If you like this article, then consider supporting me via my Patreon site. Even a small pledge helps: https://www.patreon.com/user?u=2706521&ty=h
We’ve all had time to ponder The Force Awakens. We’ve seen it, read about it, and thought about it. I’ll not pretend at some new insight more deep or significant than what much more skilled commentators have written about the film. What I want to explore is how the film’s depiction of masculinity makes it a pleasure to experience and how that pleasure is conveyed through altering the standard model of storytelling.
Poe Dameron is a hero.
In any other movie, he’d be the hero.
After the TIE fighter crash, we should follow Dameron not Finn, as he makes his way back to The Resistance. But we don’t. And this is exactly what sets Abrams’ Star Wars: The Force Awakens apart and makes it a superior story.
We not only focus in on Finn’s arc, his is used to get us to Rey’s so that the heart of the movie becomes one of lives intertwining. When we finally see Dameron again, he’s leading an assault. What we would traditionally see is Dameron prepping for this mission, debating about why it needs to be undertaken, and/or rallying his fellow pilots. We don’t. He comes out of nowhere seemingly to save the day like a proper hero (echoing Han Solo’s return to the the original Death Star assault to save Luke and affirm his character’s place in our hearts). Dameron’s best moment in this scene is given to us from Finn’s point of view watching in awe and admiration as Dameron out dog-fights TIE fighters.
What’s more we barely get any face-time with Dameron in this scene. A standard movie would be the reverse: we’d catch glimpses of Finn and Rey on the ground (maybe) or (more likely) hear reports of movements that would would associate with them over Dameron’s comms. When we finally see Dameron’s face again, it’s a reunion scene again from Finn’s p.o.v and more about his emotional and pragmatic arc than Dameron’s.
The jacket, that wonderful symbol, is a throwaway thought to Dameron but much more for Finn and, therefore, us. In the Dameron hero movie, running into Finn again and seeing him wearing his old jacket is quirky; it’s a shoulder punch or bro-hug, nothing more. Because it is so much more, if we follow Finn’s arc, we’re not sure how to process the scene as it runs in the face of nearly everything we’ve seen our whole lives.
Like any truly great story, The Force Awakens challenges us. The anger by supremacist fanboys is a response to this confusion or disequilibrium as is the conviction or wish Poe and Finn are or will be more than just buddies. Each is a completely legitimate psychological (and visceral) reaction to a kind of storytelling we’re not use to. One is purely reactionary and the other rather radical. As with most things, the most meaningful account probably lies in some golden mean.
Supremacist wail that The Force Awakens emasculates, and it does–it moves the hero narrative away from the safe, familiar to equally valid and valuable heroes who are not exclusively white and not exclusively men–but only if we understand masculinity as male white supremacy. If so, then The Force Awakens is a direct and compelling challenge, and one that defeats male white supremacy.
But masculinity isn’t male white supremacy, that is not its default setting. When it is, it is a perversion; it is toxic masculinity. The masculinity on display in Finn’s arc is non-toxic. Traditionally, the only non-toxic masculinity many and most of us (I would contend hetero-cis as well as queer folk) have on hand is one of benign homoeroticism: the gay best friend, the non-threatening gay man, the quirky lesbian that’s just one of the guys, the sassy trans, and the like. These are cliches which can and do often morph into damaging, insulting, and stupid negative portrayals. These short-hands are as damaging and wrong-headed as toxic masculinity, because it still codes masculinity as something that stands in opposition, perhaps less hostile but still aggressively other than, rather than with others.
In The Force Awakens, it is here where Finn’s arc needs to meet Rey’s and doing so is a curative gesture. Finn’s relationship with Rey is at once romantic and non-romantic. He plays at being the romantic lead but is rebuffed by Rey only to be embraced as himself by her in a more genuinely tender and intimate manner going beyond binaries. Rey doesn’t want or need to hold Finn’s hand, and soon enough, Finn discovers this for himself. But Rey does want and need someone to be there for her. So when Finn and Rey meet on Starkiller Base and it’s revealed that Finn came back for her, not to rescue but to be there to help her, it is everything she has ever wanted.
Literally, Rey’s entire emotional arc is one of longing for someone to come back for her. Not because she needs help or is in danger, but because being alone is emotionally and psychologically crippling. Finn and Rey are friends in the truest sense. The revel in each other’s strengths while teasing, mocking, and challenging each other’s weaknesses and assumptions. They work through the white lies they’ve told each other that have spun out of control by refusing to abandon one another. They refuse to be alone anymore and as each iterate this, it becomes stronger, more true.
Experiencing Rey, Finn is able to see relationships with others differently and vice versa (although Rey is no mere foil). So when he stands face-to-face with Poe (the man who helped free him and who Finn rescued, who gave him a true name and the clothes off his back, and who treats him as not just an equal or peer but an intimate), Finn loves him. The three of them, Poe, Finn, and Rey, compose relationships that are beyond romance. Demonstrating just how the common understanding of romance is a painfully childish and dangerously out of date concept. We see these three are actually the most purely adult persons we’ve ever seen—sincere, complex, moving, direct, confusing, endearing, and affirming.
Nothing about Finn and Poe’s relationship is toxic; nothing about Rey and Finn’s relationship is toxic. Every combination of the three stands against everything that is noxious, pernicious, and malignant; that is, every combination of the three stand against Kylo Ren, the emblem of toxic masculinity.
This point has been hammered home by writers more savvy than I. Abigail Nussbaum distills much of what makes Kylo Ren emblematic of toxic masculinity as he is “a child of privilege who is consumed with self-pity and self-absorption, who wallows in those emotions and uses them to justify not just temper tantrums, but participating in mass murder and other acts of wanton cruelty.” But I don’t think enough is made out of how Poe is the counter-weight to Kylo.
Poe Dameron is still a hero–skilled, in a position of power and privilege–but he resists the urge towards isolation that pushes Kylo to the Dark side (i.e., toxic masculinity). Poe possess a holistic self-confidence knowing he is only as good as those around him, “Where another character might have been suspicious or competitive, Poe is cooperative and kind” (I can’t stress enough how good of an essay this is in the link; Kate Bennion writes one of the most insightful, well-balanced articles on the film and broader context out there).Thus, he works to elevate all and not out of some pompous misguided benevolence but just as an ordinary guy who accepts the fact he a minor character with a role to play.
Kylo Ren would see this as marginalization, as being less than, as having his rights stolen from him. Nothing about Kylo is holistic or unifying; he leeches his identity and sows dissention. Ironically, as he fights against this he becomes more and more impotent, churlish, and frenzied pushing himself farther and farther out into the margins, into the darkness. Kylo Ren’s failure to embrace a masculinity that nourishes defines him. Again, others have written fantastic essays that better explore this aspect of the character Kylo Ren.
All of this is a side note to my main point. The Force Awakens isn’t about saving masculinity or imposing it. It isn’t a film that poisons or cures. But, just like its predecessor the original Star Wars, it is a film that shows us how to be a man. What we experience is one of the very few stories showing how masculinity can revel in itself as a positive element in a larger and varied gender pool.