This column discusses major plot-points of Star Wars: The Force Awakens.
It has major spoilers.
George Lucas’s Star Wars was mythological. His characters were stand-ins for archetypes. Any one of us could imagine being Han, Luke, or Leia, the hero who rises to the moral challenge. But J.J. Abrams’s Star Wars is Shakespearean. His story is of specific families. His characters are particular people whose histories matter. Audiences participate in Lucas’s epic, but Abrams asks us to be voyeurs.
It should not be surprising then, that the most intimate moments in The Force Awakens are the ones we want to brush past quickly, the conversation between broken parents and the love a father feels for his lost son. Lucas would have paused during these moments. He would have allowed us to contemplate with his characters, as when Luke sought his future in the double suns of Tatooine. But Abrams will have none of that. Things happen fast in the latest installment because free will is a luxury for Stormtroopers, not Skywalkers.
Han and Leia gave birth to a murderer. Luke failed to educate him. But we are asked to empathize, not condemn. The new Star Wars film announces that our cultural mythology can no longer limit ourselves to redeeming the sins of our fathers, as they were called in less egalitarian times. We must now turn to the legacy of the child gone wrong. Abrams shows us the parents’ lament and then gives us the generous gift of not dwelling on it. It’s simply too painful to encounter the killer in one’s own child.
What is it like to be a parent the day, the year, or the decade after your child murders at Columbine? How does one go on living knowing that your kids set bombs at the Boston marathon or massacred 26 people at Sandy Hook? How does it feel when your child shoots his spouse or rapes his friend, and how much worse would it be to realize that you did nothing wrong, that this is just who they are?
The Star Wars universe privileges nature over nurture, although Leia tries very hard to take the blame. She shouldn’t have “let him go,” she says, because that’s when she “lost him.” American mothers know this routine, so few ever get to relax. They scrutinize themselves just as others continually scrutinize them. Are they affectionate or watchful enough? Did they read the right stories to their children? Did they eat soft cheese when they were pregnant? They blame themselves because anything is better than blaming their child.
Fathers, in contrast, grow quiet, then distant, and then they leave. They go back, as Han claims, to doing what they do best, even if it is self-destructive and solves nothing. It is easier to be a scoundrel smuggler or an inspiring General than a failed parent. These are stereotypes, of course, gender roles are particularly fluid these days, but they still ring true because we privilege nurture over nature. We want someone to blame.
Leia and Han loved their son. To use the language of the NRA, they were teaching him to be a good guy with a blaster. And Uncle Luke would have complemented it all, mentoring him to be a Jedi—a responsible light-saber owner—to control his feelings and to choose the light side over the dark. But none of it mattered in the Star Wars universe because he simply had “too much Vader in him.” He was lost from the get-go. Simply put, what The Force Awakens acknowledges better than any other major film is that sometimes it’s just not the parents.
I don’t know the Harris, Kliebold, Tsarvenv or Lanza parents, but I am pretty sure they were not monsters. They no doubt made the same parenting mistakes that we all do, but that’s not why their children did what they did. Why did they murder? I don’t know. In the absence of the common theology that the Jedi religion provides, all we can do is speculate and study. Those whoshut down academic research on gun violence are condemning us to endless tragedy.
It’s time to have a cultural conversation about how to feel for the parents of children who do wrong. The United States has the largest prison population in the world and while many are incarcerated because of racism and injustice, it would be naïve to suggest that many of our children are not justifiably imprisoned. We also have the most guns in the world. While fewer Americans own firearms than in 1977, the average owner now has eight guns,twice as many as 20 years ago. Americans are being frightened by their politicians, beaten down by economic inequality, and are shockingly unhappy for a country that has so much going for it. It’s going to get worse before it gets better, and we will all soon know the parent of a child who has gone bad. If we count rapists, we probably already do.
When Ben slices through Han with his lightsaber, the father responds by touching his son’s face, by projecting, as much as he can, the love he feels for the boy that broke him. Perhaps he wanted to try one last time to reach the light that Leia firmly believes is in him. Whatever the reason, Star Wars has once again put our core dilemma on the table: if curing society’s ills necessitates abandoning our children, we will never succeed. All kids do bad things and some will commit incomprehensible murderous acts. But they will always be our children and we will always love them.
America needs public policy to acknowledge that love cannot cure all ills while recognizing that parents always carry the burdens their children create. To achieve this, we need a cultural myth to help us discuss the philosophical dilemmas that arise as we consider the evil that kids can do. Star Wars: The Force Awakens is a great first step, but we must not wait until Episode Eight to take the next one.