Fictional heroes matter to the real world. And in this current moment, these heroes are inspiring a new generation of kids to lead.

In the weeks following the release of The Last Jedi, I saw many – too many – posts tearing apart how the film depicted Luke Skywalker as a failure. This was the man who helped destroy the Empire and defeated its two Sith leaders, and in his later years, he’d failed to prevent the rise of the First Order and the corruption of his own nephew. To some who grew up idolizing Luke, this seemed an unforgivable character assassination and an implausible series of developments. (I disagreed.)

I look around at the world today and I wonder, “Is it really?”

My generation grew up believing that the Nazis were fully vanquished in World War II and that the most bigotry and white supremacist groups faded into obscurity sometime after the civil right’s movement. We were sure we’d never have to worry about them again, for wiser generations (i.e. ours) would grow up knowing this stuff was wrong. You can’t totally destroy racism, but what was left of it seemed disorganized and isolated. These were the unequivocal bad guys of the history books and cinema. Who on Earth would emulate them?

Then an organized anti-feminist campaign against women in the gaming world showed us these misogynist punks had been congregating and collaborating. And then the election of Donald Trump, with a lot of support from newly-visible anti-Semites showed us that this Nazi scum had been here all along just waiting for its chance to show itself. We live in a world where men who have unveiled ties to white supremacy have worked in the White House and somehow you find The First Order and Kylo Ren implausible? With a few years perspective, The Force Awakens might read as a perfect (and unintentional) metaphor for the Trump era.

To further that reading, let’s remember that the storyline of the new trilogy so far has been that the new generation seeks out the heroes of old. Though Han Solo is pulled into this fight reluctantly, it’s not his battle to win. He can only do so much. And Luke… Luke is responsible for so much of the current situation – both through inaction and action – that he’s incapable of truly clearing the slate. Also, though Leia is the inspiration behind the Resistance, I feel like even had Carrie Fisher lived to make Episode IX, the message there would have involved her passing the baton to the new generation.

The battle for tomorrow does not remain in the same generation’s hand for long. And in this sequel trilogy, it has fallen to Generation Rey.

Rey

This weekend, I watched a brave young woman stand up to a corrupt government and demand change from a despotic, leader. Actually, she didn’t demand change so much as say, “Change is coming.” This generation isn’t asking for progress, they’re making it an inevitability. It was a scene seemingly pulled from a YA novel, where the teen protagonist faces down a corrupt and ossified evil. Take this quote for instance: “This is our fight now because you messed it up so badly that you left it to the kids. Now it’s our job, and you can’t try to take that back from us.”

The young woman at the forefront of this, Emma Gonzalez, is a senior at Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Wednesday she and her classmates became the latest to experience a mass shooting in their school. Seventeen people lost their lives in this senseless tragedy. And as the soulless GOP lapdogs of the NRA again trotted out the “It’s too soon to talk about gun control” talking point, Emma and her classmates did something remarkable – they refused to be silenced. On Twitter, they challenged the empty “thoughts and prayers” rhetoric. When Donald Trump claimed that the FBI was at fault because they were too busy investigating him, Emma clapped back, “The FBI were some of the amazing first responders who were helping us get to safety and the fact that he wants to discredit them in any way… it’s not acceptable”

This doesn’t even address the fiery speech she gave on Saturday. It was the sort of thing that comes out of Katniss Everdeen’s mouth when she becomes a symbol of revolt. Young people raised on Katniss, Harry Potter and now Rey has grown up with a roadmap for speaking truth to power and taking up the fight when those older than you are too complacent to do so.

Pop culture has helped empower an entire generation. These kids have been trained for this from the time they could read. They know right from wrong and they know the importance of fighting tyranny in all forms.

She’s far from the only one speaking out. Cameron Kasky, a junior at Stoneman, said, “My message for the people in office is: you’re either with us or against us. We are losing our lives while the adults are playing around.” 

Simply put, this generation is DONE WITH THIS SHIT.

The shocking gun massacre at Columbine High School will be 19 years ago on April 20. This means Emma and her classmates have never known a world where this kind of violence wasn’t the norm. The 15 people killed at Columbine have been dead longer than any student in that school has been alive. In that time, the problem not only didn’t get better. It got worse.

I was a year out of high school when Columbine happened. I remember watching much of it unfold live on TV in my dorm room. There had been school shootings before (in fact, an episode of Buffy set to air the following week actually used a possible school shooting as a red herring, and one character darkly noted, “It’s bordering on trendy at this point.”) But Columbine was different. It was shocking in a way that demanded response. And that response was… metal detectors in schools, backpacks banned in the hallways and classrooms, higher security for visitors. The siege mentality took hold, in part because it was easier to enact than fight the NRA.

Two decades later, we know the truth – none of it mattered. And all I want to say to those kids is, I’m sorry. We failed you. This was our fight. In 1999, we should have done what you are doing now. It would have been harder – the internet existed, but social media was still in its infancy, but we should have tried. Our parents should have fought harder to keep guns out of the hands of maniacs, and to break the backs of politicians who served up the bullshit that “The only thing that stops a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.”

We thought the anti-semites were isolated aberrations to be mocked and belittled. We trusted that because our entire lives had been marked by progress that nothing could ever reverse the many social reforms of the last fifty years. And we let ourselves get talked into the lie that “Nothing will ever change with guns. The NRA is too powerful.”

And so we are all Luke Skywalker, hiding out on our islands, bemoaning everything we could have done to stop this and can’t take back now. But you, Generation Rey, you never came to offer us back our lightsaber, did you? You’re wielding that blade – not us, not your parents, not our parents.

This is important – I believe you are the generation that can at last break the NRA. You are the generation that can hold the GOP accountable for all the ways they’ve weakened gun restrictions. You’ve seen the evil that party has allowed to happen under Trump and the gun issue is finally the flashpoint to galvanize the youth vote as one against that dying decrepit party. You’ve shown you have the will, and I believe you have the power.

Lead the way, kids. And I’m so sorry we didn’t do this 20 years ago.

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