Star Wars’ Vice-Admiral Holdo and Our Expectations for Female Military Power

A vast and detailed selection of spoilers follow—if you haven’t seen The Last Jedi, go see it and come back to this one afterward.

The first time we see Vice-Admiral Holdo in The Last Jedi, we see her through the eyes of Poe Dameron: hotshot flyboy, recently slapped down twice in the Resistance’s scramble to evacuate their compromised base. The first blow to Poe’s ego and stability is his demotion from Commander to Captain by General Leia Organa herself, a suitable reprimand for spearheading the devastatingly costly bombing run which provides the film with its opening set-piece. No sooner has Poe processed this—if indeed he has processed it—than he’s knocked further off balance by the loss of all of the Resistance high command save Leia, who is comatose and out of commission. In this state—stripped of his expected personal authority, with the usual structures of command which he relies on decimated—he looks at the new leader of the remaining Resistance fleet and says incredulously to another pilot: “That’s Admiral Holdo? Battle of Chyron Belt Admiral Holdo? …not what I was expecting.”

Nor is Holdo what the viewer is, perhaps, expecting. (We are firmly in Poe’s point of view, and primed by both the long history of hotshot flyboys in the Star Wars franchise, and our own pleasurable glee at watching successfully executed violence even at high cost, to be sympathetic to him.) And yet: here is Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo, a tall thin woman in late middle age, wearing a draped floor-length dress that leaves every curve and angle of her body visible; a woman with dyed-purple hair in a style that requires at the very least a great many pins and more likely a curling iron in addition; a woman wearing star-chart bracelets and lipstick and eye makeup. She looks like a slightly-down-on-her-luck noblewoman from the Old Republic. She’s not just female, she’s femme. And she’s not just femme, she’s soft. All her age is visible; there’s no architectural framing of that body to disguise how gravity has had its way with it. Holdo, in the middle of the remnants of the Resistance, is a kind of exposed that Leia Organa—who does wear those architectural frames around her body, giving her a grandeur and a solidity—never is.

Not what I was expecting. Not the image of a woman who could win a major battle, the sort which a pilot like Poe would remember admiringly. (We don’t know much of anything about the Battle of Chyron Belt—but by Poe’s reaction, it’s a bit legendary.) It isn’t that Poe Dameron’s got a problem with women—his record in both this film and the last shows that he is friends with, respects, and easily follows and leads women—it’s that he’s got a problem with Vice-Admiral Holdo. Who isn’t what he expects. Who has swanned in to the middle of the Resistance’s desperate last stand, her purple hair a shock of color in the middle of the greys and browns and whites of the Resistance’s cobbled-together uniforms, like she’s the Woman from Altair wandered in from an entirely different story.

Then—with Leia’s words in her mouth, no less, telling the assembly to keep the flame of hope alive—she not only gives an order to keep fleeing on an apparent dead-end desperate run just out of range of the First Order’s cannons, but also dismisses Poe entirely. (She’s got good reason to. He’s just been demoted, and, as she herself says, she knows his type: the kind of person who takes big risks and doesn’t follow orders to withdraw.) We, watching, and tightly emotionally attached to Poe’s point of view—through cinematography, Poe being entirely awesome, and generations of ‘let’s blow shit up’ saving the day narratives—are absolutely primed to believe that she’s either a traitor or an incompetent.

A traitor? Well, there’s that ‘we have them on the end of a string’ moment from General Hux. It turns out that the string is just a new application of tracking technology which allows the First Order to follow a ship through lightspeed (please insert sidebar here about how this is one of the few solidly missed moments in this film: how did the First Order invent this tech? How long have they had this capability? It’s a glossy, over-too-fast explanation which didn’t sit well with this viewer). What if Vice-Admiral Holdo—who doesn’t let our hero be part of the need-to-know crowd—is the one letting the tracking happen? Women who look like Holdo—femme fatales, even in their middle age, women who look like women who do politics rather than fight, who like frivolous things, jewels and bright hair and makeup even in the darkest moments—we are primed to read women like that as women who will betray. This is an old trope. It’s the liquid drops of tears that you have shed / Shall come again, transformed to orient pearl—that’s Shakespeare’s Richard III, talking to Queen Elizabeth, promising that for her emotional defection (handing over her daughter to be his wife, even after he’s killed her sons), she’ll have material riches. Women who like beautiful things will betray our heroes to keep their beautiful things.

And an incompetent? That one’s simple. Leia Organa is entirely, fully, hugely competent at what she does; Leia Organa, our General, is an image of mature womanhood which is understandable and immensely welcome—she is a leader of men and women, a strength and a power. Her most affecting scene in this film—when we finally get to see her use the Force which is her birthright as much as it has ever been her brother’s—is heartbreakingly brilliant. So is her ability to delegate, to train, to be both centrally necessary and to have a system in place for when she is incapacitated. But Holdo looks like the opposite of Leia—Holdo looks like an inexperienced woman using another woman’s words, a pale substitute, a coward whose story-function is to (like so many middle-aged female characters in film) keep our heroes down. This too is a familiar trope, and we are set up to expect it by how Holdo dresses and behaves.

But that’s not how it goes. Not what I expected—well, not what we expect either, watching. Turns out that Vice-Admiral Holdo’s plan, while desperate, is exactly what the Resistance needed: a chance to get to an old Rebel base with defenses and a communications array. Turns out, also, that she’s not some lesser imitation of Leia, but a friend Leia has had from childhood (check out Claudia Grey’s lovely middle-grade novel Leia: Princess of Alderaan, where she and Holdo meet for the first time and learn to rely on each other). Their goodbyes as Leia boards the escape pod along with the rest of the Resistance are the goodbyes of dear friends who have loved each other well. “I can’t take any more losses,” Leia says, speaking in a sense for all of us. “Sure you can,” Holdo tells her. “You taught me how.”

This is the sort of friend that Leia can rely on to make an ultimate sacrifice, and thus give to us watching the best visual and sound cue in the entire film: having stayed behind to pilot the heavy cruiser Raddus while the rest of the diminished Resistance escapes to the planet Crait, Holdo eventually chooses to drive her ship while it jumps to lightspeed directly through the First Order’s flagship, destroying a great part of it and preventing the destruction of those last few escapees. She is alone when she does this. She is alone, a captain on a bridge, in her dress and her lovely hair, her mouth set in a firm and determined line, and she doesn’t hesitate.

The film’s director, Rian Johnson, gives her—and us—a silent cut as a reward. My whole theater gasped out loud into the quiet. It is the most striking visual and auditory moment in a film full of striking visual and auditory moments.

And Poe Dameron? Poe Dameron watches this too, and he gets it. When Finn—whose arc this film has been about running away, or choosing not to—says that she’s fleeing like a coward, it is Poe who says that she isn’t. It is Poe that asks us to watch what she’s about to do.

Go out like the hero she is: a middle-aged woman hero in a flimsy dress with impractical hair and impeccable military credentials.

What The Last Jedi does—amongst many other things—is present its audience with more than one mode of female power. We have Rey, strong in the Force, dangerous and necessary and emerging from nowhere to be the center of this story; we have Rose, a mechanic and a patriot, willing to make sacrifices and willing to know when sacrifice is not necessary; we have Leia Organa, the pivot on which the Resistance turns. And we have Vice-Admiral Amilyn Holdo, who looks like none of what we expect. Who is nevertheless what the Resistance needs, and worth Poe’s respect, and worth ours.

Arkady Martine writes speculative fiction when she isn’t writing Byzantine history. She is overly fond of borders, rhetoric, and liminal spaces. Find her online at arkadymartine.wordpress.com or on Twitter as @ArkadyMartine.

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