This is a transcript from my series Mental Health in the Media. In the second installment I discuss the representation of trauma and impostor syndrome in Star Wars: The Last Jedi.
You may watch the video essay here!
Many of the themes of Star Wars: The Last Jedi are readily apparent; accepting failure, choosing love rather than hate, and letting the past die.
Another major theme of this film, one that I think has been widely overlooked, is that of coping with trauma.
In The Last Jedi, every character has some sort of emotional baggage. Whether it is the death of a loved one or the struggle of finding your place in the greater narrative of the universe, everyone has something to accept.
In this essay, I will be focusing on the two main characters of the film as well as two side characters: Ben Solo, Rey, Luke Skywalker, and Leia Organa, and their responses to the trauma and struggles they have experienced.
Let’s begin on the most obvious case, Ben Solo.
In the last Jedi Ben is dealing with both internally and externally imposed trauma. His volatile mental and emotional state is caused by the neglect of his parents and parental figures, as well as a series of choices he makes, frankly exacerbate his underlying condition.
Ben Solo is an excellent case study of one very common reaction to trauma – – believing oneself to be. incapable of betterment and positive change, having been convinced either by oneself or others a person is incapable of making good choices. Ben’s consistent doubling down on his own poor behaviour is common with those who suffer from post traumatic stress disorder. We see that Ben is being, in a strange way, gaslit, where an individual sows seeds of doubt in one’s perception of reality, by Supreme Leader Snoke, who berates Ben with the assertion that Ben is not as capable as his grandfather, Darth Vader.
In Ben Solo we see what it is like to truly see oneself as a monster and to believe that wholeheartedly. Imagining oneself as only negative, and therefore making only bad choices; negative, destructive choices are the safest option, a known quantity. Over the course of the film we see same level of self-loathing that was hidden behind Vader’s mask in the original trilogy, but more thoroughly explored. The last Jedi succeeds in breaking that facade to reveal the sad, scared, tempestuous, and furious child beneath.
Many people who experience. trauma also suffer from not only depression but imposter syndrome as well. This is a condition wherein the subject does not believe themselves to be worthy of their place in the galaxy. This is clearly personified in Ben as he struggles to present himself as a new Vader. Over the course of the film he learns to accept himself and that he is deserving of what he wants, albeit that what he wants might not be best for the galaxy. But, growth is growth.
We also see imposter syndrome in Rey, as she struggles to find her own identity. Constantly desiring new parental figures, Rey continues to self identify through others. First through Solo in Force Awakens and then in Skywalker, much like many of us, she desires to fit into a known narrative.
But, through Luke’s rejection and Ben’s encouragement, Rey learns to accept herself for not only what she is but what she can be. Her imposter syndrome also manifests itself in the form of the desire to come from some sort of lineage to have some sort of explanation of the power she welds and why it is happening to her specifically. We see that until she accepts her past Rey is filled with anxiety, confusion, and self-doubt.
An interesting turn for Rey is her relationship with Ben Solo. At a loss for what to do after Luke rejects her, Rey. turns to the only other force user with whom she has had contact and asks for help. In no way is their relationship healthy, it is imposed by a mutilated, old space goblin who wants to destroy hope in the galaxy. The relationship between Ben and Rey creates its own set of maladjusted mindsets for Rey. Over the events of The Last Jedi, Ben gaslights her and manipulates her into doing what he wants.
Where their relationship does succeed, however, is by teaching Rey to stand on her own and to not let those who have hurt her back into her life. It is also noted that she does try to make contact with Luke after her encounter with the new and old Supreme Leaders. That Luke was unkind to her, lied to her, and she has no desire to continue that relationship despite sensing him in The Force. She looks not to others for validation and identity, but to herself and what she knows of The Force.
Where I believe The Last Jedi succeeds is letting us see how its lead characters come into their own, but in differing ways, and with different results.
Rey and Ben are parallel characters, who either grasp at the past or yearn to destroy it. Both of which are realistic responses to trauma.
Another parallel that’s given in The Last Jedi, is that of Luke and Leia.
In The Last Jedi we find Luke Skywalker, Legend, also suffering from identity issues and trauma, though much of it is self imposed. Luke remains archetypical even in this final chapter. I have met so many folks that believe themselves so unworthy of love and forgiveness that they cut themselves off from their friends, their family, and their belief system. Luke Skywalker chooses, rather than facing his failure, his past, his pain, to seclude himself in the one place that he can never be free of the reminder of his failure. He also cuts himself off to the well-spring of life that he calls The Force, thus committing the greatest form of self harm available in the Star Wars mythos. This is very common for those who suffer from various mental illnesses, who, believing themselves irredeemable, seek to destroy any positive experience they are capable of having.
Mark Hamill has stated in interviews that the way he justified Luke’s choice to cut himself off from the The Force in The Last Jedi, was that, if he had not, Luke would have felt the pain of Leia, Han, and Ben and would not have been able to stay away. Something Luke believed he needed to do. Many who experience trauma, cut themselves out of what their life used to be, consumed with pain they fall into a pit of self. Throughout the events of The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker is pulled out of that same pit to ultimately rejoin his sister, The Force, and the fight to restore hope to the galaxy with the people whom he loves most dearly. His love for all these things triumphs over the hate that he has for himself and his actions.
Princess Leia Organa out of all the characters in Star Wars, has arguably suffered the most. She has lost her planet, her brother, her husband, her son, but incredibly not her hope.
She is, and I think this has a lot to do with the influence of Carrie Fisher, the best example in Star Wars of how to deal with one’s past trauma we see her mourn, we see her fight against the growing darkness and self-doubt that plagues her, we see her devote her life to the betterment of others and herself. Faced with the selfishness of Han, Ben, and Luke, Leia. responds with equal and opposite force, with acceptance, humour, love, and with hope.
Hope is the best defense against the onslaught of darkness that can be one’s past, to hope for a better tomorrow, for healing, and for progress.
“Hope is like the sun, if you only believe in when you see it, you’ll never make it through the night.” – General Leia Organa
Tristan Miller, 2018