The second Rey became part of a famous Star Wars bloodline, a million voices who had boldly declared the new trilogy could forge a path away from privilege and nepotism felt suddenly silenced; the egalitarian values of The Last Jedi swept away by Emperor Palpatine just as easily as he dissolved the senate. And as The Rise of Skywalker continues to make a ton of money — despite mixed reviews — fans of a progressive mindset are (correctly) echoing the sentiments of Padmé Amidala: This is how liberty dies; with thunderous applause.
But wait a minute, should progressives feel betrayed by the seemingly conservative panderings of The Rise of Skywalker? It all depends on your point of view.
As many fans ball-up their fists in anger because The Rise of Skywalker failed to uphold the values of its woker predecessor, The Last Jedi, it’s time to unlearn what you’ve learned in the past two years. Star Wars is not woke. Star Wars is not progressive. Star Wars is fun, but it represents centrist values for the masses, and it always has.
Spoilers ahead for The Rise of Skywalker. Also, I might ruin Star Wars for you.
To be clear, I think Star Wars is great. I just don’t think Star Wars is as smart as we all pretend it is sometimes. I’m on the side of the people who are mad that The Last Jedi was kind of retconned, but at the same time, I’m not sure Star Wars has ever really been a bastion of forward-thinking values or progressivism.
George Lucas and the majority of the creators certainly lean-left, but there’s an element of populist centrism that runs through these films. So if we’re expecting Star Wars to reflect the pinnacle of progressive values, we’re certainly putting our faith into the wrong franchise.
Here’s the proof…
The Bechdel test
The famous dialogue test modestly proposed by playwright Alison Bechdel should not be a difficult bar to clear for any piece of fiction in the 21st century, or for that matter, in 1977 either. And yet, prior to the prequels and the expanded universe, the only other woman with more than one line of dialogue in the entire Star Wars trilogy who wasn’t Leia, didn’t show up until Return of the Jedi in 1983. Yep, other than Leia, Mon Mothma (Caroline Blakiston) is the only other character who isn’t gendered as a male who has more than one line of dialogue in the “classic” films.
Even though there are more women in subsequent Star Wars films, it’s shocking how hard it is for these films to do what Bechdel so simply proposed: Have two women have a conversation, alone, about something that doesn’t involve a man. Even with all the feminist-leaning characters in The Last Jedi, we somehow don’t get a scene with Holdo and Leia talking that Poe doesn’t butt into. And while one could argue that Poe’s arc in The Last Jedi was a study in toxic masculinity, it’s still pretty clear that Rey and Rose propelling the story of Star Wars is an exception to the rule, rather than the standard.
The reason The Last Jedi feels more progressive than other Star Wars movies is simply that there are more women in it. While this is laudable, it’s also kind of depressing. It took until 2017 for a Star Wars movie to have more than one main character who wasn’t male.
Again, Star Wars has a poor track record that seems better than it is only because of recent events. Prior to the release of The Force Awakens, there are few people of color with significant roles in the six saga films. Sure, you’ve got Mace Windu (Samuel L. Jackson), Jango Fett (Temuera Morrison), and Captain Panaka (Hugh Quarshie); but that’s all from the prequels. In the original films, it’s just Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams).
Notably, Lando is the black guy who spends one whole film betraying the other white characters. The only other black character with speaking lines in the classic trilogy is an unnamed X-Wing pilot who, in Return of the Jedi, dies a fiery death after saying “She’s gonna blow!”
In the last four years, Star Wars has done a significantly better job of creating diverse casts. Rogue One might be the best example, but that’s still a film with mostly dudes in it, and Jyn Erso comes across much like Leia does in the classic films. She’s the token “girl” in a boys club, kind of like the Star Wars version of Smurfette. Also, Jyn’s mother, much like Padmé, dies a meaningless death, while her father becomes a kind of misunderstand martyr, à la Darth Vader.
Speaking of Darth Vader, the most famous POC actor in all of Star Wars is, without a doubt, James Earl Jones, the voice of Vader. (Fun fact: In the original theatrical release he wasn’t even given screen credit.) Supposedly this was at the request of Jones, but it’s still strange.
And, you know, prior to Empire, you could have assumed Darth Vader was black, which gets dicey. The voice of a famous black male was the personification of evil, while underneath it, he was just a misunderstood white guy. It’s best not to think about this too hard, but if you do, it’s kind of offensive? This was even passed off as a joke in Chasing Amy (watch the clip above) but, really, what the fuck Star Wars?
Gun violence is given a pass
Okay, obviously, a lot of progressive actors play people who hold guns in movies. This is not a bad thing, and there’s no convincing argument that gun violence in films (or video games) causes gun violence in real life.
That said, if you think the story of the Rebels (or the Resistance) is strictly an allegory for disenfranchised folks on the left, think again. The idea that an armed militia operates outside of the regular government kind of feeds into the fantasies of various far-right domestic terrorist groups and gun-rights activists.
In the original trilogy, you can kind of overlook this because the Empire is so evil, but, in The Force Awakens, Leia’s Resistance — a militant and heavily armed militia — exists outside of the legitimate government, which they claim to protect. Poe even refers to himself as a member of the “Republic,” in The Last Jedi, which, is deeply weird, since the Resistance was basically an illegal military junta working outside the rules of the Republic.
Sure, you can argue that Leia “had no choice,” since the First Order is awful and the New Republic was unwilling to confront them head-on. But again, the idea that ordinary folks literally take up arms against their government is something people on the far right threaten, not the left.
Finally, the guns in Star Wars are, for the most part, all based on real firearms, which is what makes them “cool.” We even got super-mad with George Lucas changed the moment with Greedo shot-first, because that meant Han was killing in self-defense. This, apparently, was too woke for everyone. Han Solo, is, according to literally all of us — regardless of political leanings — only a hero when he’s killing people in cold blood.
Unhealthy views about sexuality
Luke Skywalker kisses and has romantic feelings for his sister. Rey kisses a man who invaded her mind and knocked her out the first time they met. Padmé Amidala dies in childbirth after her husband — a man with a mental illness who works as a government enforcer — nearly chokes her to death. We don’t really even need to go further than that. And yes, we all know Poe and Finn are a couple and the fact they didn’t kiss, but two same-sex background characters did, well, it’s is kind of weird.
I could go on, and you could do your own research about how George Lucas borrowed pro-Nazi propaganda as a piece of inspiration for the ending of A New Hope, or you could think really hard about the idea that Luke Skywalker is a religious zealot who basically performs an act of terrorism because he was radicalized, but I think the points have been made. In The Last Jedi, those who have loved Star Wars for its positive messages of friendship, hope, and forgiveness, briefly saw a moment when the franchise could become something more. The notion that Rey might really be someone without a hidden past or that any old kid could use the Force felt fresh and progressive.
This, however, was not really the norm. And, even in The Last Jedi, the guy calling all the shots was a privileged white male with questionable ways of showing affection. Yes, Kylo Ren was the villain of The Last Jedi, but he was also the character with the most agency. So even at its most progressive, a Star Wars film still gave the most agency to an evil white male who kills people. In The Rise of Skywalker, we’re encouraged to forgive ‘ol Kylo, which really, is just in the tradition of all Star Wars films that came before.
The aesthetic brilliance of George Lucas’s beloved creation cannot be debated, but before we demand this saga reflect the smartest political values of the future, it’s good to remember that the foundation of a galaxy far, far away is deeply rooted in outdated values that should have gone out of style a long, long time ago.
The Rise of Skywalker is in theaters now.