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18 December 2017

What Star Wars: The Last Jedi and the short story Cat Person have in common

Think Margot and Robert, but in a space opera. Warning: contains spoilers. 

By Adam Ramsey

Rey met Kylo at Starkiller Base, on a snowy night some thirty years after the Battle of Endor. He was tall, and cute enough, and older than her, in his mid-twenties at least. But his hair was a little too long, and though he held himself defiantly, he looked constantly as if he was struggling with his emotions, as if he was protecting something.

When “Cat Person” was published in the New Yorker on 11 December, many readers commented on the story’s neat depiction of millennial dating. But no one knew exactly how universal Margot and Robert’s experience was prior to the release of The Last Jedi. Because even in a galaxy a long time ago and far, far away, it turns out there is a Cat Person.

Bonding over the Force rather than Red Vines, Rey and Kylo are Margot and Robert in space. They wrongly project feelings and ideas onto one another, they betray trust that never existed between them to begin with, and, when Rey rejects him, Kylo uses the Dark Side of the Force to have his “whore” moment.

The two characters – Kylo, an acolyte of the evil Supreme Commander Snoke, and Rey, the successor to Luke Skywalker – meet in the previous Star Wars film, The Force Awakens, and both feel a connection despite being on opposite sides of the galactic conflict. But it’s in The Last Jedi, released this week, that their connection develops into a deeper relationship – and crucially, this romantic bonding doesn’t happen face to face, but through the Star Wars equivalent of sexting.

As Luke teaches Rey, the Force is a mystical energy that binds the universe. What he doesn’t tell her is that her Jedi ability also gives her an instant, psychic connection with her new crush, Kylo, allowing them not just to talk to each other across the galaxy, but to see each other clearly, like a Skype without screens. At one point, Rey finds herself staring at Kylo when he’s half-naked, flexing his pecs, and self-consciously asks if he can put some clothes on: the fat-shaming some readers identified in “Cat Person” is absent here, but his naked body still makes her uncomfortable.

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She still didn’t know much about him, because they never talked about anything personal, but when they landed two or three good exchanges about the Force in a row there was a kind of exhilaration to it, as if they were dancing.

What Kylo and Rey’s relationship has in common with Margot and Robert’s is that it develops remotely, through messages rather than face-to-face contact. Kristen Roupenian explained that her story was about the uncertain interactions of contemporary dating, based on a “mirage of guesswork and projection”. As she told the New Yorker: “Margot keeps trying to construct an image of Robert based on incomplete and unreliable information, which is why her interpretation of him can’t stay still.”

She was starting to think that she understood him—how sensitive he was, how easily he could be turned to the Light Side of the Force—and that made her feel closer to him, and also powerful

Like Margot and Robert, Rey and Kylo feel they’ve built up a rapport through their exchanges, and it’s enough to propel them into an intimate encounter when they next meet face-to-face. They’re unsure of each other, and cautious – this doesn’t quite seem the same person they’ve been talking to at a distance – but momentum carries them through it. In “Cat Person”, Margot and Robert’s date results in bad sex. In The Last Jedi, Kylo and Rey physically unite to bring down a team of Elite Praetorian Guards, but when the couple is alone together afterwards, gasping for breath, the outcome is equally awkward.

Kylo, his hand extended, begs Rey to join him so they can rule the galaxy. Robert sends Margot a text: “just hearts and faces with heart eyes and, for some reason, a dolphin”. The scale of the gestures is, of course, worlds apart; but in both cases the man who seemed captivating in his messages is suddenly pathetic, misrecognising the dynamic, reading too much into it, and pleading for a relationship that the woman no longer wants. She rejects him.

Readers have criticised Margot’s self-centred, shallow behaviour, and Rey, too, is young and conflicted, unsure of her own motivations. Like Margot, she sees herself from the outside, as if watching herself from another body, as if she is someone else. Revealing her vulnerability to Kylo, she admits “I’ve never felt so alone.” Like Robert, eager to please, he responds: “You’re not alone.” Neither heroine is presented as perfect, and Rey’s relationship with Kylo is in part based on him making her feel better about herself. At this point, though, both men turn from troubled romantics into villains.

Margot and Rey respond to their own confusion by cutting ties and running away from the situation. Robert and Kylo deal with their hurt by turning it into anger. “I felt like we had a real connection did you not feel that way or . . .” says Robert’s first, plaintive text. His final message, and the last word of the story, is “Whore.” Star Wars, of course, is space opera rather than domestic drama, and Kylo is able to send an army of First Order All-Terrain Megacaliber Six war machines at Rey’s rebel base (occupied, cutely, by crystal critters – technically foxes, but they look like space-cats), rather than resorting to angry texts.

But the overall message of both stories is remarkably similar: in Roupenian’s words, “the strange and flimsy evidence we use to judge the contextless people we meet outside our existing social networks”, whether in today’s society or a galaxy far, far away. More broadly, both start to address the issue of toxic masculinity, and its effect on both men and women.

Once the fight was over, she became uncomfortable, and, as they stood with a lightsaber hovering dangerously between them, it occurred to her that he could rape and murder her; she hardly knew anything about him, after all.

“Cat Person” circulated swiftly across the internet in the days after publication, earning its own Twitter account dedicated to men’s angry responses. One decided Margot was an “obscenely vain young woman”; another called her a “terrible person”; they shared Robert’s resentment, almost as if they’d been dating her themselves. We can only guess at the reasons for their reactions, just as Roupenian leaves Robert’s background enigmatic.

And this is where Star Wars, with its broader strokes and overwrought family melodramas, lays the problem out more clearly. Kylo, we learn in The Force Awakens, is motivated by a desire to become like his grandfather, the legendary Darth Vader. In The Last Jedi his surrogate father, Snoke, mocks his attempts at a Vader-like mask, and Kylo smashes it against a wall in the next scene. Unable to live up to his grandfather’s example, Kylo is legendary mainly for his violent tantrums. Rey has also challenged his already fragile masculinity, as Snoke reminds him he has been “bested by a girl who had never held a lightsaber”. His response to Rey’s rejection is just another example of his inability to process failure. Unlike Rey – and Margot – whose experience of growing up female in a male-dominated world has taught her to compromise, negotiate and bend, rather than break, Kylo can only react to someone telling him “no” by trying to hit them back harder, and hurt them more.

The Last Jedi is perhaps the most contemporary of Star Wars films, with most to say about the lives of its millennial audience, structured by technology and online communication. It even opens with a phone prank – space pilot Poe trolling officer Hux with jokes about his mother. But its final lesson, echoing the Rey-Kylo relationship, is saved for the last scenes. We think we witness Luke Skywalker returning from exile to face Kylo in a climactic duel; we learn, in the last twist, that Luke had never left home, and was only Force-projecting an avatar of himself to communicate at a distance – saying goodbye to his sister, and then confronting his failed former protégé. It’s a Force power far beyond anything FaceTime can currently offer, but it reminds us, as “Cat Person” did, not to trust our impressions of people unless we’re face-to-face.

Rebecca Harrison (University of Glasgow) writes about cinema, gender and technology. She is currently writing a book, The Star Wars Code. Will Brooker (Kingston University) is the author of Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans, and the BFI Film Classics volume on Star Wars.


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