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
like everyone else in New York City was just heading out to do New
stuff. I briefly
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
wear those tights that have sparkly stuff all over them on New Year’s
which means you know I thought starting this essay was really
I didn’t allow myself to
go into Episode VII
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
merits as a Star Wars movie), but as a significant landmark in nerd
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
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
enough like the original trilogy, and the only Black guy in space is
to be Lando Calrissian) is that principal villain Kylo Ren isn’t enough
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
and doing so in a manner
lacking in panache on top of it, I instinctively reacted by thinking it
bad move to make a Sith (or Knight of Ren, or whatever he is) a goofy
Then after it sank in, I
realized it was brilliant.
First of all, it’s
brilliant just in terms of sequel
have to have a
lightsaber-wielding bad guy because there has to be dueling, but making
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
way of continuing the central trilogy without cloning it (or worse
from it). But this
Kylo Ren is even more brilliant as a piece of philosophy that advances
concept of the Force and its Light and Dark Sides, a concept that has
been the most important contribution to pop-culture ethics in living
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
Nerds want a Star Wars
bad guy to be a stone-cold badass
like Darth Vader because this lets them off the hook for
nerds are absolutely nothing like Darth Vader.
Kylo Ren, however, is
he acts like one, he has the backstory of one, and when he takes his
off, he even looks like one. Far
ruining the film, this actually makes it the most mature entry to date
Star Wars canon, because it forces the greatest amount of
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.
of Kylo Ren, The Force Awakens is
saying “having a bad childhood and being insecure and feeling inferior
automatically make you the good guy, and it doesn't mean these movies
you – in fact, there's a good chance that clinging to this identity is
you the bad guy.”
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
not in fact cool, but rather cowardly repulsive shitheads with personal
could be addressed in much better ways with a little effort but which
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
and a desirable quality. Why
a useful word, for the rest of your life, continue solely to refer to
ultimately unimportant question of what a bunch of people you never saw
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
unable to let go of this definition has shot a bunch of people, and
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
adept people are. You
can call it a disturbance
in the Force if you want to, but whatever we call it, it’s something
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
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
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
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
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
physical beatings and face-to-face mockery tapered off, society’s
would continue to be, throughout adult life, largely doled out on bases
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
augmented at the close of the 20th century by two phenomena: the
rise of reality shows, on which unremarkable people got national
no special reason (instead of nerds, who deserve attention for being special), and, even more importantly, the spread of the
the rise of a distinct culture within its boundaries, one that
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
for someone without a pretty face and with no idea of how to talk to
achieve the accompanying negative image of fame by trolling the first
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.
will note that, unlike Vader, Kylo Ren does not wear a mask because he
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
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
to come, especially in this age when people become famous in their
very early twenties or not at all.
options, then, are negative attention or invisibility, and invisibility
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
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
Force Awakens is a white male.
this “unrealistic,” of course, is asinine, since we are talking about a
series that is already enthusiastically unrealistic on every level, and
present this reaction as a protest against the supposed power of the
“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
at least we could take comfort in some vague sense that we were the
guys.” The current
generation of white
male nerds, however, has been the first to encounter a shifting
priority that stripped them of the good-guy identity to which they were
entitled purely by virtue of being unpopular (think of the
movie”) and emphasized instead their white-maleness, recasting them as
just at the moment they had finished school and were ready to reap the
rewards they felt had been promised to them as recompense for their
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
rebuke to white males, any more than a movie in which the main
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
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
will and must be judged on its merits.
pain is sympathetic, but many actions taken as the result of pain, and
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
culture that we continue to insist are ours even when they no longer
to an identity – that of nerddom itself – that we fear to lose because
brought us the only type of attention that we ever learned how to
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
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
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
binary, applied in this
fashion, was once useful, but it no longer is – just like, say, poetry
longer written in the style of John Dryden, the Republican Party is no
the party of Teddy Roosevelt, and being educated no longer necessarily
that someone knows Latin. Culture
continually changing, and being too attached to the terms in which it
analyzed is never a good idea. Oh,
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
suffering, in that universe (and possibly
in ours, though suffering in
our universe is more complicated, as real life does not exclusively
around the actions of heroes), both of the sort experienced
sort inflicted upon others, is the result of someone’s being
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
an insufferable little shit today. And though it will not
always be the present,
it is always today.