I’m a lady. I’m a General Leia fangirl. So why do I relate to Kylo Ren?
I know, I know. This is awkward.
We’re in between Star Wars movies right now. The Last Jedi has been out for a year already. I should just appreciate this short, sweet time when there is no urgent need for fandom discourse, and we can all just relax for a galactic second.
Except, and I apologize in advance, I can’t stop thinking about Kylo Ren.
I know. I know.
There are lots of negative and well-deserved terms that have been used to describe Star Wars’ most recent black-caped villain. Manbaby, predator, incel, f*ckboy, emo… there’s one popular tee-shirt that succinctly describes KR as “a punk bitch.”
None of these descriptors are wrong, though fans can quibble about degrees of accuracy. Much (so, so much) has been written about how Kylo Ren displays many traits of toxic masculinity and privilege, how he re-writes history to suit his own narrative, and uses the goodness of others while playing the victim. Angry and selfish, Ben Solo in many ways acts as a repudiation to the misplaced sympathy often lavished on sad (usually white) boys with soulful eyes.
And that’s fair. It’s easy to characterize compassion for the rage-y dude who killed Han Solo as either fangirl lust, or the response of male fans squirming away from the fact their traditional cipher in sequel-trilogy Star Wars is the bad guy.
But the more I think about Kylo Ren, the more I feel it’s a mistake to ascribe the entirety of his attractiveness and relatability to gender. Gender is an important part of his morally-ugly puzzle, absolutely. But when the character is written off as a sop for needy fanboys or thirsty fangirls, we can lose sight of the fact that… well, many of us, regardless of our gender, have something of Kylo Ren within us.
Like me. I’m a lady, I’m a Rey fangirl, and I will cheer General Leia forever, but I also relate to Kylo Ren.
(Is it suddenly super awkward in here, or is that just me?)
Look, many Star Wars fans hate Kylo Ren for good reason; most of his traits are not exactly going to win anyone love, friends, or even grudging respect. So it’s uncomfortable to confront the part of myself that resonates with Ren’s feelings and motivations.
It’s not the part I’m proud of. None of this is pretty, none of this is fun or neat or laudable. It’s really, really unflattering. And yet, I still kind of get it.
That feeling of being supernova-level furious, with no legitimate vent for your rage. Succumbing to the temptation to blame anyone for your problems — except yourself. Hewing to a path that you were warned away from, but refusing to change course because you cannot be wrong. Seeking validation anywhere it appears, even in dark places.
And doing everything you can to silence the voice inside that knows that this misery is mostly just your own damn fault.
I have felt these things. I mean, not on a galactic, parent-killing, Rey-baiting level. But in my own fairly ordinary way, those bad feelings resonate with me. It’s kind of embarrassing, to be honest, but there’s no point in denying it. I have raged against my parent, rejected help from well-meaning people, translated feelings of helplessness into aggression.
There are much better parts of me, too. Parts that Kylo Ren either never had or has snuffed out. (Though it does seem that he’s still familiar with guilt, another similarity.) But the fact remains, I relate to a lot of his feelings, even as I watch with dismay how they manifest.
After a year of percolating on the question of why I relate to Kylo Ren (and what that says about me, eek), I have arrived at a tentative thesis.
Fiction explores humanity’s most epic highs and cataclysmic lows. Stories and characters are meant to both resonate with us and to challenge us; it just gets weird when that relatability arrives in a very different package than the one we were expecting.
Modern popular culture is still building up its catalog of female characters, both villainous and virtuous, who are in touch with their rage, selfishness, and self-doubt — as well as the ugly but genuine power that comes from it. I’m getting used to enjoying a rougher-edged emotional honesty in characters like Thor: Ragnorak‘s Hela and Valkyrie, but it took me by surprise in the form of violent tantrum-monster Kylo Ren.
After all, it feels like those feelings, embodied by said tantrum-monster/manbaby/incel should not be mine. And yet, here we are.
As we zoom forth into 2019 and the final installment of the Star Wars Skywalker Saga (allegedly, anyway) I hope this is something that the fields of fandom discourse can keep in mind. Kylo Ren deserves almost all of the takedowns, negative analysis, and name-calling that he’s gotten; but the traits that inspire this invective are not exclusive to one set of people. It’s worth considering what inspires those feelings in a real-world context, and why — even in the face of fictional horrors — some fans continue to cleave to characters they recognize.
So let’s explore our better selves through fiction — our bravery, selflessness, resilience, and strength. But let’s also recognize the outlet stories can provide to our darker sides, the bits we aren’t proud of, and often hide even from ourselves. Those feelings don’t belong exclusively to men, and the rest of us don’t have to make excuses in order to get in touch, to release our darknesses, and to grow from watching them played out in someone else.
After all, if there’s one thing we can all agree on, it’s that Kylo Ren would have been way better off if he’d had an outlet like that.