On and off the screen, we beg to be sold Star Wars. We yearn for what J.J. Abrams, director and co-writer of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, in a series of promotional interviews done by tribute.ca, calls a “western”. Everyone knows the basics. There will be aliens, spaceships, light sabers; there will be light and dark and, at least with the first three installments (and I’d argue with the The Force Awakens, as well), there will be heart. In fact, as many unhappy critics have been apt to point out, in plot and character trajectory, The Force Awakens is quite nearly a remake of the original Star Wars film, A New Hope. Essentially, we’ve bought this Star Wars before and we are happy to buy it again, and again.
This is not because we are stupid. It is because Star Wars sells us something we lack. We are happy to watch and re-watch these films because they lie to us. Star Wars: The Force Awakens, on and off the screen, offers a world that is small fair and purposeful, a world for which our biology was built—a world diametrically opposed to the one in which we live.
As a story, Star Wars gives us simplicity and duality. The characters are regular people who encounter clear choices: good or evil, action or inaction. Back in her original role as, an albeit older, Princess Leia (now General Leia), Carrie Fisher says in the same series of promotional interviews by tribute.ca, “the [Star Wars] characters don’t seem out of reach. You think, ‘I could do that’”. This is particularly true for The Force Awakens, where the heroes are normal people lost in obscurity who are thrust into situations of great importance. Rey, played by Daisy Ridley, an orphaned scavenger on the desert planet Jakku, encounters a droid, BB-8, who contains a map to the missing Luke Skywalker. Finn, played by John Boyega, a Storm Trooper in the First Order (the new “Galactic Empire”), disturbed by the destructive actions of his cohorts, decides to follow his conscience, and helps Poe, a Resistance (the new “Rebel Alliance”) pilot, escape capture.
Both heroes encounter two major choices. The first is between good and evil. Rey, barely surviving on Jakku by scavenging machine parts for a greedy trader, is faced with the choice of giving up the mysterious droid BB-8 for rations, or staying true to her morals. Her choice to save BB-8 sets her on a journey where she encounters Finn, who has just chosen the light side by aiding Poe in his escape.
Living under neoliberalism—an economic system which gives capital near complete control over our labor, environment, and political system—we are not afforded the choice between the light side or the dark side; or even the decision to live by any true moral code. For most of us, our very existence is contradictory. We are always somewhat complicit in the destruction of the planet or in our own collective exploitation. To buy food and have shelter, we must drive to work and pollute. To eat and have livable lives, we must buy from companies which undermine our ecosystems, buy our politicians, exploit us on the job, and alienate us from our deepest desires for community and purpose.
The second major decision the heroes face, taking action and following their destinies to save the galaxy or shrinking from their responsibility out of fear and lack of self-confidence, is also one that we are not afforded. On planet Takodana, Yoda-lookalike and wise woman Maz Kanata asks Rey, “Who are you?” Rey replies, “Nobody.” On a planet of 7 billion, atomized and alienated from each other, this is a sentiment to which almost everyone can relate. Yet, Rey is not nobody. In a few moments, Rey is mysteriously drawn to Luke Skywalker’s lightsaber in the basement of the cantina, where she has a terrifying vision of the past. Maz finds Rey startled and scared. “The Force, it’s calling to you. Just let it in,” Maz says. Rey flees to the forest. Finn also struggles with his destiny, initially electing to flee his friends out of fear of being killed by the First Order. Yet, both characters reverse their initial decisions and end up saving the Resistance base and the entire galaxy by destroying the First Order’s Starkiller Base (the new Death Star).
Conversely, the main villain, Kylo Ren (formerly Ben Solo), played by Adam Driver, the most vulnerable and complex character in the film, struggles with the same questions of duality, namely between the dark and light sides. At one point, he kneels before Darth Vader’s melted helmet and implores, “I feel it again… the call from light. Show me again the power of the darkness, and I’ll let nothing stand in our way. Show me, grandfather, and I will finish what you started.” Just like Rey and Finn, Kylo Ren encounters a world with two choices: light or dark, action or inaction. He simply makes the opposite choices.
Bewildered by the pluralities of our lives, we desire characters plagued only by these sharp dualities: characters with clarity, purpose and meaning. Alone, in our cars, in our solitary bedrooms, in cities and suburbs, on our empty commutes, in our back-breaking labor— with a million swirling anxieties–we ache for a flat world of good and evil where our decisions matter, where they will actually make a significant change, like those of Rey, Finn, and Kylo Ren.
Here on earth, we also focus on the Star Wars story taking place outside of the theater. We find ourselves prideful for a world in which a black man and a woman can lead the most important movie franchise ever. We are desperate to believe in the conceit of representation. Atomized and lacking the opportunity for fulfillment, and sometimes basic survival, we latch on to the conceit that a black man and a woman leading the Star Wars franchise equals genuine inclusion and equality for women, people of color and the poor. British-Nigerian blogger, Jide Salu, put it best when he tweeted, “This son of a Nigerian preacher, John Boyega, 23, grew up on a council estate in Peckham, across the road from the estate where Damilola Taylor was stabbed in 2000. He is an inspiration to many Black youngsters in the world. With the right “A.M’ (Attitude and Mindset) you can achieve whatever you set your mind on or even greater. It’s possible.- Jide Salu. #Inspirational.”
Anybody can be Star Wars we are told and we slurp it up, “#inspirational”. Promoting the film, Boyega and Ridley seemed proud and overwhelmed with the attention and, maybe, with some understanding of what they now symbolize. “I’m a boy from Peckham and I’m in a Star Wars movie!” John Boyega giddily told a reporter on the Red Carpet at the European Opening of the film. After all, there are 7 billion people in the world and there are two leads for Star Wars. The majority of people on the planet are women. The majority are not white. There is one John Boyega and one Daisy Ridley. Everyone on the planet wants recognition, purpose, love, and community. Star Wars cannot give us these things. As climate change begins its ravaging of the global poor, Star Wars cannot give us shelter, food, or water.
What Star Wars, and neoliberalism, can offer us are symbols. It can put a black man onscreen, while black people worldwide suffer marginalization. What neoliberalism can do is show what a strong woman looks like, while structurally disempowering women. What Star Wars can do is take us far, far away from its material foundation.
I itched after watching Star Wars. I itched with wonder, with excitement, and with the anxiety of inevitable failure. I cannot just choose the good side and take action. The billions of poor and oppressed people across the planet may look like Daisy Ridley and John Boyega. They may feel the powerlessness and shame of a storm trooper like Finn or the loneliness and desperation of an orphaned scavenger like Rey. Yet, there is no greater destiny waiting for them. We do not live in the flat and purposeful world of Star Wars and only a few us will ever star in a Star Wars movie. We live in a system not built for people but for symbols; a vicarious meritocracy that our biology, built for the community and shared purpose of villages of 100, can never quite accept.
Zeke Perkins was born and raised as the child of divorced parents in rural and suburban Maryland. Zeke has attended a free and democratic school, a public high school, and Bard College. Zeke has traveled Latin America, fallen in love and been heart-broken, been poor, and mostly been lucky. A morose and ecstatic fireball, Zeke has always written and now works full-time as a union organizer in Upstate New York.