I’ve always felt bad that I don’t like Star Wars. Everyone else seems to, after all. Jocks, nerds, hippies, narcs—they all love Star Wars. This tattooed, muscle-bound dude on the subway the other day was wearing a Star Wars hat. The guy who poured my coffee one morning this week was wearing a Star Wars shirt. My own indifference in the face of such universal cinematic enthusiasm makes me feel all alone, like Will Smith in I Am Legend, a movie that I was more excited about than Star Wars. And I wasn’t even excited about I Am Legend! I don’t know what’s wrong with me.
It’s not that I’m ashamed of my own tastes so much as I regret missing out on the shared Star Wars cultural experience. Part of the fun of sports fandom is knowing that there are millions of other people who are similarly invested in the fortunes of the team for which you choose to root. So the seventh Star Wars movie, The Force Awakens, has united the world in a frenzy of mass anticipation. And amid the inescapable publicity blitz, I began to wish that I could get caught up in it myself.
Lucky for me, I don’t have to love the movies to have a proper Star Wars experience. The “Force” to which the new film’s title refers is, apparently, the force of commercialism and synergistic marketing. There are approximately 42 million merchandised products bearing the Star Wars imprimatur, and these days I literally cannot go to the store without being confronted with a ton of Star Wars–themed crap that nobody could ever want or need. There are Star Wars foodstuffs. Star Wars apparel. Star Wars napkins. Star Wars flatware, chopsticks, slippers, and suitcases. Star Wars wrapping paper with which to wrap up your Star Wars area rugs. Star Wars makeup. Star Wars showerheads. Star Wars condoms. (Feel free to fill in your own “lightsaber” joke here.)
It’s as if Disney, which in 2012 purchased the Star Wars franchise from Lucasfilm for $4.06 billion, is taking its cues from Krusty the Clown, slapping Star Wars characters on literally any product, no matter how superfluous or bizarre. (Entrepreneur: “We think a line of Star Wars–themed Epsom salts would do very well.” Disney executive: “We graciously accept your giant bag of money.”) But presumably there are people out there who like all this stuff. Maybe I was one of them, and I just didn’t realize it yet?
I decided to test-drive as much Star Wars merchandise as possible in the days leading up to the new film’s release, in order to see whether surrendering to the force of bizarre product tie-ins would get me into the Star Wars spirit. For the sake of marital harmony, I quickly abandoned my initial idea to test-drive the Star Wars condoms. But everything else I could find would be fair game.
I decided to start with Star Wars foodstuffs, of which there are many. (What better way to feel the Force than by ingesting it?) Over at the A.V. Club, my friend Dennis Lee recently wrote about his attempt to cook a four-course meal using only Star Wars–branded food products. I didn’t go that far, mostly because the kitchen in my apartment is purely decorative, but I was more than happy to eat stuff straight out of the container.
When I think Star Wars, I think Popchips. That is a sentence that has previously never been uttered by anyone at any point in human history. Yet the Popchips people have nevertheless decided to embrace the Star Wars spirit by issuing a limited-edition Star Wars–branded line of their weird, mealy, not-a-chip chips. “Pop your snack into light speed,” the slogan on the front of my bag of Star Wars sea salt potato Popchips urged me, so I gave it a shot. Like all Popchips I’ve ever eaten, these tasted like they were manufactured somewhere deep in the uncanny valley: a poorly calibrated replicator’s wan version of actual by-God potato chips. What’s that? “Replicators” are a Star Trek thing, not a Star Wars thing? Fine, fine, here’s a legit Star Wars reference to sum up my opinion of these commemorative snacks: These were not the chips I was looking for.
I wiped my mouth with a Star Wars: The Force Awakens two-ply party napkin by DesignWare—nothing says “Welcome to my home!” like a blood-red napkin featuring the image of a menacing, shrouded figure flanked by two armed Stormtroopers—and decided to have some cereal. The limited-edition box of Star Wars breakfast cereal, by General Mills, features a lightsaber-wielding Darth Vader looking quizzically at a large bowl of cereal, out of which six marshmallows are flying.
Anyway, the Star Wars cereal—which wasn’t very good, not that I was expecting it to taste good—made much more sense than the limited-edition Popchips. Cereal manufacturers have a long history of marketing tie-ins with children’s films, and I can actually imagine someone seeking out this product. All breakfast cereals taste terrible, after all, so you might as well eat the terrible-tasting cereal with Darth Vader on the box. I can easily understand the audience for this cereal: children with underdeveloped taste buds who do not actually care that it tastes like synthetic lemon and dried-out marshmallows. The back of the box features a checkerboard and instructions on how to use individual pieces of cereal to “play this interstellar game of checkers.” I gave it a shot, but checkers sucks if you’re playing by yourself. “Eat all of your opponent’s ships and you win,” the instructions concluded. Victory was mine!
After the cereal and the chips, my mouth started to feel a little musty, so I popped a handful of Star Wars Trident white spearmint chewing gum to freshen my breath. The gum comes in a canister with Darth Vader’s face on it, which makes a certain amount of sense, because, really, if there’s any major Star Wars character who almost certainly has chronic halitosis, it’s Darth Vader. Actually, I’d wager that most of the characters in the Star Wars universe have wicked bad breath. (The next time you see Chewbacca brush his teeth will be the first time you see Chewbacca brush his teeth.) Anyway, I could see how this chewing gum might fit into the Star Wars universe. It’s good gum. I hummed the Imperial March the entire time that I was chewing it. “Chew or chew not. There is no try,” I exclaimed.
So the tie-ins were sort of working. If I wasn’t wholeheartedly getting into the Star Wars spirit, I was at least thinking of the movies and racking my brain for dumb referential jokes I could make while using these Star Wars–branded products. I decided to up the stakes. If I wanted to know what it felt like to be a Star Wars fanatic, I would have to dress the part.
So during a trip to western Wisconsin last week, I stopped by a local Shopko and went on a Star Wars shopping spree, buying as much Star Wars apparel as I could find. I had a lot of options, most of which were sort of confusing, in the “Who would ever wear this?” sense. I filled my cart with these inexplicable items.
When I got back to my motel room, I put everything on and looked at myself, disapprovingly, in the mirror. It was a very strange ensemble. I was wearing Darth Vader boxer shorts, even though I had always pegged Vader as a banana-briefs guy. On my feet were lime-green socks featuring Yoda’s face, and little ears protruding from the sides, right near my ankle bones. On my head: a Star Wars baseball cap. (“One size fits most,” the tag noted.) On my hands: Star Wars texting gloves, with Darth Vader’s face flimsily applied to the knuckles. My favorite piece of clothing was a bright red T-shirt co-branded with Star Wars and the University of Wisconsin–Madison, featuring various Star Wars characters interspersed with images of UW–Madison’s logo and mascot. (This made sense to me, because, as everyone knows, Lando Calrissian went to UW–Madison.) Looking good, Justin, I said to myself. It was time to go to the airport.
The TSA employee who checked my ID as I went through security smiled as he saw me coming, clad head to toe in Star Wars gear, pulling a Fab Starpoint Star Wars roller suitcase behind me. (Note: Do not purchase this suitcase. It is very poorly made.) “Going to New York, huh?” he said. “Have a piece of pizza for me. And I love the shirt.” The second TSA agent was less impressed by my outfit, regarding me with confusion as he directed me into the scanning machine. I didn’t care. Standing there, hands over my head, green Yoda socks on my feet, I felt one with the Force.
The rest of the trip was surprisingly anti-climactic. I felt sort of self-conscious in my Star Wars outfit, but, honestly, few of my fellow travelers even noticed my attire. I was traveling on a Sunday, after all, and lots of other people were decked out in football gear. They wanted to proclaim their allegiance to the Vikings; I wanted to pretend to be the sort of person who would proclaim his allegiance to Star Wars. It was all basically the same thing.
I had spent days living the Star Wars experience. Now, it was time to dream the Star Wars experience. The other night I had several beers and donned the dumbest pieces of merchandise I had acquired thus far: an adult Darth Vader onesie and a pair of bright white Stormtrooper slippers. My sister burst out laughing when she saw me, a grown man, wearing this flimsy synthetic dignity-destroying sleep suit. I didn’t mind the onesie so much as the slippers. Stormtroopers aren’t lovable! They’re the thuggish, murderous tools of a repressive, genocidal, evil regime! If the Star Wars universe were the real world, then wearing these Stormtrooper slippers would be basically the equivalent of padding around the apartment with Waffen SS figurines on your feet. I fell asleep with these conflicted thoughts running through my head. I prepared for a night of dark dreams.
When I woke the next morning, I prepared for a shower. But not just any shower: a Star Wars shower. If you’ve ever watched the Star Wars movies and asked yourself, Gee, I wonder if I can buy an R2-D2 showerhead, know that the answer is now yes. “Fight away dirt with a shower head that’s shaped like your favorite droid,” says the box holding the Oxygenics R2-D2 showerhead. “It’s the perfect way to turn your shower into your own rebel alliance.” And as novelty showerheads go, it turns out this one is a very good showerhead. It installs quickly. It has multiple settings. In the most powerful setting, the water comes out of R2-D2’s midsection with a mighty gush. I soaped up and imagined that the droid was urinating on me. Then, having creeped myself out, I hastily twisted the showerhead over to the rainfall setting, which was much nicer.
Having sampled the Jedi version of showering, I wondered what it would be like to lather up under the Dark Side. Lucky for me, Oxygenics also makes a handheld Darth Vader showerhead. I’ll spare you the details of my Darth Vader shower experience, but I will say that 1) the water comes out of his eyes in powerful jets, and 2) the water pressure is strong with this one.
My time exploring the Star Wars merchandising universe was nearing its end. There were many more products I had wanted to test, but the film was on the verge of being released, and I was out of time. So, what did I learn? First of all, “Fake it till you make it” doesn’t work when it comes to Star Wars fandom. You either like the movies or you don’t, and no amount of forcibly ingesting random merchandise will change that. Second, showerheads aside, most of this Star Wars stuff is really terrible. It’s cheaply made and inessential. The preponderance of low-quality Star Wars merchandise just ends up making the whole Star Wars experience feel less special (although surely no less lucrative). I’m still not excited about Star Wars, but my trip through the Star Wars retail crap hole makes me think that maybe you aren’t either. Plenty of people are thrilled to experience the Force once again. And the rest of us merely feel Force-fed.