What, exactly, is an “icon?”
Webster’s New World Dictionary defines an icon simply as “an image; a figure.”
So, who is Darth Vader? Is this character an “icon?” He is definitely a figure in Star Wars; a prevalent one at that. But, what is his “image?”
This blog entry idea came about during a conversation I had with a very dear friend and fellow fangirl. We were discussing the upcoming Star Wars Episode VII movie. One of the things we debated was whether or not the character of Darth Vader is viewed the same now, after 35+ years of Star Wars being part of our cinematic history, as he was when he first exploded on the scene aboard Tantive IV in “Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope.”
Generation after generation has experienced the character of Darth Vader in some way, shape, form or another. There are so many examples from which to choose: Besides the movies, there are video games, The Clone Wars, Legos and endless books – both EU and movie canon. Then there's Robot Chicken, which aims to poke fun at our beloved saga in a way that fans seem to love (myself included). Also, we have the book series by writer Jeffrey Brown: “Darth Vader and Son,” “Vader's Little Princess,” and “Goodnight Darth Vader” (set to be debut at San Diego Comic Con this summer). These books ask the question (as quoted from Amazon.com) “What if Darth Vader took an active role in raising his son? What if “Luke, I am your father” was just a stern admonishment from an annoyed dad?”
How does all of this media saturation affect the perception of Darth Vader's character, if at all?
Most people who have never seen a Star Wars movie (*gasp*) can usually identify Vader's character by name, albeit sometimes a bit incorrectly: “Dark Vader” has come across my ears from time to time!
I always seem to have many, many questions as I ponder the complexities of the subject matter I choose…
Has Vader become an “afterthought,” the “butt of a joke?”
Do people actually identify him as Anakin Skywalker, or do they see these two characters as separate entities?
What is his image in the mind of society?
How will all of this affect the perception and attitude toward him as we anticipate a new era of Star Wars, if there is any effect at all?
It was this set of questions that inspired me to do a bit of research. As a teacher, research has just been something I’ve always been used to doing, and it seems natural to turn to it as a way to get some answers, even in this particular instance!
I surveyed close to 50 people. The ages of the participants were anywhere from six years old, all the way up to probably close to 60 (I didn’t dare ask…!).
My question, simply, was: “Who is Darth Vader?”
The replies both surprised – and reinforced – what I thought I might find out. What was most interesting to me was the types of replies within particular age groups.
Because I teach high school, I have a great, built-in audience to use for that age group. Most of the responses from the 14-18 age group were what I would call “classic responses” – those that describe Vader as a “bad guy”, or, as one young lady said: “Dark and creepy and mean.” Several responses also included things like “he has a strange voice,” or “he breathes weird.”
Some of the responses were pretty intuitive and layered, or just plain entertaining! Here are a few of my favorites:
“A deeply angered Jedi who let his bond with the Force slip to the dark side to place revenge upon those who did him wrong.” (Male, age 17)
“Darth Vader, he’s the guy you can just look at a picture and picture some awesome evil music with. In my opinion, what good things Anakin did and all he loved were destroyed with his human body as they scorched under lava. He’s no longer the young hero, he is now all that is malicious and evil. However, in a way you’ve gotta like him for what he used to be, and all he’s bringing to the table!” (Male, age 17)
“Full of anger/sorrow/loss. Allowed his passions to destroy who he was/tried to be.” (Male, age 16)
“Darth Vader makes me think of death and destruction. I think of evil things happening to innocent people.” (Female, age 18)
“I just think he’s a scary man with a voice that sounds like he’s been smoking for 30 years.” (Female, age 16)
And the one that gave me the chills…
“Misunderstood.” (Male, age 15)
It was my summation that this age group, if they had exposure to the various Star Wars media, understood that Vader was actually Anakin Skywalker at one point in his life, and that he was a “good guy turned bad.” Interestingly enough, it was also this age group that had the most respondents who had never seen any of the Star Wars movies.
Of the “older crowd,” (ages 30 and up), most identified Vader as the villain. I only had one or two responses that mentioned Anakin at all. A majority of the respondents mentioned that Vader is Luke’s father. Most of those in this group had at least seen part of one of the movies, but there were a few (all women in their 30’s), who had never seen any of them.
My favorite response from this age group was:
“My initial thought was that Darth Vader is the leader if the military arm of the Empire in George Lucas’s Star Wars. He’s also Luke Skywalker’s father. Upon further thought, Darth Vader is also Anakin Skywalker, who was once training to be a Jedi knight before turning to the Dark Side of the Force.”
Of both these age groups, the movie quote I saw most often was “I am your father.” Still a zinger after all these years!
Last, but not least, are the younglings. Those under age 10. I was most interested to hear what these kiddos would say, mainly because I’ve always been intrigued by the fact that, at both Star Wars Celebrations I’ve attended, most children will run right up to someone dressed in full Darth Vader cosplay and want a hug, or at least to be close to him. Wouldn’t one think he would be scary? I’ve seen more children scream when placed on Santa’s lap than in the presence of this Dark Lord of the Sith!
Many of the younglings I was able to survey either didn’t know who Darth Vader was at all, or saw him simply as a bad guy. No mention of Anakin Skywalker whatsoever. Except for one little princess, age 6, who just so happens to be living in a house where Star Wars fandom is a way of everyday life (get ready, this is priceless…)
“He's Anakin, and when he turned mean he captured his own daughter. He fought his own son. And his troops got killed by Leia, Han, and Luke Skywalker. He turned to the dark side because he was mad at Obi-Wan. Padme died.”
…Major “Awwwwwwww Factor”!
So, what does all this tell us about the “image” of Darth Vader?
It means this character is still intriguing us after all these years, no matter what age we are or what experience we’ve had with him.
I did reflect upon my own ideas and perceptions of Darth Vader as well. If you would have asked my 7-year-old self about Vader, I would have told you that he is evil, but that he had to listen to someone even more evil than he was. I always had the feeling that he was being controlled. After all these years, and with each evolution of Vader's character, I have built my own layers of understanding this most complex of characters. I doubt that evolution will ever end, so long as Star Wars keeps expanding and unfolding with each new generation of fans.
So, as we move forward to Episode VII, it will be interesting to see how the aftermath of Vader’s reign – as well as the legacy of Anakin Skywalker – play into the new era of Star Wars movies.
This was a fun exercise for me! I really enjoyed reaching out to a variety of people and sharing my fandom with them in the process.
I’m very eager to hear what all of you have to say!
May the Force be with you…always,
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