In the spring of 1977, I was an 11-year-old girl in the second semester of 6th grade in a small suburban town in the Midwest. At our public school system, 6th was the beginning of the middle, teeming in awkwardness and insecurity. For the first time we had different teachers for different subjects and class periods of only 50 minutes each. I was getting my first bad grade, in social studies: a “C” that was utterly flummoxing. Never before had I performed so poorly in school.
I had two new buddies from the rougher apartment complexes on the edge of town, both whom I had met through Girl Scouts. They liked to sneak cigarettes (which made me physically sick) and read Judy Blume and Paul Zindel novels. Me, I was reading Robert Heinlein and Ursula K. LeGuin. I started to realize they were doing things without inviting me. Then I realized, I really had no friends.
Thoughout my childhood, my family had a reputation for being odd. My father was a college professor turned “entrepreneur,” and liked to say that we were "rich," and I suppose, by many standards, we were. My mother tried to play the suburban housewife, but was hugely frustrated for reasons that would not become fully apparent for years to come. My brother, four years my junior, had a mix of emotional and developmental disorders that still have not been adequately diagnosed, and my mother’s fierce attention was on keeping him in the least restrictive educational environment possible. As such, I was pretty much left to my own devices.
Some of these devices were toys, or parts of toys, filched away from my father’s plastic tool-and-dye company (one of 14 diverse business ventures of which he was the controlling shareholder), which had been contracted to make parts of the merchandizing frenzy for the upcoming movie “Star Wars.” My father was very pleased about this contract, although he was skeptical about how the movie would actually be received. “It just doesn’t sound very good,” he said, in his typical friendly but critical scholarly fashion.
Still, because of this contract, we had an advance copy of the famous soundtrack by John Williams, which my classical music loving father found quite acceptable: he filled the house with it dozens of times before the movie was released. I knew the whole soundtrack by heart before I even saw the movie. He gave me random plastic toy parts: stabilizers from an X-wing fighter and the body from the original rust-colored land rover that Luke Skywaker chased Womp rats with on Tatooine. I set these up in little alien world landscapes in boxes in my basement with mounds of colored sand and Styrofoam balls and pretended I was making movies myself, with stop-motion claymation.
As the Star Wars opening day approached, there began to be a lot of buzz about it at school. Advance photos began to appear in the media, like the one above of Luke heading for the supremely sympathetic moment reflecting on his fate in the sunset of a binary solar system. Suddenly, I had a bit of cultural capital: I knew all about this movie. I had lots of fun facts and insider scoop about it. How could the girls and guys exclude me now? They listened to me talk, but I still wasn’t very popular.
The day that it opened, my family waited in line for hours at our local mall movie theatre: well, my father waited, while we ate lunch at the restaurant we owned across the mall aisle. I remember being breathless the entire first time. I jumped out of my seat at the first appearance of the Jawas and Sand People, empathetic with Luke and the rebels, and awed by the crystal clarity of good vs. evil.
In my home, we liked to believe that we were somehow above morality: not that we wanted to do particularly immoral things (like fornication or stealing or killing people) but, that morality was somehow too black-and-white, too simple minded for cultured, refined, worldly people of our ilk. It somehow wasn’t necessary in the 1970's for there to be any good and evil, and God certainly wasn’t necessary. He/She/It couldn’t be proven, so what was the point of thinking about God or religion at all?
So when Luke undertook his slow process of conversion, inspired by suffering and by Obi-Wan, an old impoverished Jedi Knight, I was hooked. When Luke finally accepted the Force, and it gave him the power to do the statistically impossible, put that huge torpedo in that tiny little hole (oh how arousing!), without even a computer to assist him, it seemed so terribly profound. “What if,” thought my young pre-pubescent mind, “the Force was real? What if, perhaps, we were not islands alone in our frail human skins, but we are, somehow, connected?”
As for my skin, and the bones and flesh and fat within, I was none too happy with it. On a rather unusual father/daughter clothes-shopping trip, my father directed me to the “pretty plus” section, which was my first reality check that I was becoming undeniably overweight. I was always round, round face, round belly, round arms and legs…solid, stocky, athletic, to be generous, although I wasn’t really a very good athlete, even at swimming and tennis, the only fat-friendly sports for girls. And as I watched Princess Leia up on the screen, the young Carrie Fisher who now looks to me so beautiful, all I could think was: "She’s a fat girl, just like me."
Now, is she really a fat girl, or isn’t she? "Her face is round," I thought. "Why would they cast a fat girl in this movie? Do people think she’s really pretty? She’s not pretty. She’s meant to be smart, and tough. You can do that, be smart and tough. If you’re smart and tough, maybe you don’t have to be pretty." I relished the comparisons that people would sometimes make to me and Princess Leia, because by then, it was clearly the biggest movie of all time. And I was sort of like Princess Leia. I had a mole by my nose and straight long brown hair that I often did in funky buns and braids. And if I lost a little weight, maybe I too could become a box office smash movie star. I stopped eating and swam competitively all summer, and by the fall of 1977, the beginning of 7th grade, I was almost skinny. Plus, I had begun to grow boobs. But, I wasn’t yet into real boys. I was still sneaking off to see Star Wars on weekends, mostly by this time, alone.
By the time the first run was over, I had seen Star Wars 19 times on the big screen. That doesn't seem like such a big deal now, what with DVDs and cable movie channels and Roku with Netflix, but it did at the time. Certainly, I was crushing on Mark Hamill, even so much as to buy a tweeny magazine to find out more about his personal life. My mother thought I was mistaken to find Luke attractive: clearly Han Solo was the much more manly of the two male characters. But it wasn’t manliness that caught me: it was the journey, the spiritual hero’s journey, which drew me in. Luke's honor. His courage. Yes, Leia was also brave and principled: but she just couldn’t do as much, with that skimpy dress and heavy hairdo. She could shoot an automatic, but still had to be rescued, which was something that was both appealing and appalling. When they first kissed, “for luck,” before swinging cross the Death Star chasm on a thin wire line, I swear I thought their love was for real.
The movie resonated for me in multiple metaphorical levels: The Empire being the academic establishment, from which I so wanted to escape; The orphan theme soothing my suffering about my own too-distant parents; The notion of the future galactic culture that was not really so different than the world we lived in today. In fact, it was evidence of the future being quite the same as the past, a throwback to medieval feudal times; as I somehow believed my life was almost exactly the same as that of a wealthy merchant’s daughter just before the sack of Rome. We Americans were all too greedy, too decadent, citizens of the evil Empire, headed for the fall.
When I turned 12 in the winter of 1977, the Star Wars hype had begun to wear down. Everyone was into the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack: and the rumors were that they were coming out with a PG version that we pre-teens would actually be able to see without parental guidance. I couldn’t get into this franchise. The Bee Gees sounded like monkeys screaming. Some of the older kids had already seen the R version, and were talking about sex and pregnancy and dancing. I learned that the story was about a needy girl being dumped after some guy got her pregnant. If Donna Pescow getting knocked up and abandoned was the new Hollywood fat girl role model, I was going to stick with Princess Leia. And immediately go on the pill. But that's another story.
There was something magical about the first Star Wars: I refuse to call it A New Hope or Episode IV. Maybe it’s simply because I got older, but the rest of the series just never held the same appeal. Yes, the original is simple and clunky and melodramatic. But it is also a raw pure story of courage and awakening, both in the higher power of the “Force,” and as a hopeful model for how fat-turned-skinny girls can be powerful, independent princesses, fighting smartly against evil and working towards a common good, greater than ourselves.
To a slightly spoiled, painfully lonely, young atheist at the edge of womanhood, Star Wars was a glimpse of good religion at the mall movie theatre, a comforting dark-place ritual full of true redemption and grace.