Our sense of self is one of the most complicated concepts of identity. Where does our sense of self come from? How do we value ourselves and what do we even consider intrinsically ‘us’? Through a number of different characters in the first two Star Wars trilogies George Lucas, on purpose or not, added his own two cents about the concept of self, and especially on how people claim themselves. Below I’ve collected a number of scenes from all three trilogies which I consider to be moments in which characters “claim” themselves by saying ‘I am’. They set up an identity for themselves and the way they do that reveals more than you might think. Follow me on a little Star Wars self-discovery trip through the Prequels, Originals and Sequels!
One of the scenes that has always touched me the most in The Phantom Menace occurs minutes into the audience meeting Anakin Skywalker for the first time. It’s accepted by sociology that the self constantly evolves and changes due to the intricacies of different cultures and societies. If a society around you values honesty above all, you will become more honest. Anakin has grown up in a culture of slavery, where some people are valued less than others due to their social class, where they can be sold like cattle and treated worse. But when Amidala asks him if he’s a slave, this is how Anakin responds:
The young Anakin claims an identity for himself, rejecting the label of slave and instead substituting his name. Padme hadn’t even asked for his name yet, perhaps assuming he didn’t have one, but for Anakin it is crucial that she not only knows that he sees himself as a person but also has an identity and a name. He sees himself, then, not as linked to his social status but rather to the identity given to him by his mother. This is crucial for understanding Anakin and his actions throughout the two trilogies. He creates an identity for himself through the people closest to him, his family, and when they are threatened so is his own sense of identity and self. Hence his intense responses over his mother’s death and the threat on Padme’s life. (Anakin isn’t the only one who claims an identity in the Prequels. In a different post I covered how Padme Amidala claims her identity as queen for herself in The Phantom Menace.). In the end, it is the feared loss of his wife and children that pushes him over the edge and which leads to the “death” of Anakin Skywalker as he was.
We get one more example of Anakin’s reliance on family for identity, in The Empire Strikes Back in this case. It also happens to be one of the most famous lines in cinema ever:
Darth Vader is very much the shell of Anakin. He has no personal ties, nothing roots his identity or his sense of self and as such he can be used by Darth Sidious however he pleases. Anakin was a person, linked to his mother by name, whereas Darth Vader has no such links. The name was given to him but he doesn’t claim it the way he has claimed the name Anakin. However, when he has the chance to connect to something personal, a part of his family, he starts the journey that brings him back to himself. He claims a role as father, as someone who has responsibilities and a role to play. It is this responsibility which eventually allows him to defeat Sidious and achieve a partial redemption. The search for his own self is crucial in the development of the character of Anakin and it is, continuously, tied to family.
Unlike his father, Luke doesn’t initially identify himself through his family but rather through the role he is playing. In the Originals Luke gets two different moments to claim himself and present himself. The first time happens in A New Hope in the beautifully quotable:
Up until now Luke has been a farmboy, held back, in his eyes, by his family and desperate for adventure. When the opportunity falls in his lap to rescue someone, to be a hero, he takes it and presents himself as a saviour. Unfortunately for him, Leia isn’t exactly in need of a brave rescuer to sweep her away. In A New Hope Luke very much tries to fit into the role of stereotypical hero but it doesn’t come very naturally to him. It’s when he starts developing his connection to the Force, and thereby taking on the role of Jedi, that he becomes a hero. Crucial is that his last name, Skywalker, which separates him from his aunt and uncle but connects him to his, as yet, unknown father, is part of his self and will become even more so as he begins to uncover who he really is.
And that brings us to his second claiming of self, which is also my favourite one:
At the end of The Return of the Jedi Luke has changed a lot from the naive young boy that he was in A New Hope. He cuts a much graver figure, dressed in al black, but he has also come full circle in accepting his family ties. He here fully takes on the role of Jedi but has put aside his need for heroism. ‘I am a Jedi…like my father before me.’ means more than him planning to now become a Prequel-esque Jedi who starts a new Jedi Order. Luke knows what his father has become, but here recognizes the shared possibility for darkness that their family ties hold. His anger against Darth Vader and his fear for his sister almost push Luke over the edge, but in this moment he accepts that part of himself and of his destiny and isn’t defeated by it. Whereas Anakin was constantly battling with his emotional and familial ties due to the strict codes of the Jedi Order, Luke can allow himself to be a Jedi with emotional ties. In the scene above he, for me, finds his sense of self both in the role of Jedi and in his role as son, and gains the strength from it to confront Sidious.
Now, the Skywalker tradition of claiming a self, of tying their identity to family and to roles doesn’t entirely continue in the Sequels. There are a number of moments in The Force Awakens where a grander claim to identity such as the examples above could have occurred but the only character who gets moments such as these is Rey. When she introduces herself by name to Finn, for example. The audience has already seen who she is and how she lives her life but now we have a name for her. This is a personal introduction, devoid of claiming family ties or a role. She’s Rey, just Rey. She knows that she has skills, that she’s a survivor, but she doesn’t know if sh’s capable of being and having a friend. Her purely personal introduction is all about herself, about letting someone in. Part of what makes Rey such a fascinating character is her confidence in herself and her abilities, something that is distinctly lacking in the two characters above who doubt themselves and are trying to find themselves. Throughout The Force Awakens Rey comes to the realization she doesn’t have to wait for others to affirm her identity but that she can continue to craft one for herself.
There was a possibility of another one of these moments for Rey, In some of the trailers for The Force Awakens we could hear Maz Kanata and Rey in conversation, where the latter says:
‘I’m no one.’
We wrote about this just after the release of the trailer, how this quote puts her in a certain tradition of lone warriors with grand destinies. On the one hand it places her within this tradition, on the other hand it also forms a strong contrast to her introduction earlier in the film and those of the other characters above. This description is a complete self-negation, a removal of identity and personality. Rey, as we know her, had no truly personal ties to anyone and her whole reason for living was waiting to be found and finding out who she is. Her seeing herself as ‘no one‘ is clearly something caused by her past and is a feeling that changes over the course of The Force Awakens as she builds personal relationships and discovers the Force as a part of herself. It’s understandable, from this point of view, why that dialogue was cut since it would undermine part of her personal development up to that point in the film, but here’s to hoping it will be on the DVD as a deleted scene because it would make for even more interesting discussions.
If one wants to see a pattern in the three characters discussed here, the temptation would be very big to argue Rey is a Skywalker. She is a solitary person, with no known family ties to give her an identity, so she’s had to craft one herself. She has taken on the role of scavenger and refers to herself as such, is named such by Kylo Ren even, but when it comes to introducing herself she’s just Rey. Anakin’s sense of identity is closely tied to his family and it’s where he gets his belief in himself from. He is a person with a name, his mother’s son. When that is stripped away he becomes vulnerable, but by rediscovering a familial tie to Luke and being able to claim that, he can recover part of his own self again, leading to his redemption. Luke, despite having a family, very much strives towards having a role to play that takes him away from family, to being able to see himself as a hero. In the end he finds a sense of peace by accepting his relationship to his father and combining it with his own ambitions.
There is much more that could be said about all this and there are many more moments in the trilogies which offer themselves for this kind of discussion. Which moment is your favourite? And have you strongly identified with one of these characters in their journeys to find themselves?