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OK Boomer, Star Wars, and Myth

Still from Star Wars (1977)

The recent OK, Boomer brouhaha both amused and bemused me, and made me think (surprise!) about Star Wars and Joseph Campbell, not that I needed an excuse.

If you managed to miss it, so-called Millennials and members of Generation Z — people born after 1980, essentially — had taken their frustration with perceived condescension by members of the Baby Boom generation (born 1946–1964) and, as is their wont, had turned it into a dismissive meme: OK, Boomer. The flashpoint hit when a 25-year-old member of New Zealand's parliament was heckled during her speech on climate change and dismissed the heckler with a dead-pan "OK, Boomer."

Tempers flared on all sides of the issue. Even members of Generation X (1964-1980) smirked that, once again, they were being completely ignored.

What I found myself thinking about, as the silliness played out, was the fandom controversy concerning the current Star Wars sequel trilogy, itself an epically silly conflict. Certain members of the Star Wars fandom hate the new movies; some of that hatred is clearly racially and sexually motivated, but hardly all.

Much of it is personal esthetics, to be sure.

And some of it, I think, is generationally inspired.

Now, me, I'm a very late Baby Boomer — missed the 'Sixties, had schools closing down all around me, came into the workforce during Reagan’s recession. So I've never exactly felt like a part of my generation anyway — the generation famous for slogans like "Never trust anyone over thirty" and "Hope I die before I get old." And I have two daughters: one a late Millennial, the other a cutting-edge Gen Z-er, who like me is a hard-core life-long Star Wars geek.

All of which leads me to the question I’d like to discuss: who is the hero of the Star Wars series?

Well, for folks my age and a bit older who enjoyed the original trilogy as it came out (now episodes IV, V, and VI), the Campbellian hero of the series — the character onto whom we project our Self (in Campbell's Jungian sense) — is clearly Luke Skywalker. Arguments could be made for Princess Leia or the anti-heroic Han Solo too. Those three are the characters we identify with and root for as we watch A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and The Return of the Jedi.

The prequel series (episodes I, II, and III) came out between 1999 and 2005 and were pretty universally panned as a let-down on just about every level — as art, entertainment, etc. They took place before any of the three heroes of the original trilogy were born — though, of course, one of the central plot threads of the prequels was the coming together of Luke and Leia's parents.

So who is the hero of the prequels? You might hear some calls for young Obi Wan or Queen Amidala — but I think it's clear that the protagonist is Anakin Skywalker, who becomes Darth Vader. He's a flawed, tragic figure who undergoes the hero's journey, but ultimately fails every test and is destroyed by the experience.

Boomers who watched the movies had no problem with that; it was known from the original trilogy. The disappointment had more to do with how the story was told, not with its essential shape. And it was easy to see Anakin (and Amidala) not as projections of the Self, characters with whom we identify, but as Dad and Mom. Again, never trust anyone over thirty. Hope I die before I get old.

Only we were now all well over thirty and getting older.

Then came the most recent trilogy, the last installment of which has not (as of this writing) been released. Now many, many people (myself included) have enjoyed the sequels. Perfect? Hardly. But we enjoyed them.

However, some folks didn’t. As I said, part of the animus (in the non-Jungian sense) was honestly esthetic — some folks didn’t like where the story went. Part of it was racist and sexist. The part that OK, Boomer got me thinking about was the folks — almost all members of my generation — who were really unhappy that not only didn’t episodes VII, VIII, and IX center around the heroes we had identified with, but they were now the old folks, and the movies slowly killed them off. Han went in The Force Awakens. Luke disappeared into the Force in The Last Jedi. And I can only assume — an assumption reinforced by Carrie Fisher’s sad demise in 2016 — that Leia will go in The Rise of Skywalker.

Remember: in this trilogy, they’re the mentors, the magical helpers, not the heroes.

But some fans can’t think of them that way.

A signal characteristic of the Baby Boom generation has been an unwillingness to age gracefully — or at all. More than any generation, we have held on to our youth, even as the trappings of youth passed us by. We want to be treated as important, relevant — the heroes of the generational narrative.

Joseph Campbell talks about how working mythologies help individuals and societies deal with each stage of a person’s development, from childhood to adulthood, from adulthood to age, and from age through “the journey out the dark door” (Pathways to Bliss, 17).

Most of the great works of my generation’s culture, of our mythology (such as it is), focus on that first transition: adolescence, romance, rebellion. The last two? Not so much. And that’s a problem. As Campbell puts it:

The authorities are the old people. We haven’t learned how to handle them today, but in the old traditional societies they had. The reason they’d learned was that nothing much changed from generation to generation. Things passed in the times of the old people just about as they do in the present. So you could ask the elders how things used to be done, and the answer had some bearing on what should be done now. That’s not true anymore. (Pathways to Bliss, 16–17)

Until societies learn how to support people through all of the transitions in life without trying to return us to a non-existent Golden Age, the generations will continue to be at war. And that seems silly.

Oh, and who is the hero of the Star Wars series? Not sure, not having yet seen the finale, but I’d guess it’s family — not just the Skywalker family, but the universal family of which everyone (human, Wookie, or droid) is a part.

All film stills copyright © 20th Century Fox


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