The words Star Wars appeared on screen. Theme music blared. Everyone cheered. Early in the movie, a black male Stormtrooper took off his helmet in disgust after his army killed villagers. The audience sat wide-eyed, lost in a galaxy far, far away but finding there a triumphant liberalism often missing from real life.
The Force Awakens is the most racially diverse and feminist of the franchise. Its leads are two men of color and a white woman. Some fans seethed at the new cast but they are the result of conflicting values within Star Wars. On one side, progressive politics; on the other, a racial and gender conservatism. The first film came out in 1977, it’s only now, more than three decades later that this fictional world is catching up with the diversity of our real one.
Claude Levi Strauss Loves Star Wars
Star Wars is a liberal mythology. Writer and director George Lucas said he wanted it to be a world of clear good and evil. He showed this morality through imagery, not explicit ideology. A fact criticized in the article, “Smash the Force” on Jacobin. And this intellectual vagueness leads to sentimentality which is why critics say the films are infantile.
Yes, it’s true the films are multi-million dollar cartoons for adults. But the use of childish imagery lets us re-experience lost innocence. If anthropologist Claude Levi Strauss sat in the theater and saw adults dressed as storm-troopers posing for pictures or pretending to be Jedi while waving, plastic lightsabers; he’d laugh and say he’s found a new, exotic tribe in the urban jungle of the Global North. One imitating the faces on their cinematic totem pole.
He’d point out how the morality of Star Wars is based on a set of binaries that divide good and evil. And that we willingly, suspend our disbelief for the pleasure of ethical closure. The films teach us that evil is “cold” relationships based on a steep often violent hierarchy, conformism and the wearing of masks. Good is “warm” relationships based on equality between difference, individuality and open faces.
In Star Wars, the Empire is a vast pyramid of power. It has an armada of identical starships and identically masked troops led by a shrouded Emperor who commits genocide by blasting inhabited planets to rubble. Which is textbook…bad.
The Rebellion on the other hand is a rag tag fleet of ships seemingly pilfered from some galactic junkyard. Everyone talks with each other. Everyone has a unique face. And in spite of the Empire’s brutal efficiency, the Rebels always triumph because secretly, even a high official like Darth Vader (all praise to James Earl Jones) longs to take off the mask.
Lucas is giving us a moral lesson that “warm” relationships and the world built from them, however messy and quirky, win out over “cold” relationships. Also the Empire seems to build really shoddy Death Stars. The kind you can blow up with firecracker tossed into an open exhaust vent.
If one thinks about that “vent” another blind-spot of the Empire becomes visible. And that is sex. Bear with me. I’ve been waiting to get this off my chest for years.
The Death Star is a Frozen Egg
Star Wars is a masculine mythology. A sausage party. The overrepresentation of men is in obvious conflict with the values of a “warm”, inclusive world. And it creates the tension driving the plot.
In 1977's, A New Hope, women are absent, aside from Princess Leia (a sassy Carrie Fisher) who was the Damsel in Distress. Nearly everyone else was male. The Rebellion? Men. The Empire? Men. The protagonist, Luke Skywalker, (an increasingly better Mark Hamill) was a teen that took a Hero’s Journey to manhood. We first see him, staring at the desert horizon dreaming of escape.
Yet as he travels across the galaxy, he meets aliens of all types but very few women. Half of the human species is just not there. In the sequels The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, Leia is more active and central; women are, to be fair, increasingly visible but mostly as tokens.
Star Wars has always focused on the construction of male identity. And it’s always been an identity constructed through war. Sex is nowhere to be found. No passionate kissing. No heavy petting. Nothing. Eroticism, one of the main ways we define ourselves, is gone.
How does one read the scarcity of women or eroticism? One way is that it isn’t lost but displaced. Sex and reproduction, a vital element in mythologies around the world, is moved from the individual level to the political. The films pivot around a war to reproduce a democracy in the sterile Empire that holds trillions of people in terror of its Death Star.
The Death Star is a space station with a giant laser. Casting a shadow over entire planets, it was made from the life and money and labor stolen from the people and turned against them. Floating like a killer moon, it is the symbol of the immense surplus value appropriated from a galactic workforce, reified into a super weapon to support a fascist regime.
Which is why the construction of the male identity in Star Wars is through virility in war. The frozen sexuality between characters is displaced on to the Death Star that travels space like a giant unfertilized, egg. When the Rebel fleet attacks, the many A-fighters and X-wings look like sperm seeding it with missiles. When the Death Star explodes like a fiery conception, a new life, a new freedom, a new hope…comes to the galaxy.
It’s also why swords and space-ships and blasters take on such a phallic role in Star Wars and with its fans. I can’t count how many times I’ve seen boys and men make dick jokes with their lightsabers, waving them from their crotch or rubbing them and laughing.
And yet this male supremacist, sci-fi trope of entering the mothership, blowing it up or finding “The Queen” of the hive and killing her has been repeated ad nauseam. It’s in Independence Day with the twist of giving the aliens an HIV like computer virus to shut them down. It’s in Starship Troopers, Ender’s Game, Star Trek First Contact, Edge of Tomorrow and the list goes on and on.
In American sci-fi films there is a deep suspicion of women, sexuality and the body. Even as more women are being cast as heroes, the essential masculine trope remain. As the lights go down in theaters around the world, we are being taught to see freedom in a war in which the collateral damage is our own sensuality.
A Brief History of Blackness in a Galaxy Far, Far Away
In an interview, James Earl Jones told how he became the voice of Darth Vader, “George…said he wanted a so called darker voice”. He made air quotes around the word darker, “Not in terms of ethnic but in terms of timbre.”
Ironic that a nearly all white sci-fi movie had as its center a black masked villain with a black man’s voice. And that Jones filtered out any cultural black cadence or style so that Vader could be “dark” but not “black”.
Star Wars is a white mythology. Most American movies are. But the erasure of people of color goes against its liberal ideal of a "warm" democratic world. Also, it was just odd that alien races of every shape, size and color, were okay as images of difference but not actual blacks or Latinos or native peoples or Asians. I mean you had a fish headed Admiral Ackbar at the helm of starship.
From the lily white start of A New Hope, people of color have been brought in, one token at a time. First it was Billy Dee Williams playing a shady Lando Calrissian in Empire Strikes Back, upgraded to a general in Return of the Jedi, where an Asian and black rebel pilot flew. Both were blown up.
The questions was how to include people of color without invoking racist stereotypes. Again a displacement occurred. Blacks, Latinos and Asians were cast as noble characters, starting in the god awful prequels The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith. In them, Jimmy Smits was a senator, Samuel Jackson a Jedi master and in the background were speckled black palace guards for the Queen.
But a strange inverse dynamic began. The more noble the characters were for actors of color, the more the aliens around them became racial caricatures. It was as if the implicit white gaze still needed to see the Sambo, the Greedy Jew and the Shifty Asian but not see itself seeing it. So it transferred that work to Jar Jar Binks, a patois speaking space coon and to Watto, a big nosed haggling pawn store owner and to the conspiring, Asian sounding Neimoidians of the Trade Federation. All aliens. All recycled caricature.
The price of this is that actors of color were stranded in characters so noble they were one dimensional. Yet the audience could still wet its appetite for racism through the narrative compromise of racialized aliens.
The Force Awakens
The new Star Wars film, The Force Awakens is the correction to this history. Starring Nigerian John Boyega as Finn as an AWOL Stormtrooper, Daisy Ridley as Rey a female scavenger with Force abilities and Latin American actor, Oscar Isaac as Poe, an ace fighter pilot, the film puts at the center those who at first were invisible.
The question for the characters is the same. Are they going to hide in the cold world of masks or take it off and face each other and their destiny? After his squad massacres innocent villagers, Finn pulls off his helmet and leaves the Empire. The villain Kylo Ren (played with angst by Adam Driver) faces his father, who says to come home but instead of dropping the mask, he chooses the Dark Side.
Sitting in the theater, one could feel the audience connect with the myth as it was handed down like an inheritance from an older generation. They felt awe at the new super weapon, now the planet sized Starkiller Base. They also did not notice the absence of sexuality but were thrilled at seeing the First Order blown up. And they cheered as the New Republic triumphed.
And in the euphoria of being inducted into this mythology, one that has gotten over its racial and gender conservatism, they missed the last retrograde element of these films. Militarism. The core of the film is always war, it’s where the characters transform themselves in the bright light of laser fire.
In between battles are the quiet moments, where loss is acknowledged, mistakes are forgiven and confusion exposed. They anchor the audience. They are what make, who lives and who dies have consequence. It’s the realm of the face, where authentic warmth peeks though the racket of high tech, explosions. Maybe someday, it will be integrated to. And we can have a myth that honors our need for collective vision without the late capitalist and imperialist spectacle of sci-fi militarism.
In the meantime, what began in 1977 as a nearly all white male, space opera is now integrated. It had to be. The franchise needed a new audience. And the Post-Obama generation needed a myth. Say what you will, the Millennials are flying the Milleniuum Falcon now. Let’s hope they use it to find a galaxy without war.