In a pop culture era that has given us ‘Twilight’ and ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’, there has been a huge space for criticism to emerge in regards to healthy fictional relationships. A space that has allowed discussion on why Edward Cullen and Bella Swan, and their erotic-fan fiction counterparts Christian Grey and Anastasia Steele, do not portray desirable relationships. From stalking to emotional and physical abusive, readers and moviegoers have started to become much more critical of romantic relationships.
Readers and moviegoers have started to become much more critical of the romantic relationships.
It’s not just books and films that are under this scrutiny. When Telltale Games released ‘Tales from the Borderlands’ in 2014, Tumblr became awash with fandom arguments over the ethics of pairing notorious psychopath Handsome Jack with Rhys, a character he was very clearly manipulating. Arguments ranged from ‘It’s fine so long as you recognise Handsome Jack’s behaviour’ to ‘If you support this, you are supporting abuse.’
2017 has also been an incredibly revealing year. The #MeToo campaign highlighted the devastatingly widespread norm of abuse in Hollywood, and the Harry Potter fanbase rallied against the presence of Johnny Depp in the ‘Fantastic Beasts’ franchise following Amber Heard’s domestic assault case against him. It has quickly become impossible to ignore the presence of problematic relationships in real life and in fiction.
‘The Force Awakens’ release in 2015 created similar falling outs in the Star Wars fandom. This criticism went beyond complaints it was a rehash of ‘A New Hope’. Tall, dark, and handsome Kylo Ren was at the centre of it all. An awful individual who physically attacks those he disagrees with and willingly tortures others when he doesn’t get his way.
For the sake of being open here, I will admit I am a huge Kylo Ren fan. I think he’s one of the most interesting villains we’ve seen on screen for a while – And that’s okay. It is okay to love Kylo Ren. I fall into the category of fan that believes it’s fine to love Kylo Ren, so long as you don’t sugarcoat his actions. He is a murderer and an all-round less than likeable human being. We also know he has a difficult past. He’s been turned against his family and believes said family tried to kill him. The internal conflict is what makes him interesting. Kylo is torn in the force, punishing himself whenever he strays from the dark side.
It’s fine to love Kylo Ren, so long as you don’t sugarcoat his actions.
But it wasn’t just his character that caused a stir within the fandom. Suddenly, fans popped up writing fan fiction and creating pieces of artwork of him and protagonist Rey. These pieces of work were soon met with criticism.
Their scenes in ‘The Force Awakens’ are far from romantic. In their first interaction, Rey flees from Ren. Daisy Ridley’s incredible acting shows the audience Ren terrifies Rey, and with good reason. Kylo Ren hunts her through the woods. He goes on to kidnap and torture Rey, using the force to mind probe her. The force mind probe is a very loaded metaphor in this scene. Whilst I’m a fan of critic David Lodge’s approach that ‘Sometimes, a spade is just a spade’, the interrogation scene has always made me feel very uncomfortable.
The force mind probe is a very loaded metaphor.
The audience witnesses Ren forcing himself onto Rey, quite literally. He is forcing her to let him in. When I first saw the scene, I thought that maybe I was overthinking it. Perhaps my literature degree had made me hypersensitive to Freudian analysis. But we hear Ren say “You know I can take whatever I want” before he begins probing. It immediately sets off alarm bells – Ren is not going to be and clearly isn’t concerned with consent.
We see Rey fight back against him, showing how strong women can be when faced with their abusers. There are no romantic undertones in these scenes, for me. No “I’m lonely too, we can be lonely together”. These are not characters who are going to go on and form a healthy, and loving relationship.
Jump to lightspeed two years later, and we get Rian Johnson’s ‘The Last Jedi’, a film that takes everything great about Star Wars and freshens it up again. I was so fully immersed in the film, and Kylo Ren’s conflict was so brilliantly portrayed by Adam Driver yet again. I wasn’t even pulled out of the experience when we were introduced to the force connection between Rey and Ren. Rey is so full of hatred for Ren that her immediate reaction to seeing him through the force is to attack him – and it’s strong enough to make Ren feel it even though he isn’t there.
Rey is so fully of hatred for Ren that her immediate reaction to seeing him through the force is to attack him.
But then it takes a weird turn. Suddenly they become starcrossed-almost-lovers. They start confiding in one another, deepening their connection through revelations. There’s even an awkward shirtless scene that Johnson seems to have directly torn from fan fiction in order to heighten sexual tension. We know Ren has been trying to get Rey over to the dark side. ‘The Last Jedi’ shows Rey trying to offer Ren a back to the light.
It’s emotional labour from Rey – she’s expected to carry everything that turned Ben to the dark side and make him ‘better’? I’m calling bull.
“You’re Nothing… But not to me.”
The only inkling we get of romance between the two turns sour still. When Ren tempting Rey to his new ideal of the First Order, he tells her “You’re nothing… But not to me.” This is very clearly not a compliment. It is manipulative. He is playing on her anxieties and her fears to bring her to the dark side. In this scene, Ren is using the same tactics Snoke has used to tear him away from his family. We know Snoke is a monster and a predator. Some have even gone as far as pointing out he groomed Ren from a young age.
So why do we villainise Snoke for this abuse, but brush Ren’s behaviour aside in favour of romance? Adam Driver is now a Sci-fi sex symbol. Ren does not share the appearance of the deformed alien creature he calls his master. He is an attractive human being, making it easier to romanticise his actions.
Suddenly they become starcrossed-almost-lovers.
Rey had strength in the face of her abuser. Now she’s fighting to help him get back on the right path. Rian Johnson conveys this their through forlorn looks and force hand-holding. It feels wholly unnatural. This also mirrors another truth in emotionally abusive relationships. Abuse victims can feel they are responsible for their abusers. They’re the one who will be able to fix them and stop the abuse. Rey must ‘fix’ Ren and help him find redemption. In my opinion, this is an insult to both characters. Why does Ren need redemption? Why send him down the same path as his grandfather? Let the villain be the villain. Give us someone we love to hate and hate to love.
The Reylo fandom has been alive and cheery since the release of ‘The Last Jedi’. Many claim they are ‘winning’ through the canonisation of Rey and Ren. But elsewhere, Kylux (Kylo Ren and General Hux) fans seem to be taking a different approach. They also see Kylo Ren’s abusive tendencies. He force chokes and flings General Hux into a wall. But Kylux fans acknowledge that it is unhealthy behaviour. I am yet to see such an acknowledgement from Camp Reylo. Perhaps fans should just be allowed to enjoy what they want without too much criticism. It is just a film, after all. But the wider implications of it seem to be striking too close to the culture of 2017.
At the end of ‘The Last Jedi’, we see Rey firmly shut out her connection with Ren. She looks at him and closes the door to the Millennium Falcon. It’s a moment symbolising the severance of her connection to him. She is once again liberated and defiant. It’s one door this Star Wars fan wants to remain firmly shut.