It’s the most wonderful time of the year! I’m not a huge fan of Christmas (or most holidays other than Halloween, actually). No, the season of the year I’m most excited about is Star Wars season. The Last Jedi (TLJ)is right around the corner. Books have been coming out almost monthly to gear up for it. The comics are especially wonderful right now (Aphra/Tolvan is canon, you guys!). And the Star Wars rewatch team and I just finished the original trilogy. Suffice it to say, I have Star Wars coming out of my ears, and I couldn’t be happier. So what better way to increase my hype than to talk about my favorite male hero of the Star Wars universe: Luke Skywalker.
Like many of my other favorite characters, he embodies traits that some would consider ‘weak’: compassion, empathy, deep connection to his emotions, and a desire for peace and healing over revenge. While his hero’s journey arc may be stereotypical for the sci-fi/fantasy genre, his personality isn’t. Or at least, not what we typically find in male sci-fi/fantasy heroes in visual media nowadays.
And that’s what I want to talk about: Luke as an antithesis to the dark, cynical anti-hero or world-weary, somber, chip-on-his-shoulder hero that we typically see now. He’s a hopeful, altruistic, positive emotion-driven hero who triumphs precisely because of those traits.
For the purposes of this piece, I’ll only be looking at canonical film and television materials: the Prequel trilogy (PT) and Original Trilogy (OT) primarily, but I will also reference the Sequel Trilogy (ST) and The Clone Wars tv show (TCW). I may also make an odd reference to material from the canon novels and comics, but there’s not a whole lot available for Luke (yet! Hopefully The Last Jedi coming out will change that.). Basically, I’m only looking at New Canon stuff, not Legends. Since this is more of a character study than anything, I’ll be doing Watsonian analysis, that is, sticking to interpreting what we see on screen rather than discussing authorial choices or motivations.
Disclaimers aside, let’s dive in to Luke Skywalker: The Anti-Toxically Masculine Hero!
His Strong Female Influences
While all of Luke’s canonical mentors and would-be mentors are male (Yoda, Obi-Wan, Vader, and the Emperor), he actually has strong ties to the women in his life if you look beyond the surface. Yoda and Obi-Wan are stereotypical Hero’s Journey Mentors who influence the development of his Force wielding powers. Vader and the Emperor presume to be that as well, only for the Dark Side. They’re quite literally a pair of mentorship opposites: a teacher and his student who each have, or seek to have, a role in training Luke to follow their chosen path in wielding magic the Force.
However, Luke’s personality is strongly shaped by the female characters to whom he is connected. Even in A New Hope (ΑΝΗ), we can see that he has more in common with his aunt Beru than uncle Owen. He has more of her softness than Owen’s crankiness. He’s kind to the droids and treats them less like objects than his uncle does, which is more akin to what we see from Beru. He has none of Owen’s pragmatism and sense of caution, and Beru seems to understand his thirst for adventure and would be willing to let him follow it. Were they his actual parents, we’d assume he takes more after his mother than his father.
They aren’t his parents, though. Beru even points out that his thirst for adventure means that Luke “has too much of his father in him.” She’s not wrong. Young Anakin and Luke do share a desire for adventure, are naturally gifted pilots, good at building machines (Luke’s adeptness in that are isn’t in the films, but it does crop up in the books and comics), and an impulsiveness when it comes to protecting their friends and loved ones.
However, Luke shares none of Anakin’s simmering anger and resentment. He does not internalize other people’s behavior toward himself as slights to be nursed, nor as symptoms that they perceive him as inadequate or incapable. Instead of continuing to gripe about staying for the harvest and resent Owen for not letting him pursue his dreams, as Anakin would have, he accepts his task and gets over his disappointment. This never comes up again, even when he’s finally a rebel pilot and meets up with Biggs Darklighter. You’d better believe Anakin would have said something along the lines of “see, I told them I’d get here eventually, but they didn’t believe in me” had he been in Luke’s situation.
They both at some level fear losing their loved ones, but Luke doesn’t let that control him the way Anakin does. Where Anakin doubts others, especially figures of authority, Luke doubts his own ability to do things that don’t come instinctively to him, at least early on. He doesn’t believe he can do things if it takes effort. That’s essentially what we see in The Empire Strikes Back (ESB). Rather than externalizing his doubt by lashing out at others, her internalizes it and needs encouragement to overcome it from people who believe in him the way he wholeheartedly believes in them.
So yes, there are some parallels between Luke and Anakin, but overall Obi-Wan, Yoda, and even Beru get it wrong. He doesn’t have too much of his father in him at all. If he had, Return of the Jedi (ROTJ) would have ended much differently. When you look more closely, Luke is actually his mother’s child more than his father’s.
Like Padmé, Luke forgives and trusts easily. His initial anger and disbelief in finding out that Anakin is his father doesn’t fester the same way it would have for Anakin. Anakin would have taken Obi-Wan and Yoda lying to him as a sign that they couldn’t be trusted and had betrayed him. Luke appears more hurt and confused than bitter. He wants to know why, but once he finds out, he accepts Obi-Wan’s explanation (even if it does sound like bullshit to us). Luke fundamentally trusts in the goodness of people, just as Padmé does.
He’s much calmer under pressure than Anakin, another trait he shares with Padmé. Where Anakin has a tendency to let his emotions get the better of him when all hell is breaking loose, Luke and Padmé can stay calm and focused. Luke’s one exception is when he leaves his training to help Han and Leia in ESB. Even then he’s not so much out of control because of external pressures as he is driven to help and protect the ones he loves, something he does share with Anakin. Padmé, too, protects the ones she loves, but she’s less impulsive about it than Anakin and Luke.
Where Anakin lets loss lead to anger and lashing out, Luke doesn’t let it deter him from his goals. That doesn’t mean Luke does this easily. We see in ROTJ that Luke’s calm and greater-good oriented perspective can come at great emotional cost. He might struggle for control over his fear, but he does control it. And that’s something Anakin could never do, but Padmé did.
When her entire culture was under seige, her people starving, she finds a way to channel that into a calm determination to do the right thing by advocating for them. She uses her words first, not her physical power. She’s empathetic by nature and if she can’t be with her people, she’ll speak for them. She’s also a diplomat and not just by training. While she can handle a blaster with proficiency, she’s far more comfortable talking things out. Like his mother, Luke prefers to use diplomacy first. His use of Jedi mind control in ROTJ is sketchy, but even when that fails to affect Jabba, he resorts to more discussion, not his lightsaber. When he leaves his training ESB, his express desire is to go to his friends, to be with them. Just like Padmé’s desire to be with her people in The Phantom Menace.
Then there are all the dialogue parallels put into the PT that connect Padmé and Luke. They’re practically jumping off the screen at us in ROTJ and Revenge of the Sith (ROTS). Both the final films of each trilogy, I might add.
Luke: There is good in him; I’ve felt it. (ROTJ)
Padmé: There is good in him. I know there is…still. (ROTS)
As fellow Star Wars rewatch member Zach pointed out to me with this video, Padmé was the one to believe in the goodness of Anakin, not Obi Wan. I’ll return to that later, but for now it’s worth pointing out that both Padmé and Luke express a belief in the continued goodness of Anakin using almost the exact same words.
Then there’s the fact that both plead with Anakin to leave the Dark Side, and his Sith master, behind and to come away with them.
Luke: Come with me. (ROTJ)
Padmé: Come away with me. Help me raise our child. Leave everything else behind while we still can. (ROTS)
Vader also offerd both Luke and Padmé the chance to rule the galaxy with him and both said no. Both are also the ‘original’ (or close to it) owners of R2D2 in the first film of the trilogy and are explicitly shown cleaning R2. It may sound silly, but the visual parallel in the scenes is actually quite striking. Even more so when you line up other visual echoes between them. While Leia is the more physically similar to her mother and the costume choices have parallels, Padmé is also visually echoed by her son in both posing, facial expressions, and body language. These visual echoes support the personality echoes. They’re visual clues that there is a strong resemblance between mother and son.
We can’t leave out that Luke is a foil for his sister, Leia. While not an influence in his personality per se, I would be remiss not to point out the ways that they act as complementary opposites. Leia is pragmatic where Luke is idealistic. Leia is action-oriented where Luke is more dreamy. He wants adventure and excitement, but not necessarily being in the thick of the fight. We see this contrast especially as they age. In Bloodline, Leia gives up politics to become a general while Luke follows a more reclusive, knowledge-oriented path (see also, The Legends of Luke Skywalker).
Leia is more prone to hold grudges and act in anger, where Luke, as pointed out, forgives easily and believes in others. Leia doesn’t share personal burdens easily where Luke is more open. Leia sublimates her feelings to focus on her duty where Luke lets his positive emotions guide him. A sense of justice and freedom drives Leia’s actions where Luke is driven by empathy and peace.
What intrigues me most about Luke and Leia is that were I to remove the character names and just give you a list of them as character foils, most people would likely assume that Luke was the female of the fraternal twins. His characteristics are much more in line with our current society’s perception of stereotypically feminine traits than Leia’s are. This is quite striking, especially when we realize how influenced his personality is by the women in his life, even though we only get a few (if any) interaction between him and his mother figures. Like Steven Universe, he represents just about everything opposite to toxic masculinity.
So, let’s dive in and take a closer look at how these unique (for contemporary sci-fi heroes) traits manifest in more detail.
His Compassion and Empathy
The most obvious place to start is Luke’s confrontation with Vader in ROTJ. Before that happens, Obi-Wan seems to believe Luke is fated to kill his own father.
Luke: I can’t do it, Ben.
Obi-Wan: You cannot escape your destiny. You must face Darth Vader again.
Luke: I can’t kill my own father.
Obi-Wan: Then the Emperor has already won. You were our only hope. (ROTJ)
Now, Obi-Wan may not want Luke to kill his father, but he clearly deems it necessary to defeat the Emperor (Why he doesn’t think about the Emperor getting a new apprentice and continuing terrorizing the galaxy, I don’t know). We could headcanon that he believes this is the only way to ‘save’ Anakin, but that’s not depicted on screen. He believes that the only way to defeat the Sith is to defeat Vader, and Luke has to be the one to do it. This seems to be why both he and Yoda hid the truth of Luke’s parentage from him, believing that such knowledge would prevent him from fulfilling his ‘destiny’, as they call it.
Yoda: Your father he is. Told you, did he?
Yoda: Unexpected this is. And unfortunate.
Luke: Unfortunate that I know the truth?
Yoda: No. Unfortunate that you rushed to face him, that incomplete was your training, that not ready for the burden were you. (ROTJ)
Coming from Yoda, we understand that he sympathizes with the burden this places on Luke. He believes that Luke failed his first confrontation with Vader because he wasn’t ready to know the truth (Though one wonders if at some level Yoda also believed that Luke was fated to kill Vader and that plays into his comment about Luke not being ready “for the burden”, i.e., the burden of killing his father specifically rather than someone he believed no more than a war criminal).
Obi-Wan’s reaction to hearing that Luke doesn’t believe he can kill Vader could not be more different. “Welp, guess the Emperor has won, then.” He’s less concerned with Luke’s emotional health than with Luke being able to kill Vader. Make no mistake, like Dumbledore, Obi-Wan is willing to sacrifice Luke’s potential emotional and mental well-being (in committing murder) and even see Luke potentially die to stop what he sees as the greater evil. It’s shockingly cold from a Jedi who was so reluctant to go to war and who feared what war would turn the Jedi into.
A cynical reading would argue that Obi-Wan just wants Luke to fix his own fuck-up with Anakin. However, bearing in mind what he went through in The Clone Wars, we can see how his experience of war has shaped his mentality. He saw so much death, war, and trauma at that time , and has had to witness two decades of his former student wreaking horrors on the galaxy. He’s too far gone to believe in hope or compassion. It’s cold and tragic. It makes a degree of sense. Who, in his situation, wouldn’t advocate for killing Vader? Cut off the head of the snake (leaving aside that the Emperor is the true head), and the body will die off.
Yet into all this steps Luke Skywalker, the young man both Jedi seem ready to use as a weapon to destroy what they perceive to be the root of much of the galaxy’s ills. Luke who, despite both Yoda’s and Obi-Wan’s warnings to control his feelings, can’t bury them the way they want. You can understand their fear at his seeming inability to control his emotions. Anakin couldn’t control his feelings and he became Vader. Here is his son, onto whom they project all of Anakin’s faults and failings, acting in what they perceive as similar ways. They have a hard time seeing how Luke differs from his father and react accordingly.
Nevertheless, Luke’s reliance upon his feelings isn’t just a lack of control, it’s a choice.
Tempted and goaded by the Emperor into channeling his fear for his loved ones and hatred for the Emperor, Luke attacks his father and stands poised to kill him. He’s ‘won’ according to both sets of his mentors in that moment. He’s confronted Vader. He has Vader in his power and can strike him down the way they have told him he must. For the Emperor, this very act places him on the path to the Dark Side. Instead, defying them all, he spares his father, throws away his lightsaber, and declares himself a Jedi, just as Yoda said he would be.
Luke: Then I am a Jedi?
Yoda: Not yet. One thing remains: Vader. You must confront Vader. Then, only then, a Jedi will you be. And confront him you will. (ROTJ)
Remember in ESB when Luke went into the cave to come face to face with Vader, kill him, only to find this own head in the helmet?
It’s clearly a metaphor for Luke’s potential to become just like his father. Recall also that Yoda told him before he entered the cave that he would not need his weapons. The ‘true’ Vader Luke needed to confront to become a Jedi was the potential for the Dark Side within himself. And Luke decides that doesn’t require actually killing his own father. Choosing not to give into fear and anger was the true victory all along—the one Yoda seems to have primarily had in mind, even if he may also have believed Luke needed to kill Vader.
Instead of a justice driven by fear, hate, and revenge, Luke chooses peace and compassion. He chooses to make himself vulnerable to the Emperor by throwing away his lightsaber. In that one act, he proves to his father by example that it is possible to turn away. Yoda and Obi-Wan believed, “once you start down the dark path, forever will it dominate your destiny” (ROTJ). So, too, do the Emperor and Vader. But Luke proves them wrong both by his choice and by how that choice affects his father.
From Luke we see that while the Dark Side is strong, compassion is stronger. He humanizes his father, expressing belief in his agency, goodness, and ability to be better. This is something Obi-Wan and Yoda were incapable of doing for one reason or another that we need not go into here. Ultimately, the point is that Luke ‘wins’ not by killing Vader as Obi-Wan expected or by ‘conquering’ the Emperor, whatever Yoda meant by that. He wins by having compassion on his father; by being willing to die rather than give up on his belief that somewhere within the tubes and wires holding his father together, there was a spark of goodness that deserved a chance. He even gave his father a Jedi funeral, despite the fact that he had been a warlord for almost two decades. That’s how far his empathy took him.
Leading up to this final confrontation, Luke suffers a great deal of loss and personal injury. He loses his adoptive parents, both of his mentors, and his hand. He almost dies on Hoth. He learns that his mentors had deliberately hidden things from him and that the man who had tried to kill him, tortured one of his best friends (who is also his twin sister), frozen his other best friend in carbonite and sold him off to a corrupt crime lord, and was responsible for the death and suffering of millions, was his own father. After all this, one wouldn’t be surprised if he ended up with a chip on his shoulder or a bit cynical.
By ROTJ, he’s clearly matured and believes in himself and his control of Force more than he did in ESB. Yet his hopeful energy and optimistic approach to the world isn’t diminished. In fact, it’s shining out of him at almost every turn. He still believes that the galaxy can be a better place. He fiercely believes that Vader still has good in him. Before we see the aftermath, it’s easy to fall prey to the perception that such ‘blind’ faith is naive, almost childish. He’s so desperate for his father to be good that he blinds himself to the ‘truth’ that his father cannot be turned.
But instead of being ‘taken down a peg’ and proved childish in his optimism, he’s proved correct. He hopes in his friends, in his father, and in his own path of embracing his attachments. And his hopefulness leads to victory for the heroes and the defeat of the Emperor. For Luke, maturity doesn’t equal cynicism (realism’ as some tv showrunners would have us believe), in fact it’s just the opposite. Without his dogged hopefulness in the face of overwhelming odds, the story would have ended in a very different way. This hopefulness then makes its way into the larger universe and is currently one of the major themes of the Star Wars franchise. No matter how dark it gets, there’s always hope.
In fact, that’s part of the symbolism present in Luke having a white lining to his otherwise black outfit in ROTJ. Luke mirrors in his clothing what we saw was true of his father: things may look dark on the outside, but deep down, there’s light and hope.
He Says No to Violence and Power
The most defining moment of Luke’s arc, and to me of the entire film franchise thus far, is when he throws away his lightsaber and declares himself a Jedi.
Many would have called Luke killing Vader an act of justice. Justice for his family and the galaxy; justice for the torture of his sister, the destruction of her planet and family; justice for the death of his mentor, and for all Luke knew, violence potentially done to his mother; justice for the war crimes, death, suffering, and oppression Vader had pereptrated for two decades. No one would have faulted Luke for killing Vader. In fact, most would have cheered him. Instead, he shuns even that violent if justifiable act and chooses compassion.
Before the Emperor and Vader were able to goad him into attacking, he chose to hide instead of fight. “I will not fight you,” is his refrain. He doesn’t rush into battle with Vader, he has to be pushed at every step of the way. For most—though not all—of the confrontation, he only fights when provoked and prefers to act defensively rather than offensively. Once again, compare this to Anakin’s headlong rush into pre-existing fights and uncanny knack for picking them when other options are available, in TCW.
Yet this is not framed as weakness or cowardice on Luke’s part. His defensive hiding and attempts to persuade Vader to turn come from a place of power. He’s not afraid of fighting Vader: he doesn’t want to. He’s trying to live up to Yoda’s teaching that “A Jedi uses the Force for knowledge and defense, never for attack.” And he comes out looking stronger for behaving this way rather than resorting to aggression and violence to ‘force’ (pun intended) Vader to change his mind.
One could perceive it as a kind of ‘giving up,’ and in a way, it is. Just not in a negative way. He’s giving up on violence as a path to victory, both personal and galactic. Much as the event itself is saddening, one cannot help but see the inverted echo in Kylo Ren’s murder of Han Solo in The Force Awakens. Kylo has bought into the lie that an act of violence is personal victory and something to be proud of. He believes the false teachings of the Dark Side that one cannot achieve one’s full potential without killing what’s in your way, even if that’s a member of your family. It’s a twisted, and gruesomely literal, version of what Yoda had been teaching Luke about needing to confront Vader in order to become a Jedi.
Unlike his nephew, Luke shuns the idea that violence leads to peace or balance. He refuses to become driven by hate, anger, fear, and vengeance, all of which would have given him power but required an act of violence (killing his own father). Unlike Anakin or Kylo, he did not let violence define him, even violence committed for the sake of justice.
He has no desire for power either, which is one of the ways both the Emperor and Vader underestimate him. When Vader offers Luke the chance to rule alongside him ‘as father and son’, Luke rejects it. Like his mother, Luke refuses unlimited power when it comes from an evil, oppressive place, even if that means losing his only family (or, for Luke, the only family he knows exists at the end of ESB).
But Vader doesn’t just represent raw ambition. As we see in the PT, Anakin primarily wanted the power to save the ones he loved. Maybe even the power to end slavery, though this is nowhere explicated onscreen. At the very least, Anakin also wanted the power to be free from control because of his experience of being a slave. We see this in the Darth Vader comics, so I highly recommend checking those out to see that struggle unfold.
In fact, one of the great tragedies of Vader is that his misguided attempt to find freedom actually led to a more bitter and cruel enslavement than he perceived himself to be under from the Jedi Council. He wanted to be able to dictate his own choices and ended up in slavery once again—slavery to the Dark Side, the Emperor, and his own dark, twisted mind. He hated being told what to do and chafed under the Jedi Council’s control over his life. When we see the repeated refrain of “yes, my master” from Vader in ROTJ and his meek behavior around the Emperor, a deep sense of pathos emerges to sit in contention with our intimate knowledge of the horrors he’s committed.
Luke had no such desire for power or freedom from authority. The Emperor does not understand this and thinks Luke the mirror image of his father. He tries to play off of what he thinks is a shared desire between father and son for the power to save their loved ones.
Emperor: By now you must know that your father can never be turned from the Dark Side. So it will be with you.
Luke: You’re wrong. Soon I’ll be dead, and you with me.
Emperor: Perhaps you refer to the immanent attack of your rebel fleet…I assure you we are quite safe from your friends here.
Luke: Your overconfidence is your weakness.
Emperor: And your faith in your friends is yours. (ROTJ)
Even Anakin seems to think the same and urges Luke to follow in the choices that he himself made years ago.
Luke: I will not fight you.
Vader: Give yourself to the Dark Side. It is the only way you can save your friends. (ROTJ)
Ironically, Luke’s trust in his friends is what keeps him from giving into his fear at the very beginning. He may struggle with believing in his own power (see ESB), but he has no doubt that his friends will come through in the end. Though the Emperor does succeed in triggering Luke’s fear for a short while, we see very quickly that Luke’s desire for the power to save his friends is much weaker than Anakin’s was, or at least, balanced out by a trust that they can protect themselves in a way Anakin’s wasn’t. Ultimately, he says no to that power, choosing to focus on bringing his father back from the Dark Side and to trust Han, Leia, Chewie, and the droids to use their skills to save themselves.
He Embraces His (Positive) Feelings
As many have pointed out, when it comes to the Jedi/Sith dichotomy in the Star Wars universe, everything comes down to attachment and feelings. The Jedi shun them, believing they interfere with one’s ability to find balance and see clearly. The Sith, on the other hand value attachment insofar as it can be manipulated into a reliance upon anger, fear, jealousy, and hate. Yet both sides seem to believe that emotional attachments inevitably lead to the ‘darker’ emotions; one side says “yes, channel it”, the other “no, avoid it”, but the premise is the same. It’s an oversimplification of their teachings, I admit, but one that’s nevertheless still true. Interestingly, Luke directly challenges this very notion by the end of the OT.
In ANH, we see Obi-Wan tell Luke to ‘let go’ of his feelings and trust the Force, as if these were contradictory. Yoda and Obi-Wan fear that his emotional connection will lead him down the same path Anakin chose and warn him against it. The Emperor and Vader believe the same and try to exploit it. In ESB, Vader tells Luke “Search your feelings. You know it to be true” when offering him the truth of his parentage. Compare this to Yoda, who tells Luke to rely on the Force for knowledge, not his feelings. This only make it more poignant when Luke tells Vader in ROTJ “Search your feelings, Father. You can’t do this. I feel the conflict within you, let go of your hate.” He’s using ‘feelings’ language, but turning it into a source of life and hope rather than darkness.
Without the PT as a background, we don’t quite get the full significance of Luke’s decision to embrace his personal attachment to his father instead of shun it. The Jedi believe that one must denounce all attachment in order to find balance and oneness with the Force. This seems at first glance to be underscored with Anakin’s fall being predicated upon the Emperor manipulating his attachment to Padmé, Shmi, his unborn child(ren), and the desire to save them from harm.
Yet the OT shows us that attachment itself wasn’t the problem at all. Obi-Wan, Yoda, and the rest of the Jedi were wrong. Yes, fear, anger, and hate lead to the Dark Side. Yes attachments can be a source of fear, anger, and hate, but one need not inevitably lead to the other as they had assumed. In fact, avoiding feelings altogether can lead to its own kind of twistedness, one that is willing to send a young man off to kill his own father. Without love, there’s no consistent basis for hope or compassion.
Obi-Wan believed in Anakin in ROTS and, as he likely sees it, that did not prevent Anakin’s fall. Obi-Wan failed Anakin, and it’s not so far-fetched to believe that at some level he internalized this as due to his own failure to avoid becoming attached to his padawan. He refuses to repeat that mistake and cannot allow feelings to get in the way of what he thinks needs to be done. So he is willing to send Luke to kill Vader. That’s how fucked-up Jedi thinking can potentially be, and I think we’re meant to take it that way.
The moment Luke throws away his lightsaber and declares himself a Jedi “like my father before me” is simultaneously a declaration of non-violence and a reinterpretation of the Jedi code. He’s a Jedi, but one ‘like his father’, in other words, one that embraces his (positive) emotions. He’s embracing his attachment and love for his father as a source of strength, not a weakness. It’s an asset to his use of the Force, not a hindrance. He literally redefines the Jedi code to include his love for his father. This a is seminal moment moving forward.
We have yet to see if the films will incorporate this into Luke’s arc of trying to re-found the Jedi order, though it may lie behind his words from the TLJ trailer that “it’s time for the Jedi to end.” That’s my hope anyway. That even if there is a layer of cynicism to Luke’s words—due to what he perceives as a failure with Kylo or with some other tragedy, or both—what he’s trying to say is that the old way of doing things has to end…because he believes there’s a new, better way. At the very least, I believe that’s the implication for the direction in which canon is going, even if we don’t see it manifest in Luke specifically in TLJ.
Speculation for the upcoming film aside, at that moment in ROTJ, he’s declaring that love is a part of being a Jedi. No longer should they deny their attachments. Rather, they should use them to save their family, and the galaxy, from darkness.
Think about what this means with his parents’ choices in the PT in mind. Like them, he chooses love. But instead of feeling shame or fear in that, his love is a source of power and change. Without an authority like the Jedi Council to reproach him and make him feel that love is weakness, he’s free to celebrate his love for his father. Instead of fearing Vader, Luke believes that his love for his father can change him for the better.
And he was right.
Vader: You were right. You were right about me. Tell your sister, you were right. (ROTJ)
Luke showed Vader that love was not weakness, was nothing to be ashamed of or hidden or suppressed. Love didn’t have to mean fear of loss, but could mean celebration of life and the present. Love is vulnerability—as Luke standing weaponless before the Emperor willing to die instead of kill his father perfectly exemplifies. However, that position can be a place of confidence instead of fear. For the first time in his life, Anakin sees that love need not lead either to shame and fear (as the Jedi taught) nor to anger and a desire to lash out and hurt others (as the Sith embrace). Rather, love could be a source of strength and hope, something that changes people for the better rather than for the worse.
Thus, the Greek tragedy of fearing one’s feelings to the point of self-destruction in the PT is overcome by an act of love and self-sacrifice in the OT.
Luke’s Anti-Toxic Masculinity
This is a breathtaking and remarkable vision of masculinity. At the end of the OT, Luke is neither cynical nor brooding despite what he’s been through. He chooses diplomacy, redemption, and altruism instead of vengeance. He prefers non-violence to power and control. He will believe in anyone, no matter what they’ve done to him or the people he loves, and would rather die than lose a chance at helping someone become their best selves. His defining moment is an act of embracing his feelings and choosing love.
And these characteristics aren’t a hindrance to his story or something he must overcome in order to defeat the villain. In fact, Luke’s compassion is precisely what wins the day in the end. He’s not punished for being a kind, empathetic person, he’s victorious because of it. He saves the day because of it.
When you compare this to the kinds of male heroes we’re used to seeing in the most popular sci-fi and fantasy shows these days, it feels like night and day. He has more in common with a character like Sansa Stark than even Jon Snow, much less a Tyrion or Jaime Lannister. He’s closer to Jenkin’s Wonder Woman than Snyder’s Batman or Superman.
How often do you see male heroes nowadays saving the world because they embrace and express their feelings? The only other one I can think of off the top of my head that’s current is Steven Universe (If I’m forgetting any, please feel free to remind me in the comments). Thor has the same kind of unshakable optimism, but he isn’t non-violent nor is he driven by empathy and his emotions in the same way as Luke. In fact, most superhero films and TV shows these days don’t question violence as a path to peace the way Luke’s final act of throwing away his lightsaber does.
Of course, Luke isn’t entirely non-violent, even canonically. He does believe there is a place to fight against injustice and defend the vulnerable. He does so in the films, comics, and novels again and again. He’s not a complete pacifist by any means. However, even within that framework, his stance on violent action is more in line with what we see from comic book Wonder Woman:
“Don’t kill if you can wound, don’t wound if you can subdue, don’t subdue if you can pacify, and don’t raise your hand at all until you’ve first extended it.” (Wonder Woman Vol 3 #25)
Again, when was the last time you’ve seen this as the defining ethos for a male hero in sci-fi and fantasy? We have powerful female heroes who evince these traits—S1 Supergirl, Wonder Woman, Sansa Stark, Padmé Amidala—and they’re some of my favorites. But precious few male heroes are defined this way, all because our society perceives these traits as ‘weak.’ Or, at the very least, less ‘powerful’ and ‘strong’ than being action oriented, punch-happy, and coolly logical and strategic.
We need more male heroes in the mold of Luke Skywalker, heroes that show our society that men can be kind and gentle, and choose love over vengeance and compassion fueled self-sacrifice over aggression. Male heroes that embrace their positive emotions and don’t let the horrors they face in life destroy their hope or empathy. Male heroes who choose helping their friends over self-actualization, who prefer diplomacy and self-defense over rushing in with guns blazing. Male heroes who thumb their nose at society’s toxic masculinity and teach young boys a different way of being.
As Legends of Luke Skywalker put it:
“We’re all Luke Skywalker.” (p.120)
And that means being someone very different from what a lot of our current media would tell you being a hero means.