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On Porgs: In Defense of Cuteness in ‘Star Wars’

The feathered, emoji-like creatures of ‘Star Wars: The Last Jedi’ join Ewoks in the adorable-character canon. But with great cuteness comes great responsibility. There are some who hate saying “aww” when they see a ‘Star Wars’ movie. Will porgs make or break Rian Johnson’s installment for these barbarians?

Star Wars/Ringer illustration

Porgs are cute. Smaller than a penguin but larger than a chicken, these little seabirds are white with sable and brown markings. They are native to Ahch-To, a world of oceans and lonely emerald islands where Luke Skywalker has been hiding like a fucking coward for many years.

Porgs have pleasant faces and pebble-like eyes that glisten mischievously. They do not have beaks. A porg’s mouth, when closed, frowns, like an ellipsis that tumbled over. When a porg’s mouth is agape to voice its trademark shriek, its visage appears almost comically alarmed; more emoji than animal. They have stubby wings, which they use for graceless flight. Baby porgs are called “porglets.” A flock of porgs is “a murder.” I have yet to see The Last Jedi, mind you. Yet I will defend porgs with my life. They are that cute.

But cuteness in Star Wars is controversial. The producers of The Last Jedi are aware of this. “You go too cute, and you disengage some people,” Neal Scanlan, Jedi’s creatures and droids supervisor, told USA Today. (He also worked on The Force Awakens and Rogue One.) “Don’t go cute enough, you’re going to exclude younger viewers. Creating something that hits the mark, that was a harrowing experience.”

A harrowing experience! Scanlan talks about the process of creating a fictional alien bird for one of the most beloved pieces of intellectual property in the world—a job that millions of people dream of doing for free, to say nothing of for money—in terms that one might use to describe having food poisoning. And Scanlan is right to worry; there’s a loud segment of the fan base that hates cuteness to the bottom of their ruined, desolate hearts. They’ve turned away from the light and given into the dark. They also have active blogging fingers.

Call it “the Ewok Effect.” The cuddly denizens of Endor’s sanctuary moon were major players in 1983’s Return of the Jedi. Without their aid, the Rebellion would have lost the Battle of Endor and the threat of planetary genocide would have hung over the galaxy like the sword of Damocles. The Ewoks saved billions of lives.

But what price victory? These courageous, furry warriors met blaster-toting stormtroopers with spears and stones and took on armored AT-ST’s. Their horrendous losses were made all the more tragic by the morally disgusting manner by which the Ewoks were enlisted in the fray—tricked into believing that entering the fight was god’s will. And what about the effect of Death Star II’s destruction on the Endorian environment? Experts agree that if a metal object roughly the size of a moon filled with toxic materials detonated in low orbit over a planet, that world would quite likely be rendered uninhabitable. The Ewoks, those cute teddy-bear-looking bubelas, are freaking heroes.

And yet! There’s a particularly vociferous strain of Star Wars fan that considers Ewoks the seed of the franchise’s ruin. The argument is that Ewoks were created as marketing vehicles. Their appeal to children has sullied something pure. These critics go as far as to blame the success of the Ewoks for Jar Jar Binks. Who can, more than 30 years after the release of Return, and with what I assume is a straight face, write things like: “The laws of Return of the Jedi weren’t governed by art or common sense or the needs and requirements of the screenplay—the revenue generated from action figures, boxes of novelty cereal and pajamas governed them”? Oh no, not the action figures.

That article also notes that George Lucas originally envisioned the denizens of Endor as a reptilian race that, according to the author, “would have served the story well,” because of the extremely good and complex metaphor of “the evil Empire being brought down by something equally scary and slimy (but fundamentally misunderstood).”

This line of thinking is as flawed as the design of the Death Star. Cuteness and toys were not invented in 1983. It ignores the fact that R2-D2 is pleasing to the eye and makes sounds that can fairly be called “cute.” It forgets that Yoda is, in fact, pretty cute. I mean, come on. Chewbacca is basically a golden retriever that could play center in the NBA. Back when George Lucas was pitching the script for Episode IV, he referred to it as “my little children’s movie.” The cute aesthetic is part of Star Wars’ DNA.

The word “cute” first appeared in 1731 as a shortening of the word “acute.” Playing on the figurative definition of “acute”—pointed, penetrating—it meant “keen” or “clever.” Over time, the meaning shifted, from a sharpness of mind to a sharpness of appearance—a tidiness. And “cute” also came to be associated with a certain delicateness; with smallness. As Katy Waldman wrote in Slate: “Something about being neat and appropriate apparently translates into being tiny: There’s a sense of containment and easy comprehension.” Which brings us to the modern definition of “cute”: attractive, especially in dainty way; pleasingly pretty; appealing; delightful; charming.

There’s another connotation of “cute” worth exploring vis-a-vis Star Wars. Because “cute” is often used to describe delightful small things—babies, kittens, puppies—the word also conveys harmlessness, innocence, innocuousness. Chewbacca could rip your arms off, so he isn’t cute even though he’s a dog and dogs are cute. Ewoks are considered cute and cuddly even though they’re prone to shoving a sharpened stick through your guts and roasting your corpse. They’re warriors.

Porgs? They’re cute. They exist purely to be cute. That is their raison d'être. Porgs were first revealed in July. Porg merchandise hit the streets in late August, five months before the release of The Last Jedi. The fan response has been, at least anecdotally, based on my most viral tweet ever, decidedly pro-porg.

Still, the anti-cute faction remains.

Andrew Gruttadaro, an editor at The Ringer, a great website, despite his bad porgpinions, writes, “I do not need Star Wars to be cute, so I can’t say I’m thrilled to see that shot of the little animal guy doing Chewbacca’s howl.”

Ben Lindbergh, my respected colleague and Achievement Oriented cohost and The Ringer’s resident Star Wars expert, wrote: “Historically, Star Wars has had a high correlation between cuteness and crappiness. … I’m more worried about The Last Jedi overdosing on Porgs.”

Such a thing would be impossible. The world, in the final darkening days of 2017, needs porgs more than they need us. We need to experience Chewbacca forging a relationship with a porg as a way of healing from his best friend’s death. We need cuteness. And porgs are cute.