Now that Star Wars: The Force Awakens (TFA) is finally out, box office records are being broken and fans are gushing with praise. Quietly though, the film’s greatest success may be its smackdown of the nerd community’s Dark Side.
MAJOR SPOILERS FOR STAR WARS THE FORCE AWAKENS
It’s been simultaneously a great and troubling couple of years for women in mass culture. Mad Max Fury Road is arguably the greatest film of the year and happens to be powerfully feminist; just nine months prior to the film’s release, Anita Sarkeesian canceled a visit to Utah State University due to a crescendo of death threats over her reporting on sexist tropes in video games. Reports of men harassing women at comic conventions led to a petition for the San Diego Comic Con to create and enforce policies that would protect female attendees. This sort of story is nothing new; rather, it’s the tip of an iceberg featuring a certain breed of (in most cases) white males who treat nerd culture as their proverbial golf club and have harassed, belittled and alienated anyone who wants to make it more welcoming (full disclosure, white man writing here).
Enter Kylo Ren. Decked out in familiar black and a menacing mask, it’s clear he’s the baddie in TFA from the moment he slaughters civilians in the first scene. Eventually we learn he’s the son of Han Solo and General Leia, channeling his inner emo to become the new Vader. Meanwhile, we’re also introduced to Rey, an orphaned scavenger struggling to survive on a desert planet, and Finn, a boy kidnapped and brain washed into the neo-Empire, the First Order.
When I first saw the film, Kylo’s unmasking earned some laughter from the audience – I among them. The bravado and menace of this Sith’s exterior didn’t encase a broken, scarred villain – the helmet’s removal revealed a gawky, plain youth, sapping any fear that had been built up. By the time the film hits its climax though, his looks take on a greater meaning.
As a white privileged offspring of royalty, connected to a lineage of religious knights, Kylo takes his silver platter and uses it to become the worst person in the galaxy. When he fights Finn in a lightsaber duel, then finally faces Rey, we’re offered a bit of catharsis the real world has yet to deliver: a young black man and a young white woman join forces against an oppressive, privileged brat who thinks he’s coolest, baddest king of the world, when really he’s just an entitled asshole who needs to be taken down a peg. Suddenly Kylo’s face becomes a synecdoche for the white male nerd community that’s terrorized a plethora of “Others” who continue to fight for equal admittance into popular culture.
Is this an intentional move by JJ Abrams and Disney? Considering the amount of money that goes into building a merchandising empire around such a film, it’s likely they consciously sought out an alternative to the white male protagonist narrative that’s been played out for decades, deliberately bringing women and African-Americans into the fold (among others–the supporting cast also felt more like a U.N. meeting than previous films). When coupled with a scene where Finn grabs Rey’s resistant hand to lead her away from danger, only to have the table’s turned where he takes her hand as she leads them away from danger, there’s a conscious effort to put aside the old ways of representing women as mere damsels and supporting characters.
Whether Kylo Ren is intended by the makers to represent the old guard of white male nerds is open for debate until a director’s commentary cements the theory. Until that confirmation, I am happy to see women and African-Americans welcomed to the Star Wars universe in a way we haven’t seen before – and pleased to see white privileged masculinity get some just desserts.