The Case Against The Jedi

At their core George Lucas’s six Star Wars films are coming of age stories about boys becoming men. Both Luke and Anakin Skywalker are guided and shaped by the principles of the Jedi Order but buried within Jedi teachings we find some troubling and deeply unhealthy ideas about masculinity.

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• The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love by bell hooks
• The Gender Knot: Unraveling Our Patriarchal Legacy by Allan G Johnson

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Full text transcript below

The Star Wars saga is set against the backdrop of an intergalactic struggle between the forces of light and darkness. There are fantastic alien worlds, epic space battles, and cryptic ancient prophecies, but at their core George Lucas’s six Star Wars films are really coming-of-age stories about boys becoming men.

Both Luke and Anakin Skywalker begin their respective trilogies as wide-eyed idealistic young men eager to explore the universe. They both leave their sheltered lives to embark on a journey of self-discovery that takes them to the furthest reaches of the galaxy and their adventures ultimately usher them from adolescence into manhood. And although their narrative arcs end in wildly different ways, both are guided and shaped by the principles of the Jedi. But buried within those principles we find some troubling and deeply unhealthy ideas about stoic masculinity. In order to explain why I say that, we first need to talk a little bit about the Jedi Order itself.

The Jedi Order is an ancient organization of intergalactic warrior monks who are framed as wise enlightened heroes with access to powerful mental abilities. As originally presented in Star Wars episodes 1 through 6, the Jedi Order is remarkably male-dominated and male-identified. If you freeze-frame in a few scenes, you can catch brief glimpses of female Jedi in the background but all of the Jedi speaking roles in both trilogies are filled by men.

On the surface Jedi Knights may appear to be a welcome alternative to more traditional male action hero archetypes. They’re soft-spoken, careful, deliberate, and cool under pressure. They practice meditation and rely on intelligence and dexterity over physical strength. But even though Jedi are in some ways presented as different from the expected Hollywood fare, that doesn’t necessarily mean they represent a positive version of masculinity.

George Lucas drew on a wide variety of cinematic sources when conceiving of his Star Wars mythology. The elements he borrowed from the samurai movies of Akira Kurosawa are fairly self-evident. But when asked about his inspiration for the Jedi, Lucas most often cites the US Marshals of the Old West (as filtered through Hollywood movies), and it’s not hard to see why. Like the upstanding lawmen from classic westerns, the Jedi are framed as rugged stoic warriors who bring order to a lawless land. Jedi don’t strike first but, if provoked, they’re proficient in the use of violence and capable of a rather extreme level of brutality.

Most of what we know about Jedi philosophy we glean from the words of Yoda and Obi-Wan Kenobi. We know, for instance, that Jedi masters admonish recklessness and advocate patience. But the real heart of Jedi dogma, the teachings that are given the most importance, have to do with emotions. In Star Wars, a Jedi’s worst enemies are not agents of the Dark Side; his true enemies are his own emotions. And because of that, Jedi masters teach that the expression of emotion must always be suppressed.

The tenets of Jedi philosophy are left a little bit vague in the original trilogy. To really get specifics, we have to travel back to the beginning. Long before he donned the mask of Darth Vader, Anakin Skywalker is instructed to wear another mask: a mask of emotional invulnerability.

In The Phantom Menace (1999), a young Anakin is identified as being Force-sensitive. As a result he’s taken away from his mom and his home planet to be trained as a Jedi warrior. But when he’s presented to the Jedi council he is soundly rejected. And the reason that Yoda gives for rejecting this 9-year-old boy is because he’s too emotional. And why is he deemed too emotional? Well, it’s because he admits that he misses his mother–his mother who, let’s remember, the Jedi have just left enslaved to an unscrupulous junk dealer in another part of the galaxy.

I want to underscore the message being presented here. Anakin’s feelings of pain and loss are understandable and completely normal. But instead of getting the emotional support he so desperately needs, this child is instead publicly shamed for expressing his feelings of grief and sadness. And that’s because emotional detachment is valued above all else in the Jedi Order. Young Jedi are instructed to sever all close emotional connections to the people they care about. They must learn to hide their feelings from others, to deny their emotional selves, and to always present a stoic exterior to the world.

Now, at this point, some Star Wars fans may be saying to themselves, “Hold on, I thought the Jedi were all about feelings?” Well, not exactly. Jedi masters do encourage students of the Force to trust their intuition (think of it as a Jedi’s 6th sense) but they’re also sternly warned to always keep emotions buried deep inside.

To be clear, Jedi masters don’t push stoicism on boys to be cruel or malicious. They, like many well-meaning people in the real world, firmly believe that boys need to disassociate from their feelings and learn to tough it out in silence. But regardless of the intentions, leaving young men emotionally abandoned is psychologically damaging and extremely unhealthy.

Author bell hooks describes this emotional-hardening process in a book I highly recommend entitled, The Will to Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love: “The way we ‘turn boys into men’ is through injury: We sever them from their mothers, research tells us, far too early. We pull them away from their own expressiveness, from their feelings, from sensitivity to others. The very phrase ‘be a man’ means suck it up and keep going. Disconnection is not fallout from traditional masculinity. Disconnection is masculinity.”

By which she means that emotional disconnection has become synonymous with manhood itself. Viewed through this lens, Yoda’s words to a young Anakin Skywalker are downright traumatizing.

We start to see the fallout from Jedi teachings in Attack of the Clones (2002) where we rejoin Anakin as a bratty entitled teenager–a teenager who’s still struggling to follow the imperative of emotional detachment.

Even though he’s been clearly instructed to forget about his mother, Anakin senses that something is wrong and his concern for her well-being transforms into premonition filled nightmares. Anakin still isn’t getting the emotional support he needs, instead he’s just meant to put his mother’s suffering out of his mind. As a Jedi in training, he must strive to become an autonomous, detached, emotional island.

Anakin’s inability to bury his anxiety about his mom’s well-being is seen as a manifestation of his emotional volatility. In fact, throughout the prequels, men’s expression of grief is consistently demonized. Crying, in particular, is framed as evidence of a dangerous loss of control. Whenever we see tears from Anakin, it’s always meant to represent his weakness of character, and communicate to viewers that he’s being seduced by the Dark Side.

Contrary to popular opinion, men burying their feelings is not a sign of strength. Real strength is having the courage to ask for help, the courage to talk about your feelings, the courage to risk being vulnerable in front of others. But the Jedi Order forbids any of that.

George Lucas likes to say that the Jedi are compassionate, but there’s an important caveat to that. The Jedi practice an impersonal, detached, birds-eye-view sort of of compassion, one that’s decidedly unconcerned with the suffering of individual people. This is why the Jedi don’t lift a finger to try and help Anakin’s enslaved mother, despite their considerable influence and resources.

Anakin longs for human contact but since Jedi dogma prohibits attachments, he must satisfy his emotional needs in secret. He conceals his marriage to Padme and hides her pregnancy from everyone around him.

When Anakin attempts to seek advice from Yoda about his continuing nightmares in Revenge of the Sith (2005), he does so without revealing his secret concern for the safety of his wife and unborn children. And he gets what might be the worst advice in the history of the galaxy.

YODA: “The fear of loss is a path to the dark side. Death is a natural part of life. Rejoice for those around you who transform into the Force. Mourn them do not. Miss them do not. Attachment leads to jealousy, the shadow of greed that is. Train yourself to let go of everything you fear to lose.”

I just need to pause here for a moment because, although Yoda’s words are framed as a form of enlightened wisdom, his advice is truly unhinged.

Had Yoda been interested in actually helping Anakin there are a whole host of things he should have done. First, he could have acknowledged and validated Anakin’s fears. He could have listened and shown a little empathy. And he could have encouraged Anakin to seek counselling for his obvious trauma and anxiety. But Jedi orthodoxy prevents Yoda from doing any of that. So instead Anakin is essentially told to stop caring so much. And that if something tragic were to happen to his loved ones, he should just be happy about it. Now, it is true that men being possessive of women is a negative thing, but that’s not what’s happening in Anakin’s story. In this scene he is just afraid for the safety of his family.

Which brings us to one of the central themes of Jedi philosophy. In both trilogies, fear is framed as the gateway drug to the Dark Side. It’s the emotion that we hear Yoda warn against in the most ominous of tones.

YODA: “Fear is the path to the Dark Side.”

In reality, of course, fear (like most human emotions) serves an important physiological function; it can help keep us safe and healthy. You’d think a quasi-spiritual organization that preaches “balance in all things” would understand that, but Jedi teachings leave no room for such subtleties. And that’s because Jedi philosophy is constructed around what I’d call an emotional domino theory.

YODA: “Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering”

Setting aside George Lucas’s misappropriation of some spiritual concepts which originate in parts of Asia, that formula is incredibly reductive and also not how emotions work. Being afraid is not a slippery slope to all-consuming evil. And yet, this emotional domino effect theory is core to the Jedi belief system. They believe that young men are inherently volatile, and if they succumb to one intense emotion, it will spark an inevitably chain reaction that leads to hatred, like knocking over a set of dominoes.

So let’s see if we can untangle some of the twisted logic here. Even though Yoda starts with “fear,” that’s not the first domino in the chain.

YODA: “Fear of loss is the path to the Dark Side.”

Notice that he’s warning about “fear of loss” which he says stems from emotional attachment to other people. This is why the Jedi Order expressly forbids romance and prohibits its members from having families. Just so we’re all clear on what that means – according to the Jedi, it’s loving relationships with another person that leads men down the path to evil.

Although the Jedi caution against emotional attachments in general, it’s close relationships with women in particular that are framed as the most dangerous. This is made especially evident in the prequels where emotional bonds with women are framed as something that eats away at men’s sanity and, indirectly, drives men to fits of uncontrollable rage. By the end of Episode III, it’s been made abundantly clear that Anakin turns into Darth Vader because he’s unable to suppress his love for the women in his life.

Embedded in that plot point is a toxic idea that emotional intimacy and connection with women represents a loss of control for men. The framing of relationships with women as something that drains men of their autonomy, their power, or their control is not a new storytelling device. It goes all the way back to Samson and Delilah and beyond, though in George Lucas’s version, women don’t actively sabotage men. Instead they serve as the impetus for men’s instability. And that message, that women are the catalyst for men’s loss of control, is part of a sexist worldview. It’s a especially pernicious myth because it fosters resentment towards women and also encourages men to view healthy expressions of emotional intimacy with suspicion.

For those of us who grew up as fans of the original trilogy, it can be tempting to pin all the blame for this on the prequels. Unfortunately there are echoes of everything we’ve been talking about in Luke’s story as well.

GEORGE LUCAS: “Again it’s like poetry, they rhyme. Every stanza kinda rhymes with the last one.”

In Return of the Jedi (1983), Obi-wan Kenobi articulates the second reason the Jedi demand that boys tightly control their emotions. He instructs Luke to bury his love for Leia because, if he doesn’t, his feelings will be seen as a weakness and will make him vulnerable to the manipulation and control of other men. The Emperor’s master plan for turning Anakin to the dark side follows the same logic; it revolves entirely around exploiting the “weakness” of Anakin’s love for Padme. And the narrative lessons for both protagonists closely mirror hypermasculine socialization in the real world. Men and boys are taught to hide their feelings because, we are told, expressing vulnerability demonstrates weakness and leaves them open to being manipulated or dominated by their rivals.

I think it’s instructive to talk a little bit about why Anakin becomes Darth Vader while his son remains a hero. Like Anakin, Luke’s Jedi training includes the demand that he bury his emotions, sever his attachments, and abandon his friends. And like Anakin, Luke doesn’t always follow the instructions of his teachers.

The difference is that, unlike his father, Luke doesn’t take the Jedi orthodoxy surrounding emotional detachment to heart. When Anakin’s emotions bring him into conflict with Jedi teachings, he feels deeply ashamed and tries to hide his relationships. Luke, on the other hand, openly vocalizes his objections and defies both Yoda and Obi-Wan. He chooses to embrace his attachments to his friends, chooses to try to save his father, and critically chooses not to always bottle up his vulnerable feelings. When you really think about it, Luke Skywalker is at his very best when he doesn’t follow the path of the Jedi.

The belief that emotional disconnection is an essential step for boys in their journey into manhood is a common one, but following that path leads to a life of loneliness, emotional dysfunction, and anger.

Let’s return once more to bell hooks: “Anger often hides depression and profound sorrow. Depression often masks the inability to grieve. Males are not given the emotional space to grieve…[they] are still being taught to keep it in and, worse, to deny that they feel like crying.” She continues: “Unable to cope with the loss of emotional connection, boys internalize the pain and mask it with indifference or rage.”

That passage gives us some clues as to the real reason why Anakin Skywalker can’t handle grief or loss. He’s been well trained by the Jedi to stifle his emotions and hide his vulnerabilities. He’s never learned how to process and work through painful emotions in healthy ways. The results are as predictable as they are dysfunctional; Anakin is left completely unprepared for tragedy, and like too many young men in our own culture, he eventually lashes out in anger and leaves behind a trail of horrific violence.

Jedi philosophy gets it entirely backwards. Emotional detachment doesn’t prevent men from turning to the Dark Side. Emotional detachment is the cause of men turning to the Dark Side. In the end it’s the Jedi and their philosophy of emotional detachment that’s ultimately responsible for the creation of Darth Vader.

In this video I focused on the Jedi as presented in George Lucas’s six feature films because they provide the foundation upon which everything else in the Star Wars franchise is built. The Star Wars Cinematic Universe is now, thankfully, out of George Lucas’s hands. And it’ll be interesting to see how Disney handles the Jedi mythos moving forward, especially now that we have our first female Jedi with her own trilogy. Hopefully Rey won’t be forced down the same path of emotional detachment as her male predecessors. The stoic imperative is expected of men in our society, but it’s an unhealthy ideal for people of any gender.

As we’ve discussed in this video, listening to the teachings of Yoda and Obi-Wan is a guaranteed recipe for creating lonely, angry, broken people. Like all human beings, men and boys need love, they need affection, they need emotional support, and they need opportunities to openly communicate their feelings. The glorification of emotional detachment is one of the more pervasive and insidious messages about masculinity in popular media. And it’s something that we as men need to organize a rebellion against.

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