Smells like teen spirit

Since the law of entropy dictates that everything on the internet must eventually devolve into an Episode 8 slugfest, how does all this relate to The Last Jedi? There is a pervasive belief that a movie or television show must be gritty and edgy to be important, that The Force Awakens is a lesser film because it gives fans exactly what we desire, and that The Last Jedi is a superior film because it blows everything up, tears everything down, and scoffs at sentimentality. But in the words of David Foster Wallace, this “hip, cynical transcendence of sentiment” is, in a visceral way, a denial of what it means to be “really human.”

What I love about Star Wars is that it is not cynical, even its darkest storytelling hours. Acclaimed YA fiction author John Green makes note of this in an Atlantic article about why so many adults love literature featuring teens. “Teenagers have a reputation for being jaded and cynical,” he says, “but in fact I find them wondrously lacking in cynicism and wondrously earnest in their un-ironized emotional experience.”

This “un-ironized emotional experience” is why I love Star Wars, and why I was uncomfortable with the critical self-reflection of The Last Jedi. Perhaps this is why Star Wars in general resonates with all ages – and why some of the best Star Wars stories are aimed at younger audiences. Claudia Gray’s novel Lost Stars, which charts the diverging journeys of a burgeoning Rebel and a devoted Imperial, is widely believed to be one of (if not the) best work of fiction in the new canon universe, even though it’s a YA book – and a love story to boot!

When I asked Gray why she thought the novel resonates even with older audiences, she suggested:

“The one true difference between YA novels and adult ones is that YA novels feature teen protagonists and are centered on coming-of-age experiences. Adults still respond to a lot of these books because they were teens too, once! Those coming-of-age experiences are more universal than many adult experiences are. (Which is no doubt one reason why so many Star Wars movies are themselves young adult narratives.)”

Indeed, Star Wars Rebels follows the growth of teenage protagonists Ezra Bridger and Sabine Wren, while Luke and Leia are meant to be 19 at the time of A New Hope. And let us not forget The Phantom Menace, which stars a (supposedly) 14-year-old Padmé Amidala, a (slightly more believable) 25-year-old Obi-Wan Kenobi, and a (maybe too believable) 9-year-old Anakin Skywalker.

Gray points out that YA experiences tend to be more universally appreciated than adult ones, since, obviously, adults have already gone through their own coming-of-age experiences, while children have yet to experience adulthood. But adults also recognize that “growing up” is actually a fantasy – we’re always growing and changing, even as adults. Perhaps there’s a bit of regret-tinged nostalgia involved, too: if only we had grown up better, if only we had overcome our struggles in that tied-up-in-a-bow, storybook way, if only we had laser swords and the Force and a giant, huggable bear-dog for a best friend.

How to slay a (Krayt) Dragon

Or maybe: If only we hadn’t grown up at all. Perhaps we are all caught in the thrall of the Peter Pan syndrome, desperately grasping at the remains of our childhoods as a method of avoiding confronting adult responsibilities. This is the dangerous side-effect that people visualize when they disparage “escapism,” but it is only one aspect of the Star Wars-as-children’s-story appeal.

Sure, many OG fans remember being blown away by the first Star Wars film at a tender young age, and they are surely thrilled by the prospect of recapturing the magic of their youth with the new movies, books, and shows. But these fans also now have the opportunity to introduce the saga to their own children through content that is unequivocally geared towards even younger audiences, such as the female-centric “Forces of Destiny” shorts on YouTube and the Star Wars Adventures comics from IDW. And even those stories deliver a ghost of a wink to older audiences – especially older female audiences, who can sleep well at night knowing that we finally live in a world in which little girls will never be in any doubt that Star Wars is for them, too.

In the (turbulent) wake of the release of 1999’s The Phantom Menace, George Lucas came to the defense of the film’s “childlike” tone: “There is a group of fans for the films that […] want the films to be tough like Terminator, and they get very upset and opinionated about anything that has anything to do with being childlike,” he said. “The movies are for children but they don’t want to admit that.” (In the same article, Lucas also firmly rebuffs the notion that the character of Jar Jar Binks is a racist stereotype, which… is a conversation for another time, meesa thinks.)

But I believe there’s an important difference between childlike – the term Lucas uses, and a word that connotes wonder – and childish, a word that calls to mind rash immaturity. Star Wars, as a type of retro-futuristic fairy tale, is certainly childlike, and that’s what makes it so beloved and so long-lasting: We can (re)learn important life lessons while looking through the “truly wonderful” mind of a child. As G.K. Chesterton said: “Fairy tales do not tell children the dragons exist. Children already know that dragons exist. Fairy tales tell children the dragons can be killed.” And sometimes, we grown-ups need a reminder, too.

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