Rebels

No one wants to be The Man. Everyone wants to fly the
Millennium Falcon.

Caitlin Dwyer

I’m sitting down to write with Princess Leia. She’s stickered onto my blue coffee mug, buns
loose on the sides of her head, middle fingers upturned. Her expression is terse and fierce.
There are no words, but the takeaway of the image is: resist.


I take a long sip of bitter brew out of her buns. I think about what that means to resist. How
much the word burns a little crackling fire in my belly. How much it conceals, like a lacquer over
a pockmarked surface. How it lets me tell a story about myself that I want, more than know, to
be true.


Princess Leia has always been my favorite princess, spunkier than most Disney heroines I grew
up with in the 80s and 90s. Unlike those princesses, who were mostly excluded from ruling their
nations, Leia was more explicitly involved in politics, diplomacy, and leadership: a stateswoman
with snark. In the late 2010s she reemerged as a political figure, an icon of the left, leader of
the resistance against President Trump. She appeared on signs at the women’s march, bumper
stickers and lawn signs and Twitter memes. As a senator who resorts to revolutionary tactics,
she appealed to a progressive left that wanted to undermine the establishment without, you
know, actually revolting against the establishment.


But then we did have a revolt. A real one. In 2021 it came from the other side of the political
spectrum, and it involved setting up a gallows outside the Capitol and threatening to kill the
Vice President. People died. The rebels felt their cause was righteous; the rest of us were
horrified.


I was reading Book 2 of Kristin Lavransdatter this summer in the weeks when Congress was
livestreaming the January 6 hearings. I read about Erlend’s imprisonment and torture for
conspiring against the king, even as I heard testimony about how our president encouraged (or
at least refused to discourage) armed rebellion. It got me thinking about the history of
revolution in the U.S. and how people from all political opinions position themselves against
authority as scrappy, righteous rebels.


The U.S. began with rebellion, obviously: it’s our founding mythos. Tea in the harbor, midnight
ride, Washington’s icy advance across the Delaware. American identity rests on an anti-
authoritarian, anti-monarchy ethic (even as we are, myself included, obsessed with royal succession in England and Westeros) and a sense of the scrappy individual against the
homogenizing empire.


What I’ve been wondering about is the enduring legacy of rebellion. If the good guys are always
in opposition to The Man, then what happens when the good guys win? Who spends time
building roads, exacting taxes, doing the tedious and unrewarding work of building a nation? Do
the rebels become The Man, and invite a new generation of rebellion? Are we stuck in this cycle
of destruction and renewal forever just because we can’t conceive of a plot in which some of us
have to start governing?


In the Star Wars sequels, where Princess Leia has become General Leia, an older woman of
authority and gravitas, I saw this problem. The writers couldn’t imagine a world in which the
rebels had actually succeeded because then the rebels would then be the empire. They
basically re-wrote the original trilogy with Leia as the leader of a new scrappy band of rebels.
The plot felt tired. Why wouldn’t we see Leia involved in the difficult diplomacy of rebuilding
trust and establishing trade? Writing a Constitution? Having Reconciliation and Truth hearings
with former stormtroopers? In that scenario, the rebel would necessarily transform into a
stateswoman. But that’s not sexy, is it. That’s not a blockbuster film. No one carried posters of
Nancy Pelosi at the women’s march.


Listening to the January 6th hearings I was struck by how much of the far-right insurrection was
animated by this same old story. Just like the left appropriated Leia as a symbol, the right has
Don’t Tread on Me iconography and Confederate flags, the latter of which carries heavy
symbolic weight, for both sides. I’m not equating my favorite Princess to a racist rebellion that
sought to uphold slavery, obviously. I’m saying that the symbols of rebellion animate our
political debate on both sides and are part of the self-conception of righteousness that has
entrenched us into political deadlock. No one wants to be The Man. Everyone wants to fly the
Millennium Falcon.

Obviously medieval Norway doesn’t share much in common with the modern bicameral
legislature. Nevertheless, there are a few things that struck me about Erlend’s failed rebellion,
namely the vagueness around whether it would have been a good idea. The King is described as
unfit to rule (and there is some homophobic undertone here which I dislike) but his support of
torture seems to support Erlend’s claim that he’s not a good ruler. And yet everyone knows
Erlend is flaky and impulsive, prone to political mistakes; Undset repeats this chatter about
Kristin’s husband so many times it starts to feel overwrought. Does Erlend know something we
don’t? Or is he an impulsive fool storming the steps, convinced of his own righteous cause?
“And yet it had always been the right of Norwegian farmers and chieftans in the past to reject
any king who attempted to rule unlawfully,” Undset writes during Erlend’s trial. This is part of
Erlend’s defense and, it seems to me, a statement based in modern democracy. The statement
forces me to reflect on both the immense importance and potential troubles of the peaceful
transfer of power. In any functioning democratic system (or even, it seems, in quasi-functional
monarchies), people deserve the right to reject a bad ruler. That’s why we vote.

Right now, many people in this nation believe that our current elected president is ruling
unlawfully. Because this belief has no basis in fact, the left dismissed the threat of violent far-
right revolution until January 6 th , when violence became a gobsmacking reality. The left
underestimated the power of that founding mythos — even as they appropriate Leia and other
resistance symbols for their own. The story of the unlawful king holds great mythic weight in
this nation, as it must have in Erlend and Kristin’s. In some ways, rebellion is an act of
storytelling, of positioning the self as a protagonist in a long and ongoing tale of necessary
violence.


That is the plot of Star Wars, and the original movies have been my favorite films since
girlhood. But I wonder now what happens when the rebels go home. When they accept the
results of the election or themselves begin to serve in positions of power, become arbiters of
law and negotiators of treaty. When they are reunited with loved ones and, broken and
traumatized, set about making a life. When they give up being rebels and take on other titles,
other self-conceptions.


I think that Kristin, like Leia, might be the kind of woman who got to work doing the necessary
and unsexy work of taking care of people, distributing food, and building community. Erlend
rebelled, but Kristin is not a rebel. She’s a builder. Hers is the story of farmers and housewives,
listening and acting on what you hear. It is in some ways a woman’s story, a story of
homemaking and patient labor, relationship and mutual use, a story without glamor but with
immense importance for creating viable, livable communities. Neither side has any patience
with this story, but it might be the one we need to get better at telling.

Caitlin Dwyer is a writer, storyteller, poet and multimedia journalist. She’s always curious about the deeper story behind the headlines. Her essays braid reflection, observation, journalistic interviews, and scholarly research, all in search of intimate, human portraits. In her poetry, she explores mythology and motherhood. She also helps produce and host the podcast Many Roads to Here. She studied journalism at the University of Hong Kong and creative writing at the Rainier Writing Workshop. She also teaches writing with Portland Community College. At home, she often plays Wonder Woman and/or Evil Queen in epic pretend games with her children. If she’s not teaching, writing, or parenting, she is probably wandering around in the forest or lost in a book.

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