WARNING: STAR WARS EPISODE 8: THE LAST JEDI SPOILERS THROUGHOUT. THERE, YOU’VE BEEN WARNED.
The intention of this article is not to debate whether or not The Last Jedi was good, bad, or a SJW-feminazi wet dream. Regardless of your stance, this film triggered some big feels. Some of the biggest feels that impacted audiences was the unexpected yet compelling connection between the film’s protagonist, Rey, and the film’s antagonist, Kylo Ren A.K.A. Ben Solo, A.K.A. Hot-Topic-Darth-Vader-Wanna-Be-Emo-Kid.
In the film, the two are telepathically connected by the force and are able to speak to each other (and see each other) while planets apart. Initially, Rey responds to this intrusion of privacy with justifiable anger and revulsion — she literally just got done kicking his ass in the last film for trying to kill her and like, a million other people. Rey has nothing but piss and vinegar for Kylo Ren — at first. Within a short amount of time, Kylo Ren exposes both his matronly bosom and a very different side of himself through their telepathic/force communication. For the first time, Rey sees something in him besides violence, aggression, and toxic masculinity. He reveals to her the circumstances of the trauma which led to his path down the Dark Side. Rey sees the pain, fear, and sorrow of a damaged little boy and her heart — and mine — grew soft.
I was squirming in my theater seat, conflicted by my own budding feelings of empathy and my total revulsion for Kylo Ren. How could I be empathizing with a man who literally killed thousands of people, as well as one of the most beloved characters in the franchise, his own father, Han Solo. WTF is going on here? Many people felt that this film lacked plot and structure and general purpose, but what it did provide was a VERY accurate depiction of the insidious trap of the male borderline.
What is borderline personality disorder (BPD)? According to the DSM-5 (The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual for Mental Disorders, 5th edition, 2013) BPD is a “severe mental disorder that is characterized by a pervasive pattern of instability in affect regulation, impulse control, interpersonal relationships, and self-image. Our boy Kylo Ren fits the profile like a glove. My evidence: Kylo Ren’s destructive, violent emotional outbursts marked with self-destructive impulses (See Episode VII), his apparent disorganized, insecure attachment to his caretakers (the audience is never given the full narrative, but neglect, abandonment, and betrayal is shown in his encounter with Master Luke), his unstable self-image (his adolescent attempt to emulate ole Grandpa Vader illustrates poor ego development), his simultaneously praise and degradation of Rey in the same sentence (“you’re nothing…but not to me”) like, how long after he tried his best to kill her?
Kylo Ren is weaving the same insidious web characteristic of so many chronic domestic abusers, and Rey, and I, and probably a lot of other people kinda fell for it. How are so many of us hoodwinked by broken men? The problem begins (like so many) with gender bias. In contemporary western culture, we are subjected to the gender binary, a very narrow set of parameters for the designations of “male” and “female.” Within those parameters are societally-enforced roles as to how people can present, particularly in terms of temperament.
Those who are designated female are socialized to value harmony, growth, community, and communication. Those who are socialized female are expected to be more passive, supportive, and receptive than those designated male. They are also expected to be more emotive, running the gauntlet of emotional expressions (until it’s labeled hysterical). Conversely, those designated male are socialized to develop more independently, with more focus on achievement and action. Those socialized male are expected to be more discreet with their emotions, unless it comes to anger, pride, aggression, and passion. Many men are discouraged from displaying emotions like sadness, told instead to develop a stiff upper lip because boys don’t cry.
The consequences of deviating from the gender binary can have huge consequences, especially for those designated female. According to Dr. Andrew E. Skodol, M.D. and Dr. Donna S. Bender, Ph.D. (2003), womxn are diagnosed at a rate THREE TIMES that of men, contributing to the myth that only women are borderline. However, a study of 227 neurotypical college students revealed that those socialized male exhibit far more BPD behavior than those socialized females (Henry & Cohen, 1983; as cited in Skodol & Bender, 2003, pp. 350–351). The authors concluded that “the labeling of certain behaviors as pathological only when they occur in women may contribute to an increased rate of BPD in women” (Henry & Cohen, 1983; as cited in Skodol & Bender, 2003, p. 352). We live in a culture that normalizes violent, emotional outbursts from men and pathologizes the same behavior in womxn. And men suffer as well from their cultural inability to express vulnerability or sorrow.
My theory is that the over-saturation of two-dimensional men creates a desire in womxn to be in relationship with men who exhibit those forbidden emotions, like sadness. The socialization that encourages womxn to nurture and support others makes them the perfect prey for borderline men — they pull you in with their displays of vulnerability, only to trap you in their web of verbal, mental, and often physical abuse. When the bruised and battered womxn tries to leave, he drops back into puppy eyes and sob stories. Sometimes he will even threaten suicide to keep her with him. She then begins to believe that only her goodness and warm consistent, supportive presence can bring him back from the dark side.
It is very important not to romanticize tragically torn, broken men. BPD is an extremely complex and challenging diagnosis with a very poor prognosis. Even with ongoing therapy, medication, and positive social support (and boundaries), the majority BPD patients will struggle with creating and maintaining healthy interpersonal relationships. One of the major differences in presentation of BPD between those designated male and female is the propensity for violence to others (Skodol & Bender, 2003, p. 357), based on biological and social factors. In general, those designated female tend to internalize conflict, while those designated male are much more likely to externalize aggression — hence the reality that virtually all mass shootings are committed by men.
To hold onto the possibility of Kylo Ren’s redemption is to apply the same psychology that labels mass shooters as, “a good kid who went astray,” grossly overlooking the cultural conditions which contributed to the construction of this monster. Kylo Ren is not the real enemy, but he is also not the savior, no matter how much we might want him to become a repentant, shimmery ghost standing next to Anakin, Luke, and Yoda. Clearly, evil did not die with Vader — it is alive and well in toxic masculinity, gender bias, which is overlooked and even romanticized.
A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, Rey demonstrated the true power of the integrated feminine. Like the Goddess archetype of the film, Leia, Rey chose her own self-preservation above self-sacrifice and hacked and slashed her way out of there — an aspect of the feminine that has become taboo in contemporary times.
Regardless of director Rian Johnson’s intentions, The Last Jedi provided important insight into psychological themes that are perhaps more relevant today than ever before. Although “hope” is a central theme in original Star Wars trilogy, it has not been enough to quell the pull of the Dark Side. The cycle of violence, abuse, and manipulation will continue to ravage individuals, families, and communities until we stop enabling and condoning the behavior. That begins with us examining our own culturalization, who it serves, and the consequences of enforcing rigid gender roles.
American Psychiatric Association (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders, 5th edition. Arlington, V.A.: American Psychiatric Publishing.
Skodol, A. E. & D. S. Bender (2003). Why are women diagnosed borderline more than men? Psychiatric Quarterly 74(4).