This is not a review of The Force Awakens. No spoilers are mentioned, no sides are taken.
“What’s up with people being completely unable to discuss anything without becoming raging assholes?” My partner, Michael, types furiously as he says these words, directed more at the heavens than to me. He’s not arguing about politics. He’s debating Star Wars.
He’s not alone, if my social media feeds are to be trusted. Perhaps my view is skewed. With 80% of my online friends being self-identified “geeks,” it’s certainly possible. The increase in extremely polarizing remarks has given me pause to wonder: is Star Wars creating a rift in the geek universe? And if so, why? What makes the new Star Wars movie so vastly different in its importance from, say, the new Ghostbusters or Jurassic Park movies?
I spend a lot of time thinking about the grip retro properties have on geek culture, and Generation X in particular. When Michael and I started a YouTube channel three years ago, I would never have imagined the venom and hatred that could be garnered by criticizing a 30-year-old cartoon.
Both of us love 80s pop culture, and yet we enjoy deconstructing and analyzing what made these shows work, what fell flat, and often what is inconceivable in retrospect (Snarf, anyone?). We pull from our combined film, anthropology, and art backgrounds in an attempt to put aside our emotions and objectively analyze why these shows remain so influential and important for so many from our generation.
Yet we consistently get hateful comments, nasty emails, and the occasional death wish. Sure, we get lots of support as well, but the venom was initially a bit staggering. So it was not surprising to me at all when social media wars, mass “unfriendings,” and snarky, invective memes began filling my feed on the eve of The Force Awakens’ (TFA) release.
It seems to me that of all the properties that influenced Generation X, Star Wars is the biggest. I don’t remember any kid in elementary school who hadn’t seen the movies, who didn’t know all the characters’ names, and who (if they were a boy) had never played with a Star Wars toy. It was ubiquitous.
And though we all saw the same movie(s), we saw it/them in different situations. For me it was Return of the Jedi when I was 7. Both my parents took me – a rare treat – and we all cheered and laughed together, sharing popcorn and sodas. My dad actually liked Star Wars, a bonding experience we rarely shared before or since. Sitting in front of my white dresser before elementary school, I would ask my mom to style my hair in various Princess Leia hairdos, which she attempted with limited success.
These are, in the language of the movie Inside Out, core memories. I imagine most Gen Xers have their own versions. They may be happy, or sad, or bittersweet, but they hold an honored place in the memory bank, even if you haven’t thought of Star Wars that much since you were a kid.
Tons of Gen Xers headed out to see TFA, many with their kid(s) in tow. They were vaguely aware that they enjoyed the movies as kids, and wanted to build on those memories and share them with their own kids. Or maybe they just wanted to see their old friends again, to see what happened to them. Some of them liked the movie, some did not, some were just ambivalent. So what?
Well, sharing their feelings about the movie proved to be quite a challenge, especially if they were less than impressed. They were ridiculed and insulted, called haters, told their opinions had no merit, and that they had unrealistic expectations. They were told they were clinging to the past, or that their expectations were a paradox: they liked the original movie, so how can the criticism be that TFA is too much like the original movie. “There’s just no pleasing these jerks!”
As I watch long-time friends become enemies in these arguments, I wonder how people don’t seem to recognize that we are not talking about a movie. We’re talking about memories so deep that often our conscious minds are unaware of their existence. Even though Michael knew the Millennium Falcon would appear in TFA, he sobbed uncontrollably when it happened, and was startled at the intensity of his emotional response. Even now he does not understand why it affected him so. This is the power of Star Wars for him, and the power of emotional memory.
In your logical, conscious mind you tell yourself, “It’s just a __________.” Fill in that blank with “movie,” “cartoon,” “toy,” or anything else from childhood. Objectively, this is true. But FOR YOU, it may be a vehicle to take you back to those core memories, and feelings of happiness, security, and belonging that have long since been lost to adulthood.
Sitting down to watch TFA in the crowded theater, I imagined we were all on a train platform. As the movie began, many hopped aboard, happily riding the train back to nostalgia-land. Some of us couldn’t get on board, and we stood on the platform, angry at the injustice of missing out and maybe even a little resentful of those who managed to mentally “get there.”
Getting there means that you actually experience the feeling tied to this phenomenon called Star Wars (or Thundercats, or Ghostbusters, etc.). Not getting there means that you not only can’t experience it, but you are surrounded by people who can and who deny you your own disappointment and frustration at the experience. It’s no wonder friendships can end over such alienation.
Recognizing that these icons from our collective childhoods are more powerful than they may appear is a skeleton key for unlocking the mystery of why they affect us so strongly and what role they played in making us who we are. And being aware that those who don’t share your view have memories just as strong driving their reactions will make you a more empathetic friend.
Melinda co-owns the RetroBlasting YouTube channel and is a lifelong Star Wars lover.