The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion I grew up without pop culture. Then ‘Star Wars’ changed my life.

Daisy Ridley as Rey and John Boyega as Finn in “Star Wars: The Force Awakens.” (Film Frame/Disney/Lucasfilm via Associated Press)
Placeholder while article actions load

The nice folks at Reason had me and Act Four regular Sonny Bunch at their holiday party to talk “Star Wars.” You can watch an edited version of our conversation here:

Over the past couple of months, I’ve devoted a regular Friday column to “Star Wars,” from the way the trailers for “The Force Awakens” leaned into this year’s hot pop culture debates; to the careful and mature use of violence in the films; and to the long shadow of Lando Calrissian. But as “The Force Awakens” approaches theaters — I’ll be seeing it in a critics’ screening on Tuesday — my thoughts have turned in a more personal direction. If I have devoted an absurd amount of my pop culture life to “Star Wars,” it’s because the original trilogy wasn’t just my gateway pop culture experience: It gave me the experiences and values that make me the critic I am today.

Regular readers of this column knew that I grew up without much in the way of exposure to pop culture. My family made occasional trips to the movies, and when I saw “Little Women” on my own in 1994, I cried so hard when Beth (Claire Danes) died that a neighbor called my mother to make sure I was all right. But we didn’t have a television for much of my childhood, and my parents didn’t subscribe to cable until well after I’d gone off to college — as a result, the only show I watched with any regularity before moving into my first post-graduate apartment was the oddity “Early Edition,” which introduced me to Kyle Chandler long before the rest of you came to love him as Coach Taylor on “Friday Night Lights.” My contemporary pop music education came mostly from the snatches of KISS 108 on the middle-school bus.

So it’s in this context that my first encounter with “Star Wars,” which happened when I was 11, elicits such a visceral sense memory: the den on the second floor of my parents’ house on a summer day shortly after we moved to Massachusetts, the hot light filtering in through the windows, dust motes hanging in the sunbeams. My cousin, two years older, wanted to show me a movie on our little-used VHS player, and I was eager to be a good sport. The New England summer disappeared around me as I fell into the screen and onto the sands of a much hotter desert planet.

I raced through the movies quickly after that and started to frequent the now sadly-shuttered science fiction and fantasy bookstore in my home town, bringing home novels from the “Star Wars” Expanded Universe. I met a fellow “Star Wars” devotee at a summer camp and felt like I’d found the only other speaker of a soon-to-be-deceased language; this was before the ubiquity of the Internet, and I was too young for conventions. We traded “Star Wars” fan fiction by post. At 15, seeing “The Phantom Menace” on the big screen left me both enthralled and befuddled; the world I loved was back, giving me new spaces to live in and dream about, though it felt somehow altered and diminished.

None of these experiences make me unique as a “Star Wars” fan; in fact, part of what’s powerful about loving the franchise is how many other people it has connected me to, beyond that long-ago pen pal. But with the advantage of 20 years, I can look back on my younger self, the 11-year-old who knew a socially painful pittance about mass culture and never could have dreamed of working as a critic, and see how my experience with “Star Wars” taught me so many of the lessons that still guide my writing today.

From “Star Wars,” I learned that even if it sometimes felt like I wanted to escape into a fictional world of smugglers, Force-sensitive witches and practical princesses, I could take the feeling of being in that universe back into real life with me. At a moment when pop culture preferences have become markers of identity, loving “Star Wars” and learning to recognize the franchise’s flaws and weaknesses were a useful exercise in how much I wanted to be defined by what I loved, as well as other people’s opinions about it.

Princess Leia (Carrie Fisher) taught me just how powerful it is to have someone who looks like you to identify with on screen. And Luke Skywalker (Mark Hamill), Han Solo (Harrison Ford) and Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams) taught me that a character didn’t have to share my gender, race or galaxy to make me feel as though I was seeing my own journey mirrored in theirs. This insight has proved useful as I’ve negotiated diversity debates that sometimes make reductive declarations about what women or people of color need from their entertainment.

Because I became a “Star Wars” fan, I count myself among the science fiction and fantasy fans who had the vertiginous and generationally specific experience of seeing the things we love migrate from the fringe of mass culture to the center. It has been a useful bit of perspective as big franchises have taken over the entertainment news cycle and as geeks have had to accustom themselves to being something other than derided outsiders.

And George Lucas’s unfortunate futzing with his masterpiece was a valuable lesson in the idea that once a work leaves a creator’s hands, it’s up to us to interpret what we see, read or hear. That’s a particularly valuable recognition in an era where artists feel compelled to explain their work endlessly, choking off the audience’s experience with supposedly definitive explanations of what happened after Harry Potter grew up or after “The Sopranos” went to black. “Star Wars” taught me to be fierce and detailed in my convictions, even if it would be 15 years before those convictions became my trade.

I’m prepared for anything to happen on Tuesday when I see “The Force Awakens”: family drama, ridiculous new alien characters or some of the worst dialogue I’ve heard in theaters all year. But no matter what happens, I suspect I’ll feel grateful, if only for what “Star Wars” has given me in the past. The Force is with me.