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Since 1977, three generations of American boys have fallen in love with Star Wars. Every time a new trilogy was made—George Lucas made a second one in 1999, then Disney a third in 2015—it proved a multi-billion dollar proposition. The blockbuster era of American cinema is defined by Star Wars, which, unique among blockbusters, spans the entire era. One reason is that Star Wars became an inter-generational, father-to-son entertainment. Another is that there’s not that much competition for the lasting affection of American boys, since the entertaining and the memorable are very different things.
American culture is adolescent, to borrow a phrase from the venerable critic Van Wyck Brooks, and has long been so. Mark Twain suggested this through his Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn, two types of American man. Tom is astonishingly successful, destined, if you will, to rise to the top. Huck is astonishingly unsuccessful, destined to look at American greatness from below or outside, a witness to all sorts of trouble, weaknesses, and even vices. Both are interesting and still provide the patterns for our storytelling, but in our more recent infantilization, we have fallen in love with odd mixes of the two.
Star Wars was at the origin of that process. It offered American boys Luke Skywalker, as innocent a creature as Huck Finn, but, despite what experience and reflection suggest, one bound to exercise astonishing powers, and thus a fit object of boyish adoration like Tom Sawyer. Against Twain’s wisdom, we have fallen in love with underdogs for the sake of acquiring power. This tendency has become much worse since the ‘70s and it has by now almost completely eliminated competition, finding its favored expression in female protagonists. Indeed, in the latest Star Wars trilogy, Rey Skywalker plays an innocent victim who ends up overpowering the scariest villains in the galaxy.
The Democratization of Chivalry
The perfect expression of this new vision is the Disney+ show Ahsoka, starring Rosario Dawson as the eponymous two-saber-wielding female Jedi Knight. Ahsoka was created by Dave Filoni, who previously had success with several Star Wars animation series and helped produce The Mandalorian, an even more infantile show than is usual for Star Wars. That show had at least this merit: that it made Mandalorian warriors and Jedi seem rare and impressive, even admirable creatures. Otherwise, the tendency of the stories has been to turn Jedi into something like the modern college, offering a brochure vision of diversity, a mark of achievement, celebrity, but empty of chivalry.
Ahsoka follows this tendency and makes Jedi boring, even annoying, a remarkable achievement. It’s the easiest thing to do, however, a typical error of our storytelling, taking exciting ideas and trivializing them. As soon as the season opens, we have a lightsaber duel among young women, failed Jedi apprentice Sabine Wren and a Sith apprentice. Sabine gets stabbed with a lightsaber, indeed run through, but this proves no inconvenience: she’s healed in about two scenes, and that’s how we get a young protagonist and antagonist. This recalls the worst aspect of the prequel trilogy, turning lightsaber duels into a circus, draining of emotional power symbols that used to make boys wonder. They turn into toys in the hands of characters—themselves remarkably toy-like.
It goes without saying that Sabine has a bad attitude (trauma in her past), and she thinks sarcasm is the key to life. She’s also a daredevil pilot, a Mandalorian, and doesn’t need your approval. One look at her pout, suggesting an unhappy childhood, and you can tell she is the perfect candidate for a trans-galactic quest to find an interesting character, to make the show more Star Wars and less teenage drama. That character is Thrawn, Imperial Grand Admiral, the tactical genius in Star Wars novels. He’s a fan favorite, yet never seen on screen, partly because Disney threw him out of the Star Wars stories when it acquired Lucasfilm, only to bring him back in both new novels and animations. We don’t see him here either.
The Rule of Women
Ahsoka is instead about how a number of women help each other overcome trauma or at least setbacks, with the occasional lightsaber in the background. They are at their best supportive, inquiring without being intrusive, warm, but not hotblooded, affectionate without breaching personal boundaries. Well-adjusted liberals! Of course, there’s a getting there—a lot of what in the vulgar jargon of our times is called passive-aggressive behavior, formerly called backbiting. Both aspects together make the complete woman and it is she who we celebrate in Ahsoka—if, that is, Jedi prove themselves worthy of these women.
Ahsoka is herself the independent type—standoffish, let’s say—so in order to regain her apprentice, to go adventuring across galaxies together, she needs a more mature woman. That is Hera, a general who looks like a blue toy, maybe space alien Barbie, and usually has a charming twinkle in her very big eyes. She’s also a daredevil pilot—they all are. She seems to have perfected the art of gentle generaling, encouraging master and student to be more like her, to become well-adjusted. She’s no softie, though, but has strong, yet measured words for the New Republic politicians who don’t support the cause of chasing across galaxies in pursuit of Imperial Grand Admiral Thrawn.
Their antagonists are also largely female. The apprentice Sith looks less like a toy and more like a young lady who has embraced one of the more defiant subcultures in American high schools, perhaps something typical of Portland, Oregon. Her master Baylan is a man who adds some seriousness to his few scenes. He’s working for the witch Morgan, a woman he releases from imprisonment, where Ahsoka had placed her. Morgan is also of graver, more dramatic mien, very unlike the three good gals, and seems more impressive, having built a massive galactic gate that will transport her and her minions to Thrawn’s galaxy.
You might think that Jedi are tied up with that drama that is the exclusive quality of their antagonists in Ahsoka, but that’s obsolete thinking. We’re in a new situation, in which the dominant part of respectable America celebrates victories in diversity, inclusion, and equity in entertainment while the other part pretends nothing worth noticing is happening. To get on with the times, high dramatics, the sort of heroism boys love, is replaced by a rather odd combination of treachery and therapy. Jedi harshness and austerity, as well as the catastrophes that define the story—collapsing republic, civil war, decapitated empire—have been replaced with a gentler, softer lifestyle; but at the same time, trust is lost. The command to obey is no longer self-overcoming, but self-acceptance.
The major male voice is the robot servant Huyang. His un-feminine quality is that he states unpleasant truths, such as that Sabine is unfit to be a Jedi. That’s boy talk. Feminine talk is not blunt or careless of hurt feelings. It is not confrontational. This robot servant is a funny inversion of American Dad, he’s just as supportive and sacrificial, but instead of self-effacing dad jokes that reassure smaller human beings that dad is nothing to fear, the robot criticizes the women he serves, who seem to accept it with a measure of generosity, since he’s innocuous.
The Great Replacement
In the last decade, entertainment has gradually done away with the characters that might appeal to boys and young men. This came very quickly after the complete victory of teenage fantasies with superheroes, now an increasingly feminized and therapeutic genre. Culture is no more adult these days, but it is different. This rarely makes for exciting female characters and Ahsoka does not offer any. It’s no addition to the much-beloved stories, but on the other hand, something that boys did admire has gradually been lost: Jedi knights, aristocratic figures defined by their integrity, a child’s vision of seriousness, but then, childhood is part of life. We have nothing better in their place.
There was a defect in the Star Wars attempt to marry morality and power, to conquer modern technology through the imagination. It suggested that wishful victims could replace the Tom Sawyers, whom we can almost call natural leaders, as our protagonists. It made stories relatable rather than aspirational, which is inclusive; it wins over the audience, especially the female half, but it quickly leaves audiences with poor imitators and implausible, moralistic happy ends. We’d be better off if stories for boys showed them worthwhile leaders, but judging by entertainment nowadays, there are no stories that appeal to boyish love of beauty. How did we lose them?