‘Star Wars’ and the Crisis of Masculinity

Why did Kylo Ren turn evil?

That’s a central unanswered question of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Ren is the film’s villain, a young acolyte of the late Darth Vader. (Spoiler alert: He is also the son of two of the film’s famous characters, whose names I’m going to reveal).

Kylo Ren is the son of Han Solo and Princess Leia, characters from the original Star Wars films. Solo is a swashbuckling pilot and Leia (now a general) is a cunning military strategist. With a pedigree like that you would expect Ren to be an honorable warrior, but something has gone wrong—he rejects his parents, opting instead to follow the path of the grandfather he never knew, the evil Darth Vader. The Force Awakens is a weakly written script so we never find out what precisely motivates Ren, but judging by his behavior, his hostility and confusion might stem from the lack of male initiation. That is to say, Han Solo may have been hyper driving around the galaxy when he should have been raising his son.

According to psychologist James Hollis, rites that provide for the initiation of young men into the world of adulthood are as crucial to male health as fresh air and food. In his book, Under Saturn’s Shadow: the Wounding and Healing of Men, Hollis examines how, before the modern age, rites of initiation for adolescent boys were a crucial part of tribal and community life. These were often violent ordeals. The Mandan Sioux Indians would drive a skewer into the pectoral muscles of the initiate and raise him by ropes until he fainted. A tribe in the South Pacific had boys jump off of a huge wooden edifice. In Ethiopia young men have to prove their worth by jumping over cows.

To our modern sensibilities these rites might seem odd and even sadistic, but in premodern cultures they served an important purpose. Rites of initiation provided a formalized ritual to signal that a young man was becoming an adult, but more importantly, they showed that a boy had entered into a larger cosmic drama. It meant that his life had meaning not just in the community, but also to God (or the gods). Here’s how famed Swiss psychiatrist Carl Jung described it, in a quote used by Hollis in Under Saturn’s Shadow: “That gives peace, when people feel they are living the symbolic life, that they are actors in the divine drama. That gives the only meaning to human life; everything else is banal . . . A career, producing of children, all are maya [illusions] compared with that one thing, that your life is meaningful.” In the original Star Wars films Luke Skywalker has to go through a lengthy and difficult training and initiation process not only to become physically powerful, but also to learn the ways of the Force, the thing that holds the entire universe together.

Without that larger vision, all you have are ersatz initiation ceremonies that teach violence with no redemptive vision. So boys are told to play football because “it builds character.” Or to go hunting because “that’s what men do.” The alternative to these rituals (one often embraced by self-proclaimed progressives) is a culture that eschews violence of any kind except in simulated form, creating boys who can dazzle in video game play but have never had a real bloody nose.

Yet young men who are not properly initiated can suffer from psychic dissonance, depression, rage, and a lifelong inability to handle relationships. In other words, they become like Kylo Ren. This is why the questions about Ren’s parentage are so fascinating. His parents, Han Solo and General Leia, are both strong warriors, yet their son seeks to test himself against a grandfather he never met. What went wrong? Kylo Ren yearns for supernatural as well as physical power, but he also craves testing—a rite to give his life meaning. This is revealed when the character, Rey, who is strong with the Force, read’s Ren’s mind, detecting that he is afraid he’ll never measure up to his grandfather, Darth Vader. Ren’s lack of meaningful initiation into manhood has made him confused, explosive and dangerous, but also a bit of an emo whiner.

Even though it was published years before The Force Awakens came out, Under Saturn’s Shadow has Ren’s number—and, sadly, ours:

What the modern man suffers from, then, is the wounding without the transformation . . . He is asked to be a man when no on can define it except in the most trivial of terms. He is asked to move from boyhood to manhood without any rites of passage, with no wise elders to receive and instruct him, and no positive sense of what such manhood might feel like.


  • We never actually learned when Han went away. I was under the assumption that it was after Kylo Ren, Formerly Ben, made the switch. Considering Han’s relationship with Leia, and his new understanding of the Force after episodes 4-6, I think it’s slim that he avoided his parental duties. Especially when he and Leia discuss Ben’s choices, which looks like it was an affront to both parents, not a mother and and absentee father.

  • varifrank

    Interestingly enough, the actor playing Kylo is a Marine. There is no clearer mark of “Becoming a man” in modern life than the progression through military boot camp.

  • James Becker

    Nice theory I guess. I’d note that it is highly unlikely Disney writers are going to write a script based on that theory. More likely they just needed the kid to switch to create a plot line and they had him switch for no particular reason.

    The workings of the Devil are generally beyond the knowledge of movie writers. When they describe someone turning evil, it usually doesn’t work very well.

    “Breaking Bad” might be an exception, I guess. But in that case, doing something evil in order to create a greater good (a normal Devilish Trick) was the whole point of the show.

  • KenH

    This aint even a question; measure up??
    Sonny, you aint fit to clean out his meditation chamber, never mind anything else. Darth Vader was a REAL Sith Lord. You? You, are a pathetic little emo whiner, akin to a 9-year-old who likes to throw tantrums. Vader would have crushed you like an insect. And god help you if you ran into Sidious

  • Gringao

    I had a similar discussion with some trainers of our national fraternity at a workshop in Des Moines. The issue of hazing was big at the time, and we were being told not to do it and, after all, it serve absolutely no purpose at all but to satisfy some sadistic urge we supposedly had. I told the presenter this was hokum, that human history is filled with rites of passage that range from the uncomfy and intense (like out initiations) to the downright dangerous, and that jettisoning them would risk making membership in our chapters no different from joining a record club. The presenter had no response.

  • Terenc Blakely

    Mary Sue versus Emo Darth doesn’t exactly grab me.

    • ubik

      I decided not to watch any more after going to StarCrap Episodes 1-3. that Disney will produce an endless string of these confirmed my commitment.
      No More!

  • ubik

    Initiation rites are needed to belong. We have eliminated them and belong no where. Our tribe is forbidden, our faith is mocked. Why is there unease?
    The Gods of The Copybook Headings know.

  • obamediawatcher

    Obviously from here on out the good guys will be female and/or black and bad guys white males.

  • boxty woot

    Correct me if I’m wrong, but didn’t one of Ren’s parents state that he was mentored by Luke Skywalker, last of the Jedi, probably similar to how Yoda mentored Luke Skywalker? Isn’t that a form of “male initiation?”

    • Richard Chiu

      Yeah, that’s one of the really weak points of this argument. Not only does Han Solo easily (and credibly) come across as an ideal “father figure” to a couple of other youngsters with only minutes of screen time, he also puts his life on the line to try and win Ren back, which Ren predicts and cynically exploits (and if you need a spoiler alert at this point, don’t be reading this article or the comments, idiot) to murder him in cold blood as a way of scoring a few points with ‘the big bad’.

      In fact, it was Ren turning against the newly founded Jedi academy which broke apart his parents and turned Han back to smuggling, this is canon within the story, it is no negotiable.

      Also, that light-saber design proves conclusively that Ren is just a mental defective generally.

  • It was just a very weak concept. The movie was fun but silly. That said, I believe the author is on to something in society.

  • emersonushc13

    You’ve ruined it for me when I see the movie in a year on DVD!!

  • bggatbdl

    There is only one group of people to blame: the criminal Republican Party. Ever since Bush dehumanized “them thar darky Ay-rabs” as he called them, and sent thousands of minorities to die for his two illegal wars, men in this country have no moral bearing. Bush belongs in jail for what he did to this country and its men.

    • As a combat veteran myself and father of a man who served as a Ranger during three tours in Iraq and one in Afghanistan I have to say I pity you. You are a pathetic being with no hope of remaining free but through the efforts of better people than you. So pathetic…

    • For the record, blacks represent 12.8% of the population and 9.5% of the deaths in Iraq. They were under-represented in terms of fatalities in that war. Why? Blacks volunteer for combat arms roles at a lesser rate than others.


      • Terenc Blakely

        I suspect he’s trolling and being sarcastic…. or unimaginably stupid.

        • I am a former paratrooper, infantryman and combat veteran. Even during the 80s and 90s there was near segregation in the United States Army with whites overrepresented in combat arms units and blacks overrepresented in support units. This explains why, while blacks are overrepresented in the military as a whole, they are underrepresented in combat fatalities. They do not volunteer for combat arms as often as white recruits. This isn’t a troll. This is a statement of fact.

          I understand facts that do not comport with your politically correct worldview offend you, but facts they remain.

      • I-RIGHT-I

        That’s because they don’t have any skin in the game and never did. I’m trying to think of exceptions but you don’t find Black heroes in the military too often.

    • Chance Boudreaux

      Laughable. “Progressives” with their race-to-the-bottom moral relativism and destruction of God and Western Civilization, their war on the unborn and femininity, and masculinity are too blame if anything.

  • Robert Burke

    Regarding Star Wars, is it not really a parable about the darkest force on Earth, Progressive worldview education? It makes Hydra heads everywhere which consume all intelligence, all logic, all money, all time, all resources… Progressive education is one heck of a Death Star!

    What would be the ballsiest move for existent Jedi to do? Why, it would be to defund Progressive worldview education, and replace it with “1776-Tragic-Liberty” pedagogy. America was founded on common sense philosophy (a real Jedi philosophy!) and this was the educational norm from 1776 to 1900. Then Progressives put in their evil system.

    So, the bravest thing to do (man or woman) would be to ax-to-the-root fix the world’s problems in one fell swoop: Defund Progressive worldview education and replace the pedagogy with common sense “1776-Tragic-Liberty” worldview education. Freedom!

  • Hawkeye52

    Men with out chests–CS Lewis

  • EscondidoSurfer

    George Lucas failed to develop his story while his main actors were young. Disney is going about it in a very confused way. This is the most botched Sci-Fi franchise in history.

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  • kentercat

    Disney does not want to raise boys into men or girls into women, because mature men and women, by definition, have no use for Disney products and services. As long as they can keep people in a state of lifelong childishness, we’ll keep buying toys and seeing children’s videos and so on. Sure, we will take our children to Disneyland, but who has children these days? Certainly not the generation with a $1 trillion in student loans to pay for climbing walls and gender studies professors.

    • Luke Jolly

      One word: Pixar.

  • werewife

    One can dispute the assumption that male initiation rituals must always involve some kind of physical risk or ordeal. The Bar Mitzvah milestone assumed something quite close to its present form about five centuries ago (minus the savings bonds, video game systems, and sushi stations!) and has worked quite well since, with its challenge being entirely intellectual and spiritual. (It doesn’t work for everyone, but then again, neither does anything else…)

    • Marashir Khan

      This is an excellent point (which is to say I was about to make it myself!); the manhood milestone ritual that is the Bar Mitzvah works because it is associated with a people that are very different in character.

      It’s worth pointing out that until a child has become a man, he is not (under Halachic law) responsible for his own actions criminally. The Bar Mitzvah similarly marks the period when a boy is responsible for adult mitzvahs (such as tfillin and so on).

      All that said I think Mr. Judge has a very good point: all movies have something of their own time in them, and SW:TFA reflects the easy admiration with evil our culture has developed.

      Think of how many symbols have proliferated on the basis of “rule of cool”, when the underlying reality is quite horrible. Che Guavara’s face seems to be suitable adornment for anything. An interview with the former White House spokesman Jay Carney showed (by accident) that he has decorated his house with vintage Soviet propaganda posters.

      Heck, just look at the prequal trilogy! The entire thing was predicated on the magnetism of Darth Vader, a man who spends the entire original trilogy (save for a few moments) as a complete monster… but a cool looking one.

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  • Craig Loehle

    The other disturbing thing is that all the male characters must fight evil within themselves to find the good (which is valid) but the female characters are all good. Rey simply discovers the Force within her without any instruction and there is never any question that she might become evil. As if women can’t do bad…a very modern but cartoonish version of human nature.

    • Actually there is a scene where she battles with evil within herself. Remember when she is offered a ton of rations for a robot that is not hers to sell? At first she is tempted, but then changes her mind.

    • STAN24

      May Captain Phasma and the other women seen among the ranks of the First Order (but not seen fighting evil within themselves, they seem perfectly content with it) come and knock some sense into your so-desperate-to-make–point-you-weren’t-even-paying-attention-to-the-movie self.

      • Kaiser Derden

        paid attention to the movie … thats why I think its bad …

        • STAN24

          That’s nice.

          When I replied to someone else above, I included specific examples to justify my conclusion that he wasn’t paying attention. Do you have something more specific to justify why you think it’s “bad,” or are you just trolling a week late?

  • Titan000

    Now all princesses are warriors. Can you please dispense with your GI Jane hardon

  • Titan000
  • Kehvan

    “The Force Awakens is a weakly written script so we never find out what precisely motivates Ren…”

    What you call a weakly written script I call a question answered in the next movie.

    • Kaiser Derden

      by definition a movie that requires a sequel to explain it is poorly written and bad …

      • Kehvan

        Really? So, where is that definition written?

        Closer to the truth is that any movie that’s serialized will have cliff hangers and other plot details that are left open so as to get you to watch the next episode.

  • 2+2=4andalwayswill

    In the conversation between Hans and Leia it is clear that he didn’t go back to roaming the galaxy till the little chorf turn evil. So father absenteeism – which is always everyone’s first go-to explanation when boys go bad – doesn’t seem to apply here.

    Plus he WAS being initiated, into the ways of the jedi, when he went psycho.

    The elephant in the room, for him and all the other whiny cupcakes of his generation, is that his mother never – from the first movie on – had an iota of respect for his father, neither his achievements nor his masculinity. She had complete contempt for Hans Solo from beginning to end, even when she was screwing up and he was saving her life. What’s a boy to do, when his father’s masculinity is consistently derided? Well, there’s Darth Vader, and he might be evil but everyone respects HIM.

    • Luke Jolly

      “You don’t have to do this to impress me.” Leia clearly respected Han from Empire on. It’s a big part of the reason she came to love him. So I don’t know why you think Leia didn’t respect him.

      • 2+2=4andalwayswill

        Never. She never stops calling him a big oaf. She always has to be in charge and giving him orders and telling him how stupid he is. Look, I noticed that even when I was a young radical feminist hating on all men.

        • Luke Jolly

          Or thats how they display their affection for each other. I playfully insult my friends all the time. I don’t have a girlfriend yet but I imagine that I will continue that I will continue that practice with her when I do (probably to a lesser and more respectful extent.) It shows that I know that our bond is close enough that I am comfortable playing around with them. He calls her “your highness” and “princess” sarcastically as well. If friends and lovers took everything they told each other, especially fun name calling, at face value, then the world would be a much less fun place to live in.

  • Archie Andy

    Han a swashbuckling pilot, no, he was a failure that still runs around the galaxy amounting to nothing, just as he was 30 years ago. And Leia, a cunning General? No, she was a frumpy ex-princess that failed to master the force. After 30 years she is just a general? And Luke is a whiny Jedi master that made a mistake so he went to live on the edge of civilization. Whoa, great role models all. No wonder Kylo Ren went bad!

    • notthatGreg

      “Just a general?” What more should she have been?

  • Chance Boudreaux

    The problem is women were sold a bill of goods that must elevate them at the cost of men.

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  • Luke Jolly

    An interesting article, however “The Force Awakens is a weakly written script so we never find out what precisely motivates Ren” Maybe they’re waiting to reveal that later? Just maybe.

    • Kaiser Derden

      movies that require a sequel to explain are by definition bad …

      • Luke Jolly

        Did Fellowship of the Ring answer all the questions you had? Did it wrap up all of the character arcs that it set up? Now, if a movie is written with a sequel not being planned at the time and it requires a sequel to answer a lot of questions thats one thing. But FA was written knowing that there would be too much .

  • Ceara

    Sorry, but no.

    When Han said, “We both had to deal with it in our own way. I went back to doing the only thing I was ever any good at.”

    And Leia said, “We both did.”

    He said “went back.” This tells us that Han WASN’T running around smuggling until AFTER Kylo ran off to join Snoke. There is no “crisis of masculinity.” It’s more likely that Snoke manipulated Kylo, who is a young man. Young people are often impressionable and rebellious at the same time, which makes them dangerously easy to manipulate.

    So how about we DON’T make one of the most likeable characters in sci-fi history out to be a bad father. Kay? Kay.

    • rosie1843

      So how about we DON’T make one of the most likeable characters in sci-fi history out to be a bad father. Kay? Kay.

      Why? You cannot deal with the idea that likeable characters such as Han Solo might have serious flaws?

      • Ceara

        Flaws? Sure. He can have all the flaws he wants. But this is NOT a flaw he has. This whole “bad father” thing is something this obviously feminist writer made up in order to write an article to make herself sound smarter.

  • ChrisZ

    Interesting meditation, as usual Mark. Thanks.

    My take is that Ren is living out one of our contemporary generational issues: he wouldn’t be the first millennial to rebel against his hippie-dippie Boomer parents, and identify with the severe brute competence of a Greatest-Gen grandpa.

  • blahblahblah

    You’re assuming that embracing the Dark side is a bad thing.

    Dark side, bitches.

  • wgone

    You are looking for life lessons in a shitty fairy tale story? You are deluded.

  • rosie1843

    That’s a central unanswered question of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. Ren is the film’s villain, a young acolyte of the late Darth Vader.

    Acolyte? Really? How odd, considering that grandfather and grandson had never met.