Guest Post by Holly Quinn
When, in 2005’s Revenge of the Sith, Senator Amidala delivered the chilling line “So that’s how liberty dies. With thunderous applause,” it was taken as hyperbolic nonsense in relation to the real world.
There was no mistaking that George Lucas’ final Star Wars film was an allegory for the George W Bush years. The Phantom Menace came out in 1999, when Americans were blissfully unaware that the 9/11 terror attacks were looming. By the end of the trilogy, we were at war and still reeling.
The “thunderous applause” line was in reference to Chancellor Palpatine rising to power. Palpatine was not Bush the younger — Bush was Anakin, who, in the same film after becoming Darth Vader, said “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy,” a line that everyone at the time recognized as a paraphrase of one of Bush’s well-known War on Terror lines.
Vader, of course, answered to the Emperor, who, of course, was Chancellor Palpatine, who many say represents Bush Vice President Dick Cheney.
But even in the jingoistic wartime post 9/11 early 2000s, “this is how liberty dies” sounded like hyperbole.
Fast forward to 2019, and that line doesn’t sound so hyperbolic.
It sounds downright prescient.
I talk about Star Wars. A lot. I talk about it on social media more than I talk directly about politics or the state of democracy under Trump. I talk about race a lot, both in my job as a tech reporter and as a blogger-turned-tweeter on the topics of representation in media and fandom and media racism.
Tweeting about Star Wars these days is not escapism. It would be nice if it were, but it’s not.
When I talk about the Twitter harassment John Boyega endures, the sidelining of Finn in The Last Jedi, or the prioritizing of whiteness that centering Kylo Ren represents, it’s not just about the movies. It’s very much about the world in general. The popular Kylo Ren is a fascist during a time when fascism is on the rise in the US and around the world. The Sequel Trilogy began before the current US administration, just like the Prequel Trilogy started before 9/11, but at this point, Kylo Ren has shown at least as many similarities with current real world fascism as Anakin Skywalker shared with GWB in Revenge of the Sith.
One of the subjects of Star Wars commentary that comes up often in the sequel era is the racial empathy gap, something that is baked into the American consciousness but has rarely been as acknowledged in the mainstream as it’s been over the last few years (thanks, in part, to social media itself).
Many fans who participate in the empathy gap, by, for example, embracing Kylo Ren as a victim while demonizing Finn, claim that the fictional Star Wars universe had no bearing on the real world.
They are wrong. The response to the sequels very much mirrors the real world, right down to people who imagine themselves as “woke” while perpetuating the status quo of white supremacy in insidious ways. And pearl clutching when someone, usually a Black person, says they’re acting to protect white supremacy.
I post about Star Wars as an outlet to vent about the real world. I can’t say it’s easier to talk about these issues within the framework of Star Wars, because the vitriol is the same.
Which should tell you something. There’s no such thing as just a movie.
Whenever someone tries to shut me up by saying Star Wars is a fairy tale for kids, unless it’s in a very specific context (such as Lucas’ own “modern fairy tale” description, which has been twisted to the extreme during the Sequel era, and was more about children in the ‘70s having a dearth of heroes to look up to both in fiction and reality), it usually has a status quo, white prioritizing ring to it. You most often hear it when describing how Rey and Kylo should have had a happily ever after — something that’s been argued for a solid five years. Of course, they said, “Ben” will have a happy ending. He is Prince Charming.
Of course, he’s no such thing, even with his sudden inexplicable turn in The Rise of Skywalker. Jekyl and Hyde, maybe (mercifully, we will never know if he will become Jekyll lagain and further hurt Rey). But Prince Charming? The character who most fits that bill for Rey has always been Finn, even if that’s a cheesy way of putting it. He’s her best friend, her chosen family.
But when they say “fairy tale” it’s more about optics than content. Despite Disney’s efforts in the last decades to make fairy tales less overwhelmingly white, despite Shrek subverting the idea that fairy tale romance is all about pretty people, the fandom very often uses it to mean “white romance.” They compare it frequently to the very white “Pride and Prejudice,” a reading that requires the assumption that Finn, in particular, is but a fringe character who interferes with a white fantasy, something both The Last Jedi and The Rise of Skywalker validated.
The death of Ben Solo, undercuts the fairy tale happy ending teased by an utterly baffling kiss that made no sense, but had been clamored for on every social media platform since 2015.
The “redemption” of Ben Solo in the context of our time — an era of normalized white supremacy, cruelty, corruption and resistance — is something that should be discussed now, as I’m sure it will be discussed as time goes by.
Ben Solo is extremely relevant to our time. There are lots of Ben Solos, from small towns to positions of power, who have become increasingly radicalized by white supremacy and thirsty for power. Many people, not least of all the people of color they wish to oppress, want them to face consequences.
But there is a certain white fantasy that lies outside of wanting consequences for white people who thrive on cruelty: Many people want to believe that underneath that cruelty is goodness. Wouldn’t it be nice if they just changed? Wouldn’t that be easier?
Ben Solo represents that fantasy, that the nice-looking white guy must be inherently good. It’s a fantasy that is dangerous in the real world, where white supremacists have stylists and wear sharp suits. That metric, that men who look like what movies have told us are the good guys must be good, is a message that makes many people feel good, but is ultimately harmful.
Real world redemption happens, for sure — there are anecdotal stories of former white supremacists turning around and becoming advocates of anti-racism. They’re hopeful stories, but they didn’t happen overnight or without consequence. If someone was burning crosses this morning and by some epiphany is moved to protest against racism this afternoon, they’re not an instant good guy, they’re someone with a lot of work and introspection to do.
That’s a lot. So Ben Solo dies, romantically, because it’s easier than having him clean up his mess. And he’s remembered, ultimately, as a good guy who didn’t deserve to die. A guy who by the mere fact of his appearance was attractive to the heroine, if only he started acting like the good guy she knew was under there somewhere.
It’s a wild message for 2019.