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Of Death Stars, Sarlaccs and Sexting: The Curious Sexual Energy of “Star Wars”…

At its core, Star Wars is a Jungian, Campbellian and Freudian story about what it’s like to grow up.

This is perhaps most obvious within the original trilogy. Star Wars: Episode V – The Empire Strikes Back is ultimately about the realisation that your parents will eventually and inevitably fail you. Star Wars: Episode VI – The Return of the Jedi is about growing up and learning to make peace with them anyway. Of course, the individual films frame these core themes through their own lenses. Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens reframes that adventure so it centres on people who have rarely had the opportunity to anchor such a story. Star Wars: Episode VIII – The Last Jedi asked what that meant in 2017.

Naturally, this coming of age story is framed in terms of adventure – young characters discovering that they are part of an epic mythology that guides them towards confrontations with ancient and incredible evils, often learning hidden truths about themselves and their destiny. There’s a reason that the Star Wars franchise has come to be associated with the “monomyth”, distilling the hero’s journey into something with a story with universal resonance. It is a story about what it feels like to grow up.

It is also, inevitably, very much about sex. And in some very interesting (and quite eccentric) ways.

Of course, it makes sense that Star Wars should be saturated in sexual imagery. After all, many of the classic myths and legends are coded in explicitly sexual terms. Jung and Freud are massive influences on the structure and symbolism of the larger saga. It’s notable that so much of Star Wars is tied up in the Freudian fixation with people (often men) killing their parents (specifically their fathers). There are almost too many examples to list, to the point that it is almost a disappointment when a Star Wars film doesn’t feature the death of parent or surrogate parent.

Padmé Amidala dies in childbirth in Star Wars: Episode III – Revenge of the Sith. Han Solo kills Beckett at the Solo: A Star Wars Story. Jyn Erso watches her father die in her arms in Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, before setting out (with his blessing) to help destroy the genocidal weapon that he constructed. Darth Vader kills his mentor Obi-Wan in Star Wars and later Emperor Palpatine in Return of the Jedi. Kylo Ren kills his father Han Solo in The Force Awakens, and his mentors Supreme Leader Snoke and Luke Skywalker in The Last Jedi. In The Last Jedi, Rey discovers that her ideal of her parents is an illusion.

Given all this Freudian imagery, it makes sense that Star Wars would return time and again to sexual imagery. It also fits with George Lucas’ recurring interests and fascinations as a writer and director. His first film was THX-1138, which was set in a dystopia where sex had been outlawed. (The initials “THX” were even intended to phonetically echo with word “sex.”) While Lucas’ breakout hit, American Graffiti, was less explicitly sexual than other seventies coming of age films like Grease, it was still very invested in the idea of sex as a necessary part of a teenager’s journey to adulthood.

Lucas’ approach to sex and sexuality is interesting. Lucas’ films aren’t entirely asexual. They are quite distinct from the films of Christopher Nolan, for example. Nolan tends to build his films around romantic rather than sexual desires – the protagonist in Following is explicit that his stalking is not sexually motivated, while a prostitute in Memento recreates a romantic memory, and Bruce’s yearning for Rachel in Batman Begins and The Dark Knight is aspirational rather than physical. Indeed, it’s notable that The Dark Knight Rises includes a sex scene between Bruce and Talia immediately before Bruce’s defeat in battle.

In contrast, Lucas’ films are steeped in sexual imagery and iconography, but in ways that are often interesting and unsettling. There’s a sense that the sexual aspects of the Star Wars universe are weird and uncomfortable, but in a manner that is carefully calculated. The original Star Wars is decidedly straightforward in its sexual politics. Luke Skywalker is effectively deputised as “Jedi Knight” (although the later films suggest a more formal process) in order to save a Princess from a Dark Lord. It is a very old-fashioned romance.

It is all very chaste. There is no sense of the sexual or romantic tension that will develop between Han Solo and Leia Organa in The Empire Strikes Back, with Han often seeming uncomfortable of the intrusion of a woman into his boy’s own adventure. Star Wars seems to suggest that Luke and Leia are to be drawn together, but not in any way that might make the two uncomfortable. The film ends with the heroes standing side-by-side. There is no kiss, no embrace. There is simply the possibility that the two might end up together.

If the original trilogy charts Luke’s journey towards adulthood, it is interesting to look at the shifting attitude to sex within the films. The climax of Star Wars offers an obvious sexual metaphor that marks the culmination of Luke’s journey from simple farm hand to galactic hero. After rescuing Leia, Luke is drafted into the Battle of Yavin, piloting an X-Wing against the Death Star. He fires a missile that flies deep into the Death Star, causing a (literally) climactic explosion. One of Luke’s colleagues even worries that Luke might be going too vigourous in his approach, “Luke, at that speed will you be able to pull out in time?”

This is a very conventional and very straightforward metaphor for sex as a young man sees it. Indeed, there’s something almost childish about the simplicity of his journey. Luke meets a nice girl on his adventures, but isn’t pushed into anything that might possibly make him uncomfortable. He flies his space-ship down a deep trench, releases his payload, and then rides off into the sunset before receiving a shiny medal from a princess that marks his passage into adulthood. It is unthreatening. It is a very family-friendly depiction of a young man losing his space virginity. There is even a party at the end.

Things get decidedly more complicated in The Empire Strikes Back. Most obviously, The Empire Strikes Back refuses to sublimate sexual desire in the same way that Star Wars does. Most obviously, Luke and Leia actually kiss early during the film’s opening act on Hoth. More to the point, Han and Leia are suddenly aware of one another as possible love interests; they flirt and banter, eventually making out inside the Millennium Falcon before professing their love for one another beneath Cloud City. Even Lando is more flirtatious than any character in Star Wars, slyly kissing Leia’s hand with a knowing grin on his face.

This emerging awareness of sexuality is complicated. The Empire Strikes Back is populated with vaginal cave imagery; Luke is dragged into a cave on Hoth and confronts his shadow self in a cave on Dagobah, while Han and Leia first kiss while the Millennium Falcon is nestled within what it thinks is a cave. Luke first kisses Leia in the same movie that the audience is alerted to the possibility that she might be his sister, a detail confirmed in Return of the Jedi. The film even features a recurring motif of castration imagery; Luke dismembers the wampa on Hoth, and Lucas described the loss of Luke’s hand as “symbolic castration.”

Even the universe around the characters becomes increasingly strange and charged. Early in The Empire Strikes Back, Han enwombs Luke within a fallen tauntaun. (“I thought they smelled bad on the outside,” Han laments.) Later, while fleeing the Empire, the Millennium Falcon hides itself inside an asteroid. It turns out that the asteroid cave is actually a giant monster, one which manages to look phallic while also evoking the classic horror of vagina dentata. There is something similar about the Sarlacc in The Return of the Jedi, especially in the remastered edition.

All of this combines to add complications and wrinkles to the happy-go-lucky coming-of-age imagery in the original Star Wars. In the original Star Wars, sex was something that was fairly straightforward and clean. Reflecting the other complications and anxieties stirring within The Empire Strikes Back, there is a suggestion that sex and sexuality is much more complex and unsettling than Luke had imagined as a child. It fits with the film’s broader story about emerging adulthood, how growing up inevitably involves realising that the world is a more nuanced place than it once appears.

This makes the characterisation of Luke in Return of the Jedi particularly interesting. Most obviously, the opening act is populated with explicitly sexualised imagery; Leia in the (controversial) chainmail bikini, the hungry Sarlacc in the desert. However, these are presented as part of Luke’s return to Tatooine, his closing of the book on that chapter of his life. Once Return of the Jedi leaves Tatooine, it becomes a much more sterile and sexless movie. The cute and cuddly Ewoks take up a lot of screentime, even worshipping the sexless (despite what some trading cards might suggest) C-3PO as a god.

There is a strong sense that Luke has moved past sex completely. He has recovered from his symbolic castration, having built his own lightsaber. However, he is defined by his refusal to use it. He now recognises Leia as his sister and is focused on more important things. When he tags along with Han and Leia’s mission to the forest moon of Endor, he quickly branches off to focus on his own concerns. Even the tension between Han and Leia has largely evaporated, Han offering “I love you” as a flippant joke in contrast to Leia’s earnest plea.

It is entirely possible (despite Mark Hamill’s protestations) that Luke Skywalker is a virgin. There is, of course, nothing wrong with this. Indeed, there is something to be said for the way in which Luke’s journey to adulthood eschews that very heteronormative masculine ideal. In the context of the films, Luke might actually be asexual. (Hamill has acknowledged that Luke may be gay.) If Luke were asexual, this would be a relative novelty in the larger context of American popular culture, although it might also prefigure the relative sexlessness of modern blockbusters.

Of course, if Luke is to be a proper Jedi Knight, he should be celibate. The prequel trilogy not only continues to explore these ideas, but often deepens them and expands on them. It helps that the prequel trilogy is designed to be the story of the fall of Anakin Skywalker, and so its coming of age story is intended to be warped and dysfunctional. This uncomfortable subtext is most obvious in Anakin’s relationship with Padmé, which is consciously designed to be both romantic and maternal in equal measure.

When Anakin first meets Padmé in Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, he asks, “Are you an angel?” Now, obviously there are any number of sleazy chat-up lines that could spin out from that, but the line is delivered in the context of a young boy addressing a much older teenage girl. While Anakin was recast from Jake Lloyd to Hayden Christensen in Star Wars: Episode II – Attack of the Clones, Padmé was played by Natalie Portman in all three of the prequels. She is meant to be considerably older than him, and he imprints on her as a maternal figure. After all, angels are meant to be figures that protect.

Both Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith double down on this strange mother/lover dynamic between Anakin and Padmé. Anakin is constantly juxtaposing and comparing the two. “I don’t sleep well anymore,” he confesses to Obi-Wan in Attack of the Clones. Obi-Wan responds, “Because of your mother?” Anakin confesses, “I don’t know why I keep dreaming about her.” He elaborates, “I’d much rather dream about Padmé.” Later, when he is guarding Padmé, he is lured to Tatooine by a vision of his mother. The pair are linked on Anakin’s mythic journey.

After murdering the Tuskins in Attack of the Clones, he transforms into a petulant child in the hope that he might goad Padmé into punishing him as a mother more than a lover. In Revenge of the Sith, he is haunted by the premonition that Padmé may die like his mother did, suggesting that he has equated the two women in his mind. “It was a dream,” he confesses. “Bad?” Padmé asks. “Like the ones I used to have about my mother, just before she died,” he explains. He clarifies, “And it was about you.”

An interesting tension simmers through the prequel trilogy with regards to sex and sexuality. Throughout the Star Wars saga, the dark side is constantly associated with sex. It is often characterised as “seductive.” In Revenge of the Sith, it is suggested that the Dark Side has found a way to will new life into existence. Palpatine’s boasts about the Dark Side resurrecting the dead or assuring immortality are disproven by the end of the film, but it is strongly suggested that Anakin was conjured to life from nothing by the Sith Lord Darth Plagueis.

The Jedi and the Republic are defined in opposition to the Sith. Jedi Knights are chaste. Indeed, Anakin’s fall to the dark side is implied to be rooted in his willingness to love – and to have sex with – Padmé in contravention of the Jedi way. The closing scenes of Attack of the Clones even juxtapose Anakin’s secret wedding to Padmé with the start of the Clone Wars, suggesting that these two events taken together ultimately doomed the Galactic Republic. After all, Anakin’s love of Padmé is manipulated by Palpatine, leading him to kill Mace Windu at a crucial moment.

Indeed, some of this subtext is decidedly uncomfortable. The revelation that Anakin was conceived through the Force defines Shmi as a virgin mother figure. This isn’t a problem of itself; after all, it seems highly unlikely that Sith Lords like Plagueis or Sidious will respect a woman’s bodily autonomy. It does become slightly more uncomfortable in Attack of the Clones, when she is framed as a virginal white woman abducted by native savages in the style of The Searchers. While Luke and Leia are conceived in what Gattaca would describe as “the old-fashioned way”, it’s notable that their birth kills Padmé.

The clone troopers somewhat complicate any attempt to get a clear reading on this. In Attack of the Clones, it is revealed that Darth Sidious has ordered the construction of a cloned army of slaves to fight for the Republic against the separatists. Slavery is a recurring preoccupation within the Star Wars canon, with Anakin introduced as a slave in The Phantom Menace. The clone army in Attack of the Clones is an army of slaves grown to serve the Galactic Republic, a monstrous perversion of reproduction. Once again, the Dark Lords of the Sith preside over a warped parody of reproduction in response to chastity.

This brings up the other method of reproduction within the larger Star Wars franchise. It could be argued that C-3PO is as much Anakin’s child as Luke or Leia, created by the precocious child in The Phantom Menace and then wandering through the larger saga like a thread tying it all together. After all, Star Wars has long argued that its droids are just as self-aware as the human characters, rendering their treatment equivalent to slavery in Solo. It is notable that C-3PO is perhaps the best child in the franchise. He never even considers trying to kill his father. And he was created through entirely asexual means.

As with everything else about the prequels, their attitude to sex and sexuality is much less focused and much more muddled than those of the original trilogy. As with The Empire Strikes Back, sex is something strange and uncomfortable, Lucas leaning even more heavily into Freudian and Jungian archetypes; this is a story of a man who repeatedly equates his wife and his mother, in which a woman dies in the process of birth. At the same time, there is a suggestion that reproduction without sex can have monstrous results. It might even be argued that the films argue the suppression of sexual desire can lead to disaster.

Perhaps understandably, the transition away from George Lucas and towards Disney has led to the smoothing of some of the franchise’s rougher edges. The first two Star Wars films produced by Disney were relatively sexless. The Force Awakens hinted at a possible romantic attraction between Finn and Rey, but it is telling that fandom has latched on to Finn and Poe as their one true relationship. It also steered clear of insinuating any possible attraction between Rey and Ren, focusing more strongly on Ren’s anger and resentment of Rey. It is a largely sexless film, perhaps in keeping with the trend in modern blockbusters.

Similarly, Rogue One largely steered away from these issues to focus on more grounded and recognisable psychologies. Characters like Jyn Erso and Cassian Andor were largely defined by the trauma that they had experienced, suffering from the sort of long-term psychological issues that would define characters in analogous situations. There is perhaps something in the way that Rogue One chooses to portray the torture of Imperial pilot Bodhi Rook at the tentacles of a monstrous creature, but this stands out in an otherwise fairly sexless film.

That said, there is something interesting in how Solo and The Last Jedi approach these recurring motifs. Solo introduces its own share of awkward sexual subtext, most notably in the implied droid-human romance between Lando Calrissian and L3-37. “How would that work?” Qi’ra asks. L3 simply responds, “It works.” Later on, after L3 is mortally wounded, Lando uploads her brain into the Millennium Falcon, which is both creepy of itself and also complicates Han’s decision to steal the Millennium Falcon out from under Lando.

However, like the droid rebellion, all of this is played for awkward laughs. There is a winking and self-aware quality to it all, a goofiness that is quick to assure audiences that it is in on the joke. It recalls the sense of humour employed by the Marvel Cinematic Universe, which largely exists to prematurely defuse any jokes that might be made online about the film. There’s an awkward “isn’t this all hilarious?” vibe to these elements, which serves to consciously play down the weirdness that has been baked into the franchise since its earliest installments.

This makes The Last Jedi particularly interesting. As has been noted, The Last Jedi is an extraordinarily “horny” movie. Rian Johnson clearly understands the thematic dynamics at play within the larger Star Wars franchise, and understands that this sort of Freudian subtext is an essential part of what makes Star Wars unique. Once again, the Dark Side is framed as “seductive”, guiding Rey to a moss-covered hole in the ground in which she finds nothing but her own reflection, stretching towards eternity – as if placing herself inside herself.

However, The Last Jedi gets particularly interesting in how it plays the dynamic between Rey and Ren. Throughout The Last Jedi, the pair interact in a manner equivalent to a late-night sexting session, complete with shirtless pictures and the collection of liquid in Ren’s gloved hand. In fact, Ren even consciously and repeatedly “negs” Rey during their interactions, telling her that “you are not doing this, the effort would kill you” and “you come from nothing you’re nothing.” It’s an interesting and clever update of the template from the original trilogy for a generation defined by online dating and drunk texting.

The Last Jedi consciously genders its dynamics. The climax of the film arguably owes as much to opening of something like Fleabag as it does to The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi. Beneath its space opera trappings, it is a deep space booty call. Rey journeys across the galaxy in order to satisfy the whims of a man who does not care about her in any meaningful way. Rey clearly believes the stories of bad men redeemed by the love of a good woman. Ren hopes to use Rey in order to make himself feel good, and who attacks her self-esteem to force her to submit to him. “You’re nothing,” he tells her. “But not to me.”

It’s a clever example of Johnson using the franchise’s sublimated sexual metaphors to tell a surprisingly relevant and contemporaneous story. It demonstrates the potential to use Star Wars to explore these sorts of ideas in a way that the surrounding films have often ignored or overlooked. The Last Jedi is many things, but it is also a story about wrestling with sexual desire and the way in which these desires shape and guide people. In this sense, it is a coming-of-age film that exists very much of a piece with Star Wars, The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, just from a perspective of a modern woman.

Star Wars is about what it means to grow up, and exploring the undercurrents of sexual desire are an important part of any journey to adulthood. It has been that way since the very first installment. It is a shame that The Force Awakens brushed past this and that Solo reduced it to an awkward joke. Nevertheless, The Last Jedi offers a worthy and necessary update, demonstrating that there is still room for these sorts of ideas within the larger Star Wars franchise.

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