The Dorks Awaken, Hopefully


Kylo Ren

So I finally got a chance to see The Force Awakens, doing so by myself, on New Year’s Eve, before heading straight home to think about it right around the time when it seemed like everyone else in New York City was just heading out to do New Year’s Eve stuff.  I briefly considered turning around to go somewhere and be around people, but I decided it was more important to get home and start this essay instead – even though lots of women wear those tights that have sparkly stuff all over them on New Year’s Eve, which means you know I thought starting this essay was really important.

I didn’t allow myself to go into Episode VII with terribly high expectations, but I was overall quite pleased with it – not just as a Star Wars movie (though I did think it a fine entry in the series purely on the merits as a Star Wars movie), but as a significant landmark in nerd culture, even if it isn’t one that a lot of nerds are happy about right now…  Maybe, in fact, because a lot of nerds aren’t happy.

If you’ve been keeping abreast of complaints in the blogosphere and on YouTube, then you know that nerds’ main complaint about The Force Awakens (aside from the fact that lightsabers shouldn’t have hilts, BB-8 is CGI even though somebody apparently said he wasn’t, it’s too much like the original trilogy, it isn’t enough like the original trilogy, and the only Black guy in space is supposed to be Lando Calrissian) is that principal villain Kylo Ren isn’t enough of a badass.

I admit that this was jarring for me at first too.  The first time we saw Kylo Ren react to a setback by flipping out and carving up his own control panel with a lightsaber, and doing so in a manner utterly lacking in panache on top of it, I instinctively reacted by thinking it was a bad move to make a Sith (or Knight of Ren, or whatever he is) a goofy spazz.

Then after it sank in, I realized it was brilliant.

First of all, it’s brilliant just in terms of sequel moviemaking.  You have to have a lightsaber-wielding bad guy because there has to be dueling, but making him Darth Fillintheblank who is basically Vader again would be a pointless retread.  Making him a guy who idolizes Vader but constantly freaks out because he sucks compared to Vader is a clever way of continuing the central trilogy without cloning it (or worse still, someone from it).  But this characterization of Kylo Ren is even more brilliant as a piece of philosophy that advances the concept of the Force and its Light and Dark Sides, a concept that has probably been the most important contribution to pop-culture ethics in living memory.

The presentation of Kylo Ren as a whiny, insecure little shit is brilliant because, frankly, whiny insecure little shits are usually the people who actually do become evil in real life.

Nerds want a Star Wars bad guy to be a stone-cold badass like Darth Vader because this lets them off the hook for self-examination, as nerds are absolutely nothing like Darth Vader.  Kylo Ren, however, is a nerd: he acts like one, he has the backstory of one, and when he takes his helmet off, he even looks like one.  Far from ruining the film, this actually makes it the most mature entry to date in the Star Wars canon, because it forces the greatest amount of self-examination on the part of its core audience.

Do not underestimate the importance of this, or how necessary it was for this to happen right now.  This is a movie that knew it was destined to be for nerds; an entry in a film series around which many nerds’ lives straight-up revolve.  And it had the courage to slap those nerds in the face.  Through this characterization of Kylo Ren, The Force Awakens is saying “having a bad childhood and being insecure and feeling inferior doesn't automatically make you the good guy, and it doesn't mean these movies belong to you – in fact, there's a good chance that clinging to this identity is making you the bad guy.”

So no, Kylo Ren is not as cool as Darth Vader.  He isn’t cool at all.  And he shouldn’t be, because people who wipe out civilian populations for being insufficiently impressed by them are not in fact cool, but rather cowardly repulsive shitheads with personal issues that could be addressed in much better ways with a little effort but which they callowly refuse to confront.

Remember, the word cool doesn’t properly mean “was popular in high school.”  That is a stupid-ass debasement of the term that is doing more harm than good at this point.  It refers to the quality of not flipping out when little things, or even fairly big things, go wrong, which is an admirable and a desirable quality.  Why should such a useful word, for the rest of your life, continue solely to refer to the ultimately unimportant question of what a bunch of people you never saw again thought of you when both you and they were sixteen?

The reason I’m bothering to address this, by the way, is because every other time I turn on the TV I see that yet another person who was unable to let go of this definition has shot a bunch of people, and it’s getting old.

Thirty years ago, nerds were the good guys and cool kids were the bad guys, and it was as simple as that.  But things have changed.  Due to various cultural shifts and new technologies, nerds are now causing more suffering in America than socially adept people are.  You can call it a disturbance in the Force if you want to, but whatever we call it, it’s something that we nerds need to acknowledge and address.

The fact that – as the result of aneurotypicality, past trauma, or some combination of the two – we exist largely outside of sociality and socialization means that we are also largely unaffected by these things.  This gives us the capacity to do good and important things, and we are justified in being proud of this.  But it is time – past time – for us all to confront, both collectively and each alone with himself, the fact that it also gives us the capacity to do great harm.  Philosophers and inventors are indeed people who see things differently and march to the beats of their own drummers, but so are mass murderers.  And at this point, somebody philosophizing or inventing is not what I see on the news every two weeks.

Usually, a flip-out mass shooting is the doing of someone who was tired of feeling invisible – whether it be at work, or in the eyes of women, or with respect to his pet views about politics.  We nerds were disregarded, if not actively persecuted, when we were teenagers, and the promises of adults that this would change after high school turned out to be empty ones.  We found, to our supreme heartbreak and the spite of our young trust in the promises of authorities, that, although the physical beatings and face-to-face mockery tapered off, society’s accolades would continue to be, throughout adult life, largely doled out on bases barely modified from those we had hoped to age past.

But this has always been the case.  What has changed is American society’s ever-increasing premium on fame for the sake of fame, augmented at the close of the 20th century by two phenomena: the rise of reality shows, on which unremarkable people got national attention for no special reason (instead of nerds, who deserve attention for being special), and, even more importantly, the spread of the internet and the rise of a distinct culture within its boundaries, one that engendered the possibility of “microfame” of the MySpace/Facebook and YouTube variety.  More than ever before, it became possible for someone with a pretty face who knew “how to talk to people” to achieve something that is enough like fame to envy while acting alone from home – and for someone without a pretty face and with no idea of how to talk to people to achieve the accompanying negative image of fame by trolling the first type of people.

This is not a minor point.  Microfamous internet celebrities put themselves out there, usually with their real faces if not always with their real names.  Trolls operate by augmenting their voices while concealing their identities.  You will note that, unlike Vader, Kylo Ren does not wear a mask because he was disfigured and needs it to survive – he wears a mask because he just thinks wearing a mask is awesome.


Paradoxical as it may seem for someone who is tired of being unnoticed to put on a mask, it serves the purposes of concealment and intimidation once he has crossed the line into actively seeking negative attention.  Before the mask, there was simply no attention – or perhaps, worse still, a promise of future positive attention that never materialized.  By a few years into post-school young adulthood, it becomes clear that the positive attention is probably never going to come, especially in this age when people become famous in their teens or very early twenties or not at all.  The options, then, are negative attention or invisibility, and invisibility in a fame culture is tantamount to nonexistence.

This is why so many nerds – or “fanboys,” as those of this type have come derisively to be called – cling so hard to a sense of ownership over certain cultural touchstones such as the Star Wars films.  If you cannot be famous, in either a positive or a negative way, then at least something that is famous can be yours.  This is why so many nerds have reacted with so much aggression towards the fact that none of the three new principal protagonists introduced in The Force Awakens is a white male.  To call this “unrealistic,” of course, is asinine, since we are talking about a film series that is already enthusiastically unrealistic on every level, and to present this reaction as a protest against the supposed power of the alleged “P.C. Police” is just another cover.

The pain and fear that many white male nerds feel about this and other things these days is real, however, and on some basic level it is not entirely unentitled to sympathy: as nerds, we were tortured in childhood, but at least we could take comfort in some vague sense that we were the “good guys.”  The current generation of white male nerds, however, has been the first to encounter a shifting cultural priority that stripped them of the good-guy identity to which they were once entitled purely by virtue of being unpopular (think of the stereotypical “80s movie”) and emphasized instead their white-maleness, recasting them as bad guys just at the moment they had finished school and were ready to reap the destined rewards they felt had been promised to them as recompense for their painful childhoods.

Of course, it is necessary to keep in mind that a movie in which the leads are a Black man and a white woman is not in fact necessarily a rebuke to white males, any more than a movie in which the main character has brown hair and is right-handed is a rebuke to left-handed blond people.  In any movie, a main character always has to look more like someone than he or she does like someone else, and this only becomes a big deal if people choose to make it one.  I said that the pain of nerds itself is not unentitled to sympathy, and this is true, but nerds must remember that what we choose to do with that pain will and must be judged on its merits.  All pain is sympathetic, but many actions taken as the result of pain, and maybe even most of them, are not.

Master Yoda famously said that “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”  But in terms of Star Wars’ openly acknowledged Buddhist source material, this progression is incomplete: the path to suffering begins with attachment, and Yoda should have begun by explaining that attachment is what leads to fear.  The pain that nerds cause once they are no longer children does indeed ultimately stem from attachment, both to aspects of culture that we continue to insist are ours even when they no longer are, and to an identity – that of nerddom itself – that we fear to lose because it brought us the only type of attention that we ever learned how to recognize.

I did not laugh at most of the jokes in The Force Awakens, but the children sitting all around me did.  I did not gasp in awe when the Death Star – or “Starkiller Base,” this time – blew up, because I have seen Death Stars blow up before, starting with my very first visit to a movie theater in 1983.  But the boy sitting right in front of me yelled “Whoa!” and jumped out of his seat, and I was happy for him.  I never heard him complain that Finn was Black or that our new Jedi protagonist is a girl, though.  It also didn’t seem as though he thought the movie was ruined by the fact that Kylo Ren was a whiny little shit instead of a stone-cold badass.  Maybe kids just have a less romantic, and more accurate, view of what evil is really like deep down than most adults do.

They have so much less to be attached to, after all.

I feel like it isn’t enough for me to just preach at people here, though.  I should probably also try to set an example by doing something myself, so here goes.  In light of what The Force Awakens has shown us, I am not going to self-apply the term nerd anymore, nor will I use cool as an insult.  This binary, applied in this fashion, was once useful, but it no longer is – just like, say, poetry is no longer written in the style of John Dryden, the Republican Party is no longer the party of Teddy Roosevelt, and being educated no longer necessarily means that someone knows Latin.  Culture is continually changing, and being too attached to the terms in which it was once analyzed is never a good idea.  Oh, and what the hell, I guess while I’m at it I’ll also stop referring to myself as a “kid,” since I’ll be turning 38 in a few weeks.

Everything in the Star Wars films teaches us that an ethical perspective involves mindfulness of the present moment.  The present is not like the past, because of course it isn’t, and it won’t be like the future, because of course it won’t.  All suffering, in that universe (and possibly in ours, though suffering in our universe is more complicated, as real life does not exclusively revolve around the actions of heroes), both of the sort experienced privately and the sort inflicted upon others, is the result of someone’s being either too obsessed with the past or overly worried about the future.

By keeping your mind on the present moment, you realize that all you have to do in order not to be an insufferable little shit is to not be an insufferable little shit today.  And though it will not always be the present, it is always today.

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