Star Wars, Crisis of Young White Masculinity, and UU
!SPOILER ALERT! The following post contains spoilers for Star Wars: The Force Awakens, but it’s a month after the movie was released in theaters so it’s not our fault if you haven’t seen it. -Ed.
Friends, we are currently suffering a crisis of identity for young white men in America. This crisis of identity is not new, but it has reached a boiling point. For the past 50 years, we have been moving towards a more progressive society and this has led to greater awareness of white privilege, male privilege, and the convergence of the two. As society takes greater strides to bring gender and racial equity, we’ve seen a pushback by white men. I am troubled by the sharp increase in “disaffected” young white men who cannot reconcile their notions of their privilege, what they believe they deserve (e.g. women’s bodies for pleasure and people of color’s bodies for money), and therefore lash out violently. This form of masculinity is toxic, to society and to young men. We have seen this toxicity, this violence, all too frequently. Steubenville, Isla Vista, Umpqua, and Gamergate are but a few tragic examples.
Developmentally, we know that adolescent young men are still developing mentally and emotionally. They are still developing their long-term thinking, their ability to make decisions that include others’ perspectives, and their ability to evaluate risk based on consequences instead of rewards. Societally, we send messages that to be white is to be on top and to be male is to be powerful. For young white men, there is daily pressure from the media and online communities to live into this idealized picture of white masculinity. In the meantime, what the world needs is young white men who are feminist, check their own privilege, and are committed to their own liberation by supporting others’ liberation.
So, what does this have to do with Star Wars? It’s all about this guy:
Do you remember when Disney released the first pictures and trailers depicting the leads of Star Wars: The Force Awakens? The meninist division of the internet was up in arms! A black stormtrooper? A female lead? The outrage was vicious and violent: JJ Abrams and Disney were ruining Star Wars and “politically correct” culture is ruining America, Science Fiction/Fantasy, the Universe, and is responsible for Pluto no longer being a planet.
The character Kylo Ren, aka Ben Solo, is a direct representation of the corruption of young white masculinity in America. Let’s take a look at some examples:
- He is the son of a General/Princess, Leia Skywalker, and a war hero, Han Solo. He’s royalty. He can directly trace his ancestry to some of the most powerful people, especially men, in the galaxy. He is supposed to be just as powerful and more successful, just like we white men are supposed to be on an exclusive path to success, sex, and money.
- When he fails, he explodes in an all-consuming and destructive rage – like the young man who explodes into hateful profanity when he loses at a game or a man who responds violently when rejected by a woman.
Most of the time, he hides behind his mask, especially when he rages or commits nameless violence (like ordering the massacre of a village). There’s a huge fear amongst the hate-filled spheres of the internet of being “doxxed” or having one’s anonymity removed. According to them, it is unjust when racists post publicly on Facebook and then get fired from their jobs.
- At one point, he laments that he can feel “the light side” calling to him, calling him to be good. Kylo Ren calls for Anakin’s spirit to assist him in resisting the light. He makes a choice, as we are all called to do. Like many others, Kylo Ren chooses violence and hate over compassion and love.
- He calls Finn a traitor for seeking his liberation. All too often young men call each other out for being feminist, anti-racist, or anti-heterosexist, when we are all called to be a part of the Resistance and fight toward collection liberation.
- Kylo is perplexed and enraged that Rey is more powerful in the Force than he is, because she is a scavenger, a nobody, and has never had any training. I suspect there’s some misogyny in there too, because we don’t see any other Force-sensitive women (although there were many in the prequels). In our society, feminine traits in men are associated with weakness and being “less-than.” When women prove themselves to be equal to men, like the women who recently passed ranger school, men come out of the woodwork to defend the spaces they think are solely theirs.
As soon as we left the theater, I turned to my partner and excitedly pointed out all of these instances where Ben Solo was living out his toxic white male privilege. These attitudes are all over the internet, visible in interactions in public spaces, and in our churches. As a young (ish) white male, I recognized it because I myself have heard the call to the “dark side”. I still hear the whispers sometimes, but they were especially loud when I was younger. “I’m a nice guy,” I thought, “why am I always being friend-zoned? I’m educated, why can’t I find a job outside of retail? This isn’t who I am supposed to be.” It is a battle that requires vigilance, friends who are willing to call me in, and a faith that calls me to live my values in the world. It is also a struggle that will not end, a boulder that will never reach the top of the mountain, and yet I must keep trying.
It isn’t a coincidence that the lead villain is a young, 20-something white male coming of age as he struggles with his identity, feeling drawn to both the dark and light sides. It isn’t a coincidence that his rage consumes him and his failure results in him lashing out. It is the visual manifestation of evil in America, a representation of toxic white masculinity that all can look at and say, “Yup.”
We have to challenge these behaviors in our communities and the first place to start is in our churches. Our churches are also suffering from the toxicity of white masculinity, although it plays out in different ways. Recently, I’ve seen it come up in discussions about Cards Against Humanity being played in youth groups. In these discussions, there are a number of instances of privilege played out. We see the trotting out of women and people of color as token players whose enjoyment of the game makes it not offensive. We see people making the excuses that they are good people and the game is fun. We hear that we are being “overly sensitive and politically correct” when we point out the game is contrary to our espoused values. In reality, the reason why so many people love the game is because “it provides permission to tell jokes you don’t dare by removing all sense of responsibility.” That isn’t how our faith calls us to be in community with one another and it is out of covenant.
This goes beyond a card game. This crisis and toxicity extends to the ways we are present within our communities, our language, the ways we use our bodies to take up space, who volunteers for what responsibilities, and who/how we encourage people to participate. As Unitarian Universalists, we are called to challenge these toxic manifestations of white masculinity. Our 7 Principles call on us to adjust our behaviors and attitudes to respect the inherent worth and dignity, to be just and compassionate, and to encourage growth in one another.
What You Can Do:
- Use Be The Change! to examine identity, privilege, and oppression, a six-sessions curriculum developed by the Unitarian Universalist Association Faith Development Office and Youth and Young Adult Ministries Office for youth to examine racism.
- Compassionately challenge offensive language and cultures when you hear and see it, and work to create inclusive, multicultural spaces.
- Our Whole Lives is a great resource for examining healthy relationships and behavior, both romantic and non-romantic.
- Create and attend opportunities that expand and deepen cross-cultural relationships and understandings.
- Counter societal expectations of masculinity and create a safe space for young men to be counter-cultural in their masculinity.
- Are you an emotionally healthy, anti-racist, feminist white dude? Be active and out-spoken about your story. Be willing to mentor other young white men.
How do you challenge toxic white masculinity in your congregation, communities, and personal life? Let us know in the comments!