This piece contains spoilers for Solo: A Star Wars Story
“We have to free half of the human race, the women, so that they can help to free the other half” wrote the suffragette leader Emmeline Pankhurst. But over a century later, many men still don't realise that the revolution of feminism was fought as much for their freedom as for anybody's.
Instead, they seem to want the bad old days of patriarchy back. Hollywood keeps telling these men the same old story that they adore. A middle-aged guy, divorced from his family, rediscovers his purpose in life by rescuing his daughter/wife/sister/other vulnerable female stereotype from eeevil terrorists. It's every action movie from Bruce Willis in Die Hard to Liam Neeson in Taken.
In the midst of all this, it's good see a different kind of masculine archetype return to the screen in Solo: A Star Wars Story, a film which is primarily about a man learning to embrace his own freedom. As the first Star Wars movie of the Disney era not to feature a female protagonist, in a franchise that has so much to say about freedom, there's an implicit expectation that Solo should have something to say about male liberation.
Han Solo was the character we all really fell in love with in the original Star Wars, and not just because of Harrison Ford's natural charisma. Luke Skywalker is a one-dimensional cypher, driven by destiny and the selective truth-telling of Obi Wan Kenobi along his Hero's Journey. But Han is a free human being. When he (spoiler alert) flies the Millennium Falcon in to rescue Luke, he is a hero not by fate but by choice.
Han's life as a smuggler mirrors his primary character traits. He is the epitome of the free man. He lives outside rules and hierarchies, and, however hard they try, the evil Empire can't catch him. Even when Jabba gets hold of Han, his spirit of freedom is only frozen, momentarily, in Carbonite. Han's family are the friends, and even the enemies, he meets on his adventures. An orphan farm boy, a prissy protocol droid and a 200-year-old hairball aren't a traditional family, but they're the ad-hoc family of friends many of us today embrace.
When family does find him, even Han Solo doesn't get to fly away from his failings as a father. Han is handy with a blaster, but he's a man of guile and cunning, not violence. He can't fight away the enemies who have his son, because those enemies live within Ben Solo's character. Han can only, like a real man, keep being there for his fallen son. Even when, as Kylo Ren, his son is making all the worst decisions a man can.
Were Kylo Ren real and alive today, you strongly suspect he would be one of those enraged, hysterical followers of Jordan Peterson's morose YouTube ramblings about reclaiming masculinity in the alt-right. At least Snoke is a charismatic villain to take as a master. What do these young men see in the depressed pallor of Peterson?
However hard he tries to pedal back from his statement that we must to return to "enforced monogamy", it's perfectly clear that Peterson and his followers badly want a return to the bad old days of patriarchy. They want the power to force women – and men – back into ways of living that most of us today find oppressive. Fine, Tinder may not be your thing, but it’s amazing how many men seem to think arranged marriages, wedding dowries and “till death us do part” would make them happier.
Han Solo is an iconic anti-hero today because most men revel in our newfound freedom. We're overjoyed to no longer be forced into stifling, traditional male roles, and to be free to live lives not modelled around violence, hatred and fear. But embracing that freedom is hard. It's scary to chart your own destiny instead of buying into old-fashioned stereotypes, and "not all men" are up to the challenge.
I'm fascinated by men who reject their own freedom in favour of old-style oppression. Growing up on a big sink housing estate outside London, I saw too much male violence. While I only recognise it looking back, much of that violence was driven by a deep psychological desire to be needed. To be the breadwinner. A drive that many men in 1980s Britain, unemployed and on benefits, found they could no longer fulfil. But economic challenges and psychological shortcomings are no excuse for violence.
Today, men simply aren't needed in the traditional ways they once were. Most of us are able to make the mental adaptation from being needed to being free. But some men either can't, or simply won't. The Millennium Falcon is there waiting to whisk them away on the adventure of living their own free life.
It's sad indeed that so many choose, instead, to sit moping over Jordan Peterson's YouTube channel, dreaming of a bad old past that will, thankfully, never return.
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