We need to talk about Kylo Ren.
You know that moment when you walk by a Hot Topic and see a wholesome nuclear family huddled together between the band T-shirts and Doctor Who merchandise? You can always pinpoint the one family member that dragged the rest of them in; the gawky teenager with feathered bangs, hunched shoulders, and scuffed Vans.
Now, it's universally accepted that Ben Solo, aka Kylo Ren, is the Star Wars universe's Hot Topic kid. It's just that because he dwells in a galaxy far far away, he prefers Darth Vader to Marilyn Manson and high-waisted leather pants to skinny jeans. Star Wars fans started cracking jokes about Kylo's Vader wannabe vibes from the moment he revealed his full-lipped pout to Rey in 2015's Star Wars: The Force Awakens. But his persona as the emo boy with a penchant for mansplaining came a little later, aggressively ushered along by Twitter user Emo Kylo Ren, @KyloR3n.
The account, created and run by Washington Post writer and satirist Alexandra Petri, first tweeted on December 21, 2015, three days after Petri and other fans first met Kylo in The Force Awakens on December 18.
"I left the theater after Force Awakens thinking, 'This guy is clearly ridiculous,'" Petri told SYFY WIRE. "I waited a while and [the internet] still wasn't full of jokes about how ridiculous Kylo Ren was, and that was the only content I wanted to consume. So, finally, I was like, 'I need to be the change I want to see in the world.' So I started the account. Because I just had so many jokes about this guy."
Petri — and, subsequently, the internet at large — came to envision Kylo Ren as a parody of your angstiest, most embarrassing teenage years. From the beginning, Adam Driver's new-age Vader was embraced by Tumblr and the internet's other fandom-oriented spheres with rabid enthusiasm. Here was a tall, attractive (but not conventionally so) male character in his late 20s with great hair and more emotional hang-ups than intelligence.
Kylo Ren was tailor-made for the internet boyfriend age, but especially for the subsections of fandom that were willing to have some fun and blow Kylo's more extreme attributes out of proportion. The Star Wars fandom created two distinct personas for him: the misunderstood, redeemable hottie and the sad Vader fanboy. Emo Kylo Ren is the culmination of the latter.
Emo Kylo is the kid who wears all black, whose parents will never understand him, and who sits silently at lunch with his one friend (Hux, obviously). He's utterly ridiculous. He's also, it just so happens, painfully relatable.
"It's sort of that cringe of recognition," Petri says of how the internet adopted her version of Kylo. "And part of it was sort of his men's rights-y vibe that he gives off. People also responded to that side of it. Nobody else shouts in the middle of a lightsaber duel that he's losing about how the other party needs a teacher — except this guy, apparently."
Petri says that people tend to relate to the gap between who Kylo thinks he is and how he actually behaves. Kylo might have lumbered intimidatingly through the hallways of Starkiller Base and rasped threats at Resistance heroes through his mask, but Stormtroopers seemed to avoid him more out of second-hand embarrassment than outright fear. Throughout The Force Awakens, Kylo was revealed, time and time again, to be a temper tantrum-prone child. He was also Supreme Leader Snoke's puppet rather than his own agent, bowing to his master's wishes. That was made even more apparent in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. Then, Kylo turned his grandfather's lightsaber on Snoke in a moment of self-discovery.
Kylo changed and the internet rose to the occasion.
The Last Jedi complicated the character of Kylo Ren in unforeseen ways. The hoards of fans who genuinely love Kylo — the "he's a misunderstood, redeemable hottie" faction — went weak at the knees as Kylo and Rey held hands and he begged the heroine to join him. This crew started churning out Reylo fan fiction and throwing shade at Kylux (Kylo and Hux) shippers with more vigor than ever before. Petri believes Kylo began seeing himself as more of a romantic lead in The Last Jedi, the kind of lovably devilish rogue that women in romance novels would flock to. A Han Solo-type, perhaps.
And what do rakish leading men do when confronted with their love interest? They take off their shirt.
No moment in The Last Jedi turned out to be more important for the "he's a sad Vader fanboy" crowd than, yes, shirtless Kylo Ren. The shirtless Kylo meme overtook the internet for weeks after The Last Jedi premiered, an occasion Petri marked with a single, pointed tweet.
The Emo Kylo Ren account saw a resurgence in popularity post-The Last Jedi as Petri harnessed not only the internet's love for shirtless Kylo but the changes in his character. Petri's account regularly started breaking the 50,000-like margin again on tweets after seeing a dry spell in late 2016 and only tweeting three times in 2017 before the Last Jedi premiere. As of January 2018, Emo Kylo Ren had broken the 900,000 followers mark and is well on its way to 1 million — if Petri can keep the jokes coming.
"There have been some changes," Petri says. "He's been working out. He made a friend on 'ForceTime' or Skype or whatever the term is people have decided to use for it. He's undergone stuff. He almost made a good choice. He's been growing and changing and now he's in a new phase. So I feel like there's this new side of him to explore because before it was like a whiny teenager who doesn't understand anything. He was just a sad Darth Vader fanboy. And now there's all this awkward stuff; what's going on with his relationship with Rey? What's his whole deal there? How does he see it? How do we as the audience see it?"
The new Emo Kylo Ren is way more into girls (read: Rey) than he was before The Last Jedi, tweeting about his love language ("murder"), how his parents have negatively affected his ability to form healthy relationships, his, uh, lightsaber, and his abominable social skills.
Petri believes that Kylo ships himself with Rey, but that doesn't mean Petri does. In fact, she encourages fans to understand that they deserve better than what many interpret as Kylo's Men's Rights Activism-leaning and Neo-Nazi brand. A majority of the people who interact with Petri via the Emo Kylo account, she says, are teens. When Petri tweeted a joke about Kylo playing the oboe, teenagers started sending her videos of them playing the oboe in Kylo's honor.
"It's funny to see how many people are like 'this is going to be my yearbook quote,' [and it's] Kylo Ren having a thought about something," Petri says. "I think a part of him is still in high school. He's playing the oboe in band; he's definitely some sort of woodwind… Because he sort of feels like this sad teenager, he feels almost less harmful. There's this very soft feeling, like, 'aww, he's sleeping with his Darth Vader plush.' There's this softcore to him where people feel less like, 'oh, this man has destroyed several star systems.' People are like, 'actually, he didn't want it to happen.'
"I'm like, internet, this isn't a meet-cute. You can all do so much better than somebody who abducts you. Just because we call it a bridal carry doesn't mean it's okay. All these teens were sending me videos of them playing the oboe and I'm like, 'You can all do better. You deserve a nice man.' Then we get into the Han Solo, 'I'm a nice man' nonsense. Find a good supportive fellow instead!"
Like Petri, Emo Kylo Ren rides the line between all-out comedy and biting satire, bouncing joyfully between oddly charged one-liners and My Chemical Romance jokes with reckless abandon. Petri points out the internet's eternal willingness to forgive "if you're a tall man with black hair. If your shirt comes off at any point, you're fine. This guy's safe and he's going to be redeemed because that's the internet's man."
Whether or not Kylo will get that redemption arc — Petri hopes he doesn't — is up for debate until Star Wars: Episode IX premieres on December 20, 2019. Until then, Emo Kylo will keep broadcasting his daddy issues to the masses, ForceTiming his not-girlfriend, and advocating for Ren's rights.