“Come on, son. We’re going to be late,” my dad said as he encouraged me to slip my 5-year-old feet into my favorite pair of red KangaROOS. “You don’t want to miss the new Star Wars.”
I had no idea what this “Star Wars” was, but the way my father, stepmother, Aunt Cindy, and Uncle Bruce were talking about it, I was certain it was supposed to be something good. However, I wasn’t convinced.
Even at 5 years old I had already begun to realize I wasn’t like other boys my age. I had no interest in sports, preferring instead to dance around my room to my copy of Disney’s Disco Mickey on my Fisher-Price record player and loving any chance I got to play with my older cousin’s Easy-Bake Oven. I knew what I was “supposed” to like, but the things that caught my young eye didn’t often fall into the predetermined “for boys” category. I was a sassy, effeminate, imaginative boy who felt stuffed animals were superior to toy guns and loved gathering kids together on the playground to make up our own adventures in the merry old land of Oz.
So when we got to the theater and began waiting in what I was certain was the longest line ever, I was sure I was going to have to suffer through a film that couldn’t possibly be as good as my family said. But as the movie began and the words “The Empire Strikes Back” started to scroll up the screen, I was immediately transported to a galaxy far, far away. For the next two hours and four minutes I sat transfixed by the sprawling space saga, but as impressive as the universe of aliens, starships, and lightsabers was, I found I was completely captivated by two characters that had a profound impact on me that day.
Luke Skywalker was unlike any of the leading men I’d seen before. The typical hero machismo that Harrison Ford played up with undeniable charm as Han Solo was nowhere to be found in Mark Hamill’s portrayal of the less butch son of Skywalker. All the ingredients that make a great hero were still there — courage, strength, honestly — but because they weren’t dripping with the trappings of traditional masculinity, Luke resonated with me on a level I’d never experienced before.
Looking back, I now understand why my heart beat a little faster every time a scene of Luke training on Dagobah in his sleeveless undershirt flickered across the screen or why I gasped when Darth Vader sliced off his son’s hand during their lightsaber duel. Luke was my first crush. Hamill’s portrayal of a kinder, gentler hero made the character feel approachable, and I was infatuated with him by the time the end credits rolled.
Pictured above: Peeples (at 9) posing with his a Speeder Bike and Scout Trooper action figure on Christmas Eve, 1983.
But while the young Jedi was awakening a force of one kind in me, Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia made my young imagination jump to light speed. Every aspect of my personality that earned me ridicule on the playground was a strength for the rebel princess. Leia was strong without compromising her femininity. She could serve sassy one-liners that rivaled Han Solo’s, and she still managed to look fabulous whether she was running through the belly of a space worm or brandishing a blaster on Bespin.
I may have adored Luke, but Leia was my hero. I soon became obsessed with Star Wars, snapping up every bit of merchandise I could get from T-shirts to action figures.
Star Wars became a safe space for me, a fantasy world that was acceptable to visit on the playground or at home — one that never brought the ridicule that accompanied playing with Barbie dolls or skipping down the sidewalk singing, “Follow the yellow brick road.”
My Star Wars action figure collection — which included Princess Leia in every available outfit — gave me the opportunity to role-play as characters that had a wide range of personality traits. I could be the sinister Darth Vader, the prissy C-3PO, the handsome Luke Skywalker, or the fierce Princess Leia. It only depended on the mood I was in.
When Return of the Jedi was released, my love of the space opera dramatically increased. The revelation that Luke was Leia’s brother made it easier to see him as an object of affection — though at the time I didn’t fully understand that’s what he was for me — since there was now no chance of a pesky heterosexual romance getting in the way. Their relationship was one that paralleled those I was forming with girls in my life at a time when other boys my age were just beginning to notice girls in another way.
Pictured above: Peeples with the Ewok Village play set.
Topping it all off was the introduction of the Ewoks, warrior teddy bears who could take down even the biggest bullies and were about the coolest thing I had seen. Carrying around a teddy bear at my age would elicit giggles and laughs, but a plush Wicket the Ewok? Well, that was just awesome!
Years later I would realize many other themes inherent in the Star Wars films that resonated with me as a gay kid, and I discovered many others felt those stirrings in the Force as well. While the story of a young man who leaves behind his small town to become his true self isn’t exclusive to the LGBT population, there are elements within the films that parallel our lives, and viewing the movies through a queer lens only makes the journey that much more personal.
It’s this universality that has made Star Wars a pop culture touchstone for so many different people, a modern myth for anyone who needed to overcome the adversity of their own Galactic Empire.
The Star Wars universe was not only a place where I could freely express myself as a boy who often felt like an outsider, it also gave me a way to connect with my peers socially that leveled the playing field.
As I sat in the theater watching The Force Awakens this week, I realized how this new installment of the franchise has the opportunity to do the same for an even greater number of young people.
Pictured above: Peeples rocks his favorite Princess Leia T-shirt.
For the first time in a Star Wars film, a person of color isn’t a supporting character like Lando Calrissian or a wise teacher like Mace Windu who helps the heroes on their journey. Instead, John Boyega’s Finn is a character at the center of the story, finally giving young people of color a way to see themselves in a galaxy far, far away like they never have before.
Similarly, women hold positions of power in this film that were only hinted at in earlier installments. Sure, Leia and Padme were strong, brave leaders, but as wonderful as they are, they were still side characters in a man’s story.
In The Force Awakens, not only is Daisy Ridley’s Rey one of the two main characters, she’s a hero who greatly surpasses her female predecessors in the Star Wars films. She needs no man to rescue her and is fully capable of handling herself in a scuffle on the ground or a dogfight behind the controls of a starship. She’s stronger than Luke and twice as smart as Anakin.
However, Rey is far from the only powerful woman in Episode VII. From the return of Leia (now a general and the leader of the Resistance) to the mysterious Chrome-clad Stormtrooper Captain Phasma and the wise Maz Kanata (played by Lupita Nyong’o), it is the women who are both the action stars and the advisers in this film.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens has changed the game. Women and people of color are no longer represented by tokens and background players in a franchise that has been a global phenomenon for nearly 40 years. Images of Finn and Rey are currently plastered around every corner of the globe, even in countries where racist and sexist attitudes are more openly expressed than in the U.S., and those images bring with them the potential for social change around the world.
It makes me smile thinking that a new generation of young girls and people of color will have an even better experience than the one I did on that Saturday in 1980. Millions of kids will leave the theater with a greater sense of what they can achieve because they saw someone like themselves projected on the screen. They won’t have to dig through alternative meanings or filter the movie through a different lens to feel included. Those images are already sculpted into action figures, plastered on bags of potato chips, and adorn multiple pieces of activewear.
The images we see in entertainment influence our worldview, not only in how we see ourselves, but in how we see others who are different. Disney and J.J. Abrams have used a beloved piece of pop culture to move the needle forward for diversity with The Force Awakens, and that gives me hope that one day a young queer kid will have the chance to see a gay Jedi on the silver screen and realize that the Force is with him too … always.
JASE PEEPLES is The Advocate's entertainment editor and a contributor for Out and Plus magazine. He lives in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @JasePeeples.