The Anthropology of STAR WARS Fans From a Guy Who Doesn't Get It

"Star Wars: The Force Awakens" poster
Credit: Disney/Lucasfilm

I’m a tourist stranded in the wrong country. My passport has never said “Republic of Star Wars.” And in December, 2015, the Star Wars Nation has occupied everything.

Credit: Nestle

Turn on the TV or fire up Twitter, and Star Wars: The Force Awakens imagery jumps out from everywhere. People were talking about “Finn” for months before I realized it wasn’t Finn McCool. I open the ’fridge and the wife’s creamer looks like Chewbacca. No lie.

It’s not a complaint—I think. Just an observation. Because Star Wars is not just a nation, it’s also a full-frontal genetic predisposition. And I don’t have that gene.

C’mon, we all know that guy: An inveterate Harley Davidson rider who would rather die than hop on a Honda, or (shudder) a Deadhead who’s bought 217 Grateful Dead bootleg tapes (just in the last two years) and it’s still not enough.

Y’ever try to talk to these people? To “get” where they’re coming from? To find out why their passion runs so deep? You can kick through a couple questions and try, failingly, to grok their explanations before they usually say, “If I have to explain it to you, you wouldn’t get it anyway.”

Believe me when I tell you, it’s the same for Star Wars. The difference? Three percent of people are Harley fanatics. Maybe one percent are Deadheads. The Star Wars gene? It’s active in 90 percent of people. It’s so mainstream, you accept it as given. But a small minority of people are, shockingly, Star Wars-negative.

That’s me. Make no mistake, I know it: I’m the freak here. I’m the man on the outside who wears the blank expression when someone says “Judge me by my size, you should not,” while the whole room breaks out laughing. I am dust under your heels, a veritable midi-chlorian scourge (admittedly, I had to look that up, and is that still a thing?), suitable only for your derision.

But a tourist has an advantage. A tourist sees things a native is too close to perceive. Only a tourist—along with a few experts—can tell you about the behavior of the citizens of One Nation Under Star Wars.

IS THERE ANY ‘THERE’ THERE?

If you ask me, no. Star Wars is a fiction, a nice one to many, sure, but there is no “there” there because it’s simply not real. Y’dig?

Well, the loyal opposition tells me that maybe that’s not necessary.

“For a lot of folks, Star Wars does represent a community,” says Dr. Praveen Kambam. Kambam is a board-certified physician in psychiatry. He and two partners also comprise Broadcast Thought, a consulting firm that advises popular media on psychiatric issues. “There might not be an official headquarters of Star Wars fans, but there are gatherings, both physical and online, and that makes it both ‘real’ for people involved, and real in a broader sense.”

And with the launch of an I’ll-call-it-odd Toys 'R Us commercial , the Star Wars Nation seems to want the current generation to indoctrinate the next into its fandom. Hey, I got my kid his first Minnesota Twins jersey at age 9 months. So I get that.

“I think you want your children, your friends, and your loved ones to share in your experience,” says Dr. Vasilis Pozios. “It’s great when people you care about can understand it.”

Pozios is one of the Broadcast Thought partners, a doctor specializing in forensic and adult psychiatry. He might stop short of calling Star Wars fans a nation. “I don’t think you can compare this to cultural, religious or ethnic passing-down,” he says. “I think the closest analogy is sports fandom, which, ask any Cubs fan, is important. It’s different, but this is still important.”

Akin to sports fandom? Perish the thought! I haven’t spent the last 40 years of my life taking the milk money of nerdlingers just to be equated with them! Wookies are clearly inferior to the Boston Celtics, right?

Well, Dr. Kambam stresses that the importance is in the eye of the beholder. “The ‘ranking,’ that’s up to the individual,” he says. “To a lot of people, Star Wars might be more important than their ethnicity or culture, which might not be as important to them. It really depends on the person.”

And somewhere in there is a story, which makes a connection to the person. My stories are of Irish extraction, so they’re filled with losing gloriously, just like the Minnesota Vikings. If someone even mentions December 28, 1975, my body damn near convulses, my right arm looking to chuck a Corby’s whiskey bottle at Armen Terzian (look it up!). So maybe my Drew F-ing Pearson is your Darth F-ing Vader.

Louise Krasniewicz thinks so. She teaches anthropology at the University of Pennsylvania, and has written biographies on Walt Disney, Johnny Depp, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and more. She thinks Star Wars fandom absolutely is a social activity, as are other fandoms. She says we access fandom through the very currency that a Star Wars has to spend: Story. And she’s a fan.

“I look at football, baseball, the Grateful Dead, Harleys, whatever, and there are stories there, but they just don’t resonate with me,” Krasniewicz says. “They’re not general enough to allow my entry, and allow me to fit them into my life.”

Krasniewicz has studied the relationships between people and groups of people, and knows that passing down story has a great social import. The commercial certainly resonates with her.

“The moment that your kid winds up transitioning to your world, you know that you’ve shared the stories with them that you can now share mutually,” she says. “There’s a continuity of your experiences to your kid, and there’s a thrill to that.”

Dr. Kambam thinks that Krasniewicz and others can get into Star Wars “Because it’s an epic story dealing with universal themes in the human experience—self-actualization and self-individualization, love, family, fear, good versus evil—that are powerful and relatable.”

TRIBAL CUSTOMS

Star Wars is relatable to James Rollins. The bestselling author of 20 espionage-meets-science-meets mythology novels has a streak. He’s seen every Star Wars movie on first day of release, and even still has his freebie “May the Force be with You” button he got at the movie theater in 1977. But his streak will soon end.

“Sadly, I don’t think I’ll see this new one first day on the December 18,” he laments. “I’ll be on a book tour. But as soon as I can, it’s a top priority. I’ve been so enamored of Star Wars right from the start. I just get sucked in and lost in the moment when I watch the movies.”

Rollins will be promoting his new book, The Bone Labyrinth, and if you’re in San Diego on December 18, maybe hit him up on Twitter. He’s looking to find his people.

“Ultimately, we’re all trying to find that tribe we belong to,” he says. “It’s nice finding like-minded people who have the same passions you do. Participating in fandom is a way to do that. I think it’s part of human nature that we’re tribal in nature, and we want that connection, that commonality.”

Credit: Southern California Garrison of the 501st Legion

Scott Allen has found a large tribe. The 51-year-old is a training-and-education director for a fashion software company in Los Angeles Monday through Friday, but on weekends, he’s a “Commanding Officer” in the Southern California Garrison of the 501st Legion. The 501st is a Star Wars fan/costuming organization that boasts thousands of members from Alaska to Australia and all points various and sundry. He loves spending time with his Star Wars buddies, even though he admits to being a 7.5 at best on the 1-to-10 scale of Star Wars fandom.

“If you were to ask me all the character names and all the planets they visited, by no means would I have all the answers,” he admits. “But I like learning new things every day.”

Yeah, you damn right I’m wearing purple-and-gold on fall and winter Sundays. Hell, I even got a Vikings jersey for my dog, Abby. But the thought of putting on a Stormtrooper costume? That’s crazy to start with, and compounded because…I mean, who identifies with the bad guys?

JIm's dog Abby
JIm's dog Abby
Credit: Jim McLauchlin

“The attraction of the 501st Legion may not be because it celebrates the bad guys, but because it offers an opportunity for community,” Dr. Pozios says. “The Stormtrooper costume is a uniform, and uniforms unite those who wear them. Donning the Stormtrooper helmet not only completes the process of stepping into the role of a character, but it solidifies your place in the community.”

On the other side of the psychological coin. Dr. Kambam offers rebuttal: Well, the bad guys have the cool costumes,” he says.

No matter where the cool is, Scott Allen loves what the 501st does. The organization is all-volunteer, and doesn’t profit from the many appearances it does.

“The Legion does awesome work for charity and fundraising,” Allen says. “We’ve done library events, toy drives around the holidays. My group has done children’s hospital visits, working with the Starlight Foundation or Make-a-Wish for kids who want to see the characters but otherwise wouldn’t have a way to. We don’t charge a fee or make a penny. It’s all based on, ‘I have this costume, and this is what I do if I have the time on a Saturday.’”

Allen is a well-rounded enough fellow. He also loves—interestingly enough!—his Harley and his convertible. And he’s missing the gene that I have.

“I just don’t get the love of sports, why anyone would want to wear their team colors, or go to a certain game,” he says. “I don’t understand the cheering or the jumping up and down there. But in the Star Wars events, I get that same sort of excitement. That’s our sporting event, our team, and we want to represent the team with the greatest pride and authenticity we can, just like you might want to do with a football team.”

CAN’T WE ALL JUST GET ALONG?

Ask the shrinks. Ask the anthropologist. Hell, ask the guy in the Darth Vader suit. Maybe we’re all just different stripes on the same cloth.

“It’s important to note that you don’t have to be just one thing,” Dr. Pozios says. “You can be a Star Wars fan, and also be a Grateful Dead fan, a Seattle Mariners fan, or a fan of a lesser property.”

A lesser property?

“We call those people Star Trek fans,” Pozios quips.

So hey, Man in the Darth Vader Suit, lemme ask you point-blank. Try as I might, I just don’t “get” Star Wars. Am I a freak?

Scott Allen is taken aback.

“Wow,” he says. “That’s really interesting, But no, you’re not a freak. I have met so many people in the last eight years of doing this who have said, ‘Oh, I’ve never seen the Star Wars movies,’ and I understand. Maybe I was just in the right place at the right time for it to have a deep impact on me. Your place and time may have given you a different impact. You’re not a freak. In fact, you seem like a nice guy to me.”

Right back at ya, pal.

—Similar articles of this ilk are archived on a crummy-looking blog. You can also follow @McLauchlin on Twitter.

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