A Victim of Toxic Masculinity

As the brilliant Pop Culture Detective explains in an incisive video essay, the philosophy of the Jedi Order dovetails with unhealthy cultural expectations about masculinity. Exhibit A: Anakin Skywalker.

When young Anakin is tested for Force sensitivity in The Phantom Menace, he is called out in front of the entire Jedi Council for missing his mother. Yoda then tells this vulnerable nine-year-old in no uncertain terms that he (Anakin) is on the fast track to the Dark Side because of his (totally natural) fear of losing his mother: “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.” Have you ever stopped to think about how royally messed up the sentiment behind this now iconic phrase is? Throughout his time in the Jedi Order, Anakin is told to bury his feelings, ignore his dreams, and most of all, to suppress his fear of loss – a feeling that, quite honestly, is central to the human experience.

These encounters have a profoundly scarring effect on Anakin’s psychological development. And when he does finally need to deal with his mother’s death, he is emotionally unequipped to do so, since he has been told time and time again to disregard his feelings on the matter. Thus, the emotion that does break out is anger.

In that video essay, Pop Culture Detective quotes intellectual theorist Bell Hooks, who writes:

“Anger often hides depression and profound sorrow. Depression often masks the inability to grieve. Males are not given the emotional space to grieve. They’re still being taught to keep it in, and worse, to deny that they feel like crying. Unable to cope with the loss of emotional connection, boys internalize the pain and mask it with indifference or rage.”

This rings true for Anakin, especially in all of the scenes described above. And if you’re still unconvinced that the uncontrolled emotions of a young man in pain can lead to murder, just look the news headlines every single day. Star Wars is obviously a work of fiction, but it can still reveal and reflect on powerful emotional truths.

It makes sense that Anakin finds a father figure in Palpatine after Qui-Gon dies and Obi-Wan doesn’t offer himself up as an adequate replacement; though Anakin thinks of him in that way (“You’re the closest thing I have to a father,” Anakin tells Obi-Wan at the beginning of Attack of the Clones), Obi-Wan clearly views himself as more of a brother figure (“You were my brother, Anakin!” etc., sob sob sob). He’s the ultimate bro, so to speak, and bros certainly don’t sit down for honest chats about their feelings.

All of this culminates with one of the most impactful moments in Revenge of the Sith, which is also a more downplayed display of emotion from Anakin. After assassinating the remaining Separatists on orders from Darth Sidious, Anakin – now officially christened Darth Vader – watches the boiling lava bubble up on Mustafar as a single tear rolls down his cheek. In this moment, Anakin’s agony has calcified into pure rage, but that teardrop indicates that, as we know from Padmé and Luke, “there’s still good in him.” He may be a monster, but he is a monster who, at least, feels guilt.

The Clone Wars and Rebels

While the prequel saga traces Anakin’s descent into darkness, the cartoon series The Clone Wars charts Anakin’s meteoric rise in the time between Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. Now a Jedi Knight of his own, Anakin partners with his former Master, Obi-Wan, during the Clone War to fight on behalf of the Galactic Republic and against the secessionist Separatists. Anakin and Obi-Wan quickly become a legendary duo: Anakin as the Hero with No Fear (irony alert!) and Obi-Wan as the tireless Negotiator.

The fact that Anakin is the implicit and explicit hero of the series presents an interesting dichotomy with the other Star Wars tales that frame him as the villain – or, at least, the anti-hero. True to the brilliance of executive producer Dave Filoni and the rest of the Lucasfilm creative group, the depiction of Anakin (voiced by Matt Lanter) in The Clone Wars feels true to the gestalt of the character while also making him more seem relatable. Anakin’s interactions with his quippy padawan Ahsoka Tano show him to be a caring and engaged teacher, while his affectionate banter with Obi-Wan shows just how close the two became during the war. Even his relationship with Padmé feels less tacky when the two are presented in a simplified (albeit still secret) state of marital bliss.

But there has to be a darker element to Anakin’s relationships as well: Anakin’s protectiveness towards Ahsoka turns into a deep mistrust of the Jedi Order when the Council eventually betrays her, and as close as Obi-Wan and Anakin are, we never see them discuss the war and their past traumas with any degree of seriousness. In the “Slaves of Zygerria” arc, Anakin simmers with barely contained anger in the presence of a group of slavers, but Obi-Wan doesn’t actually confront him about it – he only asks Ahsoka, somewhat dismissively, to keep an eye on him. And of course, Anakin’s relationship with Padmé takes an unhealthy turn whenever he feels that she is threatened, exhibiting Anakin’s undeniable (though understandable, given the Jedi’s backwards views on such things) chauvinistic streak.

Interestingly, however, many of Anakin’s arguments with Padmé and with his fellow Jedi Knights are presented as a clash of political ideals. If the prequels build up Anakin’s emotional vulnerability, The Clone Wars series adds to this his sometimes unorthodox, sometimes naive views on war, cultural responsibility, and democracy – views that aren’t always entirely wrong.

Sure, we see Anakin attempt to mansplain the entire war to Ahsoka in “Heroes on Both Sides,” telling her that it’s “complicated” while then proceeding to paint both sides in black and white. (Ugh.) But we also see him suggest to Padmé in “The Zillo Beast Strikes Back” that in wartime, secrets should remain secret for the people’s own good. (Debatable.) We see him agree with the severe Captain Tarkin when the latter disapproves of “peacekeepers” leading the war effort;  Anakin adds that the Jedi often fall short of victory because of their defense-first methods. (A fair point.) Finally, we see Anakin “brand [himself] a cold-blooded killer” when Death Watch sympathizer Tal Merrik threatens to blow up Duchess Satine Kryze’s ship, and Anakin is the one to take action while the Duchess and Obi-Wan deliberate. Considering the amount of lives at stake, it’s certainly difficult to fault Anakin for that. All of Anakin’s stories on the canceled-too-soon Clone Wars provide us with context for his eventual Fall while simultaneously building up his character as an understandably flawed human being.

We are rarely more aware of Anakin’s eventual descent to the Dark Side than during the Mortis storyline in season three, which distills Anakin’s entire prequel trilogy tragedy arc into three 22-minute episodes. When a holy trinity of Force deities attempts to determine whether or not Anakin is indeed the Chosen One by compelling him to choose between saving Obi-Wan and saving Ahsoka, it successfully puts us in Anakin’s headspace: he feels that he is constantly being made to choose between two impossible choices. And nothing puts me on Anakin’s side more than the “Deception” arc, which saw the Jedi Council and Obi-Wan concoct a plan to fake Obi-Wan’s death while keeping Anakin – yeah, the kid the Council frequently calls out for his fear of loss – in the dark! (Pun intended.) That betrayal, combined with the sting of Ahsoka leaving at the end of season five, paves the way for Anakin’s Fall in a way that feels not only inevitable, but understandable. It becomes a matter not of “he had to Fall,” but “no wonder he Fell.”

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