‘ve established what happens when you expose your son to Star Wars for the first time when he’s 3.5 years old (i.e. nothing… except betraying an understanding between you and your wife that you would wait until he was 6). As sad as it is to say, with my son I just couldn’t wait any longer. The opportunity was there. The desire was there (on both our parts), so I siezed the opportunity and made a wonderful experience out of it (besides the part where I betrayed an understanding between me and my wife that we would wait until he was 6).
With my daughter however, I handled her introduction to the Star Wars universe a little differently. Aside from catching a few references here and there from the general cast-off of my near-constant Star Wars dork-ness, up until now she’s remained relatively Star Wars free. She knew it was out there, she could identify some of the characters on sight, she knows the music, but she never had a gaggle of friends dripping in Star Wars T-shirts (like virtually every boy in my son’s life), and she didn’t have the gender association with me like my son has, driving her to think everything that Dad likes is cool. She was never opposed to getting into Star Wars. It was more of a “we’ll get to it when we get to it” sort of thing.
Well, she’s 6 now. It’s time.
As I’ve mentioned before, part of our bedtime ritual, after reading books, is a 10-15 minute YouTube clip before lights out. We’ve covered the Disney movies ad-nauseum. So recently I decided we’d launch into the Star Wars universe (Episode IV comes first please. It’s just good parenting). It isn’t hard to find pirated versions of all 6 movies on YouTube. So we started with that iconic scroll from the “A New Hope” – even managed to find the unedited, Han-shot-first (should be “Han shot PERIOD) version – and worked our way through the original trilogy 10 minutes at a time.
Thus far the experience has been amazing. Reluctantly I have to admit that 6 is the perfect age to introduce a child to Star Wars. Where my son just sort of glazed over the nuances of plot and character, distracted instead by loud noises, flashing lights and sweet spaceships, my daughter is hanging on every word. She wants to know everything. As we progress she’s asking questions about the relationships between characters, the motivations behind plot-points… She is into it. Which, as it turns out, had a very interesting, unforseen consequence when we came to the end of the original trilogy.
Going into it, my daughter was aware that Darth Vader was Luke’s father. I mean really, is there anyone in the western hemisphere older than 2 who doesn’t know that? As we reached the climax of “Return of the Jedi”, Luke and Darth Vader battle it out in front of The Emperor. This genuinely upset my daughter. As opposed to the first time the two squared off in “Empire Strikes Back” where Darth Vader was essentially toying with Luke, this time the fight was much more visceral and father and son seemed to be genuinely trying to do one another in. “Stop it!” she shouted to my iPhone. “Daddy, they’re going to hurt each other!” She’d seen my son and I playing with our toy lightsabers, but it was always play. The notion of father and son fighting for real just did not comport with her world view. The concern on her face and the panic in her voice was real. The suspension of disbelief was complete. Fighting, real fighting, was not something that fathers and sons should do. She needed them to stop. I noted with interest the effect that the scene was having on her – this little girl for whom empathy hasn’t always come as naturally as her mother and I would like. We carried on.
We get to the part where Darth Vader has been redeemed, and he’s now lying in Luke’s arms, mask off, dying. I look over to see my daughter with red, puffy eyes, brimming over with tears. “Is he going to die, Daddy? I don’t want him to die.” A big tear rolls down her cheek. Of course he does die, but in that scene he just sort of goes quiet. He dies in a way that any adult would recognize, but for a 6 year old it can be a little ambiguous. The movie goes straight from there to a frenetic spaceship battle, thus stealing my daughter’s attention away from the question of whether or not Darth Vader just died to the scene at hand. Of course the good guys do their thing, and the plot leaves us with mere seconds before the Death Star blows up… the Death Star where Luke and Darth Vader were just coming to terms. We flash to Luke piloting a ship that just barely flies away in time to escape the explosion. Luke is clearly safe. “Is Darth Vader with him, Daddy?” says my sweet daughter. Clearly, in her mind there’s still the glimmer of hope that Darth Vader is OK, and everyone will live happily ever after.
“Shhh,” I said, arm tight around her. “Watch the movie”.
Moments later, in the movie’s epilogue, as the entire saga resolves, we see Luke setting the funeral pyre to what is very recognizable as Darth Vader’s body. There is no longer any question in her mind. Darth Vader, the badguy through the entire trilogy, the embodiment of evil is dead — and my daughter openly wept. We had to pause the movie.
Through the sobs she asked me, “But he’s a goodguy now, right? Did he go into The Force?” (She was very interested why Obi Wan Kenobi turned up as a blue, glowy spirit earlier in the trilogy – especially as it related to Yoda’s death. We spent a good while talking those details out)
“Watch the movie,” I said. “Let’s see what happens.”
Of course, at the very end we see the blue, glowy spirits of Obi Wan Kenobi and Yoda looking on approvingly at Luke Skywalker – and then the ghost of Anakin appears next to them. All is well. Darth Vader has been redeemed. The badguys are finished. And in the eyes of a 6 year old girl, at least in some small measure, Luke’s daddy will always be there for him. The end.
I don’t think my daughter’s unexpected emotional reaction to Darth Vader’s dying had anything to do with dealing with the idea of a parent’s mortality. We’ve seen James Earl Jones die in front of his son (and reappear as a ghost) many times before (“The Lion King”) and we’ve even seen “Bambi” once or twice. I actually read this as the emotional and intillectual development of a very intelligent little girl. It shows that she is able to empathise with someone else (heretofore not one of her strong suits), and that she is able to see that the world is not black and white. The story of Darth Vader tells us that although the difference between right and wrong is stark, the shades of gray inbetween black and white can be difficult to destinguish. It’s easy to pass judgement on people, but until you walk in their shoes you never know if you’d make the same decisions they did given the same circumstances. These are lessons my daughter is ready for. If anything, it confirms the fact that she is at the perfect age to start introducing her to some of the more adult themes that you find in the Star Wars movies.
We have since moved on, and into the prequel trilogy. I’m happy to report that she seems to love those movies as much as the original trilogy – and saddened to report that up to this point (still only 1/2 way done with Episode I “The Phantom Menace”) her favorit character thus far is Jar Jar binks (which is exactly what George Lucas intended). As proof of my own intillectual and emotional development I take note of the fact that I take no issue with my daughter loving the Jar Jar Binks character. I’m just glad that she’s enjoying the Star Wars movies at all, because that means that she and I can enjoy them together for a long, long time to come.