Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker Glorifies Abuse and Assault Against Women

Guest Post by Emily (reys–speeder)

On Friday, December 6th, a timely two weeks before the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, Disney issued a warning that certain scenes in the film would contain flashing lights and may negatively affect those with photosensitive epilepsy. While the announcement was admirable and demonstrated a gesture of goodwill from the company to consumers, there is another warning needed for Rise that the company didn’t disclose: That the film romanticizes abuse and assault against women.

It is important to note that the descriptions following technically qualify as spoilers for the new film that debuts in theaters today on Friday, December 20. However, when it comes to the portrayal of serious, harmful, and triggering content, the safety of viewers should be more important than allowing oneself to be surprised while watching a film. Not all surprises are enjoyable.

In order to inform what is meant by abuse and by stating that Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker promotes unhealthy myths about abusive behavior, work from a specialist in domestic abuse, Lundy Bancroft’s (2002) book, Why Does He Do That: Inside the Minds of Angry and Controlling Men will be utilized as a guide to understand how Kylo Ren is abusive, how Rey is his victim, and how The Rise of Skywalker romanticizes abuse by portraying the myth that fixing an abusive man is the ultimate responsibility for a vulnerable young woman.

The abusive character in the film, apt to real life abusers, has two names; two personalities; a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ as if to represent his kind side and his abusive side: Kylo Ren and Ben Solo. The abuse victim has only one name: Rey. While they portray the role of abuser and abused throughout all three films, neither of the previous two films went so far in pushing the myth that abuse is romantic, or that the abuse victim must forgive and fall in love with her abuser than did The Rise of Skywalker. Therefore, this analysis will only describe his abusive behavior as they occur in this latest film.

There are two scenes in particular in The Rise of Skywalker that include classic portrayals of Kylo Ren manipulating, abusing, and assaulting Rey. The first scene shows Rey and Kylo Ren talking in a room. The dialogue between the two reads as follows,

“I offered you my hand once, you wanted to take it. Why didn’t you?”

“You could have killed me, why didn’t you?”

“You can’t hide, Rey. Not from me. I’m going to find you, and I’m going to turn you to the dark side. When I offer you my hand again, you’ll take it.”

Their interaction ends with Kylo approaching Rey and then assaulting her by tearing off the necklace she is wearing, thereby destroying it.

Using Bancroft’s work, this scene qualifies as depicting physical abuse. According to Bancroft,

“Physical aggression by a man toward his partner is abuse, even if it happens only once. If he raises a fist; punches a hole in the wall; throws things at you; blocks your way; restrains you; grabs, pushes, or pokes you; or threatens to hurt you, that’s physical abuse” (p. 128).

Kylo demonstrates physical abuse not once, but twice in this scene. First, when he threatens to find her and turn her to the dark side, and again when he tears Rey’s necklace off. She is visibly shaken and disturbed by the interaction, and there are not many other ways to interpret it other than as physical abuse by Kylo Ren towards Rey.

In the second scene, Kylo and Rey again find themselves in the same room. The dialogue reads,

“Wherever you are, you’re hard to find.”

“You’re hard to get rid of.”

“I pushed you in the desert because I needed to see. I needed you to see who you are. I know the rest of your story, Rey.”

“You’re lying.”

“I never lied to you, your parents were no one. They chose to be. To keep you safe.”

“Don’t.”

“I’ve been in your head.”

“I don’t want this!”

“Search your memories.”

“No!”

“They sold you to protect you.”

“Stop talking!”

If your stomach lurched reading this dialogue, you may want to prepare yourself if you plan on actually watching it. Daisy Ridley, the actress who plays Rey, emotes in a heart wrenching manner and portrays her pain and discomfort to a degree that it is hard not to hurt along with her. Rey’s repeated cries for Kylo to stop, and his unwillingness to, immediately bring to mind the trauma that so many people, especially women, experience at the hands of men.

The most dangerous part of the film, unfortunately, masquerades as a happy ending. Kylo Ren inexplicably ‘sees the light,’ so to speak. He decides to change his actions and comes to aid Rey in her fight against Emperor Palpatine. The battle ends in their embrace and kiss. Strange writing aside, the decision to portray Kylo Ren first as an abuser and then as someone who has changed his ways feeds into the myth—and yes, it is a myth—that abusers can easily change to become loving, respectful partners. The reality is, according to Bancroft, “the majority of abusive men do not make deep and lasting changes even in a high-quality abuser program” (p. 335). While change is possible for abusive men, the most effective motivation for change are external factors, such as risk of the woman leaving them, or requirement by the court. He states,

“The initial impetus to change is always extrinsic rather than self-motivated. Even when a man does feel genuinely sorry for the ways his behavior has hurt his partner, I have never seen his remorse alone suffice to get him to become a serious client” (p. 335).

This means that even if the abusive man is genuinely sorry and remorseful for his actions, it is typically not enough. Bancroft writes,

“The salient point about remorse, however, is that it matters little whether it is genuine or not. Clients who get very sorry after acts of abuse change at about the same rate as the ones who don’t. the most regretful are sometimes the most self-centered, lamenting above all the injury they’ve done to their own self-image.” (133)

By this meaning, The Rise of Skywalker promotes the myth that any type of love, whether from Rey, from Han Solo, from Leia Organa, from Luke Skywalker, from anyone; any type of love would be enough to realistically motivate Kylo Ren to feel remorse and change his abusive behavior, when, in the real world, that is almost never the case for abusive men. The fact that the film portrays this story, as if the moral should be heralded rather than treated as a myth, is unbelievably irresponsible for any company to do, let alone one like Disney that espouses itself as a family friendly company.

Not only does this message spread a harmful myth, it promotes an ideal that will likely make the situation worse for an abused person. Bancroft explains,

“An abused woman tends to pour precious energy into supporting her abusive partner and massaging his ego, hoping against hope that if he is kept well stroked his next explosion might be averted. How well does this strategy work? Unfortunately, not very. You can’t manage an abuser except for brief period. Praising him and boosting his self-opinion may buy you some time. But sooner or later he’ll jump back into chewing pieces out of you. When you try to improve an abuser’s feelings about himself, his problem actually tends to get worse” (p. 42-3).

The film portrays Rey as finally doing enough to change Kylo Ren’s mind, after two and a half films, with help from Han and Leia, to leave the dark side and join the light. When in reality nothing an abused woman does ever becomes enough for the abusive man.

As if that weren’t enough, the film portrays the message that an abusive relationship is desirable, sexy, and romantic. It portrays the relationship between Kylo Ren and Rey as one that viewers in the audience should model and emulate. And in doing so, it validates every abuser’s narrative within the audiences watching The Rise of Skywalker. It confuses love with abuse and spreads perhaps the biggest myth of all at the heart of every abusive relationship: that love and abuse can coexist, or even that abuse occurs because the love is so strong. Bancroft disputes this, arguing,

“There is a wide acceptance in our society of the unhealthy notion that passion and aggression are interwoven and that cruel verbal exchanges and bomblike explosions are the price you pay for a relationship that is exciting, deep, and sexy. Popular romantic movies and soap operas sometimes reinforce this image.” (p. 30)

Bundy’s passage dispels the myth that love and abuse can coexist. That it is a falsity to believe someone can love their partner while still abusing them. He even calls upon popular media programs in stating that the messages portrayed can reinforce this belief. He goes on to say,

“The confusion of love with abuse is what allows abusers who kill their partners to make the absurd claim that they were driven by the depths of their loving feelings. … Genuine love means respecting the humanity of the other person, wanting what is best for him or her, and supporting the other person’s self-esteem and independence. This kind of love is incompatible with abuse and coercion” (p. 65).

One reason it should cause immediate alarm for anyone considering watching The Rise of Skywalker is because abuse of women is unimaginably widespread and has been declared by the U.S. Surgeon General that the number one cause of injury to young women is attacks by male partners (2002, p. 7). One in three women experience some form of physical violence by an intimate partner, and one in four experience severe physical violence (NCADV). This means that 2 to 4 million women are assaulted by their partners every year. That is a lot of women being abused, and it is a lot of men doing the assaulting, many of which will likely be watching The Rise of Skywalker in theaters sometime this holiday season.

This also means that there were a lot of abuse survivors among those in the audience, including the author of this piece, including many other abuse survivors that shared their stories anonymously[1]. One person writes,

“[Kylo] reminds me of my abusive ex who essentially told me she could take whatever she wanted. She was older and stronger and could force me if she wanted to. [The Last Jedi] made me think of how she kept trying to force herself into my life.

Seeing Rey and Kylo kiss [in The Rise of Skywalker] would basically tell me that I have to forgive her, that I’m wrong for wanting to protect myself and distance myself from her. It’s a kick to my face and… it makes me feel sick just thinking about it. I cried earlier, I broke down.”

Another anonymous abuse victim shared,

“I have a history with emotional abuse and manipulation, so when I see everything that happened between Rey and Kylo, how the novel of the force awakens describes how scared she was and how much pain she was in during the mind probe, how strongly it read like a rape, how Kylo murdered his father and burned into Finns shoulder while he screamed, all of that horrible stuff, to then read that in the end Rey does in fact love him and they kiss is just…. An insurmountable barrier between me and the story.

Like… Was I reading the situation wrong? Was Kylo as evil as I felt he was? Did he really abuse Rey? Was I even really abused? It’s like I don’t know if I should even trust myself or my perspective on those things anymore. Surely Disney wouldn’t put them together if it was as abusive as it felt right? I must have been wrong then, right?

Apparently, Disney says that’s the case, Rey is an icon for little girls, surely, they wouldn’t want to show her in an abusive relationship, what example would that set? So, I must be the wrong one, right?”

Another anonymous assault survivor shared a story of how they had been sexually assaulted by their mother’s ex-boyfriend. They write,

“[My assaulter] played it off as a joke saying it wasn’t a big deal and then my mom kicked him out. This fits into the Star Wars sequels because, to me, he is now Reylo. He is everything I fear and have anxiety over.

I just want my message to be heard and I want young people to look up to a better female icon that Rey ever will be. It’s scary to share your story but if it can help others than that’s all I want.”

These stories are not enough to capture the shock, pain, humiliation, and confusion many audience members will experience as they go to see The Rise of Skywalker in theaters this weekend and holiday season. For many that are avoiding leaks to the film, they will be exposed to the abuse apologism abruptly and without any kind of trigger warning. Families and young children will go to watch the film, and young people, boys and girls alike, will consume the messages Disney is sending: that abuse makes romance sexy and fulfilling, that an abuser can be cured with love, and that young girls should strive to “fix” an abusive man, as if it is her only role as a heroine to do so.

Nothing can stop the harm that this film will cause, and its effects will be long lasting and widespread. The very least that can be done to try to minimize that harm is to refuse to support the film by watching it, or by educating yourself on abusive behavior and relationships in order to prevent yourself from internalizing any of the toxic messages the film portrays.


[1] Formatting has been edited for this article.

23 comments

    • this makes absolutely no sense and you are completely aware of it, Tyler. Maybe instead of being an idiot you should consider this but hey… maybe that would mean to rethink your own ideas of women? I am just guessing.

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      • I mean Vader maimed and brutalized his own son, yet he gets to have a redemption story.

        I’m not saying that this article doesn’t raise some valid points. But if we are going to go with this school of thought, then maybe we should also reevaluate how the earlier films handled the subject of abuse within families. Because when you really get down to it, the Skywalker family as a whole is a pretty dysfunctional group.

        Also, I’d appreciate it if you didn’t resort to name-calling.

        Liked by 1 person

      • “So does this mean that the original trilogy glorifies child abuse?”- Have you even seen the OT? At what point is a child being abused in the Original Trilogy? Where did you find the kids btw? Now TPM was more about uplifting a child.

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  1. I really appreciate this. I found their relationship hard to pallet due to personal experiences and it’s nice to find out it’s not just me that feels this way.

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  2. We do remember that this is a fictional fantasy space opera right? I do not mean to belittle real acts of abuse which are horrible to say the least but if you get triggered because bad guys are being bad in a movie about pure evil vs pure good then you should know better than to go any Star Wars movie as that has been the trope from the beginning. We saw an abusive relationship between Anakin and Amidala, Vader and Luke, Vader and Leia, the Emperor and Vader, etc. About the only wholesome relationship we ever saw was Han and Leia and now that has been destroyed in the current trilogy. Simply put if you are sensitive to subjects of bad people doing bad things nowadays you need to not watch anything but the Hallmark channel and from the few there I have seen even that is questionable as a good number of them are redemption stories as well. Not to mention the nightly news is riddled with much worse than this movie.

    I get what the writer here is saying but if this is the standard then pretty much everything needs a trigger warning and then it loses it’s purpose by overuse. This movie does not go beyond the norm for a movie of this style and type so I do not see the need for a warning here. We really need to reserve those for the really bad ones like Saw and Carrie. Unless of course you are saying that this should be an R rated movie for the things mentioned in this article? If you are then you have to accept that any male on female violence is unacceptable for less than an R rating. That means that due to a desire to not discriminate or show any gender bias any female to male or male to male or female to female violence would also have to be so rated. This means about half the children’s cartoons would be R rated for violence. If that is where you stand then OK, but I have to respectfully disagree.

    The bottom line here is it is up to the viewer to be discriminating in the content they watch, not the responsibility of the media, journalists, or even the producers to wave them away from the content. If you have specific sensitivities then please do your research before you buy a ticket. Perhaps go on the second weekend instead of the opening one so you can read a few reviews from both critics and average viewers first. Perhaps abusive relationships is something that should be added somewhere in the rating warning system but I just do not see this as rising to the level of the need for a special trigger warning.

    Liked by 3 people

    • “We do remember that this is a fictional fantasy space opera right? – Of course, but since when did we begin to give movies a free pass because of it? Have I copied Rip Van Winkle by falling asleep for 2-3 generations? In my old one, movies were still being criticized for sending the wrong messages. Reylo tells naïve little girls that it IS possible to “fix” some hot Bad Boy, if they just tough it out he’ll eventually come around. Seriously, why not go to a Reylo channel on Youtube and read some of those comments? “We saw an abusive relationship between Anakin and Amidala, Vader and Luke, Vader and Leia, the Emperor and Vader, etc.”- Wrong, Anakin never lifted a finger against Amidala and he went out of his way to keep her safe. The one time in which he was guilty of harming her was at the end of the final film. He never stopped regretting that act. Kylo, on the other hand, tosses Rey against a tree, hard enough to kill her, and doesn’t break a sweat. How can anyone try to use Sidious + Vader’s relationship? They were constantly trying to undermine one another. It was a relationship built on evil deeds. Vader didn’t know that Leia was his child at the time and they were at war. Do we not interrogate our enemies in times of war? And even during their final duel, Vader was still trying to turn his son, instead of going for fatal blows. Make no mistake, Kylo was preparing to KILL Rey before his mother intervened. Now I’m not saying that this film needs an R rating. But it is based on an abusive relationship. It’s the wrong message to send to people that don’t know any better.

      Like

    • This is by far the most intelligent comment on this entire page. Not everything has to have real-world parallels. Fiction CAN be just fiction, and you are not smarter than everyone else if you over analyze it to find current social issues within them.
      If we do that, then I am certain we could find problems with every single work of fiction in the history of humanity.

      Movies like this are meant to be escapism, a chance to get AWAY from our current shitty social climate.

      I could easily push my own narrative with the new trilogy as a whole; men are useless, and whenever a bad situation arise they need a woman to come solve it for them.

      Just because you can, if you really try, find these “messages” within the story, doesn’t mean you have to focus so much on them.

      I do personally think that the whole “Reylo” thing is beyond stupid, because there is no actual reason for either of them to even remotely like each other. Specially not after Ren killed Han Solo, one of the few people Rey seemed to get along with somewhat. It’s forced, and very poorly written. But these constant articles lately about real world issues present in movies, or even worse demanding they be addressed in works of fiction, are just outrage-mongering at this point.

      Like

  3. I am breathless with anticipation for future great work from The Shadow Council on the problematic nature of Kylo Ren, particularly your musings on elder abuse, war atrocities, and enhanced interrogation techniques. This toxic psychopath committed all three of these in the first act of The Force Awakens, which, as you may have surmised, is a fictional moving picture (sometimes known as a “talkie”) set in space and bears an almost uncanny resemblance to reality and actual human sexual congress. I just can’t even with Kylo Ren, and I know you can’t even probably more than I can’t even. How dare that toxic white male say mean things to a girl with no agency or independence who wound up returning his ‘mind rape lol’ with a reverse Jedi mind-dildo that almost made him cry, cleaved his face in half, and then impaled him with his own weapon. And then he said “You’re nothing” which is absolutely chilling and then get this shit, he GRABBED A NECKLACE OFF HER zomg. Imagine my reaction if Han, like, blocked Leia from leaving a room and then fucking kissed her on her mouth without first asking politely, consulting with his attorney, and then donating several canned goods. My head might just melt, but I don’t know. I just made it up, but could happen.

    Kylo Ren deserved no redemption. That would be akin to suggesting someone who slaughters kindergarteners, or chokes his pregnant wife until she dies of a broken heart, or like tortures his daughter with levitating needle robots, or does laser swords at his son’s hand until it falls off would deserve redemption. Fuck that noise, he deserves no redemption, and anyone still a fan of that character should be canceled and endure shame. I mean, you could totally write about a character like I just described (who is strictly hypothetical btw, so don’t even bother looking it up), but then again the problematic nature of that hypothetical character wouldn’t be standing in the way of Total Victory™ after poring over canon for 4 years and still getting everything hilariously wrong. You guys are the best at canon, and canon is canon. Congratulations on your focused attention upon actual problems and not ever embarrassing yourselves with over-correction when you don’t get your way. Kudos to you all for leaving that type of thing to squishy-headed over-woke regressive perpetually outraged queeftarts who don’t know how to take a loss gracefully. Star Wars belonged solely to you and it is now completely ruined and I don’t know how any of you will be able to talk to your kids about a shoehorned version of Reylo that lasted all of 15 seconds. Ben Solo sickens me, how dare he be funny and charming and sacrifice himself after all he’s put us through. I need a blanket.

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  4. She equalled if not surpassed him in power and kicked his ass in the first movie. So the idea that she was the abused victim in this relationship is pretty far fetched.

    Portraying woman as infantile weak victims at every opportunity, even those in the fantasy world of popcorn entertainment, isn’t going to bring about equality and empower women.

    Like

  5. I agree with Bob Johnson. It is a fantasy movie. If you are looking to relate a fantasy movie to real life then you need to reevaluate everything you have ever watched. Heck even children’s disney movies can be looked at as being abusive, but everyone knows its not meant to be taken that way because it is fantasy. Real life abuse is blatantly wrong, but to try and relate and fantasy movie to real life is also blatantly wrong. Perhaps people should analyze there own lives to see what actions they do every day that is abusive. I mean by the standard some of you are using this very comment can be viewed as abusive. So basically chill out. It’s a movie meant to entertain and goes along with the rest of the Star Wars themes.

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  6. Thank you! I’m shocked Disney chose to send this irresponsible message to children and families. It hurts me that they tried so hard to create a good female role model, only to undo all their efforts by condoning abuse. Please spread this message so we can educate people on abuse and sexual assault!

    Like

  7. I agree wholeheartedly with your assessment and wished for a better story of redemption that held Ben accountable in a way that also undid the familiar abusive yet sexy bad boy troupe. I’m truly curious if RJ would have given us a better narrative (and a better film overall). While some people have the privilege of only seeing the movies as fantasy, the more astute among us realize the power that visual culture has on all of us, especially, film, television, and music videos. I almost bought a Kylo Ren t-shirt before TROS and then realized that I didn’t want my sister’s kids to see it and think that I was a fan of his behavior towards Rey, especially the negging scene in the throne room. Again, I do think that there could have been a better trajectory than “bad boys can be fixed by the woman they love.” Sons that were abused by their fathers might understand where this critique is coming from a bit more clearly than most.

    Like

  8. I haaaaaate that kiss. It should’ve been a FinnxRey kiss, for crying out loud! Finn’s the one who built a relationship with Rey in TFA, Finn’s the one who wanted to find Rey in TLJ, Finn is ALWAYS looking out for Rey, but I’m supposed to believe she ‘loves’ Kylo?!? Grrrr.

    Like

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