There was one moment, halfway through Empire Strikes Back, where my 8-year-old son started frowning.
“I don’t like that guy.”
Which guy, I asked. He pointed at the person on screen.
He wasn’t pointing at Darth Vader or The Emperor. Or even the double-crossing Lando Calrissian.
No. He was pointing at Han Solo.
Han Solo, the hero. One of the most adored characters in the Star Wars canon. What could my son, my own flesh and blood, possibly have against Han Solo?
But let’s rewind.
For the last week, I’ve been introducing my son to Star Wars, a series I’ve loved since long before he was born. As a kid I enjoyed watching Star Wars. As a teenager I was obsessed, delving into the endless novels and comics that made up the Star Wars expanded universe. I collected toys and all manner of Star Wars junk. More importantly I watched the movies over and over and over again.
But with the most recent trilogy, my love of Star Wars has soured. I loved The Last Jedi but loathed The Rise of Skywalker and have been indifferent to almost everything else produced since Disney acquired Lucasfilm in 2012. Partly because of that, I was in no rush to introduce my oldest kid to Star Wars. But it was Saturday night — movie night in my household — and there was nothing better to watch.
That’s how the discussion started. The Han Solo discussion.
What the hell’s wrong with Han Solo, I asked, almost defensively, as my son shook his head in disgust.
“He’s just… so rude.”
That’s his thing, I protested. He’s a rogue! A rapscallion. That’s his whole thing…
Then my son said something that stopped me in my tracks.
“She said stop, and he didn’t stop.”
Frozen in carbonite
My 8-year-old was referring to Princess Leia and, specifically, the scene in The Empire Strikes Back where Han Solo kisses her for the first time.
Never mind the fact Han Solo is, canonically, 32 years old when he meets the teenaged Leia for the first time, my son was actually correct. Leia does tell Han Solo to stop, when he starts massaging her hands on board the Millennium Falcon, and Han Solo in fact does not stop.
It’s a bit weird.
It didn’t feel weird when I was a kid, or a teenager in the ’90s when I watched the movies on repeat every weekend. But it did feel weird in the context of what I, alongside my wife, have been teaching my kids about consent since they were sentient. Just simple things like, if someone says “stop,” you stop.
It occurred to me that my son was feeling the same level of discomfort I felt when watching James Bond slap women on the butt in Goldfinger. It never occurred to me that a series like Star Wars could reflect cultural shifts, but here we were and here I was, being taught a simple and valuable lesson about a movie I’d watched literally 50-plus times.
It’s impossible and, in a sense, almost unfair to ask a movie released in 1980 to accurately reflect progress made on social issues over the last decade. (And some women have argued that, actually, Han Solo is OK?). But we live in the post #MeToo era, when brave women have forced men to reevaluate dangerous and common attitudes toward women. Attitudes that were reinforced, at least in part, by characters like Han Solo in movies as frivolous as The Empire Strikes Back.
But my 8-year-old son wasn’t thinking about that when he said Han Solo was an asshole. He was just reflecting the environment he’s growing up in.
As a friend of mine said, after I relayed this story to her, that the original Star Wars trilogy is definitely getting close to that “unwatchable for new audiences” threshold. The action scenes are sluggish. Special effects that once seemed timeless are showing their age. It’s understandable: The Empire Strikes Back is over 40 years old at this point. But culturally? That’s where Star Wars has aged the worst.
We can kick and scream and complain, but, ironically, it’s a transition that will ultimately take place without our consent. A transition that should force us — and by us I mean men — to ask questions of ourselves. Why did Han Solo’s behavior feel normal? Why didn’t it feel weird? Why did we take these strange social norms for granted and potentially replicate them in our own interactions with women? It’s an opportunity to examine the cues around us with a fresh set of eyes. When our kids tell us something is weird, we should probably listen — and potentially learn something in the process.
At the end of The Empire Strikes Back, Han Solo is captured by Darth Vader. Ultimately he becomes frozen in carbonite, frozen in time. He becomes, essentially, a frozen facsimile of himself.
Han Solo can’t be anything other than a product of his time. Maybe we shouldn’t judge him for that, but our attitudes shouldn’t suffer the same fate. I was surprised — shocked even — with my 8-year-old son’s visceral reaction to Han Solo. But ultimately, like Solo, he’s a product of his own time. In a positive way. Given what we now know, I’m glad he was able to connect those dots.