The Populism Of The Last Jedi: The Next Step In Star Wars Politics
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Ever since the words “trade negotiations” appeared in the crawl of Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, a ridiculous argument began suggesting that a space-based saga about the violent overthrow of a tyrannical government isn’t a place for politics. In today’s hyper-partisan times, Star Wars: The Last Jedi is no different and maybe in a worse place than its predecessors. However, more so than the other films, Rian Johnson’s middle-chapter of the new trilogy is the most explicitly political and cynical.
When the tweets of those exiting the premiere began to surface online most were effusive with praise, and avoided specificity. The above tweet, from Los Angeles Times critic Jen Yamato was picked up by a certain kind of Star Wars fan as a clear warning of what to expect from this film. People assumed she was talking about Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico (though, I think maybe not?), and thus began the debat about this “moment” no one had yet seen. In the replies to this tweet alone, there are a number of folks who imply that this was not “earned” but was rather an effort by “Hollywood SJWs” to shove their intersectional feminism down audiences’ throats.
This was the continuation of a similar argument about The Force Awakens, where people were upset at the diversity of the main cast. Daisy Ridley’s Rey did not earn her moments of heroism, instead they were just given to her because Disney wanted to be praised for being progressive. There were similar complaints about John Boyega’s Finn as well. It’s stupid.
However, to further infuriate these bitter fanboys, Rose’s story arc in The Last Jedi is directly tied to its political message. There will be spoilers from here on out, so if you’ve not seen the film yet, bookmark this and come back afterwards.
There is a lot of Rose Tico in this film, and if anyone is the “Lando” of this new trilogy it’s her. Not because her character compares to Billy Dee Williams’s iconic caped character of dubious allegiance, but rather because she is the new character who will be a key addition to the core group of new heroes. The character was also added to give an element of romance to the group, as she clearly has an eye for Finn.
However, a key role that Rose plays in The Last Jedi is as Finn’s instructor on what life is like outside of the control of the First Order. Finn joined the Resistance because they were the only ones he could turn to, but Rose explains to him during their adventure to the casino on Canto Bight why the group exists at all. Remember, all Finn has ever known is the the First Order’s fascistic rule. He was a stormtrooper, cannon-fodder for the First Order’s battles. He realized he didn’t want to die for them, so he defected. When he first sees the glitz and glamour of the casino, he loves it. But ol’ stick-in-the-mud Rose is there to Feminist Killjoy® the hot new cantina scene (complete with new, dope music by John Williams).
She explains to him that the people who come to gamble get rich the only way people in this galaxy can: they sell weapons. She tells him that the only people who are buying are the First Order, but later it’s revealed that these arms dealers profit from the Resistance as well. Rose also shows Finn the space version of horse-racing, where creatures called fathiers are prompted to run by being struck with electrical whips that burn their skin.
Rose tells Finn she’d like to “put her fist” through the whole city. After their caper comes to an end, Finn has decided that their hilariously-failed mission was worth it because they made this city, these people “hurt.” It is, without question, the most explicitly political message in a Star Wars film, even though it’s essentially generic populism.
Populism, like “democratic” is a loaded term because it has multiple meanings. The most prevalent is the politics of appealing to the masses by giving them a “villain” to blame for their problems. Most recently, populism has been ascribed to the movements backing Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a socialist, and President Donald Trump. Sanders’ villains are the “millionaires and billionaires” he so often rails against. For Trump, his villains are myriad: immigrants, Muslims, everyone with more political experience than him. But the other meaning of “populism” and the one most relevant here, is simply a government organized with the consent of the governed.
At first glance, Rose’s ire for the people in Canto Bight could be seen as essentially an endorsement of the Sanders-world-view, but it’s not. Rose is mad at these rich people, surrounded by excess and luxury when she and others in the galaxy have so little. But, it’s not their wealth that makes her hate them, but rather how they made their fortunes supporting wars that kill nobodies like her.
Rose, like everyone in the Resistance, adores General Organa even though she was formerly-known-as Princess Leia. She is rich. Her mother (both natural and adopted) was rich. Despite being a dirt-farmer from Tatooine, Luke’s family was also rich. His Uncle and Aunt owned an inherited moisture farm. They hire workers, and his step-grandfather had enough money to both buy slaves and afford a fancy flying wheelchair. Lando ran Cloud City, which surely put credits in his pocket. Hell, even the droids are snobs. The poorest members of the core groups of characters in these films were probably Han and Chewie.
Interestingly, every character left alive in this new trilogy just wants the constant fighting and war to stop. Leia wants to preserve the peace she fought her whole life to achieve. Rey wants to save everyone, even Kylo Ren/Ben Solo. Kylo wants the war to end and to bring “order” to the galaxy (with him in charge, of course). The thing they are squabbling about is how to bring the constant fighting to an end, and who should have the honor to do it.
This gets to the core political message in this latest chapter of Star Wars, and its one that people shouldn’t be so angry about. It’s also remarkably consistent with the themes from both the original and prequel trilogies. People with wealth and power are, all too often, afraid of losing it and thus make terrible decisions in order to maintain that status quo.
The Jedi Order of the prequels was obsessed with being in control, even when they served at the pleasure of the Senate. Qui-Gon, Obi-Wan, and later Anakin, all defied their masters’ collective wisdom in different ways. Yoda, joyless and afraid during the Clone Wars, feared the rise of the Sith so much that it blinded him to how he was helping them along. Like Luke tells Rey, the Force is not the property of the Jedi or the Sith, but it belongs to everyone…even a nobody scavenger from a nowhere place like Jakku.
Many fans, myself included, wanted Rey and Luke to have a deeper connection, even if it meant shoehorning a relationship into Luke’s past. However the best and most surprising “reveal” is the one that we got. Rey isn’t the offspring of Han Solo, Leia Organa, or Luke Sykwalker. She does not come from a “royal” bloodline, and therefore she has no place in this story. Like Rose, Finn (who didn’t have a name until Poe gave him one), and Rey (whose name came from an X-Wing helmet she found), this new generation of Star Wars heroes aren’t chosen ones or people from a great lineage. They are everyday schmoes like you and me, who just want the galaxy to be a place where people can live in peace.