[CW: mild, passing references to gender-based violence, MH, self-harm and suicide]
Star Wars, a franchise set ‘a long time ago’ as well as ‘far, far away,’ has always been about the past. Star Wars is about things that have happened, rather than things that (more typical for sci-fi movies) have yet to occur. The franchise stores, circulates, and deploys stories and materials about the past: we visit archives on planets like Kamino, Scarif, and Ahch-To; we hear characters from C-3PO (Anthony Daniels) to Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) recount historical narratives; and relics from Han’s lucky dice to Darth Vader’s mask populate the screen. Historically, Star Wars has also always been about creating and maintaining fandoms. The very invitation to visit a galaxy ‘a long time ago’ and ‘far, far away’ seems to have been added to Star Wars (1977, retitled A New Hope in 1981) by filmmakers following market research conducted by distributor Twentieth Century-Fox. While examining Star Wars documents in an LA library, I found that participants in the studies disliked the idea of yet another future-set science-fiction film (Star Trek was old-hat by 1977) but responded positively to the idea of an Arthurian legend that just happened to be set in space. Star Wars was about fan service even before its fans existed.
Yet fast-forward to 2019 and after decades of fan disagreements, retroactive continuity, contentious authorship, corporate buyouts, and toxic online bigotry, the ninth and final instalment of the saga, The Rise of Skywalker, has been broadly criticised by reviewers for its fan service and commitment to the past. Fans and critics alike have taken to social media to declare that the film is terrible – thematically messy (which is true, albeit consistent with most of the franchise’s output), nostalgic, and squandering the narrative potential of the eighth chapter, the Rian Johnson-directed The Last Jedi (2018). In particular, viewers have referred to Kylo Ren’s (Adam Driver) admonishment in Episode VIII to ‘Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to,’ which many read as Johnson’s meta-commentary on the saga’s storytelling. Johnson was telling fans to let go of the past! To kill the darlings of the Star Wars universe! To move on and take the franchise in a new direction! But while The Last Jedi tells us to let the past die, the film fails – for better and worse – to take its own advice. It’s a film just as packed with fan service and nostalgia and troublesome representation as its successor. And in any case, the line is uttered by a fascistic would-be dictator in a bid to overcome the ideologically more progressive Jedi leader of the Resistance, Rey (Daisy Ridley). Killing the past is a self-serving goal, and one that comes with certain danger.
So, in this essay, I argue that we should be cautious about the urge to throw away the past. For from ahistorical analyses to uninformed attacks on people’s fandom and fantasies, many opinions circulating about The Rise of Skywalker could have done with a serious history lesson. As a film critic and film historian with expertise on Star Wars, I therefore want to explore Episode IX’s politics to reveal how conflicting histories both of and within the saga bump up against our emotional responses to Star Wars in meaningful, yet often challenging, ways. I want to complicate the movie’s relationship with The Last Jedi to ensure that we don’t confuse artistic flair with progressive politics. And I want to draw attention to the breadth of our own subjective engagements with Star Wars, its storytelling, and its characters to remind us to act with kindness and care in our criticism and beyond.
The Art of Star Wars
I went to see The Rise of Skywalker full of excitement. I was about to see the final episode of a story that I have enjoyed since I was three years old. I shared a love of the films and cartoons with both of my parents, despite all their differences, and their divorce. I have fond memories of watching Return of the Jedi and The Ewoks on different TV sets in separate familial homes. Star Wars was always there, even when I didn’t think I needed it anymore. It shaped the games I played with my sisters when the prequels came out – I remember trips to the fancy cinema with the comfy seats. The original trilogy was there, again, through hangovers and breakups and depression in my twenties, watched through bleary eyes and with a sense of familiarity alongside friends, under blankets, and with endless of cups of tea. Those same friends accompanied me to midnight screenings to watch the sequels and spin-offs; we drank wine and ate chocolates that looked like tiny Death Stars. Sometimes we would make friends while standing in line. One girl, away from her parents in the US when The Last Jedi was released, was warmly accepted into our makeshift Star Wars family for one cold night in London. I can’t remember her name, but we did our best to make her feel at home.
Rian Johnson’s directorial tenure at the helm of The Last Jedi received an outpouring of praise from professional critics for its arthouse sensibilities. Its slow pacing defies the conventions of action-adventure blockbusters. It incorporates visually stunning mise-en-scene, such as the red-drenched throne room or the red-dashed salt-planet Crait. A moment of almost-silence that pre-empts two ships crashing together is sonically brilliant. The Last Jedi, so received wisdom goes, is an unexpected and daring departure from the rest of the franchise. It has an aggregate Rotten Tomatoes critic score of 91%, making it second only to The Empire Strikes Back (1980) for popularity. With its cosy, commercial aesthetic, The Rise of Skywalker was always going to struggle to gain similar critical acclaim. It was also the first blockbuster franchise movie released after many film critics applauded Martin Scorsese’s claims that superhero pictures aren’t cinema. Ignoring the classist implications of Scorsese’s assessment (an unnecessary denigration of other people’s taste in an otherwise valid argument about Disney taking up too much theatrical exhibition space), many reviewers publicised their agreement with his evaluation.
For The Last Jedi to receive such positive criticism was no mean feat, then, for a genre film with a mass audience. Academic and critic Robin Wood wrote of the Star Wars franchise in 1986 that ‘it is not that one doesn’t have to think to enjoy Star Wars, but rather that thought is strictly limited to the most superficial narrative channels.’ He didn’t even bother to spell the characters’ names right. Even The Empire Strikes Back, now widely regarded as the best film of the saga, received mixed reviews. Vincent Canby wrote in the New York Times that ‘it is the second film in a projected series that may last longer than the civilization that produced it. Confession: when I went to see The Empire Strikes Back, I found myself glancing at my watch.’ But Empire also had the reputation of its indie-darling director Irvin Kershner to temper the negativity. Variety praised Kershner’s work and the film’s rounded out characters, and the Hollywood Reporter highlighted its more human approach. The LA Herald Examiner’s review called it ‘a poetic space extravaganza.’ As such, The Last Jedi is historically consistent with The Empire Strikes Back: it is the second film in a trilogy, with a left-field director, and an arthouse aesthetic.
There are many elements that I love about Johnson’s film, including its commitment to social causes, such as exposing (even as it remains complicit in) the unethical military-industrial complex. Yet in many ways, Episode VIII is less inventive than Episode V because it relies on the same formulaic, if more nuanced, remake tendencies that critics lambasted in The Force Awakens (2015). The Last Jedi, for example, has a similar five act, five location structure to that in Empire (Rebel convoy/Luke’s island/casino city/Imperial fleet/salt planet in the former, versus ice planet/swamp planet/asteroid/Imperial fleet/Cloud City in the latter).
Like Luke (Mark Hamill) in Episode V, Poe (Oscar Isaac) in Episode VIII makes the mistake of underestimating an authoritative figure (Frank Oz’s Yoda vs Laura Dern’s Vice-Admiral Holdo) because he does not imagine that leaders can look anything unlike himself. Holdo, like Leia (Carrie Fisher) before her, wants to restore the Republic despite its system of governance proving fallible to fascist rule (the Empire/First Order) on two occasions, with no alternate system in mind. In the 1980 movie Luke discovers unwanted information about his parentage and walks unwittingly into a trap set by Vader (David Prowse and James Earl Jones); in the 2017 picture Rey finds out the inverse information about her parents and walks into a trap set by Supreme Leader Snoke (Andy Serkis). The list of similarities goes on, and The Last Jedi’s recall and fan-service elements abound, too. There are walkers (Empire and Return of the Jedi, 1983), the repetition of dialogue (‘Where’s Rey?’), and rebel characters Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran) disguised in enemy clothing (A New Hope).
Rather than tearing up the past, The Last Jedi is indebted to it. Luke is moved to help the Resistance thanks to R2-D2’s nostalgic recall of Leia’s message from A New Hope. Rey saves the ancient Jedi texts from the fire that Luke starts on Ahch-To. Leia is reassured by the appearance of Han’s lucky dice from the Millennium Falcon. Praising the film in the Metro, Larushka Ivan-zadeh called it ‘as reassuring as a well-loved Star Wars duvet.’ To me, ‘Let the past die. Kill it, if you have to,’ was not Johnson’s radical rejection of the nostalgia that has permeated the franchise since its inception in 1977, but rather the dangerous ahistorical wish of a bad guy. Yet upon its release in 2019, The Rise of Skywalker’s attentiveness to the past was immediately decried by critics as lazy nostalgia and fan service of the worst kind; the film does deploy nostalgia in a sentimental way that is not always self-critical.
Nostalgia, in certain forms (not all of them), can be a negative force. As Pam Cook argues in her scholarship on cinematic nostalgia, it is about disavowal, inauthenticity, and longing for something irretrievable. Nostalgia is foundational to fascism as a means of asserting that things used to be better in the past, usually thanks to a false narrative of ethnic or cultural homogeneity. Star Wars, at various points in its lifecycle, has produced this kind of nostalgia not via the ideology of the Empire or the First Order (which remains uncertain), but rather through its own casting, and its narrative of good versus evil. As Clyde Taylor writes in ‘The Master Text and the Jedi Doctrine,’ Star Wars is an ode to an all-American white patriarchy that never existed outside of the white imagination. But killing the past is equally as obnoxious. Michael Dwyer writes that nostalgia, which originated among slaves and people forcibly removed from their homes, can also serve as an ‘affective critique’ that connects us to ideas of home and helps us to reflect on them.
Moreover, destroying the traces of history, of people’s individual and collective memories, is a ploy to eradicate communities perceived as dangerous to the state. It is frequently used by invasive forces – for example, in the ghettoization of Jewish people in the Second World War, or in contemporary refugee camps where the military destroy photos or confiscate historical objects. The less violent, but still insidious, undermining of arts and humanities subjects by right-wing politicians and media outlets in the US and the UK over the past decade is no coincidence. People want us to stop taking Gender Studies, History and modern languages for a reason.
At the End of the Saga, All the White Men are Dead
When I saw The Rise of Skywalker, I was ready to drop from exhaustion. I’d spent almost a year conducting research for a book on The Empire Strikes Back and I’d written it in the three months between October and December of 2019. I’d drafted and redrafted and finished the manuscript four days before Episode IX’s press screening. Somehow, against some quite staggering odds, I’d finished writing a book about Star Wars despite being the survivor in an ongoing complaint of gender-based violence that at times left me self-harming and ideating suicide. Looking back, I realise The Last Jedi was released three days after a man was arrested who harassed, assaulted and stalked me over a period of two years in my twenties.
I went to see The Rise of Skywalker as the first female critic to review Star Wars for the film magazine that I regularly contribute to, in a cultural and fan environment that is hostile to women. Kelly Marie Tran and Daisy Ridley were both hounded off social media by sexist and racist fans. Men dominate film criticism in general, and the gatekeeping of opinions about Star Wars in particular (women have often created their own subcultural and unofficial spaces of fandom, such as zines, to counter the mainstream, male-centric discourse). When I published research on the franchise’s representation of women in 2018, I received threats of physical violence and a barrage of assaults from online attackers across multiple social media platforms, as well as my personal and work emails. Star Wars fandom and discussion sites are not always safe spaces for people experiencing what Kimberlé Crenshaw calls ‘intersecting oppressions‘.
In 2017, The Last Jedi prompted a backlash from a subset of angry and bigoted fans. It has an aggregate audience score of 43% (less than half the critics’ score) on Rotten Tomatoes. Not only does the film ret-con elements of the franchise’s past that some fans find unforgivable, such as the use of the mystical Force to move through time and space as per Kylo and Rey’s ‘Force vision’ conversations, but it also has the most diverse cast. It features Vice-Admiral Holdo, who puts renegade Poe in his place; Rose, the first lead woman of colour in the saga; and it gave more screen time to heroic Rey. Indeed, in my research into the franchise’s representation of women, I found it gives the highest proportion of screen time (43%) to female characters with speaking parts of any canonical movie in the franchise up to 2019. The representation of The Last Jedi in the media as a progressive and inclusive film seems to have fuelled the notion that its critics are by and large racist and sexist trolls.
However, even as someone who enjoyed The Last Jedi, and who praises its efforts toward diverse representation, I remain critical of its ideology and form. For despite having the highest proportion of screen time for women, it is still only 43%: Rey, Rose, Leia, Maz (Lupita Nyong’o), Holdo, and Connix (Billie Lourd) collectively get less representation than Finn, Poe, Kylo, Hux (Domnhall Gleeson) and Snoke. Finn and Rose, two characters of colour, are separated from the mostly white Resistance in a questionable subplot that isn’t necessary to the overall narrative, and Rose is onscreen for just 6% of the film. The picture creates palpable sexual tension between Kylo and Rey in their multiple and arguably abusive exchanges – a fact often overlooked by people critical of the so-called ‘Reylo’ fandom, which ‘ships’ (that is, enjoys fan fiction about a romantic relationship between) the two characters. Moreover, Benicio del Toro’s swindling arms-dealer is a Latino stereotype whose double-crossing of the Resistance isn’t even afforded the same ‘bad guy makes good’ ending as Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) in Empire. Perhaps because of the beauty of its arthouse aesthetic, The Last Jedi’s far from radical politics, failure to include any queer characters, and repetition of narrative beats in The Empire Strikes Back are at best dismissed and at worst ignored by many viewers.
There are similar and legitimate criticisms to make about representation in The Rise of Skywalker. While there is a brief lesbian kiss between a minor character (Commander D’Acy, played by Amanda Lawrence) and her partner toward the end of the film, potential queer relationships, for example between Finn and Poe, are erased from the narrative (that said, Johnson did kill off the pansexual Holdo in the previous film and did not mention her sexuality: queer characters rarely survive to the end of a movie). I did experience brief pleasure when I saw the kiss. As a bi woman, I felt momentarily included in the onscreen universe, and the gesture felt like it might inform future episodes of Star Wars in positive ways. Of course, it is not enough, and a two-second kiss is a corporate cop-out that once again fails many fans.
But perhaps the greatest travesty was the fate awaiting Rose, a character who Abrams neatly returned to the margins and barely gave a moment of meaningful screen time. Writer Chris Terrio has subsequently offered excuses about the difficulties of using archive footage of Leia in sequences with Rose following Carrie Fisher’s untimely death in 2016 – despite filmmakers managing just fine in scenes with Rey. The more likely reason for Rose’s demotion is Abrams and his team giving in to the sexist and racist backlash against Kelly Marie Tran following The Last Jedi. Consequently, their side-lining of the much-beloved character is as sexist and racist as the internet trolls who drove her off of social media. She’s like Lando in Return of the Jedi all over again: brought on in Act II to as a major character and left waiting in the wings in Act III for a cue that never comes. It is the worst thing about the film.
Nevertheless, I disagree with many critics who claim the film entirely gives in to the racism and sexism of the worst kinds of fan. I found that moments of solidarity between the black characters were a refreshing, albeit limited antidote to the overwhelming whiteness of Star Wars. When Finn and Jannah (Naomi Ackie) discuss their shared experiences of rebelling against enslavement by the First Order, and when Jannah and Lando recognise one another as father and daughter, I see the cinematic emergence of black networks and relationships that do not involve white people for the first time in the 43-year-old franchise. Once again, it is not enough, and it should not come at the expense of other characters of colour. But it does not feel like pandering to white supremacists. And nor does the movie’s ending.
The Resistance achieve their victory by drawing on the support of an extensive network of allies and by recognising that, contrary to the First Order’s propaganda, they are not alone. In our own bleak times, as divisions in income and restricted access to basic public services encourage individualism, and with neoliberal isolationist political strategies deployed by far-right governments, The Rise of Skywalker tells us to reach out to one another with love and hope. Yes, the message is superficial given the saga’s historic reluctance to outline a progressive ideology for the rebel fighters. However, in the end, love, hope and solidarity are victorious, and in victory Skywalker engages in a more critical kind of nostalgia. For the Resistance wins thanks to two white women, two black men, a Latino man, a black woman, an Asian American woman and a coalition of alien creatures and droids who are, as Adilifu Nama argues in his book Black Space, racially ‘othered’ within the Star Wars universe. While the Resistance celebrations have a similar aesthetic to the original trilogy, this is not the same kind of whitewashed Rebel victory that we witness in A New Hope or Return of the Jedi. Indeed, at the end of the saga, whiteness and patriarchy are under threat.
At the end of the saga, all the major white male characters with speaking parts are dead. Even the good guys.
Let’s just let that statement sit there, for a moment.
That’s a sentence I could not have envisaged writing when the sequel films were announced back in 2012. At the end of the third Star Wars trilogy, all of the major white male characters with speaking parts are dead. Some live on as Force ghosts, of course, and many help the Resistance achieve victory. But there are no white male heroes or villains for viewers to cheer or identify with or project onto anymore. There are two white women, two black men, a Latino man, a black woman, an Asian American woman and some barely-there white male extras whose personalities are far less developed than the racially othered alien creatures and droids. It’s an ending that turns the white, male history of Star Wars on its head. Finn, it transpires, is the Force sensitive hero who comes from nothing. That’s a remarkable ending. The filmmakers may not have executed the denouement with the precision or attentiveness that audiences longed for, but it feels like a new kind of hope.
White Women Should Check Their Privilege
When I watched The Rise of Skywalker four days after the election of a right-wing UK government with fascist tendencies that many of us believe will cause the deaths of some of the most marginalised people in our society, I didn’t see a film pandering to sexists and racists. I saw one that championed a future led by marginalised people who worked together to overcome a white, patriarchal threat to their existence. And I cried. Star Wars, from its beginning to its current end, has punctuated some of the most traumatising experiences of my life and offered me escapism, fantasy, and moments of recognition and reflection. It has created a buffer between me and the worst excesses of depression and anxiety. It has been my work as a researcher but also a holistic anti-anxiety tonic (taken alongside medication and therapy) that has in turn generated its own anxieties owing to bigoted fans and online abuse. My personal Star Wars history is messy, convoluted and contradictory. Yet, carrying the weight of all this, The Rise of Skywalker made me feel hopeful. It made me feel determined. In its nostalgic callbacks to films that I have watched through family separations, experiences of gender-based violence, and mental illness, it made me feel, for a short time (and as a white, cis, queer woman), safe – like returning home.
While The Rise of Skywalker presents a new and daring kind of future, the past haunts the screen. The nostalgia is at times saccharine: there’s a familiar ship! A beloved character! A much-used prop! However, it also, like The Last Jedi, insists that the past can be useful. The imposter-syndrome-fuelled young leaders of the Resistance—Rey’s uncertainty about her right to carry Luke’s old lightsaber is a recognisable millennial trait—are supported throughout the film by the older generation. Luke, Leia and Lando give them guidance, and Han Solo (Harrison Ford) encourages his son Kylo to return to the Light Side of the Force. There are no ‘OK Boomer’ memes to be had here, for we see the beauty of inter-generational solidarity networks whereby elders support the younger generations. Meanwhile, the same Rey that saved the archive in The Last Jedi is unafraid to destroy the dangerous relics of the past in The Rise of Skywalker that might rally the Dark Side. She smashes Vader’s helmet and burns Kylo’s ship. Symbols of hate have no place in the future she envisages.
It is her own past, though, that she must reconcile, and which has left many of the movie’s most vocal critics aghast. ‘Rey from nowhere’ in The Last Jedi becomes Rey Palpatine, granddaughter of the reanimated Emperor (Ian McDiarmid), in The Rise of Skywalker. It is a plot twist that makes the sequels’ narrative all about bloodlines. The revelation does not make much sense (Who are her parents? How did the Emperor survive? Why did her parents sell her on Jakku to keep her safe?). But Star Wars has always been a strange, convoluted joyride of retroactive continuity and rhythmically insistent narrative beats that make up the rhyming stanzas of an epic poem. The creators have always been making it up as they go along. Its inability to tell a straightforward story and its chaotic anything-goes approach to plotting while maintaining narrative symmetry has always been one of its attractions for me. Of course Kylo was going to turn to the Light Side following the death of his mother (Anakin fell to the Dark Side following the death of his mother in the prequels). Of course Luke was going to be a grumpy hermit on a remote planet (after all, Yoda was too). And of course Rey was going to be related by blood to a powerful Force-sensitive family. It doesn’t always make sense how it happens, but it somehow makes sense that it happens at all. That’s how Star Wars goes.
In Rey’s case, it’s also how real life goes, too. The young, white powerful Jedi who seems to come from nowhere and dazzles the galaxy with her talent should have the privilege of aristocratic blood. Just a week before Skywalker’s theatrical release, actress Daisy Ridley gave what was widely perceived by readers as a car-crash interview in which she denied that her privilege and private education had been advantageous to her career in acting. She suggested that her struggle had been the same as that of her black co-star John Boyega, who grew up on a council estate and had no industry connections to help him. Responses to the interview on social media rightly derided Ridley’s lack of self, or indeed social, awareness. She was not the only talented and successful white woman whose privileged past was revealed in 2019: see also Olivia Colman, who famously quipped about being a cleaner in her Oscars acceptance speech but failed to mention her private and Cambridge university education, and Phoebe Waller-Bridge having an aristocratic family tree. We may not like it, but many white, aspirational female cultural figures are in positions of power because of their bloodlines. Their ancestry does not undermine their talent, but it should cause us to pause and reflect on the barriers to success for women without powerful relatives – especially women of colour. That Rey should have to face up to the inevitability of her white privilege is entirely fair.
Rey, then, rejects both the Dark Side and Palpatine’s offer of total power and chooses to keep fighting for oppressed peoples within the galaxy (which is, unfortunately, white saviourism). Like all the Resistance characters, she works to overcome a history that would reduce her to a stereotype. In her case, it is the barely-there burden of white class privilege. For the other characters, it’s the stereotypes that white people in particular project onto people of colour that are then reproduced by the filmmakers. Thus, for black Finn, it is a past as an enslaved child soldier and janitor. For Poe, played by Latino actor Isaac, it’s a career as a drug smuggler. And for Asian American actress Tran as Rose, it’s the overlooked engineer who exists in the background (what a shame that Abrams wrecked her narrative). None of these characters, with their intersectional oppressions of gender, race, and class, is allowed to destroy their past, though, as one humorous scene attests when Finn and Rey discover Poe’s former life as a ‘spice’ runner. They are allowed to move on, but unlike Kylo Ren, they cannot kill the past to become what they were ‘meant to be’ without the privilege of white patriarchy on their side. And who would want to? See Threepio has his memory erased and loses a history of experiences that are essential to his sense of self. ‘Rey from nowhere’ would have been a win for white women everywhere, I’m sure, but it would have been a racialised fantasy, nonetheless.
Representation – Even Reylo – Matters
Three days after Christmas I gave my ten-year-old nephew a Lego Kylo Ren. He had already seen The Rise of Skywalker and my sister told me that his favourite character was now Kylo (it was Rey after The Force Awakens and there was a brief period of Vader fandom, too). I had moral misgivings about buying my nephew a Kylo toy; maybe I should have bought him a Finn or Rey to encourage him to look beyond the saga’s predominantly white, male characters. However, I don’t see him often and wanted to give him something that he would play with rather than leave in a box. So, Kylo won out. My nephew loved the gift, and in a moment of downtime between family games and the mayhem of Christmas gatherings, he built Kylo’s ship and we talked about the new Star Wars film. Was Kylo his favourite? Yes. Why? Because he became good again even though he was bad. Who would my nephew be if it was real life? One of the Resistance, obviously. ‘Because it’s not actually true,’ he said without missing a beat, looking at me like I’d grown wings between rounds of charades. ‘It’s a film.’ And he’s right. The Rise of Skywalker is a film, and a ten-year-old can enjoy the murderous actions of a fantasy villain while recognising that his own real-life actions should be modelled on heroic figures like Rey, Finn and Poe. I’m a thirty-something film critic with a PhD in Film Studies and I was bested by a little boy with a red Lego lightsaber.
And so, The Rise of Skywalker carried the weight of millions of childhood, adolescent, and adult expectations; a million voices all waiting to cry out if the story didn’t go their way. A million valid voices, I should add, for everyone is entitled to be upset, overjoyed or ambivalent about the media they consume within the boundaries of respect for others’ humanity (which is to say sexism, racism and other forms of bigotry are not legitimate foundations for film criticism in any context).
Of course, the relationship between cinema—including the fantastical—and our broader understandings of power and identity are complicated. Films of all genres are informed by the cultural conditions in which they are made and, in turn, create culture that informs how we understand the world. The magic of cinema is its endless capacity to inspire debate, to spark subjective interpretations, and to generate empathy for people who are not like ourselves. As Giuliana Bruno writes in Atlas of Emotion, cinema opens up spaces beyond the screen that we vicariously inhabit as tourists, whereby we take in the sights and sites of other environments before returning to our seats and daily lives.
We never truly disappear from ourselves—we all carry our baggage and biases in our rucksacks with us on our journeys—but for a short time we identify with others. We can be a fearless galactic senator who stops at nothing in her battle against the evil Empire (Leia), or an engineer whose bravery is so great she tells her friends when they’re wrong (Rose). We can also be, whatever our personal politics on the dark side of the screen in the movie theatre, ruthless dictators (Vader, Palpatine, Kylo). A polite, empathetic ten-year-old boy can, if he wants, play act for two hours in the broken mask of a deeply flawed man and not tarnish his own character or sense of self.
A major problem, though, is that the representation of minorities in the Star Wars franchise, and in Hollywood cinema in general, has been inconsistent and limited. In fact, up to the end of The Last Jedi, and including both spin-off movies Rogue One (2016) and Solo (2018), my research suggests that women of colour have had just 1.4% of meaningful screen time (that is, speaking and being active agents in the narrative) in the saga. The problem, then, isn’t so much that viewers identify with Dark Side characters like Vader and Kylo as that their options for alignment are restricted to mostly white, male figures who are almost without exception engaged in performances of toxic masculinity. For while many survivors of gender-based violence deplore what they see as the abusive behaviour of Kylo toward Rey in the sequel trilogy (for example, he projects himself into her psychological space via ‘Force visions’ despite her protests that she doesn’t want him there), the good guys in Star Wars are historically just as bad.
Blaster-slinging self-professed nice guy Han Solo is widely accepted by audiences as a hero. However, in The Empire Strikes Back, he physically overpowers Leia and coerces her into kissing him against her will in a scene with a deeply troubling rape-apologist subtext (see, she wanted it really). We tend to forgive movies from the past for their sexism and racism because they were ‘of the time.’ But just because it’s an old one doesn’t mean it checks out. It’s hard to defend Han’s behaviour when Take Back the Night marches protesting violence against women had been a staple of US culture since 1975. Han, like Kylo, is also canonically a murderer (his victims are Greedo in the original theatrical release of A New Hope, and Beckett in Solo). Yet, as a nice guy and a hero of the Rebellion, his verbal and physical violence toward a woman is overlooked, and he does not require a redemption arc.
Thus, fans who ship Kylo and Rey are often perceived as deviant by other Star Wars fans online, while people who cosplay Han gets high-fives and hero treatment. There is surely something gendered going on here. Fantasies, and fanfic, are sites of potential play and kink with self-set boundaries, as well as endless possibilities for identifying with characters of different genders within spaces that we control (for an overview of fanfiction scholarship, see Lori Morimoto’s work). The history of fanfiction and fannish behaviour such as cosplay is a long one, and they are practices that should not be shamed, whatever someone’s gender or favourite character. Moreover, our own pasts are always present in our viewing experiences and fandom. There is no accounting for tastes, and we should act with care when we discuss how others invest both emotionally and psychologically in the fantasy worlds of cinema.
We Had Each Other, That’s How We Won
I saw The Rise of Skywalker for a second time in a multiplex cinema surrounded by ordinary families. There were kids who would grow up wanting to play with lightsabers like Rey. There were children seeing a sci-fi film with black characters who made positive contributions to the narrative. Everyone learned about the importance of working together. One child left the theatre asking their parents if they could get a cat called Babu Frik. Another had only one word to say: wow.
Now I am online watching people with positions of power make selective critiques of the various films, leaving out racism here, overlooking sexism there, to more vociferously defend their favourite film or outline why The Rise of Skywalker is the worst thing in the history of Star Wars. Ben Shapiro likes the film so that confirms that it’s white supremacist patriarchal garbage! (You do know Leia makes racial slurs against other species in the original trilogy? And that all the white women in Star Wars have always been clones of Leia?). I’ve witnessed people call out queer readings of characters as childish, as if we don’t all have different, evidence-based and subjective, engagements with cinema. Everyone, it seems, wants to ensure that if they didn’t enjoy The Rise of Skywalker, no one should.
Consequently, the rumour mill churns, opinions circulate, and all the while history repeats itself with every new Star Wars film’s release. Reviewers rightly decry the behaviour of toxic elements of the fandom; fans are rightly upset by the elitism of some reviewers. Everyone argues, and people erase the saga’s troublesome past to score social media points in the present. International news outlets (and a Star Wars director) circulate a problematic study with a small sample size written by a man in a bid to prove that most of the online Star Wars trolls are just bots. Nothing to see here! Everyone ignores the intersectional study with a wider sample conducted by Bethany Lacina that suggests that, sadly, most of the hate is perpetuated by real people and that women of colour are worst affected by the attacks.
But amid the chaos, Star Wars carries on. Perhaps the greatest thing about this big, messy, chaotic disaster of a franchise (and I say this with absolute affection) is that it can mean so many different things to so many people. It can be a warm hug from a wookiee one moment, and a lightsaber blade to the chest in the next. It can change over time; a palimpsestic behemoth inscribed with our always-shifting political sensibilities and personal tastes. It can, through its analogue and digital visual effects, teach us about the history of filmmaking. It can reveal attitudes toward gender and race that were endemic in the cultural moment of each film’s production. It can do all of these things because Star Wars is not only about a fictional past, but also has a real past of its own that we should recognise and interrogate, and, if we want to, enjoy.
Letting the franchise’s past die is not going to improve women of colour’s representation either onscreen or in the writer’s room or in the director’s chair of future Star Wars movies; killing the past isn’t going to make the cultural conditions in which Star Wars is made any less sexist or racist or in thrall to the corporate film industry. But if we remain attentive to its history and actively resist the mistakes of the past, then maybe – hopefully – we can create a kinder fandom and fight for a more equitable saga. So, don’t be the angry, dejected old Jedi who would burn up the past and destroy everything; instead be the spark that lights the fire that keeps history and hope alive. And whatever you do, don’t let the past die: critique it because we have to, so that we can learn from it and make the spaces of Star Wars more considered – and more considerate – in future.
by Rebecca Harrison
Rebecca Harrison is a feminist film critic, broadcaster and academic. She contributes to outlets including Sight & Sound, MAI: Feminism and Visual Culture, and the BBC. She is currently writing about The Empire Strikes Back for the BFI Film Classics series.
Categories: Anything and Everything, Feminist Criticism
Just want to say you’re one of the view places who noted that “kill the past” was not aspirational. Appreciate that others saw that.