meta: A term, especially in art, used to characterize something that is characteristically self-referential.
– Urban Dictionary, 2005
WARNING: This entire post is a theory on The Force Awakens. If you have not seen the movie, close your browser right now.
If you’ve made it this far, you should already have seen The Force Awakens. Hopefully you’ve seen it more than once. If you’ve read anything on the Internet you may have encountered online theories about Rey’s parentage, the identity of Supreme Leader Snoke, or other pieces of the Star Wars mythos. This is not that kind of theory.
My theory is that The Force Awakens is actually JJ Abrams’ meta-commentary on geek fandom. To sum things up:
Han, Chewie, Leia, and Luke represent the Star Wars intellectual property.
R2D2 and C3PO represent the old-generation (40s and older) Star Wars fans who lived through the first three cinematic releases.
Poe and Kylo represent the mid-generation (late-20s to 30s) Star Wars fans who weren’t born during ANH/ESB, but were old enough to remember the Episode I disappointment.
Rey and Finn represent the young-adult Star Wars fans who are too young to have experienced prequel shock.
The Force represents the emotional impact of geek culture – mainstream culture in the past, Internet culture in the present.
The Dark Side represents the nitpicking, judgemental, gatekeeping side of geekdom, as in “Gamergate” and “Rabid Puppies” online movements.
The Light Side represents the inclusive, joyful, uplifting side of geekdom, as in celebrity authors such as Neil Gaiman and George RR Martin.
Supreme Leader Snoke represents the primeval force of fanbase hatred.
Once you view the new Star Wars lore through an allegorical lens, it not only makes sense, it shines a bright light on geek culture and science-fiction culture as a whole.
Solo, Organa, Skywalker, Chewbacca
The Holy Trinity… and a walking carpet
So JJ Abrams’ Star Wars allegory begins by assigning the following roles to each Original Series character:
Luke = The Original Movies
Han = The Expanded Universe
Chewie = The Videogames
Leia = The Merchandising
Luke Skywalker is the most important man in the galaxy. He has the strongest command of The Force, just like how ANH/ESB/RotJ are the most loved by the fanbase. However, by the start of TFA, Luke has been missing for many years… ever since the Cataclysm that turned Kylo and the other young Jedi to the dark side.
Where Luke is powerful but somewhat one-dimensional, Han Solo is a complex character with a good heart but many bad habits. He represents the old Star Wars EU, ranging from the amazing Timothy Zahn novels to some downright putrid plotlines. His inseparable furry companion also has shades of greatness but also very bad breath.
While Leia (the merchandising) may share most of Luke’s DNA, she’s had a long and tempestuous relationship with Han (the Expanded Universe). Sometimes this relationship has seemed like true love, as in super pricey Boba Fetts. Other times things are a bit rocky, as demonstrated by testicle-headed Rebel aliens.
The two droids, R2D2 and C3PO, represent the old generation of Star Wars fans. These old-school fans were droids, so they don’t feel The Force – our allegory for the cultural impact of SF. These fans were blessed enough to live in the pre-Facebook, pre-Reddit era. They could be loyal and devoted fans without having to worry about whether fandom should be inclusive or judgemental.
And of course no mention of the Original Cast is complete without Darth Vader. In this allegory, Vader represents old school sci-fi, ranging from Wells to Clarke to Herbert. Just like Luke and Vader, “popular” SF is the son of “serious” SF but the two of them have fought bitterly since the beginning.
Vader was a staunch disciple of the Dark Side, with a judgemental fanbase that harassed Lucas for not knowing the definition of a parsec. However, in the end Vader went over to the light side and helped Luke overthrow stodgy, no-fun science fiction.
Unfortunately, Vader was mortally wounded in the battle, and Hollywood has been allergic to filming serious SF ever since. (with a few exceptions like “Moon”, “Interstellar”)
Star Wars: The Next Generation
Ren or Stimpy?
Poe Dameron and Ben Solo were both born around the time of Return of the Jedi. This makes them exactly the same age as the fan-groups that they are meant to symbolize. I was born a year after Return of the Jedi, but that didn’t stop me from seeing all three Star Wars movies all over TV and VHS.
Poe is an incredibly skilled pilot and yet he is not Force sensitive (as far as anyone knows). He represents the Star Wars fans that loved the Star Wars universe without ever being too involved in the fanbase culture wars – do the 12 parsecs make sense, is Leia’s Bikini sexist, why did Lucas have to include the Ewoks? The Poe-type fans may have read a smattering of Expanded Universe books and/or comics, but weren’t raised on them. The EU was never our father.
On the other hand, Ben Solo had no choice but to be emotionally involved. The Expanded Universe was his father. Together with Star Wars toys and merch, they were his introduction and his entire reason to love geek culture. From infancy, Ben was aware of his Force-sensitive emotional bond to geekdom. He was sent to train in Luke’s Jedi Academy, where the Original Movies taught him respect for Star Wars’ place in geek culture.
And then… something went very very wrong.
The Tragedy at the Jedi Academy
The Power of the Dark Side
Over a decade before The Force Awakened, something horrible happened at the Jedi Academy. In the movie this caused Ben Solo’s transformation into Kylo Ren, it forced Rey to be hidden on Jakku, and it caused Han and Leia to go their separate ways.
Now the movies never quite explain how Supreme Leader Snoke managed to influence so many young Jedi right under Luke Skywalker’s nose. However, I have a pretty good idea.
In the new TFA continuity, The New Republic appears to have far less popular support than the Legends EU New Republic. That plus the fact that Leia abandoned the New Republic suggests that it wasn’t doing a good job of running the galaxy. The Republic may have been corrupt or incompetent or more likely both.
The Republic’s dysfunction must have been obvious to the teenage Jedi apprentices. That would serve as an easy lead for Snoke to seduce them to the dark side.
So over a decade ago, the Star Wars canon went in a really stupid and poorly executed direction. It’s obvious that The New New Republic represents the Prequel movies. Dislike of the Republic becomes so severe that it empowers Supreme Leader Snoke, the avatar of fan-hatred.
And under Snoke‘s influence, the young Star Wars fan Ben Solo is transformed into a bitterness and rage-filled creature, Kylo Ren. Even as he resents his parents, Kylo idolizes his grandfather Darth Vader – nitpicky old science fiction. He became convinced that Star Wars wasn’t pure enough, that real sci-fi should have logically consistent technology and no implausible superweapons… and as a follower of the Dark Side he believes that anyone who disagrees “isn’t a real SF fan”.
Kylo Ren believes himself powerful in the Force. He spends years practicing online warfare, trolling and harassing with a whole brigade of his Ren peers. Kylo’s creepy mind trick wrings secrets out of unwilling victims just like hacked documents and pictures can be used to blackmail people. The Dark Side is strong with this one.
Mary Sue Rey
Stronger than she knows
Rey is the young-adult geek fanbase, around ten years younger than Kylo Ren. She was no more than eight years old (maybe six or seven?) during the Tragedy of the Jedi Academy. Her memory was wiped – she probably never even saw Episode II/III. At the start of TFA, Rey believes that Han, Luke, the Jedi and the Force are all just myths. She practically doesn’t even realize that she lives in the Star Wars universe. As a real-world geek she knows more about Doctor Who, Tony Stark and Cloud Strife than she does about Star Wars.
Rey quickly runs into BB-8 and Finn. These two characters represent the small-child fanbase and the non-geek fanbase respectively. They are not Force sensitive; BB-8 because he is a child and Finn because he is not emotionally invested in geek culture.
In fact, Finn starts out as a stormtrooper. He is a servant of the dark side, but he’s the janitor, he’s not invested in the fight. Finn represents every non-geek who is exposed to Star Wars merchandising and has to suffer through his Dark Side geek friends complaining about how much Star Wars sucks. His first impression is that it’s all stupid and he doesn’t want anything to do with Star Wars. Finn frees Poe not because he loves the Resistance, but only because he needs a pilot.
Rey doesn’t want to be a Star Wars fan either, but she has no choice – she’s an integral part of the New Star Wars continuity. As the young-adult fan with a social media presence, Rey is the most valuable person in the galaxy both to the Light Side and the Dark. And so both sides will always try to win her to their cause – the Light Side through friendship, the Dark Side through anger and coercion. (possibly by accusing her of being a “Fake Geek”)
Kylo kidnaps Rey because he’s the embodiment of terrible Internet harassment, and this tends to target women of Rey’s age. Finn only agrees to attack the Starkiller Base because he wants to save Rey.
Of course, Rey doesn’t need much saving. Rey is keenly attuned to The Force of Internet culture wars, she just didn’t know how much power she really had. After Kylo attacks her mind, Rey immediately learns to use this power and she dominates a weak-minded stormtrooper. (ie some other internet kid) After this point, her power never stops growing.
Rey feels like an overpowered Mary Sue character because she is. The category of “20-year-old women who spend money on geeky stuff” is the single fastest-growing demographic in geek culture. Everyone in the geek-culture universe wants her on their side.
Crossing the Rubicon
Coming to an end
Right before the final mission on Starkiller Base, Leia tells Han that she really wants her son back. In our allegory, this represents Disney and JJ Abrams trying to bring back alienated Star Wars fans. These Kylo Ren fans used to be hardcore fans, their internet-Force could generate massive profits for Disney!
But Kylo is still badly conflicted over his relationship with Han. Han himself admits that he wasn’t always a good father. (selling crap like the Sun Crusher and Vong Invasion series)
Ultimately the alienated fan’s hatred is too strong to overcome, at least not with a single movie. Kylo Ren kills Han Solo and he falls into a bottomless pit, the same fate as the Legends Expanded Universe. Kylo remains on the dark side, although he is surprisingly unable to defend himself from Chewie (the videogames). Chewie’s bowcaster bolt leaves him badly injured for the final battle.
In that lightsaber fight, a wounded Kylo Ren takes on both of the younger-generation fans at once. Finn is easily defeated as he lacks the Force sensitivity (the ability to fight on the Internet). However, Rey is much stronger than Kylo as we all expected, especially since Kylo is badly hurt. His attacks are ineffective, his taunts only make Rey stronger, and Kylo is humiliated.
After the victorious battle, Rey (the young Star Wars fan) meets up with R2D2 (the old Star Wars fan) and together they find Luke Skywalker (the original joy and love of Star Wars). This neatly sums up JJ Abrams’ intent with the new series: he aimed to bring a whole new generation of fans to a love of Star Wars. Judging by the movie’s historic box office reciepts he has been successful.
On the other hand, JJ had no illusions about his ability to bring back the truly disillusioned and hateful Star Wars fans. Kylo Ren is the dyspeptic 30-something ex-fan. At the end of the movie he’s still on the Dark Side.
Lightsabers and Culture Wars
Trust your feelings
In conclusion, The Force Awakens is actually an allegory for the entire online geek-culture debate.
If we look at science fiction and fantasy geekdom in real life, we have a real problem with fans falling to the Dark Side. There’s an angry, exclusionary movement that accuses would-be geeks of being “fake geeks”, “social justice warriors” and worse… and it’s shockingly powerful. When the full firepower of the Dark Side is focused on one target, it can destroy an entire planet – or at least a SXSW panel.
The Dark Side of the Internet Force is tempting because it is an easy path to power. A fan can seem much more knowledgeable if he studies absolutely every detail of a small number of franchises, and declares that everything else is “not SF” or “not geek culture”. He can feel like an arbiter of geekness, a gatekeeper who can dismiss anyone he doesn’t like as being a simpering, speech code-loving, freedom-hating SJW. He can destroy entire gaming events with the power of bomb threats called in by a Reddit brigade.
The Light Side is a more difficult path to tread. Admitting that all geek culture is legitimate means that you can’t possibly be familiar with it all. There’s no adrenaline rush where you can feel like a powerful leader backed up by an army of Stormtrooper-like brigadiers. You are forced to admit that other geeks have every right to love franchises that you despise, and to love casting and plot decisions that you disagree with.
Yet the Dark Side is ultimately self-destructive because it’s not likable and people rebel against it. Dark Side governments are forced to destroy entire planets or stars just to maintain their grip on power… much like Dark Geekdom communities tend to be fractious and conspiracy-prone. Destroy enough planets and eventually there won’t be anyone left to rule. This is the problem with Dark Side fanbases; they can only shrink over time.
In 2014, Dark Siders created the “GamerGate movement” supposedly to protest bad journalism, but its highest-profile actions have resembled a hate group more than a journalism group. GamerGate has been loudly denounced by Intel, EA, Sony, Blizzard, and almost every other major gaming company.
Earlier in 2015, Dark Siders created the “Sad Puppies movement” as a reaction against percieved political correctness in Sci-Fi and Fantasy novels. While they had a few good points at first, the Puppies’ online rhetoric quickly degenerated into hate brigades. In the end, George R R Martin pulled together a massive coalition of SFF fans to vote down the Puppies. The Puppies declared victory by claiming that they’d intended to lose all along – but everyone else knows that they lost.
For now, the Light Side is still winning most of its battles. That’s not to say there isn’t collateral damage, but at least the Dark Side is mostly confined to the “Outer Rim” of the Internet galaxy.
In the universe of “Star Wars”, we’re confident that the Light Side will eventually win in the end. I can only hope that the same holds true of real life geekdom.
May the Force be with you all.