In an epic South Park finale episode, Kyle Brofloski argued why Star Wars is so important, saying that:
Luke Skywalker has affected your life. He's had a bigger impact on the world than any of us have. He's changed my life and changed the way I act on the earth. He might be imaginary, but he's more important than most of us here. And he's going to be around long after we're dead (quote paraphrased).
Maybe this statement seems a little hyperbolic, but on May the Fourth, the official Star Wars Day, the idea doesn't seem so far off. Every year this one day drives home the point: Star Wars matters a lot to a lot of people.
On "May the Fourth Be With You" Day, droves of Americans will dress up and celebrate, and I will be one of them. On no other day of the year will I don any cultural garb, but on this Saturday I'll show up to Downtown Durham, North Carolina's large Star Wars Day festival with a replica lightsaber at my side.
Like so many Americans, I don't have a massive cultural festival like Holi or Cinco de Mayo or even Coachella, I just have May the Fourth. It's my day to dress up and be immersed in myths and narratives. The Greeks had the Gods of Olympus, my Texas friends have the army of the Alamo, and my Coachella friends have the mythical band Neutral Milk Hotel. But me, I have the Skywalker family. I am of course exaggerating -- but only a little.
For many Americans, even if they are a part of other culture groups, Star Wars is still a big part of their cultural landscape, their lingo, and even their fantasies. In a recent Duke University research project on consumer culture, we found that most adults who love Star Wars have as adults also fantasized about being a Jedi. Star Wars is more than a fictional world we observe, it's a world we are part of. People dress up as ghosts for Halloween, but on May the Fourth, they don't just dress us as Jedi Knights, they pretended to be Jedi Knights -- even if it is just privately in their minds.
Yet May the Fourth is not just about individual fantasy, it's about connection. Star Wars remains the most popular way sci-fi and fantasy nerds of all kinds connect. Though Marvel, the works of Joss Wheadon, Tolkein, Doctor Who, and Star Trek contest in nerd culture, Star Wars reigns supreme. Star Wars is a cultural icon for many reasons, but a main reason is its simplicity and the fact that it's easier to "master."
Though Star Wars is full of prequels, video games, cartoons, and a recently nullified Expanded Universe, at the heart of Star Wars there are just three movies that almost everyone has seen. And if you know those three movies well, then you can consider yourself a Star Wars master. Some nerds will disagree with that and say if you don't know everything about Star Wars Legends Mara Jade or robotic Darth Maul then you aren't a true Jedi Master. But for most of us, the original trilogy is all we need to feel like a master. And feeling like a master of Star Wars feels good.
When people feel a sense of "mastery" over stories or things, they tend to like, love and identify with those stories and things. As the psychologist Lita Furby theorized, "That over which I exercise... control becomes a part of my sense of self." Over the past decade, projects lead by researchers at Harvard University, the University of British Columbia, and here in our center at Duke University have begun to find empirical support for the emerging psychological concept of mastery and the positive effects it can have on ownership, identity and happiness.
Star Wars has become not something we physically own on Blu-Ray, but something we own in concept. It's part of our extended self. It's a cultural touch point for us where we grow and exercise our mastery of its fiction and mythos. It's how we connect with others in the present, it's part of the memories we have of our past selves, and it's part of the fantasies we have for our mythical future selves.
As human beings we long to become part of something bigger than ourselves. For many people Star Wars can in many ways serve as this bigger thing. When celebrating and consuming the massive culture phenomenon and community that is Star Wars it is hard not to feel as though you are truly caught up in the magical force. So this Saturday, no matter if you celebrate with full cosplay, a movie marathon, or just a tweet, I hope that this magical force may be with you.
Troy Campbell is a researcher in consumer mastery, culture, and identity at Duke University's Fuqua School of Business and the Center for Advanced Hindsight.
You may also like his academic perspective on nerd culture in articles such as The Magic Stars Wars Episode VII Needs to Recapture, How to Love Movies like Children, and his psychological analysis of the Fantasy Vessel Theory in movies.