The year was 1977. I was so close to my thirteenth birthday I could taste it.
I remember reading a preview for an upcoming movie in a teen magazine. The movie was called Star Wars. The preview breathlessly promised there was a Princess who was as much a hero as the (cute) guys.
Sign me up! My parents didn’t want to go. Since it was rated PG they forced my brother, who is five years older than me, to go along. He had just turned eighteen and was not amused. For some odd reason, he didn’t want to deal with a bunch of newly minted and *days away* teenagers. He brought along some of his friends. They sat as far away from us as was humanly possible. I can’t imagine why.
It’s easy to forget now, but the movie was not targeted at little kids. It had the aforementioned PG rating. Nor was it targeted to boys alone. No matter what JJ Abrams believes. It was positioned for broad mass appeal.
Marketing was very different back then. This was the mid 1970s after all. Smack dab in the middle of the Womens Liberation movement. Well before the 1980s FCC deregulation.
This Atlantic article titled Toys Are More Divided by Gender Now Than They Were 50 Years Ago by Elizabeth Sweet looks at gender branding of toys over the years. She specifically singles out the 1970s as a time when it was less prevalent than it ever has been.
“However, gender-coded toy advertisements like these declined markedly in the early 1970s. By then, there were many more women in the labor force and, after the Baby Boom, marriage and fertility rates had dropped. In the wake of those demographic shifts and at the height of feminism’s second-wave, playing upon gender stereotypes to sell toys had become a risky strategy. In the Sears catalog ads from 1975, less than 2 percent of toys were explicitly marketed to either boys or girls. More importantly, there were many ads in the ’70s that actively challenged gender stereotypes–boys were shown playing with domestic toys and girls were shown building and enacting stereotypically masculine roles such as doctor, carpenter, and scientist”
Mass media such as movies and tv shows were no different. Star Wars promotional material was found everywhere. Including in what are considered girl spaces like teen magazines.
The movie was a cultural touchstone for society as a whole, partly because of the state of the art special effects. The movie also marked a return to a more linear storytelling model. Leaving behind the psychedelic tone of some movies of the late 60s and early 70s. At its heart, it was a throwback to those old fashioned good vs evil Westerns, except it took place in a galaxy far far away.
Some have interpreted Abrams’ comments (“Star Wars was always a boy’s thing”) to mean the original trilogy was focused on Luke’s story and other than Leia there wasn’t strong women representation. I don’t argue with that.
Especially Return of the Jedi, which was the single most disappointing movie moment of my adult life. I was in college. I anticipated this movie more than I can even express. I waited in line for the first show. What did I get? Slave Leia and Ewoks. I could on and on. However, I won’t. I took my underage self and drown my sorrows in Southern Comfort. YUK.
I rage quit the franchise (and Southern Comfort) and I refused to watch the prequels. Thanks. But no thanks. I hated how it ended. I don’t care how it began.
However, lack of representation (troublesome as that is) doesn’t then mean a movie is only made for one subset of the population. The Star Wars trilogy wasn’t big on diversity in general. It’s important to remember that was also a function of the era in it was made.
A good story shouldn’t depend on the audience being the same as the characters in the story. A good story transcends what makes us different and asks us to find our commonalities.
Both Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back did that.
One does not have to be male to understand how devastating it would be to learn that the evil you’re fighting is your father. It could have just as easily been Leia hearing the terrible news. This is the human condition. None of us want to believe our parents (or our children) are capable of such horror.
One doesn’t have to be female to understand Leia’s horror as she watched Vader destroy Alderaan, her home.
That said? I get the proprietary feelings people have around stories which profoundly impacted them. Many people weren’t born or were very little when the first movies were first released. They remember seeing it with the wide-eyed wonder of a child. This makes a very different impression on one than seeing a movie when older.
Our experiences are subjective. I can no more claim that Star Wars was a teenage thing because that’s how I came to it than one can claim it was a boy thing because one was a boy when they saw it.
The objective measure is how the movies were positioned at the time. It wasn’t conceived for narrow appeal. It was aimed at a broad market. This was, after all, an era before targeted ads. Before the market was as sliced and diced as it is now.
Looking at the landscape today with the gendered toy aisles? With the Star Wars toys firmly in the “boy” space? It’s hard to remember there was a time when it wasn’t like this. Yet there was.
Star Wars belongs to everyone who enjoyed it. To the little child who marveled at the light saber fights. To the teenagers who debated furiously what the force actually was. To the adult who thrilled at the special effects.
As for the new movie? I’m breaking my nineteen year old self’s post Return of the Jedi vow to keep away from all things Star Wars. I may not be the first in line but I’ll be there with my teenage children. And I have no doubt when older Luke, Leia and Han are on screen? I’ll remember a different time. A time when these characters were young comrades in arms with no idea what lay ahead. A time I shared on the precipice of adulthood. When I too was waiting for everything to begin.