The Power of Masks
Whether in the name of form, function, or both, bold masks and helmets are a staple of the Star Wars mythos. From Vader’s chilling samurai-inspired helm, to the cold sharp visor that separates a Mandalorian from his opponent, to Kylo Ren’s stark guise that morphs in tandem with his personality throughout the sequel trilogy, the mask is a means of expression as well as protection all throughout Star Wars. While some (mostly villains) choose to obscure their true form with masks in an effort to control their identity, the heroes of our story seem to embrace legend and myth surrounding them as a sort of mask itself.
Ben Solo dons the persona of Kylo Ren in an attempt to define his identity, both distancing himself from his immediate family, and linking himself to an ancient legacy of terror and dominance. The chief symbol that carries this persona is his mask, a deliberate harkening to Vader, the infamous right hand of the previous dark power in the universe. But it seems that Ben Solo can never escape his true identity, no matter how hard he tries, the man behind the mask is still one scarred by trauma he doesn't want anyone to see. For Ben, his trauma is an opportunity for people to empathize with him, the last thing he needs if he’s to successfully distance himself from the past. This type of emotional distancing is well documented in psychology research, most notably in the Stanford Prison Experiment where ordinary citizens were given formal authority and a means to shield themselves from any emotional connection their peers turned faux prisoners (shaded sunglasses preventing eye contact). Under these conditions, people felt far more comfortable inflicting psychological distress and later harm onto their subjects. Essentially, using a mask to prevent eye contact worked well for Kylo in that it fostered a persona he could mold outside of his trauma, as well as block any of his peers from establishing an emotional connection with him, allowing Ben to embrace his new identity unhindered by sympathy to or from outsiders. Soon enough this persona cracks under the pressure because it was a lie from the beginning, a lie Ben tells himself, a lie that he’s a monster that can’t be redeemed, a lie that he doesn't deserve love because he’s the heir apparent to Lord Vader, the Commander of the Knights of Ren, the Dark Prince of Alderaan, incapable of recovering humanity and unworthy of forgiveness.
Mandolorian culture has a long and rich familiarity with symbols and an even longer history with violence. Often outcasts or refugees, the Mandolorian is synonymous with the survivor. Born into, and shaped by chaos, it's often the struggle of a Mandolorian to learn to open themselves up and accept the possibility that perhaps they don’t need to wear their armor constantly, that perhaps there's room in their heart for hope and love. Fittingly, the symbol that defines Din Djarin, the lone bounty hunter in the hit series “The Mandolorian” is his helmet. While the helmet acts similarly to Ren’s mask by filtering any emotional connection (something surviving Mandalorians often consider dead weight), it also shields them from the outside world. While outsiders recognize the Mandolorian helmet as the face of a detached lone-wolf warrior type, the outsider’s perspective never seems to matter much to the Mandolorian. Instead, the helmet is significant to the Mandalorian in that it's a manifestation of community, security, and personal agency. Living without a helmet, a Mandalorian would certainly see themself as a mere wounded survivor, exactly who they were before their family found them. We can imagine the degree to which Madolorians are so attached to their helmet, while for Ben the helmet is a symbol to others, a projection of how he wants to be seen, for Din Djarin its an inner symbol, a physical reminder that no matter what happens he’ll always have his found family, and that they will keep him safe and give him purpose.
“I'm looking at the eyes of a man who wants to run.” - Maz Kanada
Finn and Rey each have a different transformative relationship with masks in their own unique way. For Finn this change is closer to that of Djin Djarin where his helmet was an expression of defense, though he abandons his helmet far earlier in the film, it reflects his courage and sense of purpose he gains by the finale. As opposed to running away from the dominating threat of a galactic war-machine, Finn’s struggle was to look the First Order dead in the eye, stand up to something instead of just worrying about his own safety. When he can do this he’s no longer just another cog in the first order machine, he's the hero that stood up to an unstoppable force. He wasn't able to tell himself that he couldn't make a difference even if he wanted to, he can and he does by standing up for something. We can see the effects of this change when Rose recognizes Finn as a ‘hero of the resistance’ not ‘escaped stormtrooper’ in The Last Jedi.
In Rey’s case, the mask is much more symbolic of her struggle to leave Jakku. Rey’s desperate hope for her family’s return is one that she’s forced to embrace every day in the desert, the hope that her family will return is one that Rey needs because if they're never coming back why is she still here? Will she live out her entire life collecting junk with nothing to show for it? Will she have always just been the foolish girl who waited? Indeed the lie she tells herself that her parents are coming back is a survival tool as well as a coping mechanism. For Rey, taking the leap of faith off-world is taking a chance that she is meant for something bigger, not giving in to the nagging fear that she would end up yet another fool searching for adventure who should have just kept their head down in the dust. We the audience only ever see Rey with her scavenging mask in the wreckage of an Imperial Star Destroyer on Jakku, but while it's not the most iconic headpiece in all of Star Wars, it's important to acknowledge that this is the first shot we see Rey. In this way we can imagine how secure Rey feels with her mask on, sure it may be an unfulfilling life, but it's comfortable and relatively safe, her mask reminds her that she is a scavenger and a scavenger only. Rey leaves her mask on Jakku just as she leaves behind the idea that Jakku is her purpose, she leaves behind the mask because it's no longer needed. Rey is no longer the scavenger waiting for her parents, she’s a Jedi, destined for greater things. Rey seems to complete this cycle when she takes up the name “Skywalker'' at the end of The Rise of Skywalker, completing her transformation from the reluctant hero to the legend that inspires generations to come.
Opposite to Din Djarin, Luke Skywalker has a similar relationship to symbols and identity as the shining white knight of the saga as a whole. As we learn from Rey in The Force Awakens, by the time the remnants of the empire return to the galaxy in the form of the First Order, the figure of Luke Skywalker has become a myth, a hero to those that can remember, and an archetype to those who cant. Either way, Luke Skywalker was a near Christ-like mythic figure to the galaxy, a man who came from nothing, saved the universe from chaos and oppression, only to vanish once his work was complete. As we see in The Last Jedi, Master Luke Skywalker was far from perfect. He was deeply shaken by his past, too ashamed to admit his failings and too afraid to try to make things right, instead Luke Skywalker, "Hero of the Rebellion" shielded himself from the world, embracing the convenient notion that because the Jedi were flawed they needed to end. In Luke's final days he realizes that what the galaxy needs at this moment is to believe in the myth and use it to fuel their inspiration to be better than the generations before. Luke understands by the end of his life that while the galaxy at large will never know of Luke Skywalker the disgraced Jedi Master who attacked his nephew and hid in squalor, they don’t need to. We can start to see now how the legend surrounding Luke can function almost as a sort of mask, the only difference being that Luke has no control over it, he could never decide to take that mask off. Luke acknowledges the weight behind his persona and chooses to use his eminence to inspire generations to come. Even in his return he never appeared as anything more than an image, a beacon of hope to the rest of the galaxy, the man behind the curtain so to speak never really mattered in the same way and Luke knew this. What was really important was that the galaxy could look to the one man that stood alone against oppression and insurmountable odds and said no more. The image of a hero that proved anyone can stand up to hate, this was the true power behind Luke Skywalker.
The reason Luke makes for such a powerful and inspiring hero is because he forgoes the mask. Instead, it's the true hero that shows the world that anyone can stand against tyranny, by neglecting a mask Luke triggers both empathy and projection to onlookers, very converse to his troubled nephew. We see in The Last Jedi how the galaxy uses Luke’s sacrifice on Crait as an inspiration that they too can be heroes. The heroes of the next generation wouldn't be able to realize this if Luke had donned some sort of mask to obscure the truth that he too was once a lonely orphan who looked longingly towards the horizon yearning for more. In a way, this in itself is a mask for luke, as he accepts at the end of his life that perhaps this spark of inspiration that his legend gives is more valuable than the truth that the Jedi fell in the first place. Luke did see the bigger picture, he gave what the galaxy needed; hope, one that will live on through everyone who thinks in times of crisis: ‘what would Luke Skywalker do?’
DISCLAIMER: please wear your masks in public though, the significance of forgoing a mask in a personal and literary sense is powerful but PLEASE keep wearing fabric masks while in public for everyone's sake.
Note: a while after writing this article I thought about Kanan’s mask and the significance in his abandonment of it. I think that while this particular mask was a symbol of penance and possibly even shame for the character, he was well aware of the inspirational effect it would have on his comrades in his final act of sacrifice per the ideas discussed above. This may require further analysis but I’m open to input and discussion.