"I’m a person and my name is Anakin!”
"Mom, you said that the biggest problem in the universe is no one helps each other."
Anakin Skywalker — Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace
In Defense of TPM!Anakin Skywalker (Or Why This Fandom Makes Me Want to Drop-Kick It Into a Black Hole)
There are few things in fandom that make me see red and start breathing fire. Nostalgia purely for the sake of nostalgia is one of them. The lionization and uncritical adoration of 'gritty, grimdark, so serious' concepts, plot points and characters over all others is another. When these two unite, they create the sort of many-headed hydra that makes my fandom experience an absolute goddamn nightmare, to the point where I’m actively driven away by a large portion of the userbase and repelled by their attitudes.
Nowhere is this more apparent than the Star Wars fandom’s treatment of the Anakin Skywalker we see during The Phantom Menace. A combination of nostalgia over another story that was already told, a desire for a stereotypically pop-culture ‘cool’ or 'edgy' character, a complete lack of experience with how children actually cope in brutal/impoverished environments (not a surprise, given that the vast majority of the fandom is Western and dominated by the Anglosphere) along with expectations for a clear-cut indicator that should have all but screamed 'this kid's gonna be a Sith Lord and mass-murderer, look at this, look at the emerging darkness and brutality' results in a downright toxic attitude that frankly hasn’t lessened or become more palatable at all in the last fifteen years.
One of the accusations most often levied at Anakin in The Phantom Menace is that he’s unbelievable, unrelatable or that ‘no kid would behave as he does.’ To which I answer 'you mustn't have known a lot of children, particularly those from deprived backgrounds.' All of that on top of the fact that there’s a simple message all of the old, bitter nostalgics who yearned for someone close to Luke’s age still haven’t accepted, to this day — Star Wars isn’t just for you. Here are some relevant snippets that I wrote up for Club Jade's 'Happy 15th anniversary to Phantom Menace' post. Do note that these come from the perspective of someone born in the USSR, raised through poverty, the crumbling of superpowers, regional ethnic conflicts, population displacement and international refugee status:
I was a lonely, miserable kid with anger and trust issues, who was finding it very difficult to adapt to a whole new country and a large capital city, as opposed to a village in the boonies. I missed my parents and resented them at the same time, I missed my old classmates and to top it all off, I had to deal with kids constantly making fun of my ‘country bumpkin’ accent and lack of experience with their way of life. My uncle decided that he’d take me to the cinema to try and cheer me up — and he chose TPM because the advertising was everywhere.
I was utterly enthralled from the first few seconds. I cheered for the Jedi and the Queen escaping Naboo, I marveled at the bright, intense, colorful world in front of my eyes, I tried to pick apart every single one of Amidala’s glorious outfits in my head, I laughed at Jar-Jar’s ridiculousness (even if today he mostly makes me roll my eyes) and I listened intently to all that was being said. By far my biggest point of emotional connection with the film, however, was Anakin Skywalker. He was the same age as me. He was a daredevil. He reacted much as I would (my standard response to people belittling me for my origin varied from scowling to biting their goddamn heads off) and he faced similar hardships — being separated from whom he loved most, facing a thoroughly uncertain future, among people who were still strangers to him and having to prove himself worthy of trust.
In spite of his age and the chaos all around him, however, Anakin remained kind-hearted, heroic and selfless in his wish to help others, if it was in his power to do so. The scene where he reminded Shmi that too few people genuinely wish to help others is by far my all-time favorite moment in the entire Star Wars saga, even taking the Expanded Universe into account. It still manages to give me shivers to this day. In the Anakin of TPM, I very much saw the best parts of myself reflected, just as I saw how a morass of subjugation could be navigated, if you kept your head high and refused to allow yourself to be battered into cynicism and hatred. To me, Anakin Skywalker in his childhood stood for what was best in humanity and I loved him fiercely for it.
The path turned far darker from that moment onward, but Anakin Skywalker as a ten year-old boy held promise like a sun emerging from behind the horizon of a long Hoth night. He wasn’t turned into a brute, an emotionless shell or an edgy bastard by his upbringing, even though all of these weren’t unlikely results — and this was a balm for the soul of a kid like me, in ways that I can’t properly describe in my mother tongue, much less the clumsiness of English.
We didn’t live in slavery where I was born, but we also had no easy life. Children came and children left, within hours of hasty, improvised baptisms. We dug for roots and mushrooms because there was little else to eat during drought, when the crops failed. We survived rickets, pneumonia and a typhoid fever outbreak. We learned to quickly differentiate between gunfire, firecrackers and IEDs. We saw tall, blond-haired Westerners come with international aid and, in our innocence, thought they were from another world altogether. We lived a childhood that most would describe as 'hell'… yet we were happy. We didn’t know anything better and we had each other and that was all that mattered. We worked hard, but also smiled, laughed, turned chores into games, got up to mischief around the adults, tore apart the rickety old Lada car in the village and tried to put it back together, made every goddamn goofball noise under the sun and threw our fists in the air like maniacs whenever we got our way.
Sound familiar, by any chance? Unrelatable, you were saying?
Another accusation I often see is that Anakin is a 'flat character'…. to which I have to answer with ‘did we even watch the same film here?’ The fact that he’s cheerful and idealistic hardly means that these are solely his only traits. The seeds that will explode into Anakin Skywalker’s darkest traits start to blossom as early as his childhood. Anakin Skywalker the ten year-old is prone to disobedience, ridiculously reckless, rushes into things head-first and has almost no regard for his goddamn personal safety. He’s dead-certain of his skills and abilities — a certainty that will bloom into hubris later on. He has a pride as sharp as durasteel thorns and reacts with anger and resentment to even the appearance of being dehumanized, belittled or talked to with condescension (‘I’m a person and my name is Anakin!’) He has a short temper, but still manifests it with scowls, insults or contemptuous remarks (see his attitude toward Sebulba), rather than choking the life out of people. He reacts with fear and timidity in completely unknown situations or when he’s out of his depth, but also tries to hide his fear under a veneer of cheerful bravado, because it can be exploited or used against him and he knows it. This fear is what will lead to his desire for inflexible, unbending control.
Anakin Skywalker is a selfless, kind, warm, empathetic child, but still very much a flawed one. Still, in Episode I, he was fiercely heroic even with his flaws and the shadows hanging over his future and showed the beginning of the larger-than-life man that Obi-Wan described as ‘his friend’ (and whose appearance in full glory we only got to see in The Clone Wars series, sadly enough, unless one also counts the first twenty minutes of Revenge of the Sith).
I’ll be perfectly blunt, because I’m sick up to my ears of the common narrative in this bitter excuse for a fandom and the ways in which it’s catered to. If you have the gall to describe Anakin Skywalker the child solely as 'that kid who goes 'yippee!' and does impossible things', you’re not someone I would trust with any relevant character analysis. In any situation. Ever.
Lastly…. 'he's whiny and annoying.' Last I checked, he complains far less than Luke does in his relevant film and has good reason to be dejected in the scenes when his smile fades away… but when has that stopped a good bandwagon? I’ll not give the 'he should have been older' argument the time of day, for exactly the same reasons I stated above. There were thousands of ten year-olds in that audience who identified with this character. We cheered our lungs out by the time the film was done — even if, in hindsight, we would have wished for a far better space battle.
Star Wars isn’t just for you.