The Last Jedi and St. John Paul II’s Theology of Women

Everyone who didn’t get to see The Last Jedi in theaters let out a collective squeal of excitement this month, as it was finally released on Netflix streaming. It was met with mixed reviews, and I wasn’t sure what to expect.

I loved The Last Jedi.

I’m going to step out on a limb here, and disagree with one of my favorite priests and modern day theologians. I don’t think that this movie is about a “feminist agenda.” I don’t think it is demeaning to men. I don’t think the women in the movie think they are better than men. In fact, I think that that is a very surface and uncharitable view of what is happening. Rather, this movie is an anthem to spiritual motherhood. The women in this movie are not false “feminists.” Instead, they are truly feminine, intent on nurturing and bringing out the goodness in others.

Instead of viewing this movie through the lens of Bishop Barron’s review, I am going to view it through the eyes of St. John Paul II and his beautiful Letter to Women, as well as his longer Apostolic Letter, Mulieris Dignitatem. In the words of St. John Paul II in his Letter to Women, “Women’s dignity has often been unacknowledged, and their prerogatives misrepresented…” I think that is a good explanation of what is happening here (due to no malice on the part of other reviewers).

 

Of course, spoilers are ahead.

What a Woman Wants

What do women want the most? What makes a woman most fully feminine?

While I think that there are women seeking power, I think that what most women want is to nurture and build up those around them. Women want to nurture and strengthen relationships. If a woman does this right, the men around her become stronger and more fully themselves.

I have three children (and one little one in heaven), and try to be a spiritual mother to a pack of priests and seminarians in my life. I have some experience mothering. Between my biological children and my spiritual ones, I’ve learned so much about the importance of seeing and drawing out the good in others.

In Mulieris Dignitatem, St. John Paul II writes, “The motherhood of every woman, understood in the light of the Gospel, is similarly not only ‘of flesh and blood’: it expresses a profound ‘listening to the word of the living God’ and a readiness to ‘safeguard’ this Word, which is ‘the word of eternal life’ (cf. Jn 6:68).” To be a mother is not only to assist in the physical growth of the person. To be a mother is to assist in the work of God in the souls of others.

Princess Leia and Vice Admiral Holdo are both beautiful examples of spiritual motherhood. They are both middle aged women, and although we don’t know Holdo’s background, we do know that Princess Leia is a mother already.

Young enough to be a son to either one of them, Poe Dameron spends much of the movie butting heads with them. He believes that they are trying to subdue him. At first, it seems that may be the case, as they withhold seemingly important information from him. On two separate occasions, Poe blatantly disobeys first Leia and then Holdo, stubbornly refusing to trust them. In both cases, he realizes how wrong he was after the fact.

But what Leia and Holdo are trying to do is not exert power over him. Their eye rolls are not ones of disrespect. The gesture is one familiar to any mother. They smile affectionately at him, because they believe that with some guidance he will be a great man. They recognize, though, that he is still at the beginning of his journey. Quietly, they try to teach him wisdom and the importance of discerning before acting.

We see the success of their mothering toward the end of the movie. When Luke goes out to face Kylo Ren, Finn’s first instinct is to rush in and save Luke. It is Poe who stops, observes, and discerns that Luke has a deeper motive. When Poe realizes that Luke is creating a diversion to allow them to escape, he beckons everyone to follow him. He hesitates for a moment and looks to Leia. Leia does not look at all offended but looks proud of him for his wise discernment and strong action. “Follow him!” she says. (Which calls to mind another mother, who once wisely said of her son, “Do whatever he tells you.” Although, granted, that Son was perfect.) She has not been trying to hold Poe back. Leia has been trying to help him to become stronger, and she happily stands aside and encourages his leadership when he is finally read to take charge.

Women and Salvation

Another strong female and male friendship is that between Finn and Rose. At a cursory glance, it seems that Rose is trying to overpower Finn. She isn’t. Rather, Rose challenges Finn to take a stand for what is right.

Most striking is the scene near the end of the movie, when Finn is going to fly into the center of the battering ram, to save the Rebel’s stronghold. The audience thinks, “What a brave man. He is going to sacrifice his very life to save the Rebels!” Then Rose comes flying out of nowhere, knocking Finn to safety at the last moment. Our first thought is, “Why did she hold him back?” When he confronts her, she says, “I saved you.” She isn’t talking about saving his life. She is talking about saving his soul. Finn wasn’t just trying to save the Rebels. He was acting in anger, trying to defeat his personal enemy. Rose prevents him dying in that state of anger. In Mulieris Dignitatem, John Paul II writes, “The moral and spiritual strength of a woman is joined to her awareness that God entrusts the human being to her in a special way.” Rose takes this call very seriously.

Women and Relationship

Finally, we come to the relationship between Rey and Luke. Contrary to Barron’s assessment, Rey very much recognizes her need for Luke. However, she doesn’t need his training. She needs him to live out his vocation as a Jedi.

In fact, we see a parallel of this relationship in our Church’s history, in the relationship between St. Catherine of Siena and Pope Gregory XI. Pope Gregory was living in France, and Catherine worked tirelessly to convince him to move back to Rome. (She was eventually successful.) The reason why she succeeded was because of the magnitude of her love. This is the reason, too, that Rey (with some help from Yoda) finally succeeds in convincing Luke to give his life to save them all. Rey truly loves Luke and knows how important he is. She sees a goodness and strength in him that he doubts in himself. She brings out the very best in him, because she refuses to give up on him. She is, undoubtedly, “holier” than him (in the Jedi sense) just as Catherine ended up canonized and Pope Gregory the XI didn’t. Nevertheless, Rey defers to Luke, and her love and respect for him gives him the strength to be the man he was created to be.

In his Letter to Women, St. John Paul II explains, “The creation of woman is thus marked from the outset by the principle of help: a help which is not one-sided but mutual. Woman complements man, just as man complements woman: men and women are complementary.”  Rey is a helper to Luke because she is his complement. She is not a rival to him. As a complement to his masculine love (which is causing him to feel such deep remorse about failing Kylo Ren) is her feminine love – a love that persists in seeing the good and the strong in him.

Incidentally, the only woman in the movie that doesn’t fit this mold is Captain Phasma (and we already know she is a “bad guy”).

The view of womanhood that The Last Jedi offers is not anti-man. On the contrary it is truly feminine, loving. It is focused on complementing, and building up of the men in the movie, not tearing them down.

image: By DAVID HOLT from London, England [CC BY 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons

By

Michele Chronister is a wife, and mother to three little girls and one little one in heaven. She received her BA and MA in theology from the University of Notre Dame (’09 and ’11). She is the author of a number of books, including Handbook for Adaptive Catechesis, the co-author of Faith Beginnings – Family Nurturing from Birth Through Preschool, editor of the book Rosaries Aren't Just for Teething, as well as an assortment of Catholic children's books. In addition to writing, she also homeschools her daughters, and is the social media manager for the Office of Natural Family Planning in the Archdiocese of St. Louis. When her oldest was a baby, she realized that their family life had taken on a sort of monastic rhythm – eat, pray, play, sleep. Prompted by this, she started the blog My Domestic Monastery (www.mydomesticmonastery.com), where she shares inspiration for families wanting to grow in holiness.

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