Friday, May 4, 2018

A Star Wars Story



With Solo: A Star Wars Story on the horizon, I was thinking back on my first experience seeing Star Wars in theaters and how it briefly intersected with my (non) love life in junior high. But teen romance aside and more importantly; I recall the experiences which shaped my firm belief that Star Wars is for everyone, despite any online chatter to the contrary.

Enjoy and May the Fourth be with you!

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Heading into the seventh grade, Star Wars was my everything. I lived and breathed those space operas, consuming them in all their forms. 

From toys to video games to novels to trading cards to my fine pewter Empire Strikes Back keychain proudly secured to my school backpack – for a good chunk of my adolescence my allowance belonged to George Lucas. 

I was thirteen, had recently moved to Ohio, and quickly formed friendships with fellow Star Wars fanatics who shared my obsession. My best friend Richard had a bedroom the size of a private jet hangar, which housed the largest Star Wars collection in the Midwest by my guesstimate. A shrine to all things Star Wars, it probably helped fund a good chunk of The Phantom Menace. I was in paradise.

But Star Wars wasn’t the only thing my life revolved around during this period. I already possessed a healthy curiosity concerning the opposite sex and it was rapidly accelerating into hyperspace. All my friends and I ever talked about was girls and Star Wars. Star Wars and girls. That was it. 

Light side or dark side? Jenny or Stacy? Nothing else much mattered to us. 

Weekend sleepovers were frequent and if we weren’t watching Star Wars, we were dialing up crush-worthy girls having slumber parties of their own, inviting them into our world via speakerphone. 

Not exactly knowing how to talk to girls without embarrassing ourselves or each other, we mostly let them carry the conversation. Thankfully they were happy to do so. It was through this that I discovered who Leonardo DiCaprio was. I hadn’t seen Romeo & Juliet, but I understood that Leo was a big deal and totally dreamy. Apparently none of these girls had seen Star Wars because no one on the other end of the line was drooling over Luke Skywalker from what I could tell.

So you can imagine my excitement when it was announced that in 1997 the Star Wars trilogy would be returning to theaters nationwide with brand new Special Editions. By this point I had just about worn out my THX digitally remastered VHS box set, so I knew these movies forward and backward, line for line... but experiencing them on the silver screen with 5.1 surround sound… that was something I only ever dreamed of!

What better way to combine our two passions than by inviting some of our crushes to join us at the local cinema to share in this experience?

We got a group together and made arrangements to meet the girls at the theater. This wasn’t an official “date” or anything. Just a group of guys and a group of girls hanging out after school. But it was my first time inviting cute girls to the movies so it felt like training grounds of sorts. This had all the makings of a night to remember.

We took our seats, eagerly anticipating the John Williams score to erupt and the iconic crawl in massive yellow font to begin scrolling. The girls sat a row behind us, further cementing that this indeed not in any way a date nor could we even try to pretend that it was. Not that it bothered me because STAR WARS! The movie began. I was transfixed.

About midway through being fully transported to a galaxy far, far away, I felt a tap on my shoulder. It was Erin. She was bored and informed me she and her friends were going. I can’t recall if she asked me to leave with them or not, but I do remember practically waving them off so I could get back to the action on screen. Truthfully, I was a little surprised and disappointed but no way was I going to let it spoil the movie for me.

It was pretty clear there was no use trying to convince the girls to stay anyway. They were not enjoying themselves and apparently had wasted enough of their Friday evening on this silly space flick. Even if I could talk them into staying, it would have detracted from my own enjoyment knowing they’d rather be somewhere else. It was not at all how I envisioned the night going, but it was an honest reaction so I couldn’t hold it against them. Their inner critics had spoken and Star Wars was not winning them over, Special Edition or not.

Upon exiting the theater and still basking in the afterglow of having witnessed the Death Star blow up bigger than ever before, I was struck by a realization. We were split evenly down the middle. Thumbs up from the guys, thumbs down from the girls. Was Star Wars strictly for boys? It occurred to me that I had never really met any female Star Wars fans.

Well, that wasn’t exactly true. There was Julie.

Julie was not friends with these other girls. She was a little peculiar at times and had a very unique style. In other words, she did not “fit in.”  

We shared a few classes and she knew I liked Star Wars (the keychain was a dead giveaway), an easy icebreaker. She once made me laugh in English reading off a list of reasons why Star Wars was cooler than Star Trek in every way. At the time I foolishly believed that you had to choose one over the other and determined that Star Trek was lame by comparison. I’ve since abandoned that notion but by buying into the rivalry between the two heavyweight sci-fi franchises, I was able to connect with someone who spoke the same language.

Julie wasn’t exactly the most popular girl in school, not that she seemed to care about that sort of thing. If she did stick out, it was for letting her freak flag fly. For example, she carried on her a Han Solo action figure, which would ride passenger in the front pocket of her jeans for all to see as she wandered the halls. I was very familiar with this toy as I had one of my own. She would pull the figure out during lunch and prop him up on the cafeteria table, almost as if he were her lunch date. This naturally led to teasing that Han was her imaginary boyfriend.

Despite her status as an outcast, I found myself identifying more with Julie than our movie “dates” that ditched us. Looking back, those girls more closely resembled the “plastics” of Mean Girls while Julie was actually kind of… cool? Cool for a geek anyway. Hey, wait a minute… did that make me a geek? Because as we all know, geeks aren’t cool. At least they weren’t at that time in Ankeny Junior High where geek was a dirty four-letter word.

The year prior, I attended an all-boys school and I never thought twice about it. As far as I could tell, all my peers enjoyed Star Wars, whether you were “cool” or not. But I was slowly beginning to understand that being a fan of Star Wars was like a blemish on your reputation. It wasn't something you talked about if you wanted to attract girls. Well, unless that girl was Julie.

She had invited me to her Halloween party a few months prior when I was still “the new kid” and making friends. Not wanting to go alone, I dragged Richard along. I dressed up as the Phantom from Phantom of the Opera (still one of my better costumes). Richard came as a Jedi Knight. As the night wore on, we embraced our inner geeks and, knowing whose party it was, put them fully on display, free from judgment. By removing my mask, my Phantom cloak easily doubled as a Jedi robe. Richard had brought a spare lightsaber that he leant me. We broke into a lightsaber duel right there in the middle of the party. Richard was finally having fun. After all, this is what we did every weekend. Only this time we had an audience to cheer us on. We were one camcorder away from being internet famous. Star Wars kids before “Star Wars Kid.”

Before this ventures much further into The Wonder Years territory and I go off on a tangent about Julie being my own personal Margaret Farquhar (I can practically hear the Daniel Stern voice over as I write this) it’s fair to say this experience shaped my idea of what your average Star Wars fan could be. Julie showed me at this transitional time in my life that Star Wars doesn’t discriminate. Regardless of your gender or who you hung out with, Star Wars was for everyone. A lesson that unfortunately a lot of cis dudes in my age group never learned based on fan reaction over the past few years.


Now in my adult life, I’ve had the privilege of meeting Star Wars fans from all walks of life. This includes folks who write and illustrate stories set in the Stars Wars universe as well as career journalists who write coverage about Star Wars for a living. Quite a few of them are women who embraced Star Wars around the same time as I did and are now starting to see the franchise embrace them back.


Consider how the only female speaking part other than Leia in A New Hope was Aunt Beru. Now highly prominent roles in the form of Rey, Jyn, Rose, Phasma, and Vice Admiral Holdo have emerged to even the playing field and inject the franchise with a healthy dose of long overdue representation. The animated series Forces of Destiny, which spotlights the heroines of the Star Wars universe, is also an encouraging step in the right direction, making this beloved saga more accessible to young girls than ever before.


So while it may have seemed for one brief moment in my life that I would have to choose geeking out over a love life, I think it’s safe to put this fan theory to rest. And if at any point you declare your love for another and they reply with, “I know,” you’ll know you’ve landed a keeper.


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