When “Star Wars: The Force Awakens” was released in 2015, it revolutionized science-fiction pop culture. It had been 10 years since the last “Star Wars’” film and 32 years since the last good one. The movie tore apart the box office and brought young and old fans together, all while being more progressive than its predecessors in the series.
From the first female lead in the series, to the death of an old fan favorite, the fans never ran out of material to discuss. One of the most talked about, head-scratching moments of the film however, was the reveal of Kylo Ren’s identity under the mask. The dark figure everyone was afraid of turned out to be a pouty-lipped young adult obsessed with carrying out Darth Vader’s unfinished business.
Much of the Internet couldn’t take him seriously. From his awkward physical appearance to his random, destructive outbreaks, Ren’s character read more as a Hot Topic-shopping middle schooler who’s “not going through a phase” instead of the face of a new fascist regime. But, despite all the emo memes made by fans, the choice to make the new evil overlord an entitled and obsessed kid instead of a destruction-hungry adult was the most relevant one they could have made.
Darth Vader was one of the most successful and frightening villains of his time because he was realistic. With the looming fear of nuclear warfare brought by the Cold War, a tall, dark and unpredictable leader was something that Americans in the ‘70s and ‘80s could relate back to the political climate of the time. If he were to make his debut now, he wouldn’t have the same effect on audiences. Vader is a villain we’ve seen before and doesn’t hold the same relevance anymore.
Ren is all over America today. He takes the form of frat boys in MAGA hats fighting a never-ending war on political correctness. He has no agenda of his own and his only purpose is to carry out the work of tyrants before him. The light manner in which the audience deals with him is actually similar to the way they handle the “Kylo Rens” of the real world.
A video of some boys from Covington Catholic High School smirking at and mocking a Native American activist recently plastered everyone’s social media timelines. Over a week later, people and news sources still don’t know how to piece together the whole story of what went on exactly, but whatever it was, the result was ugly and racially-charged.
After chanting “Trump 2020” and “build the wall” with all of his classmates, student Nick Sandmann–who essentially became the face of the controversy–was invited on the “Today Show” to speak on the incident regarding his school’s new reputation. He took the chance to explain to the country that his Catholic school tolerates no racism of any sort and that “none of [his] classmates are racist people.”
Similar to the way that “Star Wars: The Last Jedi” tried to humanize Ren, Americans–both conservative and liberal–are too eager to defend young men like Sandmann and give them a chance to redeem themselves. People justifying their behavior by saying that they’re just children and thus, don’t know any better, is giving them a free pass to continue to behave the way they do. These “children” are being given a platform to promote their rhetoric that has harmful roots.
It might be easy to not take Star Wars’ newest bad guy seriously, especially when he’s angrily swinging his lightsaber around, destroying his own spaceship, but we can’t have that same complacent attitude when it’s real. Excusing hateful behavior, only because those who are exhibiting it are young men isn’t going to change the world we live in; it’s only going to allow it to continue.