We Need to Talk About Kylo: Empathy, trauma, and gender socialization in The Last Jedi

In the weeks since the release of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi, opinion among Star Wars fans has been widely divided: On one hand are stalwart fans of the franchise who were deeply disappointed by the film’s portrayal of a disillusioned Luke Skywalker and destruction of many of the ideals which were present in previous installations and the now-defunct Extended Universe. On the other hand are viewers lauding Episode VIII for its audacious will in discarding the traditional hero’s journey narrative of the original trilogy, as well as what is perceived as, in Vanity Fair’s words, as “the Harsh Condemnation of Mansplaining We Need in 2017.” However, both of these reactions to the film fail to encompass what I found most disturbing and disappointing about the movie — its lack of context for Kylo Ren’s tormented emotional state; and the perpetuation of the stereotype that empathy is an inborn trait rather than a learned skill, one that women are inherently more gifted with than men.

The origins of empathy, like much of the nature-vs-nurture debate, have long been controversial. But within recent years, science seems to have come to a consensus: While the capacity for empathy is innate in almost all human beings, it is a learned skill which needs to be nurtured and developed like any other skill. As Psychology Today puts it, “Infants learn to identify and regulate their emotions through successful dyadic interactions with their caretakers, primarily their mothers.” The way young people are taught to recognize and react to their own emotions throughout childhood and adolescence plays a tremendous role in their ability to empathize with others as adults. This is called emotional intelligence, and unsurprisingly in our heavily gender-binary society, it’s something women are typically much more skilled at than men.

Hence, the contradictory nature of Rey. We know she was abandoned by her parents at a young age and left in the care of a lackadaisical parental figure, supposedly for her own protection and with the promise that her parents would return someday. Emotionally, she is a loose cannon: She’s impulsive, aggressive, and daring. Yet somehow she’s also deeply empathetic and equipped with better coping mechanisms for her negative emotions than her dramatic foil, Kylo Ren. From the context we’re given in The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, this doesn’t make much sense; lacking strong guidance from parental figures, the only way Rey could have such high emotional intelligence is if the franchise is falling back on the same old harmful gendered stereotypes about women being innately more empathetic than men.

Rey’s opposite, and the emerging villain of the sequel franchise, is the troubled son of Han Solo and Leia Organa. In him we see the cycle of poor coping mechanisms that has been passed down through the Skywalker family via the impossible Jedi code of leaving behind worldly attachments and focusing only on positive emotions while denying the negative ones. The unattainability of these goals is demonstrated by Anakin Skywalker’s journey in the prequel films; torn away from his mother and the only home he’s ever known, he’s counseled by strangers to “let go” of her and his worldly attachments. His inability to sever his emotional ties to his mother and to Padme Amidala, as well as what the Jedi counsel sees in him as “fear and anger,” leads to his fall to the Dark Side.

But what psychological science shows is that ignoring or trying to rid oneself of negative emotions isn’t actually beneficial — it’s harmful. According to one recently published study, “individuals who accept rather than judge their mental experiences may attain better psychological health, in part because acceptance helps them experience less negative emotion in response to stressors.” In fact, in this, it seems the Sith — whose code reads Peace is a lie, there is only passion./Through passion, I gain strength./Through strength, I gain power./Through power, I gain victory./Through victory, my chains are broken./The Force shall free me, may be closer to the mark than the ideology of the Jedi.

This brings us to perhaps the most troubling aspect of The Last Jedi. Despite the foregrounding of his emotional struggle throughout the movie, we are given little context for Ben Solo/Kylo Ren’s inability to empathize with others or his poor emotional coping mechanisms. It’s true that Ben may have had an idyllic childhood where his parents were loving, attentive, and supportive, but given that he was raised during a time of incredibly fractious conflict by two of the Rebellion’s greatest heroes, that seems unlikely. We know that Han and Leia are two people with strong personalities, but perhaps not personalities particularly suited to nurturing the emotional health of a young child — especially a child burdened with the responsibility of being the son of parents so famous they’re practically legendary.

The psychological effects of war on children are profound. In a study published in 2015 about Iraqi children, the author notes that

“Exposure to war trauma and terror has clearly been found to cause high levels of stress among children which has been associated with the development of a wide range of psychological problems. However, it is impossible for children to go through upheavals of this kind without showing their effect in difficult behavior and in variations from normality.”

The study goes on to note that recovery time from this trauma depends on factors like extent of damage, treatment, and the age of the child, as well as the potential for deeply traumatized children to become indifferent to suffering.

It’s impossible for us to know what Ben Solo may have experienced as a young child. We do know, however, that he experienced at least one traumatic incident while under the care of his uncle — when Luke contemplated killing him as he slept. This is certainly a substantial trauma; as the National Center for Victims of Crime notes,

“Crime victims suffer a tremendous amount of physical and psychological trauma. The primary injuries victims suffer can be grouped into three distinct categories: physical, financial and emotional. When victims do not receive the appropriate support and intervention in the aftermath of the crime, they suffer ‘secondary’ injuries”

— injuries after the original trauma which occur when there is a lack of proper support.

Herein lies the rub. Not unlike Rey, Ben Solo/Kylo Ren has been through at least one — and probably more — significantly traumatic experience. He’s been the victim of a flawed ideology which led to the psychological damage of his grandfather. Yet rather than empathizing with his inability to cope and understanding his contradictory obsession with the past (he snarls at one point, “let the past die; kill it, if you have to” but is completely unable to let go of his feelings of betrayal from Luke), audiences triumphantly refer to him as a “nagging fuckboy” and trumpet Rey’s victory over him.

There’s a disturbing parallel to reality here, reminiscent of the “callout culture” that has plagued communities internet-wide, the basest form of retribution in which bad deeds are exposed and individuals deemed irredeemable without an examination of the cultural mores that lead these behaviors to happen over and over. Callout culture, as well as much of the reaction to The Last Jedi, focuses on punishment and a sense of superiority, rather than on empathy. Empathy doesn’t mean forgiveness, and it doesn’t mean not holding people accountable for their actions, but it does mean seeking to understand those actions and why they happened. Many, many men have, in full control of their mental faculties, made bad decisions that have hurt other people. But when we talk about those men and their bad decisions, there’s an imperative to stop thinking about them as isolated incidents by irredeemable people, and start thinking about them as symptoms of a culture. A culture that we are part of, and thus in which we share culpability.

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