This is part review, part essay. There are light spoilers for Naomi Alderman’s The Power and N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth series, and major spoilers for The Last Jedi.
I wrote previously about my hopes for The Last Jedi: that I wanted to see a movie about Leia as an older female leader, a woman of command. I felt the need for that movie badly. I wasn’t at all sure I was going to get it.
So I went to the cinema in a spirit of apprehension and hope.
I came out of the first viewing aware that I’d just seen my favorite Star Wars movie — and that I was probably going to be in the minority.
The Last Jedi gives us the Leia I was hoping to see: a leader of judgment and experience, someone who gives orders but also mentors, inspires, and comforts. Someone whose response to failure is not to force-choke the culprit and move on.
It is a movie with multiple women in command, who handle their positions in different but related ways; a movie that calls out the damage caused by self-centered “heroism” when that heroism isn’t well judged; a movie that honors experience, consideration, and patience. A movie in which doing something amazing once doesn’t armor you forever against doing a bad thing in the future. A movie that engages seriously with how we even regard our celebrities and role models and legends, and how we react to their flaws.
It is a movie about many kinds of relationship — sibling relationships, men and women as colleagues and coworkers, mentors and followers — and a model of friendship that is more personal than “I’ll have your back in a blaster fight.” In the original trilogy, Han smirks his way through most of his feelings, and Luke whines a good bit, but the grief they should all be feeling, especially Leia’s grief about Alderaan, is scarcely even acknowledged. (The Force Awakens echoes this by showing almost no trauma in the wake of the Republic’s destruction.) The Leia/Han romance uses a 1940s playbook where women are not supposed to have sexual agency and Han’s behavior at certain points would now read as straight-up harassment.
In The Force Awakens between Rey and Finn, and now much more in The Last Jedi, we see relationships where friends hold each other accountable, where people share their pain and confront their moral failings together. In our most overt romantic moment, a woman is allowed to make the first move and put a name on her feelings.
So I loved all that on the first viewing. But I thought that the reasons I responded so much to The Last Jedi might be personal and difficult to transfer, especially to people who have never lacked for role models like themselves in positions of power — though others have written about some of the same things I saw.
At the same time, I saw many weird structural defects in TLJ, too many bathetic moments, too many toy-selling inserts. I was annoyed with the porgs, the crystal foxes, the robotic ironing service, BB-8’s “adorable” shenanigans, BB-8’s cutesy evil-droid counterpart. The casino scene felt like an over-obvious shot at current politics, and tonally off: there was no point to having our heroes cross over into the James Bond universe. Leia’s force-flying looked ridiculous to me, at a moment when you want to provoke the opposite of ridicule.
I could have done without several of the action sequences, especially the bit where the red guards break out a bunch of previously unseen weapons to fight Rey and Kylo, which was narratively unnecessary and felt like it was there to support a level of the eventual video game. I would rather have cut straight from the moment where they’re back-to-back to one where Rey and Kylo are standing in a room full of obliterated enemies.
And then… well. I have the impression Mark Hamill is a terrific human being, but I didn’t connect with his acting as much as most of the others on the screen. I couldn’t work out why Luke said he’d teach Rey three lessons and then seemingly taught her only two (but also never explicitly signposted “your third lesson is canceled”). Immediately after viewing, I wrote a friend “Too many scenes on the island don’t have a clear point”; I’ve since read that there was meant to be a third lesson but that it was cut. And I didn’t like how Luke responds to being shown Leia’s old message with (slightly paraphrased) “that was cheap” — it felt like a punchline where we could instead have had dialogue that reflected where his relationship with Leia has gone since.
I went to see TLJ a second time in an attempt to figure out whether it was a worse movie than I thought, and whether I’d half projected what I wanted to see onto the screen.
It’s not a worse movie than I thought. It’s a better one, and what it has to say runs deeper.
There’s so much happening that it can seem unfocused on a first viewing, but the structure is there; it’s just complicated. The second time I watched, I was on guard for things that perhaps should be pulled out. There was, yes, still the stupid humor, and still the unnecessary merchandising set-up, and that could and should have been removed. But it bothered me much less because the rest of the movie shone through more.
Meanwhile, I saw structure I missed the first time: the dawn/sunset/midnight sequence of Rey’s three lessons (and she does receive three, even if Luke doesn’t really orchestrate the last). The way that both Luke and Snoke are training Rey during this sequence. The way Leia and Rey’s binary beacon is links from scene to scene in the story.
And what it has to say goes beyond “your heroes can fail you” or “here is how to be an older woman in a position of power.” It’s a story that suggests we change how we think about personal power and how we pursue it at all.
I watched The Last Jedi with the mental background of two science fiction/fantasy pieces that engage with systemic injustice: Naomi Alderman’s The Power and NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth series.
The Power imagines a world where women suddenly develop the ability to electrocute people at will — not far off from Force lightning, in fact. The result is a fast and brutal comeuppance for many male rapists, harassers, and abusers… and a transition to a world in which women are just as abusive, just as entitled, just as prone to demanding or coercing sexual favors, just as condescending to their male colleagues as any man ever was to a woman. The Power to defend becomes the power to coerce, to compel, to kill, to ignore consent; to override the will of another person, or of whole groups of other people; to see pain and experience it as tribute, or even as desirable:
I got on to a subway train in London, and I saw a poster for a movie, which was a poster of a beautiful woman crying. Something just broke inside me because I was going through this horrific break up, waking up every morning crying, and then going to get on with my day. It felt like that was the culture that I live in going, “Hey, that crying that you’re doing right now, carry on with that, that’s sexy, that’s great. We love it when women cry. We love it when women suffer. Do more of that. Hey, it’s really attractive.” I just started thinking furiously on this Tube train about what I would have to do, or what would have to change in the world for me to be sitting opposite a poster of a really beautiful, attractive man crying. — Naomi Alderman Q&A with Swapna Krishna
It isn’t (the book suggests) simply gender or even toxic masculinity per se that’s the problem, it’s the fact that the systemic tilt exists in the first place. When there is a differential, people will use it — and use it sadistically. It’s not really what you’d call an upper about human nature.
N. K. Jemisin’s trilogy focuses more on race than on gender, but imagines a world in which a group of “orogenes” have the power to detect and control seismic events and otherwise exert control over the earth’s crust. Because the planet they live on is very unstable, orogenic intervention is often the only way to protect human communities. But their ability makes them dangerous — mass murder is easy for an orogene, and untrained orogenes react instinctively to threat. So they’re kept in subjection, rigorously trained and guarded so that they won’t get out of hand. The books explore the idea that those in power can’t bear to relinquish it because it feels inevitable that those they’ve mistreated will take revenge.
Over the course of the trilogy, Jemisin shows us some of the world’s past leading to this point: a history in which orogenes didn’t always exist in their current form, but someone was always the subjected and dehumanized group. Racism persists even as races come and go.
The most memorable and sick-making passages of the trilogy are the ones that touch on how people respond to oppressive power: how they learn to swallow their humiliations, how they mingle love and hate, how they bend themselves this way and that to try to learn to keep on living in horrible situations.
The Fifth Season begins with an exceptionally gifted orogene, no longer able to tolerate this world, drawing on a network of his people and splitting the earth’s crust, opening up a continent-wide rift. This begins a Season, a catastrophic state where the atmospheric and other effects threaten life on the planet. It’s not the first Season, but it might very well be the last, as far as humans are concerned. And the question then persists, throughout the rest of the trilogy: does a world this broken deserve to survive? (If you’re curious for more elaboration than will fit here, Abigail Nussbaum writes about how the story concludes.)
Both The Power and Stone Sky (the last book of Jemisin’s trilogy) left me with disturbing questions. Are we stuck with a world where systemic injustice is unfixable? Where the power to rescue and repair is always also the power to subject, humiliate, and abuse? Where leadership means coercion and pursuit of status?
Closer to home, are we stuck with a situation where so many people internalize their accomplishments as permission to go through life in a state of entitlement? Where others have a hard time recognizing what they’ve done because they don’t want to become too egocentric?
Is there anyone we can trust with power? Is it even healthy to emphasize the possession of power so heavily?
I’ve seen people get weirdly wrapped around the question of their own power: how much do they have? Do they still have as much as they had last time they checked? Less? More? What will it get them currently? The only way to check if you have power is to exercise it somehow, though — and so they test, gratuitously, what they can take from the people around them. For some, the need to retain and demonstrate their power becomes stronger than their ethics or their kindness or their common sense.
I say I’ve seen “people”. I’m not talking about someone on the news. I’m talking about ex-friends. I’m talking about people I trusted and cared about, who burned that trust and care to the ground because dominance mattered more to them.
In The Last Jedi, power mirrors power. When the Jedi grow stronger, so do the Sith. Both sides treat the Force as a weapon, an idea recapitulated by the arms dealers on Canto Bight, who wear the finest in black-and-white fashions.
When the exercise of power against power becomes too acute, things break at the middle: Kylo’s face, Snoke’s body, Rey’s light saber. At the still center of the movie, Holdo jumps to light speed and slices Snoke’s ship in two silent halves.
It may be stupid world-building to make a feature standard on every spaceship turn out to be an unprecedentedly powerful weapon — surely people have tried this before, no? But as an image, it fits. It didn’t strike me until the second viewing, but Holdo’s action is treated to a cinematic presentation — time half-suspended, silence, shock — that echoes how movies often show the detonation of a nuclear bomb. It is an act of extremity.
At the same time, this is not simply an exercise of both-sides-ism. It remains clear that good and evil exist, that Leia belongs to the light and Snoke to the darkness, that “live free and don’t become part of the machine” is not a sufficient or acceptable response to this state of war. When Kylo Ren refuses to rescue the remains of the Rebellion, he’s doing something awful.
The good fight persists. It has to be fought, not just once, but repeatedly, as long as there is a galaxy. It is never concluded or even suspended for the length of one person’s lifetime. And even outside of conflict, there is work to do, for which we need leaders and organization.
But for this fight, it is not enough — indeed sometimes it is even counterproductive — to be a powerful Jedi. Power is egocentric, competitive, lonely, harsh, self-regarding and brittle. Power coerces and compels, violates and overrides. Power cannot be vulnerable and it cannot admit equals. Kylo Ren may be the most powerful person alive at the end of The Last Jedi, but he is broken and sad and incredibly ineffective.
We need something else instead of power. We need a different way of getting to our goals, and a different virtue to aspire to.
I’ve written before about alternatives to both the power fantasy (many many games) and to the enactment of powerlessness (a lot of games in the art/personal game space), but that earlier writing was about democratic citizenship, about very reduced but non-zero agency.
In TLJ we see the idea of being effective without being violent, without being cruel, without overriding other people, without accumulating “power” in your own person.
Almost the first thing that happens to Leia in The Last Jedi: Poe disobeys her direct order. She is unable to exert her will through the chain of command. Powerless. But that disobedience does not take away her significance and her leadership. Afterward, her primary concern is not about reasserting dominance over Poe. She demotes him and rebukes him, yes, and at one point she even stuns him with a blaster — but she also teaches him something important. When he has learned it, she hands him authority again. (“What are you looking at me for? Follow him.” I disliked this line on viewing one; on viewing two I felt better about it.)
Leia is tied in to the Force, but she has not trained as a Jedi. She uses it in an obvious way when she’s in extremity, but mostly what we see is that the Force connects her to Luke, to Kylo, to Rey.
She cares for her own. She likes Poe despite his severe screw-ups. She has a deep, long-standing friendship with Vice Admiral Holdo. She trains and uplifts her subordinates. She hopes for the best from the people around her, but she’s able to see and acknowledge the worst. She has emotions, she acknowledges and manages them, but she isn’t overwhelmed by them when she needs to do something else. This happens to overlap with traditionally gendered behavior, but it is not purely a gender issue. Leia has a lot of virtues that might be considered traditionally feminine, but she has many traditionally masculine ones as well. And above all, she gets things done.
It’s not a case where the best lack all conviction. For once, the options aren’t a binary of “powerful but bad” and “useless but weak.” They’re not even “I’m (kind of) a pacifist but I’ve got a lot of badass friends,” in the style certain modern-era Doctor Who.
So I came in looking for a story about how to be an older woman in position of authority other than Matriarch. As I take on more management and community leadership roles, I feel like I can only succeed if I have examples of how not to replicate certain management and culture failings that have harmed me or my friends in the past.
In The Last Jedi, I feel I got that, but also something I didn’t know I was seeking: a message about valuing work instead of power. Work is ongoing. Work is humble and noncompetitive, but also valuable. Work is able to leverage cooperation, but it still functions even if no cooperation is forthcoming. Work is what changes the galaxy.
11 thoughts on “Instead of Power”
I lurk on your site often, enjoying your usual focus in interactive storytelling. This is one of my favorite pieces you’ve written, thank you.
Great write-up on TLJ, but one complaint— Porgs are awesome!
I love this! Great essay. TLJ is the best Star Wars movie.
Wonderful essay. The whole toy+video game thing drives me nuts, but I’ve come to ignore it where Star Wars is concerned. I do think the leadership lessons from the female characters were brilliant. I’m completely tickled that the movie exposes Internet misogyny on a grand scale. I have zero sympathy for their “this isn’t Star Wars!” rants.
Thank you for the enlightening read!
This was what I needed to read today. Thank you for the thoughtful article.
Nice. Never liked Star Wars movies much because it just seemed like a lot of fighting. Maybe TLJ… As a male, have had the great fortune of working for “powerful” but not “power-hungry” women. And they were no matriarch types either. Taught me a lot about how kindness doesn’t have to mean weakness. A related question of great salience is what good males might bring to the world with their physical power. There is the possibility for something positive there, not fully realized.
I loved TLJ and I’m still processing its structural uniqueness months after the first viewing. That combined with a church series on the Old Testament (aka scary violent God who doesn’t seem consistent with the character of Jesus) has made me think more about violence in my own fiction. It’s narratively satisfying, but it’s high time I dug deeper into what makes a good ending.
Just want to add my voice to the others thanking you for this great post.
[…] In The Last Jedi, I feel I got that, but also something I didn’t know I was seeking: a message about valuing work instead of power. Work is ongoing. Work is humble and noncompetitive, but also valuable. Work is able to leverage cooperation, but it still functions even if no cooperation is forthcoming. Work is what changes the galaxy. […]
This is a naive way of thinking. Yes, ‘work’ is the ‘thing’ that allows everything survive. The opaque work of thousands of scientists, engineers, craftmen has improved the humanity in the shadows, their efforts is what allow us to live better than in the past ages, but… not be innocent, the humble work NEVER NEVER NEVER wins the leadership. The humble workers are the base of everything but they never will be rewarded just for their work. Remember Boxer in ‘Animal Farm’, pigs will win if you just believe in the value of the humble work.