As many of you know, since December 14th, my free time, thoughts, and savings have gone toward the latest edition of the Star Wars film universe, Episode VIII: The Last Jedi. It was a thrilling movie, which I’ve now dragged my spouse to three times. I’ll say I felt much better about my rabid fandom when I bumped into one of my local clergy colleagues having his own repeat viewing at the Jordan’s IMAX just before Christmas.
(You may be wondering, “Is Rev. Catie going to include ‘spoilers’ — information about the movie’s plot — in her public blog article?!” Yes, yes I will!)
During this month at First Parish when we delve deeper into the spiritual theme of “right relationship,” I find my thoughts returning again and again to the relationship between two Last Jedi characters: our heroine and Jedi-to-be Rey, and our villain and “murderous snake” Kylo Ren. Kylo Ren is a fallen Jedi (like his grandfather, Darth Vader, before him) who uses his gifts with the mysterious and powerful Force to support a despotic military regime, The First Order, which is modeled in many ways after the Nazis. Rey is a new and strong Force-user who intends to offer her gifts to the small but committed Resistance (led by Kylo Ren’s own mother, General Leia Organa), which hopes to restore democracy and hope to the galaxy.
Star Wars is a great love of mine, and in that love I can say it’s not a complex philosophical universe. On the contrary, it’s quite simple: there is a “Light Side” and a “Dark Side.” Though these new movies seem to be moving toward a more “gray” moral philosophy (including commentary on the complicity of bystanders), it’s easy for the viewer to know who is “good” and who is “bad.”
Rey and Kylo Ren have many encounters throughout the film as they each try to “turn” the other — Rey striving to bring Kylo Ren back to the light, and Kylo Ren striving to have Rey join him as unstoppable, Force-wielding authoritarian rulers of the galaxy. As one could expect from a “bad guy,” Kylo Ren manipulates and emotionally abuses Rey in his efforts, and is responsible for the torture and deaths of many of her comrades. It is clear he wishes to control her and her Force gifts for himself and the First Order. They are clearly not in “right relationship,” personally or politically.
So, it was my great surprise to learn there is a large subculture of people who believe that Rey and Kylo Ren should be a romantic item! Some say Rey should become “bad” too, entirely missing the point of Star Wars — others say that Rey’s romantic love (and her emotional labor) is all that will “save” Kylo Ren, disregarding or twisting his treatment of her.
This romanticization of an abusive relationship is sadly common in fiction and in life, and, horrifyingly, quite common in stories geared toward teenagers. In Twilight and its somewhat spin off series, Fifty Shades of Grey, young women are controlled and physically and emotionally abused by powerful and cruel men (one a vampire, and the other a wealthy man misusing BDSM practices to harm women). Both of these series conclude with the portrayal of “happy” marriages of the pairs, supposedly mutually transformed — though the women were fine to start with, and the men still engage in controlling, manipulative behaviors.
In a reflection on literary abusive relationships billed as “romantic,” Emerson College’s Ploughshares contributor Janey Tracey remembers the bizarre romanticization of Heathcliff and Catherine in Emily Brontë’s classic, Wuthering Heights: “There is no ‘love story’ within the pages of Wuthering Heights (at least not between Catherine and Heathcliff…). Indeed, Wuthering Heights is a story that deeply believes in evil, and aims to expose the dark side of human nature. Heathcliff himself warns Isabella against ‘forming a fabulous notion of [his] character,’ and thereby warns the reader against the naïve supposition that an abusive sadist can necessarily be redeemed. Wuthering Heights serves as a refreshing antidote for the tired love-as-pain narrative, but nearly two hundred years later, we still haven’t taken its wisdom to heart.”
(I realize all of these fictional examples include men mistreating women, which simultaneously shows how common this type of abuse is in our patriarchal world and erases the reality of abuse experienced by men and between partners of many genders. Let us not forget that abusive relationships are present in many forms across many identity groups.)
It seems Tracey is right that the wider culture is still struggling with unhealthy conceptions of relationships — the #MeToo movement shows that, too — but I pray those who are involved in our Unitarian Universalist community have. Our children participate in three age-appropriate levels of the Our Whole Lives program, learning how to apply our UU values in the context of family, friendship, and romantic relationships. Though I quip to our senior youth group to “not engage in OWL behaviors” on our service trips, I don’t mean they shouldn’t engage in healthy emotional intimacy; respect their own and others’ gender identity, sexual orientation, and gender expression; or remember intersectional justice and self-worth in their interactions. At all times, we absolutely should carry these values with us, holding each other and ourselves accountable to treating all people with respect and kindness.
When another person engages in cruel and unskillful behaviors, we can offer them (or accept ourselves) redirection and encouragement. We can avail ourselves of therapeutic and healing resources, both within the church and in the secular sphere. But, it is never the responsibility of one person to “fix” another; particularly between adults, we are only responsible for ourselves in maintaining right relationships with those around us. I encourage all of us at First Parish to think critically about how our Unitarian Universalist values apply to our relationships (and ones we consume through literature, film and TV, and the news), and how each of us can strive to improve the way we care for ourselves and treat those around us.