Monday, April 11, 2011

Darth Vader and the 40-Pound Feminist

The West Texas summer heat gave way to a frigid blast of air
conditioning as my mother and I pushed through the glass doors into
TG&Y. The shining floors and fluorescent lights always prompted a
quickening of my pulse. The late ’70s were the pre-Walmart years in
Big Spring, Texas, and TG&Y offered a glorious array of everything my
7-year-old mind could think of. TG&Y carried such a varied assortment
of goods that my friends and I referred to it as “Toys, Guns and
YoYos” or the more risque “Turtles, Girdles and YoYos.” That day, my
mother, an avid seamstress, needed to shop for fabric. Which gave me
at least 20 minutes to soak in the wonders of the TG&Y toy department.

Of course I could pore over the bright color pages in the toy section
of the Sears Wish Book any time I wanted to. But the TG&Y toy
department is where those pictures came to life. Gleaming Magic
8-Balls with answers to my future floating in dark blue dye. Plastic
buckets of Slime containing worms, bugs and eyeballs. Lite Brites and
Shrinky Dinks and cans of Silly String. Bicycles with their brand-new
rubber tire smell. Row after row of pink boxes showcasing every kind
of Barbie imaginable.

With so much to look at, deciding where to go first would have been a
vexing decision. But this was 1978, and the Star Wars craze had swept
through my hometown and left mobs of galactic rebel-wann-bes in its
wake. I was one of them. The previous Christmas, I had received the
Death Star Space Station, which was one of the most coveted Star Wars toys on the market, second only to the Millenium Falcon. I played for hours with my Star Wars toys – constructing endless storylines that
ranged from the Rebels hatching elaborate plots against Imperial
forces to Princess Leia and my lone Tuscan Raider becoming entangled in a clandestine, star-crossed love affair. In this cosmic fantasy
world, I was no longer a 40-pound second-grader who cowered in the
corner of the gym during dodgeball tournaments. I was the ruler of my
own embattled galaxy. Depending on my mood, I could topple Darth Vader from his reign of terror. Or I could pack the Death Star’s trash
compactor full of droids so the Imperial force could use them for
scrap metal to soup up their tie fighters. I could bring Obiwan Kenobi
back from the dead. Or have Darth Vader kill him as many times as I
wanted him to. In my bedroom, complete with a Holly Hobbie bedspread and matching curtains, I had created my own alternate universe in
which good and evil sparred in a never-ending battle.

My breath catching in my throat, I entered the Star Wars toy aisle.
Proud black boxes lined each shelf as far as my eyes could see. From
inside the boxes, tiny Han Solos and Luke Skywalkers and metallic
droids peered through plastic windows. I always stopped to survey the
action figures first. Kenner, the toy company that produced and
marketed the Star Wars toys, was always introducing new action
figures, and I had to see if any of them were worthy of my wish list.

But Kenner had recently come out with a new line of Star Wars figures.
They were the same classic characters, but bigger – more like
Barbie-doll size. I already had Princess Leia, her rooted brown hair
wound into its trademark cinnamon-bun shapes on each side of her head.

But next to Leia on the shelf that day was another Star Wars character

that caught my eye. Darth Vader. Enrobed in his signature black cloak,
the Dark Lord of the Sith peered at me from behind his sheet of clear
plastic. I picked up his box and stared into his menacing mask,

Suddenly, the box was snatched out of my hands. Startled, I looked up
to see a boy who appeared to be close to my age.

“You can’t have that because you’re a GIRL,” he spat angrily. “Here,”
he said, grabbing Princess Leia’s box off the shelf and thrusting it
at me. “You have to play with this one. Because you’re a GIRL.”

I felt frozen in a state of shock and confusion. This had never
happened to me before. My parents weren’t exactly burning piles of
bras in the front yard, but they had certainly never communicated to
me that I couldn’t have something or couldn’t do something because of
my gender. Barbie dolls and Matchbox cars and Star Wars action figures all co-existed peacefully in my bedroom. (Except for the time the Stormtroopers kidnapped Barbie and tormented Ken with vicious ransom notes.) The fact that I was a girl had never determined what I could or could not play with. I did not like this boy. And I especially did
not like the way he kept saying “girl” like it was a bad word.

At a loss for what to say, I decided to act. I calmly took Princess
Leia from the boy and placed her back on the shelf. Then I snatched
the Darth Vader box from the boy’s hands, clutched it to my chest, and


His voice jumped up an octave. Maybe two.

“But you’re a GIRL!” he screeched. “You can’t have Darth Vader! He’s for BOYS!”

Oh, my. This boy wasn’t going to go away easily. I took a step to my
right, where the light sabers were hanging. This wasn’t going to end
pretty, but it was going to end.

Before I had to take such drastic action, his mother appeared. Much to
my relief.

“Come on,” she reached for his hand. “It’s time to go.”

“Mom!” he yelled, grasping for her to support his evil chauvinist
cause. “Tell her she can’t have that! She’s a GIRL!”

“Don’t be silly,” she replied, becoming my instant ally. “She can play
with whatever she wants.”

As the woman led her son away, he never stopped shrieking. They
disappeared around the corner and his indignant cries grew more and
more faint until I could no longer hear them.

As the welcome silence fell over the Star Wars toy aisle, I realized I
was still clutching Darth Vader to my chest. I pulled the box back and
lifted it so his mask was at my eye-level. I knew this ruthless cyborg
did not approve of rebel activity. But staring at his shiny, black
plastic mask, I thought I caught a congratulatory nod. Our work was
done here. I placed him back on the shelf and turned to leave. Darth
Vader and I had won this battle together.


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