Image via Disney/Lucasfilm.
**MAJOR SPOILERS AHEAD!**
Ahh. Ben “Kylo Ren, Son of Darkness, Heir Apparent to Lord Vader” Solo. You might love him. You might hate him. But you gotta love to hate him, you know?
I’ve written briefly about this character before, but astoundingly, I’ve yet to significantly contribute to all the Kylo discourse that’s been floating around the interwebs for the last few years, likely in the name of salvaging my own sanity. But, these are Pandemic Times, so to hell with it; what is sanity, anyway? I’m gonna dive into everyone’s favorite Dark Emo Space Prince, and I’m in luck. There is so much material to mine here, to the point where–when I began drafting this post–I wasn’t even quite sure where to start.
In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if Kylo makes another appearance on this blog sometime in the future; he’s a phenomenal enough antagonist that you can keep refering back to him like a Powerpoint presentation. He’s one of those characters that I, as a writer, am infuriated by, simply because I wasn’t clever enough to concoct him myself.
So, as such, I hesitate to associate him with the term “monster,” because of the nature of his arc.
For the uninitiated, it goes a little something like this:
- Ben Solo, the son of Han Solo and Leia Organa (and the grandchild of Anakin Skywalker, aka Darth Vader) grew tired of being a Good Boi and succumbed to his daddy issues, transforming himself into Kylo Ren. He uses the force to do Bad Things under the instruction of his New Dad, an evil emperor who’s like, “Han Solo and your Uncle Luke don’t get you like I do, young man. Come hang out with me instead.” New Dad even grants him leadership over the Knights of Ren, who…okay, no one really knows what the hell the Knights of Ren actually do, but they look like Slipknot, which is cool. Anyway.
- While Bad Boi-ing all over the galaxy, along comes a burgeoning force user named Rey. She’s powerful, badass, and eventually revealed to be the other half of his soul, in what’s called a Dyad (like Harry Potter and Voldemort, but with the added bonus of sexual attraction). So Kylo’s like, “Oh, this girl? Yeah, I wanna marry her. I’m gonna kill my boss and usurp his throne so she can be my queen.”
- He does just that, but Rey’s not interested. She’s like, “You’re hot, but if you wanna be my lover, you’ve gotta get with my friends/give up the dark side for good and surrender to the pull of the light that’s always been inside of you.”
- Kylo’s like, “I’m pretty into you, so I guess that’s fine.” He renounces his title as SuPrEmE lEaDeR kYl0 rEn and becomes Ben Solo once more. He helps Rey defeat her evil grandfather (it’s…a long story), they make out, and he sacrifices himself to save her life.
- Roll the credits. End the Star War.
In summation, Kylo’s arc is more reminiscent of the Byronic hero archetype than any of the other “monsters” we’ve covered on this blog, so it becomes difficult to analyze him within quite the same context. But he is, by all accounts, an antagonist, albeit a deeply conflicted one. And it’s these complexities that have made the character so fascinatingly controversial among Star Wars fans.
It’s widely-accepted within the fandom that Kylo is, put simply, detestable. He’s often dismissed as being too petulant, spoiled, overly-emotional, and reckless to be considered a “good” Star Wars villain (he’s also responsible for the death of Han Solo, which people, y’know, understandably dislike). He’s posited, both narratively and among fans, as wholly antithetical to the cold, stoic masculinity that made Darth Vader so imposing.
Culturally-speaking, if Darth Vader is the high school quarterback, then Kylo Ren is the loner in a trenchcoat who listens to Halsey and has pictures of skulls in all his notebooks (like the rest of us).
But to make these comparisons with disdain is to misunderstand the sheer genius in how the character was written and portrayed. What makes Kylo so compelling is that he’s not Darth Vader. He yearns to be composed and frightening but isn’t. And despite all the acts of violence he displays in an effort to exude this sort of heavy metal masculinity, he fails miserably at it. He’s not a supervillain; he’s a man who, over three films, struggles to cope with his identity as he falls in love.
So from this arc, there’s an unfortunate stereotype that arises within fandom: that Kylo is “too girly” to be interesting.
Okay. Like, I get it. Ben Solo is Mr. Darcy in space. He’s Heathcliff of Wuthering Heights. He’s not the bogeyman so much as the Phantom of the Opera–tortured, lonely, and singularly obsessed with a young woman he believes to be his salvation.
There’s something inherently romantic in both the iconography of the character and the way he’s portrayed: from the feathery hair and the black cape billowing in the wind, to dialogue such as “I offered you my hand once,” to the brooding intensity that Adam Driver brings to the role, so effortlessly-hypnotic in its presentation that it made the introverted actor into a reluctant, modern-day sex symbol.
JJ Abrams, who directed both The Force Awakens and The Rise of Skywalker, once said of the character: “He just looks like a sort of prince.” And I think this was wholly intentional in his design. If Ben is a prince who’s been brainwashed and manipulated by a dark wizard, then Rey is the brave knight who sets out to rescue him.
This reexamination of gender roles and the Disney prince/princess’s quintessentiality was something women gravitated to in droves, energized by a sympathetic portrayal of a male antagonist, and a female protagonist who served as the romantic, swashbuckling hero. Kylo remains, arguably, the most popular character to have emerged from this new slate of Star Wars content, rivaled only, perhaps, by Baby Yoda. And according to many pop culture heads (myself included), his nuance, complexities, and subtle subversion of toxic masculinity make him the greatest Star Wars villain of all time.
But utter those words to a bro, or a so-called “real” fan, and you’d be laughed off the metaphorical stage and into the parking lot outside. It’s an abject travesty how little respect and credence is given to Kylo as an antagonist, all because he teeters a bit more on the emotional side.
So…why is that? Why do we, culturally, so ravenously despise portrayals of masculinity in media that lean towards the romantic, emotional, or “effeminate” (looking at you, Edward Cullen)? I believe the answer lies in our societal unwillingness to accept two things:
1). That femininity does not equal bad, lesser than, or inadequate.
2). That men can be vulnerable, too.
To tackle the first point, we need to discuss the cultural connotations surrounding the word “hysteria.” Women (especially teen girls) often fight consistent stereotypes regarding emotionality dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries.
Hysteria was considered an exclusively-female affliction, born of the Greek word for womb, hystera. Hippocrates and Plato believed that the womb tended to just mosey around the female body from time to time, thus leading to a multitude of illnesses and afflictions.
(L-, and I cannot stress this enough, O-L).
The mere expressions of emotional peaks and valleys–which could have been brought on by any number of things, people, or circumstances–were viewed as lowly, despicable, and sometimes even evil, as hysteria was often thought to be the work of sorcery or dark magic. People were so simultaneously fearful and dismissive of these women that their “affliction” was often treated through forced isolation, where they’d be locked away like prisoners in an asylum until the anxiety passed. This sometimes went on for months at a time.
In the 18th century, French physician François Boissier de Sauvages de Lacroix described hysteria as a condition being “subject to sudden changes with great sensibility of the soul.” Some purported symptoms? Nervousness, dual personalities, dissociation of consciousness, and tears and laughter.
Sounds a bit like fangirling, in my opinion. And you know who’d agree with me? Essayist Paul Johnson, who once wrote in the New Statesman of Beatle-mania: “Those who flock round the Beatles, who scream themselves into hysteria, whose vacant faces flicker over the TV screen, are the least fortunate of their generation, the dull, the idle, the failures.” It is this inherent level of fear, disgust, and pity that, I believe, is irrevocably woven into our culture and ultimately drives our derisive attitude towards all things feminine.
Unbelievably, we only stopped diagnosing hysteria as a relevant psychological disorder in 19-fucking-80. So, given how we aren’t super far-removed from it, it’s easy to see how it’s influenced our perception of female emotionality for the worse. But seeing as how, nowadays, we can’t confine someone to a room for a few months against their will (pandemic life notwithstanding), these stereotypes tend to rear their ugly heads in observations surrounding how women consume media.
So there’s this pervasive idea that female-dominated areas of interest are rooted in shades of mental instability; for instance, look at how crazed women became over Twilight! Or Justin Beiber! Or One Direction! Surely that level of devotion to a film/character/musician/whatever is abnormal, right? Men wouldn’t dream of expressing themselves in such an unhinged way because men are cold and stoic, like Darth Vader!!11
Which brings me to my next point: sure, men may fancy themselves as emotionless and robotic on a very prime, instinctive level, but we’re all human beings. Apart from David Bowie (probably), none of us fell to Earth from a spaceship. None of us were hatched in an egg. Might women feel more comfortable expressing extreme highs of emotion because we live in a world that tells men they shouldn’t be?
Unless, of course, that world includes sports. Point me to a sports fan who doesn’t behave like a teenage girl at a One Direction concert. But I digress.
Research has shown that men who display vulnerability (by way of asking for help) are regarded as incompetent and incapable. Similarly, this trend appears in studies pointing to how men are negatively perceived when they exhibit empathy, are agreeable, and express sadness. They’re also more likely to experience sexual harassment if they identify as feminine or feminist.
The common thread here seems to harken back to a latent fear of hysteria, or of how a man’s life might be affected if he exhibits hysteria-adjacent behavior. Of emasculation by way of emotional expression. After all, let’s not forget the harrowing refrain of our boring, Squidward-energy-heavy friend, Paul Johonson: men cannot–must not–allow their emotions to get the better of them, lest they be subjected to a world of “dullness” and “failure” like their feminine counterparts.
Ladies, raise your hand if you’ve ever felt like a dull failure whilst stanning a band, enjoying romance novels, or getting swept up in a passing feeling or thought? Oh, none of you are raising your hands? You were just having fun and living your best life in the moment and thought absolutely nothing of it? Oh, ok.
With so much unmitigated, repressive bullshit surrounding how men are expected to express themselves, is it any wonder that some people might view a character like Kylo Ren as deplorable, disgusting, or–God forbid–even subconsciously terrifying? Especially when considering that we’re talking about Star Wars, one of the most classically-masculine-leaning examples of storytelling in modern media?
My greatest hope is that, years from now, the world will have learned to teach men how to express themselves; that emotionality is not an explicitly-feminine trait, nor anything to fear, and that femininity itself is not the stuff of bogeymen and sorcery that psychology once made it out to be.
In the meantime, however, people should really start showing Kylo Ren the respect he’s owed. I tend to believe that anything viewed with undue disdain in the present usually goes on to leave a tremendous cultural impact in the future, and I think the same can be assumed of this character. His mere existence as a Star Wars antagonist challenged mainstream audiences to reexamine what it means to be young, male, and powerful, and I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of those ruminations cropping up in pop culture as time goes on.
Sure, Ben made some bad choices. Yes, he even murdered Han Solo in cold blood (but so did Harrison Ford, tbh). But at the end of the day, he was nothing more than a sad, lonely edgelord who just wanted to find love and change his life around. Whom among us can’t relate?
He also looked coma-inducingly hot in a black sweater, which wins him some extra points in my book. But, you know. Neither here nor there.