I adore Kylo Ren. He’s easily one of my favourite characters of all time. In fact, my obsession with him is so great that a friend bought me a six-foot cardboard cut-out of him and he now stands proudly next to my games collection. Kylo Ren is the sort of incredible villain that only comes around once a decade. The iconic look, the moody stare, the absolute power is just divine. Yet, I hate the discourse around Kylo Ren.
Fiction is the best safe space in the world to look at issues that aren’t really acceptable in real life. If you’ve got family issues it’s not okay to make a laser sword and slash your father into pieces over dinner. Star Wars though has us covered. But this is why fiction is brilliant. It allows us to examine the darkness from a distance. It allows us to try to be objective about issues which can feel real even if they are presented in spectacular and often impossible ways. Kylo Ren allows us to look at the darkness within ourselves – and that’s actually the point of most villains. I feel a kinship with Kylo because he’s kind of spoilt brat who hates the galaxy and he has strops where he destroys all tech equipment around. This does hit home. It’s kind of fabulous too. It’s fun watching characters just completely screw up. It’s entertaining, it’s emotional and it drives the best stories. But my love of Kylo Ren does not make him a good man.
Kylo Ren is dark, tortured and a character we can learn a lot from. He’s been let down himself – and badly. He was raised to be a child soldier and then faced being murdered by his mentor, who had just a mere inkling that he would a bad guy. Luke was wrong. He was a child. He wasn’t bad then. Kylo Ren has made a lot of mistakes but he was also pushed to some of those mistakes by a man the galaxy idolised. Luke was fallible. Kylo Ren is still accountable.
His painful past is horrible but it makes his journey understandable. It does not absolve him. When we first meet Kylo Ren, he’s revelling in destruction and murder and then he leaves without a second thought to the damage he has done. He kidnaps Rey and emotionally abuses her. He murders his father. Han Solo was not his to kill. Children don’t own their parents and parents don’t own their kids. People treat this as a battle between the two but neither owned the other. Han Solo was also a loving husband, friend and a member of the resistance. Kylo had no right to take his life. The focus on their relationship seems to have diluted that fact. The story boils down to those two but the point was, they both had so much more outside of each other, and Kylo robbed that from both of them.
There’s an innate reaction to humanise characters, but even that is a politically charged decision. People of colour who commit crimes in fiction (Jaha from The 100 and Udina from Mass Effect spring instantly to mind) rarely get any sympathy from the audience, or deeper analysis of their characters. They should. There’s nothing fundamentally wrong with humanising a character. It is good to look at the different sides of fictional characters, even the most horrendous characters, such as Kylo.
It is important to see that the monsters that cause the most destruction are actually just humans. We think of evil as something separate to humanity, and that it must distinguish itself right away rather than be a process years in the making. This makes it more difficult to call out evil or acts of evil. If someone is nice or engaging to us personally, or we see how they are being harmed, then we dismiss what they have done. Kylo Ren is human, he is also still accountable.
The discourse becomes even more uncomfortable whenever Rey is brought up. Rey is the hero this story needs, but she is not responsible for saving Ben from himself. A bad man does not need a good woman. He abused her and she tried to hold him accountable so that he would make the right choice. Yet, he chose the path of darkness again.
Fictional characters have a huge impact on society. We chat about them online and offline, we argue over them and there have even been flame-wars resulting in abuse. It is possible to love both Rey and Kylo, but also recognise the damaging message that having Rey romantically save Ben might give out, from a franchise which has become dominated by the comments of a very loud and angry Nazi group. It is possible to support and even ship two characters together but in a way that addresses past toxicity and abuse. Just riding off into the sunset and forgetting Kylo’s crimes does not deliver that.
There have also been arguments that having Rey romantically involved with Ben would serve feminism – because Rey is a main character and romance is traditionally scoffed at by misogynists. However, Ridley has indicated herself that she would prefer Rey to remain solo, and a woman choosing to stay single in a franchise that isn’t short of romances, would in itself be radical. It’s about time platonic relationships and being single was given as much social status as romantic love. One of the best elements to Rogue One was watching the two main characters not kiss during that ending – because it was against all expectations in an industry where leading men are typically thrown at leading women. Rey and Kylo together would do nothing to address wider misogyny toward the romance genre – but it would possibly empower toxic romantic narratives.
The darkest characters have so often been my favourite characters. Vader, the Joker, Bellatrix Lestrange, The Illusive Man, Vegeta and Sawyer are just some examples. I found a safe haven in them growing up. They embodied the anger I felt. The identities I knew I was were made out to be evil and so I saw myself in the villainous characters because that’s who I believed I was. I cheered their anger but I also longed for them to find peace and for them to be able to find a way back into the light and toward love. I saw their badness and associated it with what the world saw me as. I saw the flaws which I felt, and I wanted to see redemption in those characters. However, I now know that my…otherness, does not need redemption. But if I ever did decide to back overthrowing the government to bring in fascism then no matter how tortured a soul I was, I would deserve to be called out.
Kylo Ren has had a bad hand, he’s also been given far more chances than most and he turned his back on everyone. Fictional stories matter because it is so easy to imagine a young kid called Ben with middle class parents. It’s easy to picture him being told he’s special and then starting to get confused or annoyed when he’s told not to say the racist things he’s heard on games forums. It’s not hard to imagine him then getting upset when all these people seem so angry that boys like him are on TV, rather than seeing it as just wanting more diversity. So, his uncle who he trusts teaches him the good about equality, and he listens. He feels special again and like he can change things. But then his uncle comes down on him like a tonne of bricks and turns out to be abusive, and so he turns away again from equality and associates it with hypocrisy.
It’s also incredibly easy to read Ben as queer-coded, but that does not make him queer.
It’s believable to see a young millennial let down buy a galaxy that promised so much more for young people, and then discarded them, leaving behind an angry and forgotten generation who was given all of the wrong lessons and none of the necessary support. Ben can so easily represent that too. There are many, many readings of Kylo.
There are so many Bens in this world. Most of them right now are probably watching the edited version of The Last Jedi which cut all of the women out. I feel for Kylo as a character. I love his scenes and I hope he turns to the light side because it might just offer some hope – but I also want him to still face some sort of retribution. I don’t think kindness delivers justice. Compassion, and understanding can help stop crimes from happening again but kindness too often is thought of as letting someone off the hook. I want a just ending for Kylo more than I want a happy ending. It is truly what the character deserves, and is a big part of why he is just such a compelling and engaging villain. To love Kylo Ren as a character means to hold him accountable.