The Weekend Read: Generation Gap - Gungan is the new Ewok
THE WEEKEND READ: Our Saturday essay on the great topics in entertainment and culture today.
It is 1983 and there is a consensus sweeping the land that the Ewoks are the worst thing to ever happen to Star Wars. Those idiotic teddy bears were the final sign that George Lucas had completely lost his edge. It was obvious that rather than wanting to tell a great story, he had created these characters to pander to children and sell toys.
I was 17 days old when “Return of the Jedi” was released in theaters and like most children of the 80’s, I missed the memo on hating these Endor natives. I have vague memories of a curly blonde-haired girl with a sparkly headband and a gruff bearded hermit surviving in the forest with a living teddy bear. A quick Google search reveals I would’ve been two and a half when “Ewoks: The Battle for Endor” aired, making it one of my first memories. To my young eyes, Wicket was basically a live-action Teddy Ruxpin mixed with a warrior race. What child could resist the allure of small creatures that were fiercely competent fighters but also cuddly? In a world of towering adults, Ewoks made me feel like I could be brave and strong too.
As I got older, the idea that Ewoks could bring down Stormtroopers with rocks was objectively ridiculous, but even the laws of physics couldn’t erase my love. Despite appearances and my childhood affection, Ewoks are kind of terrifying. They’re omnivorous and willing to eat other sentient species. They are adept at avoiding detection and capture by the Empire and native predators, creating complex cities in the trees. Clearly a warrior race, they straight up turned the helmets of their enemies — dead Stormtroopers — into victory drums. Use your imagination as to where the Stormtrooper bodies are. They even bravely went into battle against a far superior fighting force with allies they’d just befriended, knowing full well most of them would die. (RIP Nanta).
So when my brothers and cousins periodically declared the Ewoks were the ruiners of the original trilogy, I defended them. How could something so beloved from my childhood deserve such vitriol? Clearly “Grown-ups just don’t understand.” Being the jaded Gen X-ers that they were, obviously they were mere shells of their childhood selves, unable to grasp the wonder of LIVING TEDDY BEARS. Besides, I knew in my heart of hearts that if anything ruined Star Wars, it wasn’t the adorably vicious Ewoks. No, that title obviously goes to another….
It is 2015 and there is a consensus that Jar Jar Binks is the worst thing to ever happen to Star Wars. This idiotic Gungan was the final sign that George Lucas had lost his edge. Obviously, he created this character to pander to children and sell toys.
Recently my family sat down to rewatch “Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith.” Though Binks is barely in the third prequel, my husband and I snorted in derision at his single line “Excuse me.” There’s no excuse for him. A bumbling idiot who’s sole purpose seems to be to hand the Galactic Senate to Emperor Palpatine on a silver platter (never mind the fact that the rest of the Senate had to vote to pass the motion).
But then there was our son. 14 years old, he was aghast. How could we hate on Jar Jar? He was one the best characters in the series.
I imagine my reaction to this declaration is how stereotypical jock dads feel when their boy declares he’s not really into football and would rather play guitar. NO SON OF MINE WILL DEFEND JAR JAR BINKS.
Then, the other shoe dropped. Our 10 year old agreed with her brother.
Et tu, daughter?
Days later, I couldn’t shake their defense of this annoying misstep of a character. How could they possibly be fooled by this clear marketing ploy? Then it hit me: I had become the jaded adult, unable to grasp whatever it was about Jar Jar my kids relate to.
I had to understand, so I tasked them both with thinking about what it was that appealed to them, and to defend him to the world at large. It turns out, Jar Jar is their Wicket. Generation Z doesn’t see a blight on the good name of Star Wars. A wacky Gungan is no more absurd or out-of-place than a simpering protocol droid or a bow-wielding Wookiee or a weird one-eyed alien living in a Death Star trash compactor.
At first both of them merely agreed that Jar Jar is funny, and that’s reason enough to like him. When pressed as to WHY he was funny, things got a little existential.
Our daughter was a particular fan of the way Jar Jar talks. Like a lot of kids, she went through a phase years ago where the pronouns “me” and “I” are interchangeable. Only in her case, it was “Meesa” and “I” because, in her words “It was a lot more fun to say.”
She also liked how clumsy the Gungan is. Jar Jar’s incompetence was a boon to Star Wars, not a detraction. “If he wasn’t so clumsy, things would just go the way they’re supposed to go. That would be so boring!” she declared. And through the lens of a child, that’s probably true. The prequels are heavy on trade tariffs and senate politics, not exactly the stuff of family entertainment. A little physical comedy goes a long way to keeping a kid interested.
For his part, our son also appreciated Jar Jar’s clumsiness, but for different reasons. “Jar Jar is a bad fighter but that doesn’t mean doesn’t want to help. He’s brave even though he knows he might die,” he said, following up with several examples from both the movies and the animated Clone Wars series. He went on to say Jar Jar is loyal to his friends and even when the Gungan screws up nobody stays mad at him long and Jar Jar always manages to fix his mistakes. When I countered with Jar Jar’s idiocy making Palpatine Supreme Chancellor, my son reminded me that even Yoda was fooled, so what chance did the non-Force sensitive Jar Jar have?
Seen from that angle, the Gungan becomes the kind of wish-fulfillment that appeals to kids and teens. Jar Jar represents this idea that any misstep can be rectified without permanent damage to a relationship. That loyalty and bravery can make up for skill and mistakes are not the end of the world. A potent myth even for adults.
Personally, Jar Jar Binks will never be anything but a thorn in my side, just as I’m sure Ewoks will always produce low-simmering rage from some fans. But if I can unabashedly love Wicket despite the backlash, I can lay off my kids for their love of Jar Jar. I am not the gatekeeper of taste in Star Wars. When it comes to fandom, there’s no wrong way to love something.