Star Wars confession time: I didn’t always love the prequels. A young adult, when they first released, I didn’t appreciate much of what was on the screen at that time, including Jar Jar. After Revenge of the Sith my fandom waned. I wasn’t aware of the Expanded Universe and in a season of life where I didn’t have lots of leisure (college, jobs, marriage, starting a family, raising babies, battling bouts of depression and anxiety, etc). When my kids were a bit older, I started showing them some of the movies I watched when I was a kid. Naturally, Star Wars was on the list. When I put A New Hope on, I told my kids “This movie changed the world.” And…they were hooked. We sped through the Original Trilogy. By that time, my oldest had officially been bit by the Star Wars bug. She knew there were more movies. I groaned inwardly, and grudgingly agreed.
We started with The Phantom Menace, and introduction of quite possibly the most reviled character–Jar Jar Binks. When we saw him on screen, I must have sighed. My kids asked why. “This character is kind of silly” I said.
“So?” My daughter Emily replied.
“Well, he is also pretty clumsy and kind of annoying” I said. “A lot of people don’t like him.”
“Why would you not like someone just because they are silly and annoying? I thought it was what was on the inside that matters,” Emily countered.
“Well, he just isn’t for grown ups I guess.” I lamely said.
“Mom, I’m seven. I’M SUPPOSED to like him. And it isn’t nice to be mean to someone for being silly!” And then my seven-year-old dropped her mic. (Not really, but I was considerably humbled. I had been caught being hugely hypocritical by a 1st grader. This is an instance where Yoda was right: “Truly wonderful, the mind of a child is.”)
It isn’t too much of an exaggeration to say that this conversation revolutionized my fandom. I found myself unlearning what I had learned: namely that the Prequels are Bad. When I combined this newfound freedom: to celebrate and accept what the Prequels are as opposed to hating them for what they are not; to enjoy them with my kids’ ardent enthusiasm; I found myself loving the prequels. And pushing back against the “hate” for them so widely perceived it was a not-so-subtle part of The Force Awakens‘ marketing campaign. And thus the evolution of my changing feelings about Jar Jar were birthed.
Jar Jar. A silly, clumsy outcast, despised by many (in universe and out). (That could have been my yearbook caption in middle school, by the way.) Not accepting those aspects of myself and my own insecurity about them led to scoffing and scorning when I saw them in the characterization of Jar Jar. But if Jar Jar was worthy of kindness and respect, (and according to my seven year-old, he was) maybe I could forgive myself for some of my shortcomings too. Saying things the wrong way? Not being understood by others? Getting hate just for existing? Feeling like you are barely tolerated by a group who not-so-secretly despise you? Yeah, I can identify with those parts of Jar Jar’s characterization.
Beyond his mannerisms, which fill so many with rage, Jar Jar has a kind heart and seeks to help others. He was manipulated by Palpatine in Attack of the Clones, but who wasn’t? We see numerous examples of his caring and courageous nature in Clone Wars. Yes, there is silliness and missteps along the way, but not all characters can be Obi-Wan or Palpatine. Some of us relate more to Jar Jar or C-3PO than those cool kids anyway.
In Empire’s End by Chuck Wendig (third book in the Aftermath trilogy set post Return of the Jedi) we get a glimpse at Jar Jar, and not only is he working to atone for his mistakes, he is bringing children joy; particularly a child treated as an outcast. He seeks his child out, makes him smile, and befriends him. For that child, Jar Jar is a hero. It is a perfect example of doing small things with great love.
I desire to be a kind person. I want to instill in my kids that kindness is a virtue that is worthy of imitation. For me personally, Jesus’ words to love your neighbor as yourself are meaningful instruction. Do I constantly, and repeatedly fail? Absolutely. But the journey is the reward. So, as absurd as this may seem, Jar Jar has become a symbol of that journey for me. A reminder to not judge, to see the good, to be kind.
Note: For some, Jar Jar embodies racist stereotypes, and that is a fair and valid interpretation. Racial stereotypes are problematic in the prequels, other areas of Star Wars and popular culture in general–undoubtedly. I am not an expert in this, though I am trying to learn, but I do try to address it a way that is appropriate to my kids’ development, and to consider it myself. So while that isn’t my focus here, I did feel the need to address it, while fully acknowledging that I don’t feel I have the skills to take the discussion much further.