With the release of a new Star Wars movie it was inevitable that my closest friends and I would end up re-watching the original trilogy. Like the countless other fans who did this, we wanted to too boost that feeling of nostalgia and excitement before JJ Abrams blew our minds with new characters, a new story and brilliant lens flares.
I, like millions of other white American boys, grew up on those classic films. As a kid, any friend who didn’t have the box set of the VHS versions or N-64 lived in a house not worth visiting. Star Wars was a cast of perfect heroes and anti-heroes, battling across a galaxy filled with every dream toy imaginable. My kid-fascination with those colorful images and vibrant sound effects was so potent that I felt that the movies were helping me grow into a bigger, smarter, wiser and unquestionably better person. They helped me define myself, they let me believe that I could be your hero and save all of us from pain and suffering. They made me want to be the greatest hero that there ever was.
I hadn’t re-watched all the original movies since I was a teen, so this was the first time as an adult that I really took a critical look at A New Hope, Empire and Jedi. As someone who has spent much of the last five years learning and writing about social equity, gender, racial and sex politics, it was impossible to avoid watching these movies through that lens- and it was not disappointing.
Of course, the utter absence of female characters crossed my mind, as did the absence of people of color or a general awareness of what blowing up something like the Death Star really means- annihilating the lives of hundreds of thousands of low-level employees who probably had little to no choice when it came to the construction of the weapon. I mean, did Luke or Lando ever wonder how many underpaid (possibly enslaved) janitors they killed just to stop two major villains?
But the one thing that unexpectedly hit me as the Snowspeeders flew into attack pattern Delta while skimming the icy surface of Hoth was, “hot damn, these are the whitest guys I have ever seen.” As is the case with most of the Rebel extras, every single pilot looks like a mix between Minnesota dairy farmer and an actual snowball. They weren’t exactly Hollywood pretty-boys either, but lanky, pockmarked, pubescents who, if it weren’t for the Evil Empire, should surely be resigned to standing at the sidewall of a Tattooine county dance wishing their mom hadn’t named them Porkins.
These Rebel Pilots stood out to me for two reasons: I look like them and can imagine myself in their place, risking my life to fight the good fight while flying an awesome spaceship on a distant planet, and they also look rather stunningly like Dylann Storm Roof, Elliot Rodger, Adam Lanza and James Holmes.
When I first started interviewing people of color, women and members of the LGBTQIA community about growing up with an identity that is minimized or actively combatted against by American culture, one of the first small-but-important things that struck me was the absence of fictional movie heroes that they could imagine themselves as. Although no famous series of blockbusters represents that problem better than Star Wars, there are also other movies that I watched countless times as a kid looking for fantasy and heroism, which have almost zero main characters that aren’t played by white hetero Anglo-American dick-swingers and their sexualized vagina-wielding counterparts- Jurassic Park, Indiana Jones, James Bond, Lord Of The Rings, Batman, etc. etc.
There are absolutely real-life heroes for these underrepresented groups in Martin Luther King, Harriet Tubman (whose Wikipedia page is more awe-inspiring than the entire Star Wars saga), Harvey Milk and Madeleine Albright, but as kids, it is important that we get to fantasize about fighting moral battles without having to be burdened by the horrid reality of American racism, sexism, homophobia and bigotry.
JJ Abrams’ is one of several directors who seems to have realized this and attempted to change the balance- to the absolute vitriolic outcry of many fans online, who are presumably the same people who went bananas over Charlize Theron being the central character in Mad Max, Michael B Jordan playing The Human Torch, Spider Man being black in the new comics or the simple notion that Santa Claus doesn’t have to be white to be Santa.
The most often posed rebuttal to these faux-controversies is simple: why does it matter? Don’t you have enough representations of yourselves in these same hero roles? Can’t we try to be a bit more inclusive to all the other people that you share this country with? And this should be enough, but it isn’t, and it is because the Rebels also look like those lanky, pockmarked, white men who commit mass murders.
Every time there is news of a mass shooting, I hope that the killer looks like me. And it seems that nine times out of ten I am right. I hope that because I know that if they are brown, black or have a name out of the Quran instead of the Bible, voters, pundits and actual presidential hopefuls in my country will call for carpet-bombing the towns of people who share some commonality with the killer (even if it is just geographical). Death calls for even more deaths. This is exactly what has happened since the San Bernadino shooting, although nobody was calling for carpet-bombing of Columbia, SC after Dylan Roof’s assassination of a US congressman and eight others in a Christian church.
Yet, despite what I hope, the feeling I got when I first saw a photo of Dylan Roof was far from relieving- as is the case whenever I encounter the image of a serial killer. Every time I see their pictures, especially now that I am in that prime age-range for mass shooters, I see my own reflection. I see the kid who pretended to fight Darth Vader using painted cardboard tubes, I see them pretending to drink martinis while holding a fake pistol and forcing a British accent, I see them springing up a tree in my backyard, away from imaginary Nazis searching for the Holy Grail.
It is important to have legitimate heroes that look like you in media, and thanks to things like mass shootings, failed wars, government spying, an excessively greedy upper class, rotting infrastructure and unstoppable climate change all coming with my face righteously attached to the villains, it is clear that members who share my identity are desperate for them now more than ever.
This is why I understand, no matter how much I personally detest it, why a bigoted, vile, rich, white showman like Donald Trump is celebrated in the polls for saying that it isn’t “us” who are the villains, it’s them, the ones that don’t look like Han or Luke or you or me. It’s the Chinese, it’s the Mexicans, it’s the Arabs, it’s the Muslims, it’s the Blacks, it’s the queer liberals who hate guns and free speech, etc. etc.
Trump is reaching out to me and saying that I am still the underdog in a treacherous universe, still the yet-to-be-proven hero who must reclaim my birthright of wealth, “liberty,” limitless power and the moral high ground over the rest of the world. He is a guy straight out of that celluloid world where white men have a destiny of “greatness.”
The most adolescent element of Star Wars is that both morality and terms of victory are understood as a zero sum game (the Light against Dark). The fact that the Death Star and all onboard need to be atomized and the Empire eviscerated is never questioned, even though Luke claims to “sense the good” in Darth Vader- who redeems himself by the end of Jedi. This is the #2 in the Evil Empire and he sees the light after a brief spat with his son whose arm he recently removed with a laser sword. Simply put, the Imperials sound like King George and look like Adolf Hitler, so the Rebels insist they have no right to life in a new democratic galaxy. Considering how much my self-destructive identity clings to these films, it is bitterly unsurprising that this is how many white American nationalists- children or grandchildren of immigrants and refugees- talk about new immigrants, ISIS controlled towns, Iran and, in Dylann Roof’s case, their own neighbors.