useful for setting up future installments, does little to help people understand why past Sith have gone to the dark side. When we look at the galaxy’s most infamous fallen Jedi, they appear to have turned to the dark side because they weren’t able to talk about their feelings. Kylo fled because his master and mentor, Luke, tried to kill him for communicating with Supreme Commander Snoke. Anakin had to keep his feelings of pain and love a secret from the Jedi Order. Even Palpatine is primarily motivated by the fear of death — a concern detached Jedi aren’t supposed to think about.
By essentializing these men’s “evil” as an inevitability, the Jedi never have to question how their mentality pushes their fallen away. Rey may have brought balance to the force by killing the Sith, but we have yet to see a meaningful reformation to the Jedi ideology.
Balance To The Force
For most of the Star Wars universe, the Sith and Jedi represent the two sides of “traditional” masculinity. Feelings are framed either as a weapon or a weakness. You can either lash out against the world as a Sith or bury your feelings deep inside yourself as a Jedi. The Jedi Order is composed of a group of repressed men (and a few women) who would rather watch the galaxy burn than talk about their feelings.
There is an argument to be made that protagonist Luke Skywalker won at the end of Return Of The Jedi by disregarding the light-dark dichotomy of the Jedi Order. His decision to love his father prompts Vader to renounce the emperor and throw him into the Death Star’s main reactor. The same can be said of Rey, who reaches out to Kylo, and through understanding, helps him to return to the light.
In the Expanded Universe (now decanonized by Disney as Star Wars Legends), Luke Skywalker attempts to build a more compassionate Jedi Order. He allows Jedi to marry and marries Jedi Mara Jade. He learns from the dogmatism of the past and tries to prevent future Jedi from following his father’s path. Luke brings balance to the force, not by evening out a cosmic chessboard, but by correcting its mistakes.
If Rey wants to do the same for the next inevitable trilogy, then she should reflect on why Kylo and Anakin turned to the dark side. The galaxy needs Jedi that can express their emotions — who can vacillate between more than only rage and nothingness — and the world needs that as well.
UPDATE (01/13/20): a previous version of this article claimed that a male-presenting Jedi had never healed before. This is untrue. Kylo healed Rey at the end of Rise Of Skywalker.