What Star Wars Says About Today’s Social Justice Movement
Written by Alex Leff
Published February 1st, 2016
The Rebel Alliance’s struggle against the evil empire was a galactic reflection of the turbulent 1960s youth movements—and now we know that both failed. The stories may take place a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, but Star Wars has always been about the present American moment.
Three generations have been raised on the Star Wars saga. The Force, Jedi knights, and lightsabers have long since become part of our cultural mythology. President Reagan’s controversial missile defense system was dubbed “Star Wars” in 1983,i and in 2015, Hillary Clinton concluded the second Democratic debate with “May the Force be with you.”ii American children fight with imaginary lightsabers and consume ice cream pops shaped like the heads of notable Jedi and Sith. Their parents, meanwhile, might well be marching through Comic Con dressed as stormtroopers, having purchased their outfits from one of many websites dedicated entirely to Star Wars cosplay.iii
When mythologist Joseph Campbell met with George Lucas to watch the original Star Wars trilogy, he already recognized the cultural value and meaning to these stories. Star Wars is an American Iliad, a reflection of our culture’s struggles and values. It’s our entry into archetypal myth. John Williams, who composed the score for the trilogy, admits he viewed Star Wars merely as a “Saturday morning space movie…until Campbell told us what Star Wars meant.”iv In any culture, history tells what happened—mythology explains why it mattered.
When the original film was released in 1977, America was just coming out of what had been an unsettling time of great social protest and change. A youth counterculture attacked their elders’ traditional values. The Civil Rights movement fought for racial equality. The New Left political movement worked towards an end to the Vietnam War. Star Wars mythologized these times into a generational battle of good versus evil where
young people rebel against the ways of their fathers to restore justice to the galaxy. The heroes are young rebels. The villains are the father and “the Emperor”—he might as well be called “the Man.”
It’s not necessarily the case that George Lucas, or the other Star Wars writers, intentionally connected this moral. While the storyteller crafts the tale, only one that resonates with the public becomes mythology. Starwars.com defines myth as “something experienced unconsciously by a collective.”v In that sense, an audience determines what becomes mythology when a story resonates with a fundamental struggle within society.
In the prequel trilogy, Anakin Skywalker’s childhood and rise as Darth Vader reflect the politics of the 2000s. In Attack of the Clones (2003) Chancellor Palpatine stirs fear in the Republic and warns of a disturbance in the Force. The enemy is all around us, the Chancellor cautions. Meanwhile, here in our own galaxy, the Bush Administration stoked the fears of 9/11 to convince Congress to pass the Patriot Act by an overwhelming majority. Clearly, the nebulous enemy of “terror” was viewed as a greater threat to our democracy than such laws that would limit free speech and increase government surveillance. In Revenge of the Sith (2005) the Galactic Republic approves measures to give the Chancellor supreme power during times of terror. Ironically, by making Chancellor Palpatine supreme ruler, the Republic sacrificed its freedom for security and turned power over to the very Phantom Menace they were warned to fear. “So this is how democracy dies,” Senator Padme Amidala laments, “with thunderous applause.”
The Struggle Continues
Now in The Force Awakens, thirty-two years have passed since the fall of the Empire, but the dark side is far from gone. It’s even more powerful than before. Still, a resistance fights on for the fledgling New Republic. Discussing the new film at my workplace—a local movie theater near my college—some of my co-workers were annoyed to find out there’s no happy ending after all. “You’re telling me that they kill the Emperor, Darth Vader dies, and thirty years later things are still shitty?” Online critics have expressed similar frustration with the new film for containing “the same old perils.”vi
These complaints are not unlike the media’s reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement. Discussing social unrest in Ferguson in the fall of 2014, CNN anchor Wolf
Blitzer commented, “It’s hard for me to believe that in this day and age, 2014, so many years after Dr. Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement … we’re seeing National Guard troops on the street to prevent this kind of violence. In this day and age it’s something I didn’t think we’d be seeing again.”vii Blitzer articulated the widely held notion of post-racism. A narrative had emerged from the 1960s that societal issues like racism had been dealt with and defeated. To see police officers get away with murder, fraternities singing racist chants,viii and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act has been an unsettling reality to many white Americans who believed racism was over, or at least greatly diminished.ix Many people tend to see social protest itself as distinctly 1960s, almost a relic of another time. Essentially: It’s the 21st century. I thought social justice struggles were history.
The Force Awakens gets it right. The battle is far from over. The Empire has fallen, but now there’s the First Order. The original Death Star could obliterate one planet, now the Star Killer Base destroys five in one blast. The new generation of Jedi has been killed. What seemed like a sure victory back in the original trilogy is now a grim and uncertain future.
To look at the situation in Ferguson, or Baltimore, or any number of cities across the U.S., some may chalk it up to history repeating itself. But history never repeats—it imitates itself. This is a crucial distinction, because if we wait for the same villain to reappear under the same name and clothes, we’ll miss the contemporary injustice. That’s the danger of cultural mythologies: making a nuanced injustice more black and white over time.
Simplifying the complexity of social change allows people to align themselves with the “good side” of history in retrospect. History’s not just written by the victors—we’re made victors by our histories. Now an average white person can look back on the March on Washington, and claim, “I would have been there.” Or look back on our horrific legacy of slavery and think, “I would have stood bravely against slavery. I would have been one of the good guys.” Funny how there weren’t nearly as many abolitionists during slavery as in hindsight or weren’t too many classroom posters of Dr. King during Jim Crow.
To truly stand for justice, one must find the injustice in their own time. The fighters in the Rebel Alliance had to live as exiles, outside the law and approval of the Empire. True resistance fighters are willing to live without the gratification of being instantly celebrated.
When two Black women overtook the stage at a Bernie Sanders rally last year and refused to back down, they were scorned by most of Sanders’ supporters.x Even the most liberal, progressive people—who would probably insist they would have been at the March on Washington or committed civil disobedience to end slavery—were unable to recognize heroes in action. These two Black women faced booing and yelling in order to demand justice and inclusion into Senator Sanders’ presidential platform. A hero is someone who stands on stage and demands justice while getting booed.
The rise of the dark side, even after the initial Rebel victory, is an apt commentary on America today. Since the antiwar movement rallied against the United States’ involvement in Vietnam, the American Empire has expanded its military involvement across the world. Our contemporary Death Star of global climate change has begun to wreak havoc worldwide. White supremacy in America has failed to be defeated, in fact is as deadly as ever, with ubiquitous police murders of Black people without legal consequences and even with wide support. Systemic racism creates disproportionate incarceration rates, lack of economic opportunity, and sustained cultural prejudice. Candidates have launched successful presidential campaigns off the hatred and xenophobia towards immigrants, refugees, and Muslims.
Restoring Justice To The Galaxy
How did things get this bad? Maybe partly because so many thought it was over. The celebration with the Ewok teddy bears came too soon. What happened to our old friends from the Rebel Alliance since Return of the Jedi (1983)? Where is Luke? Where is the quintessential Baby Boomer rebel who turned his evil father to the light side and smashed the Establishment?
Seeing the futility of his efforts, Luke abandoned the resistance and sought exile. How many activists saw their New Left collapse, Reagan come to power, and America become smitten with neoconservatism, and abandoned activism for a small organic farm upstate? Or returned to their smuggling days on the galactic outer rim with their old pal Chewbacca? The United States’ continued imperial foreign policy and the widespread embrace of far-right politics, baffled many in the counterculture as they grew up into the
1980s and ‘90s. By the time George W. Bush won reelection, long after “liberal” had become a dirty word, the battle seemed all but lost and the ‘60s just a hippy dream.
But perhaps even more tragic than the resurgence of the dark side is a member of the next generation so willing to lead it. In The Force Awakens, who is the bad guy? Not the father, but the son! Han and Leia’s son, Ben Solo, rejects his Jedi training to join the dark side, adopting the name Kylo Ren. This betrayal is at the core of Luke’s apparent heartbreak. Tasked with training his nephew in the beneficent ways of the Force, Luke had ultimately failed to reach him.
We can understand Luke’s mourning when we think of all the activists during the Civil Rights Movement who thought their children would surely grow up in a less volatile and racist world, and are heartbroken to see that vision dissolve. Despite the belief that Millennials are a more tolerant generation, the legacy of hatred continues. From the ubiquity of racist Yik Yak posts, slurs and swastikas scrawled on campuses, to the Confederate flag-toting white boy who massacred a Black prayer circle in a South Carolina church. It’s the son himself who carries on the legacy of the Empire and the legacy of white supremacy.
But this is not the fate of all Millennials. There’s Rey, the abandoned scavenger, who barely scraped by to survive on the junkyard sands of Jakku, now joining the battle of her lifetime. Rey only begins to test her powers, finding gifts and skills she didn’t even recognize until she directed them towards a larger struggle.
Then there’s Finn, who grew up under the First Order as a stormtrooper and desperately wants to run from it all, not join the battle on either side. But he finds he’s unable to turn away because he cares about the people who would be doomed if he abandoned them. Finn was raised by the First Order, trained to do its bidding. We, too, are raised by the culture of empire—taught to perpetuate racism, sexism, capitalism—to benefit from the exploitation and even destruction of others. That is, until we wake up and see the First Order for what it is and no longer choose to comply. We can all be Finn. All we have to do is remove the mask.
The fight against white supremacy and America’s imperial foreign policy of world domination is not over. The youth counterculture, the Civil Rights movement, the antiwar protesters and rebels did not win. But they did leave a legacy of resistance and history we
can learn from. Many of them abandoned the struggle when they saw the American Empire continue to bomb other countries unabated, and even pretended racism was over. But some gray-haired activists have kept the candle burning. Princess Leia, now General Organa, continued to dedicate her life to the resistance even though her comrades left the fight. We need to learn from and ally with the Leias of the world.
Millennials have inherited the Millennium Falcon. But only with Luke and Leia, the elders
in our struggle, can we face the dark side. If we’ve learned anything from Star Wars, we can be sure the First Order is building yet another Death Star we’ll have to blow up all over again. The time has come to continue our struggle and bring justice to the galaxy. May the Force be with us.
Special thanks to Mark Lundy & Michael Leff for their editing and feedback!
i Rutkowski, Stephanie. “March 23: Reagan’s ‘Star Wars’ Missile Defense 1983.” ABC News. ABC News Network, 23 Mar. 2012. Web.
ii LoGiurato, Brett. “Hillary Clinton Drops the Mic to End Debate: ‘May the Force Be with You'” Business Insider. Business Insider, Inc, 19 Dec. 2015. Web.
iii “The Star Wars Shop with 100’s of Costumes, Toys and Gifts.” STAR WARS: Costumes and Toys.
iv Seastrom, Lucas O. “Mythic Discovery: Revisiting the Meeting between George Lucas and Joseph Campbell.” StarWars.com. N.p., 22 Oct. 2015.
vi Hiltzik, Michael. “Admit It: ‘Star Wars: The Force Awakens’ Stinks — and Here’s Why.” Los
Angeles Times. Los Angeles Times, 28 Dec. 2015. Web.
vii “Baltimore on Fire.” Comedy Central. The Daily Show, 28 Apr. 2015. Web.
viii Kingkade, Tyler. “Oklahoma Frat Boys Caught Singing ‘There Will Never Be A N***** In SAE'” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 9 Mar. 2015. Web.
ix Liebelson, Dana. “The Supreme Court Gutted the Voting Rights Act. What Happened next in These 8 States Will Not Shock You.” Mother Jones. Mother Jones, 8 Apr. 2014. Web.
x Bouie, Jamelle. “Why Black Lives Matter Is So Focused on Bernie Sanders and How It’s Paying Off.” Slate, 17 Aug. 2014. Web.
All images courtesy of Starwars.com and IMDB