Origin of The Star Wars Kid
When he was 15, Canadian student Ghyslain Raza recorded a video of himself swinging a golf ball retriever around in the manner of Darth Maul. In the video he leaps and twirls about the largely empty room, stumbling about and behaving with the sort of awkward abandon normally reserved for private times and places. The video was on tape, but was discovered by a classmate, transcribed to a digital format, and eventually uploaded to the Internet on the file sharing site Kazaa. It now appears in original form, and many parodies, on YouTube and countless other file sharing sites, having become a true an Internet phenomenon.
The star wars kid was perhaps one of the earliest of Internet memes. Meme documentary website “Know Your Meme” documented the rise, and eventual fall, of the this search term, and they estimate that the video had been viewed over 900 million times. According to their study, interest in the video fell off dramatically after 2005, and collapsed to less than 2 searches per month by 2012, compared to highs in 2004. It was the most downloaded video of 2006.
After it achieved such incredible popularity online, the effect continued with a series of parodies and remakes. They ranged from the simple, often involved simply making the ball retriever he was using glow like a lightsaber, to the truly involved, such as a remake done over an Agent Smith fight from the matrix, or a trailer made featuring Raza’s antics blurred into shots from “Kill Bill.” Professionals even got involved in the game, with the television show “American Dad” featuring a parody of the video in its broadcast.
The parodies of the video, many documented by “Know Your Meme,” proliferated online, eventually culminating in an unreal parody by Stephen Colbert and George Lucas, which aired on the Colbert Report, in which Stephen Colbert performed his own awkward lightsaber twirls, and submitted a challenge to his audience to make the most impressive green screen adaptation of his antics. That challenge was accepted, and one of the two finalists was George Lucas, who appeared on the Colbert Report accompanied by his own submission to the green screen challenge, which was digitally enhanced by Industrial Light and Magic. Also appearing in the video were numerous droids, and Jar Jar Binks, a Gungan.
Raza was subject to intense bullying in school after the video became widely known, and eventually withdrew from the school he had attended, finishing his schooling with a private tutor while in a psychiatric ward. He described his experience saying that it was impossible for him to attend class, and that students would get up on the tables and shout “Star Wars” in the lunchroom. Students would also take overhead projector slides, and slowly scroll them like in the opening credits of the Star Wars movies, singing the theme song as accompaniment.
Raza’s family was eventually driven to engage in legal action, in an attempt to make the intense pressure he was subjected to by classmates come to some kind of conclusion. In 2003, his family filed suit, asking $250000 CAD according to some reports. The lawsuit dropped one of the originally named parties, but continued against three of the students allegedly involved, eventually reaching a settlement some three years later, in April of 2006. The terms of that settlement have not been made public.
Raza is now a law school graduate, and the president of a local heritage society, but was driven to speak out due to the cyberbullying he saw occurring. He told interviewers that he hoped that today, there would be people who would help someone like him, and that other bullying victims should work to overcome their shame and to seek help. “You’re not alone. You are surrounded by people who love you,” he said, speaking to bullying victims in a 2013 interview with L’actualité. He is attempting now to raise awareness of the bullying that happens due to online influences, most especially with the the now ubiquitous social media in which youth culture is immersed.
In his own words
Everything rapidly degenerated. In the common room, students climbed onto tabletops to insult me…People made fun of my physical appearance and my weight. I was labelled the “Star Wars Kid.” They didn’t mean it as a compliment. It soon became impossible for me to attend classes.
In an interview with Canadian journalist Jonathan Trudel of L’actualité magazine, Raza described how he was made a bullying victim. “What I saw was mean. It was violent. People were telling me to commit suicide,” he told his interviewer. As to the matter of the lawsuit, he shed some light on that also:
Afterwards, we wanted to know: could we sue the media to force them to stop showing the video? What about suing the school, which failed in its responsibility to protect me? We settled on the idea that, by suing the few who had uploaded the video, we’d send a strong message.
The media’s story was that we were greedy…It was crazy! I can’t reveal the figures of the settlement, but none of us got rich. It didn’t even cover our expenses. The point was to send a message that the media would understand…That people should behave more responsibly.
But perhaps the most revealing thing he had to say was in looking back on the events as they happened to him, expressing a great ability to adapt, and move on from the events:
If what happened to me in 2003 were to happen again today, I can’t help but hope that things would different…I think that, today, schools feel more responsibility for what happens on the web.
Would I change the past, if I could? No. I wouldn’t change a thing, because today I’m happy with who I am…I’m the product of good and bad experiences. Obviously, if you were to tell me that it would happen again, I wouldn’t greet the news with overwhelming joy and happiness. But I wouldn’t look for ways to avoid it.
At the time public understanding of cyberbullying and its effects were somewhat limited. Broadband was only beginning to reach widespread market penetration, and many of the incidents which shaped views of the phenomenon had yet to even occur. Ryan Halligan from Vermont killed himself after months of torment after classmates concluded that he was gay. He was 13. Gail Jones killed herself after receiving hundreds of silent calls. While these examples are admittedly extreme, what is not extreme is the impact that this sort of behavior can have. While the star wars kid himself received psychological counseling and treatment, many of these cases go untreated, and unrealized, often until it is too late to do anything about it.
While the research in this area is still far from conclusive, one reason that the impact of this sort of bullying behavior might be so strong is that there is an always active, always on, part of it, spread by the always active, always on culture of the Internet. Another reason proposed in that the electronic medium gives rise to enormous numbers of viewers, which can make the experience seem inescapable.
Researchers, including Robin Kowalski, psychologist at Clemson University, have also proposed that the ability of the aggressors to remain relatively anonymous encourages more intensive attacks. “In cyberspace, where there is no visual contact, you get more extreme behaviour,” said the psychologist. According to her research, almost half of bullying victims online were unaware of exactly who was bullying them at all, and that this very lack of knowledge could have contributed to the sense of helplessness which these children experienced. “The psychological ramifications of not knowing who’s attacking you can be maddening.”
While today our understanding of these attacks, and resources to deal with them, have expanded dramatically, it is through the actions of Raza and students like him that we have been been able to expand our awareness at all. His ability to evoke such hostility, but also intense empathy, have made it more possible for teens today to overcome the attacks of those who have allowed their anger to obscure their vision, and fallen to their own dark sides. In that small way, he is like the Jedi he emulated, and may be helping others feel the Force within themselves.
Regardless of whether we are drawn to action to help others by it, his story has certainly raised awareness that, one might hope, will deter the aggression that so tormented him.