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Opinion: The Disgusting, Dark Side Of Star Wars' Materialism

The views expressed on this page are those of the author, not CBS Local Chicago or our affiliated television and radio stations.

My mother and I were in the family's blue minivan. Spacious like a spice freighter hauling illegal cargo between planets, a 12-year-old version of myself cartoonishly rocked back and forth in the passenger seat. I was having the kind of ear-splitting tantrum 12-year-olds -- officially too old to be cute -- shouldn't have. A tantrum of Kylo Ren proportions.

My mom had just told me the Star Wars: Episode I -- The Phantom Menace toys had been delayed.

The Phantom Menace hadn't even come out yet, but my need for its toys defined my existence. Puberty, already on the horizon, had cored a hole in my chest, leaving a void that could only be filled by an action figure of Darth Vader -- the ultimate villain -- as a little kid. Star Wars was everything back then. And I'm really embarrassed about it.

At 12, I was experiencing the Dark Side of Star Wars: materialism. Star Wars may make us happy, but its merchandise is also capable of making us sad.

If I could go back in time, I'd shake some sense into 12-year-old Mason. Once calm, I'd lift his puny body above my head and spin it like a helicopter propeller. After several minutes, I'd toss my past self upward and perform a sweet, aerial piledriver on him.

Then we'd have a chat.

"I'm from the future," I'd scream. "And I have some very important advice, 12-year-old Mason... Number one: do not, under any circumstances, get a haircut your sophomore year of high school. Number two: do NOT get a haircut your senior year. Number three, the most important thing I am going to tell you: don't bother seeing Episode I."

Then I'd go back to the future, finding a much better life for myself. A life where my beautiful hair – having never been ruined by bad haircuts when I was 15 and 17 -- had catapulted me into stardom, ensuring I wouldn't be sitting here writing a dumb article about Star Wars for you chumps.


Han is burgin' real hard... (From Star Wars: A New Hope)

I'm sorry. I feel bad for calling you chumps.

The Force Awakens' merchandise onslaught has taken its toll. The shadow it continues to cast at all local retailers has put me in a dark mood, friend. I have tried the Yoda-branded grapes. They were sour.

There's problem number one. Yoda grapes. Why? How does the image of Yoda -- who looks like a pile of shriveled elbow-skins -- entice a person to eat grapes?

But I still want them! I want it all. In fact, the embarrassment from acting like a petulant idiot when I was 12 is the only thing that's kept me from drowning in a sea of Star Wars shirts, BB-8 hats, TIE fighter pajama pants and Chewbacca underwear (they're almost too soft).

Star Wars merchandise has been in the series' very DNA since 1977, but it disgusts me, even as I long to purchase all of it.

Our minds make us think all that crap has meaning! That the things we buy bestow physicality to the feelings that well up inside of us when we see our favorite characters --- Han, Luke, Leia, Rey, Finn and Poe -- on the big screen.

But that can't be right...

To be clear, I'm not declaring that the people need to rise up, torches at the ready, and burn this whole capitalist machine down.

(Though if I were declaring that, I'd probably say it in a really cool way that's very convincing.)

That day when I was 12 and my world came crashing down because of Star Wars toys? I've never quite felt the same emotional tie to objects, but I've experienced much smaller versions of similar turmoil. I've stood in Best Buy and wondered if a new TV could make me even a little happier. My computer mouse has hovered over sale items on Amazon, my brain certain that video games and a new tablet could chase away the bloodsucking monster draining all ambition from my veins.

We gotta watch our backs when the things we obtain joy from vomit more merchandise than a single person could ever afford. Consumerism makes a lot of us lonely, which is a huge bummer when you look at The Force Awakens' predatory merchandising, since Star Wars is what a lot of us turn to for comfort.


I want to be both of them. (From Star Wars: A New Hope)

I have more than my cantankerous opinions, friend. A study by Rik Pieters1, a professor of marketing at Tilburg University, not only looked for negative connections between loneliness and materialism, but positive connections too. Its findings were obtained from studying 2,500 people over the span of six years.

"Materialism was associated with an increase in loneliness over time, and loneliness was associated with an increase in materialism over time," the study claims. "… and this latter effect was notably stronger."

With that said, one out of the three subtypes of materialists the study looked at may benefit from materialism: individuals who hedonistically enjoy the act of buying things. Yes, if you are able to enjoy spending money on impractical luxury (I'm sure we can all afford that lifestyle, right?), materialism might benefit you.

The people in the study's other two subtypes were not so lucky.

Those who view materialism as a competition, judging worth through possessions, do not benefit from materialism when it comes to loneliness. Likewise, those of us who treat materialism as a medicine, thinking possessions can cure unhappiness, also do not benefit from materialism when it comes to loneliness. In the long run, individuals with these traits will be lonelier.

Sure, every Star Wars fan isn't a sad, materialistic mess, but the mind, like our bodies, isn't an impenetrable fortress. Sometimes you get sick. Sometimes you get lonely. And Star Wars and its many products are definitely worth scrutinizing.

How many men and women communicate that Star Wars is a part of their identity by spending money on t-shirts and beanies? How many adults become anxious at the thought of missing out on the latest line of Star Wars action figures? How many children are driven to collect every Star Wars LEGO set just so they'll have more than the kid next door?

What's the loneliness of a child worth?

$4.05 billion?


"Alas! Poor C-3PO…" (Photo from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back)

Star Wars saved my life. That's why I'm pissed off.

Before I saw The Force Awakens, a friend and I sat at a pub, beers in hand, a fireplace aglow. We were trying to explain to our partners what Star Wars meant to us. Star Wars, we claimed, not only allowed us to mentally exercise our ridiculous teen angst away, but to digest the real-world problems we were facing.

Star Wars -- like punk rock, hip hop, Gilmore Girls (Team Jess represent), Lord of the Rings, Dragon Age, The Legend of Korra, Dungeons and Dragons, Batman and whatever today's youth are currently into – all offer safe spaces to grow up in. No, most of us won't end up in life-or-death duels with our father figures, but that doesn't mean we can't glean something useful from the exaggerated emotional exercises our minds run through while experiencing the likes of The Empire Strikes Back or Hamlet. ("Alas! Poor C-3PO...")

Aaron, a man I talked to for this article, gleaned something useful from The Empire Strikes Back. He told me about his early 20s, how he found himself in a rut and constantly clashing with his father. In fact, it was the relationship between Darth Vader and Luke Skywalker -- the biblical "sins of the father" parable -- that helped him sort out his life and make amends with dear old dad.

For the other individuals I talked to for this article, Star Wars took on vastly different roles.

For John, Star Wars has been like a religion.

"I'm in my 40s and there's still other Star Wars movies to watch, and it's pretty cool that we were able to carry that on," John told me. "It wasn't just something that ended in childhood for me."

Elizabeth told me that Star Wars meant the most to her when she was a little girl.

"My dad was in jail ... and he looked a lot like Luke Skywalker in the picture of him I had," she explained. "It really helped my abandonment issues to think he was away not because I was unwanted, but because he was saving a galaxy far, far away."

It was both the characters and their struggles that drew Meghan to Star Wars.

"So my first crush was on Princess Leia growing up. My second crush was on Luke Skywalker," Meghan told me. "As a bisexual closeted teen struggling with depression and anxiety, the original trilogy provided a lot of comfort for me."

"The movies were proof that the rebellion could win," Meghan later said, talking specifically about depression and anxiety. "You could overcome your personal demons, but it was difficult. I identified a lot with these themes and they had a huge influence on me and how I dealt with my mental illness."

Well. That sucks. (Photo from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back)

Well. That sucks. (Photo from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back)

When my best friend moved 2,000 miles away the summer before freshmen year of high school, I turned to Star Wars. In the empty stairwells of my school, I read Star Wars books about Corran Horn, Tahiri Veila, Ganner Rhysode and Jaina Solo, diverse Jedi that turned the black and white nature of the force into a muddled gray – perfect for a lonely kid trying to figure out who he is.

Star Wars was there for me through the giddy starts of new relationships, the tumultuous ends of old relationships, the teasing I experienced, the bullying I shamefully dished out and plenty of bloody lips. These new Jedi even helped me through the death of my grandfather. Sometimes they showed me why people hurt me, sometimes they helped me understand why I'd hurt others.

Then there's 2003's Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic. The video game represented choice. Were you good or evil? Do you work for your money or do you steal? Do you kill for fun or protect life? The game was able to do something even The Force Awakens hasn't: it featured a homosexual character. Under the right conditions, your character could have a relationship with her.

There was something about Star Wars, the biggest entity in my life, acknowledging diverse sexuality that felt both monumentally important and personally vital. Especially in 2003, when homophobic slurs were the norm in every boys' locker room in America.

At its best, Star Wars enhanced the way I acted with others. Star Wars allowed me to occasionally escape my mind's perfect storm of narcissism and self-doubt. Anxiety lifted, I didn't have to be too quiet or too loud. I could enjoy being around other human beings and even become tolerable enough for other human beings to enjoy being around me.

But if materialism and loneliness can go hand in hand, Star Wars and its merchandise can also have the opposite effect.

Loneliness actively drives you away from its cure: human interaction. According to John T. Cacioppo, Director of the University of Chicago Center for Cognitive and Social Neuroscience, and author William Patrick2, the frustration that may come from being lonely and attempting and failing to reach out to a friend can cause "depression, despair, impaired skills in social perception, as well as a sense of diminished personal control."

Then comes the unwise sexual encounters, excessive drinking, excessive eating or, according to Pieters study, the return to materialism as a misguided cure.

"Once this negative feedback loop starts rumbling through our lives," Cacioppo and Patrick write. "... others may start to view us less favorably because of our self-protective, sometimes distant, sometimes caustic behavior. This, in turn, merely reinforces our pessimistic social expectations."

According to Cacioppo and Patrick, loneliness can even disrupt the regulation of key cellular processes in the body -- long-term loneliness can literally make your body sick.

This is why I'm putting a line in the sand when it comes to Star Wars. This is why I'm choosing moments over merchandise.

Listen, I'm not gonna tell you to stop buying Star Wars crap. I'm not gonna tell Disney to stop making it.

I just want you, weathered Star Wars fan, to look back at your life and ask: What mattered, the things I've bought or the moments I've had? Have I used Star Wars to make myself a better person, to enhance relationships, to help others?

And do I really need a bag of oranges with BB-8 on them?

Star Wars

"I think I can handle myself." (From Star Wars: The Force Awakens)

So I lied earlier. Well, I didn't lie, my mother lied.

Back in 1999, The Phantom Menace toys were never delayed. My mother just fed that line to me so she could wait an extra few days to give me the toys she'd already bought. Working at Target at the time, she had first dibs.

Why wait? She wanted to give me the toys on Mother's Day. A present for her son. An unusual stray from tradition – something that hadn't happened before and hasn't happened since. But that's what Star Wars did to us. It made us do weird things.

What'd I get her? Who the hell knows... Not something good enough to be worth remembering.

No, this wasn't one of my shining moments.

Let's go back to a more recent memory, one where I'm not acting like a brat. Let's go back to this Christmas.

At my mother's behest, the whole family wore pajamas. I was grumpy when she brought up the idea, but when she handed me the fleece pants and t-shirt – not Star Wars, but Batman-themed – I knew that this idea mattered to her, so I put the damn things on.

The Gods of comedy smiled down upon: almost everyone's pajamas fit a little odd. Our night turned hysterical as we strutted around in ill-fitting sleepwear and played card games.

The next day, I wore my ridiculous Batman pajamas to the theater. My mom wanted to see The Force Awakens with her sons. I'd already seen it, but I agreed to see it again, because it's what she wanted.

We sat there in the dark, nearly too close to the screen, our heads arched up as the familiar Star Wars opening crawl slowly creeped up the screen. It felt right, being there. It felt familiar.

The feeling was so strong, the excited looks on my parents' faces as we walked out of the theater were so memorable, I didn't even need to buy one of the t-shirts the theater was selling.

20 years from now, I'll be able to remember why Christmas 2015 was a good one all on my own.

Now let's burn this whole capitalist machine down.

(That was a joke.)

Mason Johnson is a Web Content Producer for CBS Chicago. You can find him on Twitter.

1. "Bidirectional Dynamics of Materialism and Loneliness: Not Just a Vicious Cycle" by Rik Pieters published in the Journal of Consumer Research
2. Loneliness: Human Nature and the Need for Social Connection by John T. Cacioppo and William Patrick

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