Admiral Holdo Wasn’t a “Feminist,” She Was Just a Bad Leader

31Dec17

[If you haven’t watched Star Wars: The Last Jedi yet, don’t read this.] 

As it turns out, Star Wars: The Last Jedi wasn’t just a science fiction movie. In reality, it was a lesson about sexism that we men badly needed. Or something.

According to those who find a misogynist under every rock, Poe Dameron’s rebellious attitude toward Admiral Holdo was sexist. Vanity Fair published an article titled Star Wars: The Last Jedi Offers the Harsh Condemnation of Mansplaining We Need in 2017, in which Laura Dern declares “I think we’re waking up to what we want feminism to look like.” A website called Den of Geek wrote, “In The Last Jedi, Poe is presented as a character who needs to stop with the mansplaining and learn from the more seasoned female leaders in his life.” MTV said “EPISODE VIII PROVES THAT WOMEN RUN THE GALAXY.”

 the-last-jedi-laura-dern-admiral-holdo-1057913

These articles list Poe’s impulsive decision to destroy a First Order dreadnought, which cost the Resistance its entire bombing fleet, as evidence of his masculine failings, and his refusal to heed General Organa’s orders as evidence of his chauvinism. But the real nail in his coffin was his mutiny against Holdo.

As we know, Holdo gave orders to “stay the course” and keep running from the First Order despite the apparent inevitable destruction of the Resistance fleet. Poe demanded to know her plan to save the Resistance, she told him to shut up and follow orders, but he mutinied and acted on his own. Then, of course, when Holdo’s masterful plan was finally revealed and she heroically sacrificed herself to save the remnants of the Resistance, Poe finally realized what a sexist loser he’d always been.

poe1

From the perspective of those who view society as a struggle against patriarchy/whiteness/heteronormativity/whatever kinda ism, it’s all cut and dried, really: Holdo was a great leader, Poe was just too chauvinistic to see that, his toxic masculinity unnecessarily got people killed, and he didn’t truly mature until he finally appreciated Holdo’s strength and grace. On the other hand, from my perspective as a former Marine, retired Soldier and combat vet, Holdo’s plan sucked and she displayed terrible leadership.

YES, HOLDO’S PLAN SUCKED

Holdo decided to run from the First Order, sacrificing smaller ships and a few lives, until her cruiser was close enough to the planet Crait to use nearly-invisible transports to evacuate what was left of the Resistance. That’s not a terrible plan, and seemed to be the only option she really had. But she didn’t tell her subordinates anything about this plan. To them, it must have simply looked like they would run until they expended their fuel and died.

bomber

Many times throughout history, a small military force has been left with no other option but to attempt the near-impossible and hope for the best. The Resistance fleet was certainly in that situation. Had Holdo explained, “The situation sucks, I can only think of one option, and that might not work. Anyone have any better ideas?”, I would have no complaints about her leadership. But instead she refused to share information, dismissed her subordinate leader’s reasonable concerns, and made herself look like she was “vapor locked,” fixated on a plan that had no chance of success.

But let’s forget about what the situation looked like to the Joes inside the ships. However bad it seemed to them, Holdo’s secret plan was great – unless something went wrong. Which means it sucked, because any plan that requires the enemy to act exactly as you desire or predict is too inflexible to survive the inevitable surprises of combat. Good leaders expect surprises, make contingency plans, and understand that “the enemy gets a vote.” They don’t just hope nothing goes wrong.

And of course, something serious did go wrong: the transports weren’t invisible after all. And since they were unarmed and unarmored, they could do nothing but explode dramatically as they were picked off like sitting ducks. Holdo’s solution to this apparently completely unforeseen development was to kamikaze her cruiser into the pursuing Star Destroyer. That was heroic, but it shouldn’t have been an “oh crap” reaction to a problem she reasonably should have foreseen.

MILITARY LEADERSHIP: FICTION VS REALITY

Many viewers, and undoubtedly almost everyone who made The Last Jedi, think military leadership is how movies usually depict it: overbearing, egotistical (male) brutes getting their way by treating everyone below them like crap. But despite what the typical civilian might think, leadership isn’t simply screaming, cursing and berating subordinates.

mattis

Saint Mattis, loved by his troops because he truly cared for them.

True leaders listen to their troops, share as much information as possible, praise in public, discipline in private, and show their soldiers genuine concern and respect. The best leaders I’ve ever known treated me more as an equal than subordinate, sought my advice, explained what I didn’t know or understand, and almost never relied on their rank to gain compliance. I can think of three officers in Afghanistan whose orders I would have followed even if I knew, without question, that those orders would get me killed. I knew they would send me to my death only if there was literally no other way to save other lives.

On the other hand, leaders who don’t respect their subordinates often become targets of subtle displays of hostility, or even overt signs of hatred (like one lieutenant I heard of, whose soldiers all fired a blank in unison in a formation as a sign that he was about to be symbolically “fragged”). Soldiers will respect a leader who makes honest mistakes and owns up to them, as long as he/she cares for and respects their troops. But a leader who refuses to share critical information with subordinates while simultaneously appearing to freeze under stress, like Holdo, won’t be followed or respected.

I was fortunate to have had only one terrible leader. Nobody wanted to talk to him, because he seemed to despise his subordinates. Many of us were sure this leader would have sacrificed us all to further his own career. Over a decade after I served under his command, I still hear soldiers express their seething hatred of him.

No, Holdo wasn’t anywhere near that bad. And any leader who sacrificed herself for her troops as she did deserves respect. But she was still, during the Resistance fleet’s run to Crait, a bad leader.

WHEN A LEADER VAPOR LOCKS 

As I watched the Resistance fleet running, and dying, I was reminded of a quote from Black Hawk Down. In that true story, as a lost convoy’s soldiers were shredded by bullets and RPGs, one man muttered something under his breath: “We’re just going to keep driving around until we’re all f**king dead.” That man, stuck in a humvee and unable to do anything about what he saw as the pointless destruction of his unit, probably doubted his leader’s capability to handle the situation. Maybe he thought all the senior leaders were paralyzed with indecision.

mog

While I was fortunate to never have a leader freeze up in combat, I’ve seen some vapor lock and nearly panic when a plan failed during training or even routine tasks. In one memorable incident a company first sergeant was badly running a rifle range, and her inefficient plan was bottlenecking an entire battalion. When I and other soldiers pointed out the obvious problems and suggested easily-implemented alternatives, she vapor locked; visibly shaken and overwhelmed, she simply said, “We’re gonna stick to my plan, and that’s it!” Under stress, all she could do was fall back on what she was already doing even though it was failing.

Years ago I read a book by a military historian who noted the WW2 Soviet Army’s “penchant for lost causes.” Soviet troops were infamous for pressing doomed attacks on Germans even when everyone on the battlefield plainly saw that the Soviets could not possibly prevail. According to this historian, the Soviet response to failure was “If it doesn’t work, do it faster.” So they’d repeat the same failed tactic over and over, until they lost too many men to go on. This wasn’t done out of bravery or dedication; it happened because Soviet leaders often vapor locked when their plan didn’t work, and were either too unimaginative or terrified of superiors to adjust to reality.

Soviet-soldier-eastern-front

Like every other leader, I had my own problems in this regard. Training and experience corrected it. We train so that we can discover and correct our leadership flaws before we encounter a real enemy. In training we have the luxury of allowing a leader to fail, take corrective advice, and learn when to adjust or abandon a failed plan. In a real world crisis, if a leader vapor locks they could literally kill everyone under their command.

Mutiny is generally a bad thing. But if there’s ever a time for it, that time is when the plan has failed, the leader has vapor locked, and if nobody takes action the fleet will “just keep flying along until we’re all f**king dead.” Poe Dameron, when faced with a leader who refused to abandon an apparently-doomed plan and refused to even explain her decision to her subordinates, can be forgiven for acting on his own to save his fellow rebels’ lives.

SO, SERIOUSLY, HOLLYWOOD… 

Shut up. Stop preaching. Get back to doing what you do best (you know, like sexually harassing actresses), and stop trying to teach me morality. Don’t try to show me “real” leadership, when you obviously know nothing about real leadership. Swim back to the shallow end of the pool.

When I go to the movies, I just want to see a damn movie. I go for the entertainment, not to be told how toxic I am. I don’t need Vice Admiral Holdo to show me that women can be real leaders. I already have Leigh Ann Hester, who fought through an insurgent ambush in Iraq. I have Captain Jennifer Moreno, an army nurse killed during a patrol in Afghanistan. I have Ann Carrizales, a police officer who was shot in the face but still helped chase down her attackers. I have my mother, who managed to finish her degree while working full time and raising five children. I have the stories, videos and photos of the brave Kurdish and Yezidi women fighting ISIS.

So please, Hollywood. I’ve been watching Star Wars for forty years. Don’t ruin it, don’t put your own personal crusades into it. Don’t spoon feed me your ideology. Just make a good movie.

Special thanks to my ten-year old, Star Wars fanatic son Elan for making sure I had the movie details right. 

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Chris Hernandez is a 23 year police officer, former Marine and retired National Guard soldier with over 25 years of military service. He is a combat veteran of Iraq and Afghanistan and also served 18 months as a United Nations police officer in Kosovo. He writes for BreachBangClear.com and Iron Mike magazine and has published three military fiction novels, Proof of Our ResolveLine in the Valley and Safe From the War through Tactical16 Publishing. He can be reached at chris_hernandez_author@yahoo.com or on his Facebook page (https://www.facebook.com/ProofofOurResolve).

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32 Responses to “Admiral Holdo Wasn’t a “Feminist,” She Was Just a Bad Leader”

  1. 1 hbdivegirl

    Thank you.
    In the midst of enjoying the fun of SW:TLJ I was horrified to see the piss-poor behaviour of Admiral Holdo being packaged to represent optimal leadership and a “lesson” for other characters.

    I work in the operating room.
    Success in crisis depends on leaders keeping team members fully informed so each person can use all their knowledge and skill to support success.

    Admiral Holdo was condescending and dismissive, deadly behavior in complex emergencies require effective teamwork.

    It was a cheap plot trick that left a bad taste in my mouth as the story continued the broken record assertion that all should worship Admiral Holdo’s superior leadership.

    Thanks for saying this so much better than I can.

  2. 3 Christian

    I especially like the fact that she STILL doesn’t explain the plan after Poe and his peeps pull guns on them. Like…I dunno…maybe NOW is a good time to explain the plan?

  3. 4 Joe in PNG

    The message Hollywood was trying to preach was already done, and was done far better in “Aliens”. Lt. Gorman vaporlocked during the alien attack in the atmosphere processor, and Ripley took over and saved a remnant of the squad. But it wasn’t some feminist manifesto, either. Ripley was smart enough to defer to Cpl. Hicks, as he was clearly more experienced (and cool headed).

    As for the bomber attack on the dreadnought, subsequent events show that it was necessary. Had they not blown it up, the Rebels would have been all blowed up real good, right then and there. Slapping him and demoting him was a stupid decision.

    Which brings up a plot stupid on the part of the New Order- why blast the base on the planet first? It’s not like they’re going anywhere.

    • 5 Joe in PNG

      In regards to Admiral Hodo, I’m not too bothered by her incompetence. I’ve been reading about WWI naval battles. Incompetent, over-promoted flag officers making stupid decisions; lack of communications between units; unclear orders- all those things were far too common within the Royal Navy during the war.

      • Just because there’s historical precedent for poor leadership doesn’t justify holding up fictional poor leadership as an example of good leadership.

        • 7 Joe in PNG

          Admiral Beatty, despite his very obvious leadership failings at Heigoland Blight, Dogger Bank, and Jutland, was praised and promoted.

          But, yeah, the fact that it happens doesn’t excuse poor writing in fiction. That whole subplot could have been better handled.

  4. Thanks for the review of a movie I was dreading; $XX spared; I’ll wait for the BD in the fin-bin at WallyMart. I owe you. If you get back out to The Happiest Place or vicinity anytime soon, dinner’s on me.

    Glad to see you back online, Merry Christmas/Happy New Year, etc. etc.

  5. 10 Sean

    This. RIGHT FUCKING HERE. Hands down, the *BEST* leadership I ever served under, during my first heavy training cycle, drew the objective on the white board, laid the pen in front of the platoon, and said

    “Attack the objective. Squad leaders and team leaders, stay out of it. 1st platoon, you are trained killers. But I expect you to think about how you go about it. Every man here has a voice that works, and a pair of eyes. We’re going to do what the PL and I think is right. However, if something more intelligent and effective is brought up, we will try it.”

    Hands down, a man I would go to war for again in a heartbeat if he’d have me.

  6. 11 mrgarabaldi

    Hey Chris;

    Thank you for the analysis on the leadership failures during TLJ, I watched that movie and it was *Meh*, I was disappointed by how they treated Luke in that movie except at the very end. The SJW themes was real heavy during this movie. Star Wars was supposed to be a fight between Good and Evil, now you can’t really tell who the good and evil ones are.
    When I was in the service, I had good commanders, ones we would follow to the gates of hell and I have had a commander that we knew would throw us under the bus to further his career.
    I remember leadership failures, especially with the British during the Boer war, WWI and during the early part of WWII, the British Army went by the Peter Principle. I see the fall of the city of Singapore where 80, 000 British soldiers were lead to Japanese POW camps where most of them died. We Americans were not immune, General MacAuthor during the Japanese Occupation and the early parts of the Korean War comes to mind where they blew off Chinese involvement although his Inchon landings were brilliant.

  7. 12 Frank Karl

    Not having experience in the military or having seen this Star Wars I will say the character Holdo sounds very much like most company managers and directors. Clearly their MBA/experience/promotion establishes their smartness/foresight/leadership as compared to the average worker. Such people have no need to inform, ask, question or anticipate change affecting their master plan.
    While poor decisions in business aren’t as immediately fatal, they can very impactful. Ask anyone suddenly in the job market because of a cock-up four years before that lead to the dismemberment of a company and reduction in staff.
    I would hazard the belief that poor leadership is much more common than good leadership.

  8. 13 Thomas

    OMG… thanks for writing this. I’ve been trying to point this out to everyone since this movie came out and you’ve succinctly made my point.

  9. I grew up with the Navy version of Gen. Mattias. Spot on.

  10. 15 Whiskey Jack

    Rian Johnson should be forced to watch the entire General Krell plotline from the Clone Wars series, over and over again until he promises to never write military characters again.

  11. So happy I didn’t waste money, and more importantly, time, on this crap. I’m a military scifi writer, and I guess good enough to make a good living from it. Most of my writer friends, and a lot of fans, were panning this thing. As to information, I read a lot of WW2 history (eventually planning an alternate history series). The German Army leaders always made sure their subordinates knew the plan, all the way down to the senior privates, at least their part of it, because they knew that officers and senior NCOs tended to die (since they had a lead from the front mentality). So if the Hauptman, Leutnant, and Feldwebel were all killed, it might be up to the Gefreiter to finish the mission. Because as I learned in my military days, the mission comes first.

  12. 18 Dave

    My favorite example of Hollywood not getting it is Crimson Tide, where, “On a U.S. nuclear missile sub, a young First Officer stages a mutiny, to prevent his trigger happy Captain from launching his missiles, before confirming his orders to do so.” SMH.

  13. 19 Carolyn Schepis

    Thank You Thank You Thank You. Even if for some reason she didn’t feel the need to share the plan with Poe if one of your officers who just went through something very traumatic is coming to you with concerns and doubts don’t insult them and tell them to stand in the corner. Poe is a respected leader in the resistance that’s why others joined in the mutiny. Because they were also afraid and in the dark. This is a person who was not in charge because she was the best. She was not Leia’s second in command. She was uncharge because she was next on the list once the entire command crew was killed.

  14. 22 STUART R VANZEE

    It felt to me like Holdo walked in and assumed that she was due the same kind of loyalty that a well loved and respected leader would garner. I’ve had to serve under people like that who don’t understand that that kind of devotion in earned, not automatic.

    Sure, the troups have to follow orders, but there is a HUGE difference between just following an order (or, in the case of Holdo, NOT following it) from an un-trusted leader and following an order from a leader you trust and respect.

    Yea, Holdo (the character) probably kept asking herself “why won’t they just do what I say without questioning?” because she KNEW that another leader, one that the troups trusted like they should, probably wouldn’t be having their orders questioned. Holdo, just like so many people who applaud her as a feminist icon, just doesn’t get that it didn’t have anything to do with gender. It had everything to do with trust and respect, and those things have to be earned.

  15. 23 Dan

    What bothers me about the movie is the seemingly terrible military strategy. Why are the Resistance ships suddenly out of range of the star destroyers, even though they’re still getting periodically hit by cannons? Why can’t the First Order ships focus fire past some arbitrary distance? And why don’t military space vessels apparently have any long range weaponry?
    Also, why would the First Order pull back the tie fighters? I thought one of the purposes of fighters was to extend the reach of the capital ships? If the star destroyers are apparently out of range, why not launch a couple or 20 squads of tie fighters and obliterate the Resistance, seeing as how it only took two to blow up the bridge of the main ship and kill most of the Resistance commanders?
    And then on that salt/snow planet, why would they send every single tie fighter to chase the Millennium Falcon instead of splitting them and still focusing on the speeders?

    This last thing annoyed me a lot. Has anyone seen the Star Wars parodies that Family Guy did? Remember that one part towards the beginning when they did Empire Strikes back, of Luke’s copilot Dak going into space from Hoth to face the entire Empire by himself? And then he gets blown up? Remember the scene in the beginning of The Last Jedi when Poe flies up to the First Order fleet by himself and takes on an entire cruiser? The only thing I could think of during that part was the scene in Family Guy, and I couldn’t believe a Star Wars movie was imitating a parody of a Star Wars movie done by Family Guy.

  16. 24 Joe in PNG

    Now, having defended the movie, time to pick a few nits.

    First, it falls to the same pacing faults that hurt LOTR ROTK- too many ending point. The stern chase went on far too long, and basically led them to right where they started- under siege on a planetary base.

    Second, Admiral Hodo was both too experienced, and not experienced enough. If she had, as the film implies, a heroic record, then trust should not have been a problem. Better if she was either someone inexperienced trying to fill the shoes of Gen. Leia & Admiral Ackbar, or an experience leader with a bad reputation. Something to give an actual reason for Poe & companies uneasiness.

    • 25 Joe in PNG

      Third, her appearance (hair and outfit) does nothing to convey the idea that this is a good military leader. She looks like some cougar hunting a new boy toy at the club, not a well regarded military leader.
      A more businesslike appearance would have helped a whole lot.

  17. 26 Harold Hannon

    Hey btw… I tried to cross post this excellent writeup of yours over here:

    https://www.tor.com/2017/12/21/star-wars-vice-admiral-holdo-and-our-expectations-for-female-military-power/#comment-newest

    They moderated it out over and over and over. Apparently running a blog makes you a military expert over there or something. They kept saying that the link was “abusive”. HA. Pretty sad.

  18. 29 Thorn

    I was willing to buy that Leia was a good leader because even if we didn’t get many examples, there weren’t many counter-examples either. But the movie was obviously TRYING to make Holdo out to be a terrible leader, only so it could turn around at the end and jab it’s finger at the audience and say “SEE? She was amazing the whole time and you are a jerk for doubting her!”

    It’s like a mystery movie giving the audience a bunch of good clues pointing to the butler but then at the end when the lights come on the guilty party is the neighbor that was never shown or brought up before in the movie. Ha, you guys failed to see that coming!

  19. Do you think maybe people are putting meaning where it doesnt need to be. Love all your points but i do not believe episode 8 is a femanist naritave. Its set in a world where there is already gender equality and racism doesnt even exist. Theres nothing to take away from that as far as real world issues go. No one overcame the gendee roles because they didnt exist to begin with.


  1. 1 More On Admiral Holdo’s Leadership Failures In The Last Jedi – Rod Walker, Science Fiction Writer
  2. 2 Chris Hernandez nails what Admiral Holdo did wrong - SuperversiveSFSuperversiveSF

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