I want to preface this blog post with an admission that this is for WomanStats, and this blog post will contain no hard data. But, as you can see in our codebook, we do collect data about definitions of manhood & womanhood (DMW-PRACTICE-1) & media (WAM-PRACTICE-1) so that is my justification for this blogpost:
The “action hero” has reflected and perpetuated harmful masculine ideals in movies and television for decades. Elements of this character are seen in nearly every genre, but I’m talking more specifically about the man in action-adventure movies. He’s tough, physically strong, gets things done, and is usually fighting for good (even if he is morally neutral). But he’s also arrogant, stubborn, sees sadness as a weakness, and believes that problems are best solved with violence. These character traits are often promoted as making up the “perfect man” and there has been plenty of conversation about the consequences of this in real life. But this ideal is not supported in one of the most popular and defining series of American culture, if not worldwide: Star Wars. The newest installment, The Force Awakens (which is nearing 3 months since its release), not only made a woman the main hero of the story, but also condemns toxic masculinity with its characterization of its male protagonists.
When I wrote that Star Wars doesn’t support this type of man, I’m sure most people would disagree with me when they think of the smuggler, Han Solo. He certainly is tough, a skilled pilot, and often pretends not to care about anyone but himself, but I think the large fan interpretation of him being a “badass lady killer” is a little unfounded. He’s not a “lady killer” as he’s not particularly charming (although he tries to be), violence is not his ultimate solution (when it comes to fight or flight, escape is his first inclination), and he’s not actually all that self-involved (despite his feelings for her, he promises Leia he “won’t get in the way” of her and Luke before he learns they’re siblings). Leia Organa is assertive and snarky, but she can also be loving. Luke Skywalker is a hero in a science fiction-action film, but he’s still more of an idealistic farmboy.
When Star Wars does employ the harmful masculine ideal, it’s found in the antagonists. Darth Vader wears a mask all the time, so maybe it isn’t completely fair to call him emotionless when we can’t see his emotions, but his first reaction to many things is controlled anger and violence and rarely hurt. When we do see him express something other than anger or annoyance, he crosses the line into “good guy” territory when he protects his son in the end. But this standard of manhood where men are expected to repress sadness and hurt in favor of more “manly” qualities such as bravery and aggression is extremely evident in the new villain in The Force Awakens, Kylo Ren.
I hope by now that whoever is reading this blog post has already seen The Force Awakens so that I don’t ruin anything. Kylo Ren is unruly, angry, violent, and he does this all because of his admiration/obsession with Darth Vader. But, his deep hurt and sadness about his family and his “call to the light” is thinly veiled: when he’s upset he responds with yelling and violent outbursts. It also becomes evident that he uses a helmet just to hide his face and emotional expressions (unlike Darth Vader who needs it for sustaining his life). He makes terrible decisions just in an attempt to quash his feelings. Through Kylo Ren, Star Wars shows that keep up “macho” characteristics & habits are unhealthy and dangerous.
Meanwhile, the new main trio couldn’t care less about these dangerous “masculine” qualities. Rey, a young woman who’s confident and capable as well as kind and willing to help others doesn’t put much effort into repressing sadness. Finn, a former Stormtrooper, cares, a lot, about everyone and doesn’t care about hiding it. Our first introduction to him is his unwillingness to kill people and being shaken up about the loss of a teammate. He takes people by the hand when he’s in danger; he’s a dedicated friend and is quickly emotionally tied to others and isn’t ashamed of it. Poe also works against negative character traits. He’s confident, but not arrogant. He’s a skilled flier, but he finds strategy more useful than just going in with guns blazing.
I’m not trying to argue that Star Wars protagonists don’t also have flaws, but flaws are named as flaws rather than being lauded as strengths. Princess Leia may be stubborn and leans more towards anger than gentleness, but she doesn’t use anger to hurt innocent people. Anger is a necessary emotion in the right situations, but when society considers it the only acceptable emotion (besides good, happy emotions) that men (and “tough women”) can freely express, that leads to a violent & unyielding culture. The association of sensitivity with women & the association of women with weakness lead to a social support for repressed sadness. This not healthy for anyone (especially the women who tend to be the victims of men’s repressed issues), and supporting unhealthy and cruel behaviors in media reinforces the same ideas in wider society. Star Wars gives us kind protagonists who may use violence as means for peace, but that isn’t always their first choice. We are allowed to see strong and good people in action film contexts who can be sad, lonely, or hurt and express them in nonviolent ways. Although film & television reflect our society, it has the power to change our perceptions and it’s simply easier and faster to change movie scripts than social scripts.