Category Archives: Entertainment

Star Wars Isn’t Racist

Today I went to the San Jose Tech Museum, where I saw the Star Wars exhibit on its last stop of its tour. While it was a very cool exhibit, one thing that I (anthropologically trained) really noticed was the treatment of the “other” in Star Wars, the mythology of my generation.

Science Fiction or Fantasy?

Storm Troopers on Patrol
Storm Troopers on patrol at the Tech Museum of Innovation — San Jose, CA

To understand the impact of Star Wars on our impressionable young minds, we first need to dispense with the idea that the franchise is science fiction at all. Sure, they have laser blasters, robots, radios, and space ships, but it’s really fantasy (…in space!).

How do we know it’s fantasy? Because against the fairly dystopian cyberpunk background, we’ve got good guys in white, bad guys in black, glowing swords, and magic powers blooming left and right. And let me say this clearly: if we have good and evil wizards battling it out in the distant past, it’s not some vision of our future.

Science fiction, as a genre, is one of the ways that our culture tries to make sense of rapid cultural and technological change. We’ve been experiencing this change since the beginning of the scientific era and industrial revolution. But that’s not Star Wars.

Star Wars is about our colonial past, the nature of good and evil, the proper role of mysticism, and necessity of righteous rebellion against tyranny. In other words, it’s not a projection of our future, but a mythic retelling of our own past.

The Mythic Past as a Window to Our Own Past

The Millenium Falcon
The coolest cat in the universe clearly needs the coolest car…spaceship…whatever.

Back in the 70s, when science was “gonna change the world,” Star Wars gave us a chance to see something that was quite the opposite of the Humanist and spiritually sterile Star Trek. But the differences don’t end there. While Star Trek treats all aliens as foreigners with their own political interests and idiosyncrasies, Star Wars treats them as archetypes of our own culture.

In other words, George Lucas might not be racist at all. But he’s betting the bank that we are. And, historically speaking, that’s a safe bet to make.

Only a hundred years ago, the British Empire ruled a big chunk of the world, “race” was a dominant political-economic creed, and everyone “knew” that religion was true and culture was an a priori category. We’ve come a long way in changing our views about matters of race, religion, and gender. Heck, we’ve come a long way since the 70s.

Defining the Problem

Tusken Raider
Extremely territorial and xenophobic, Tusken Raiders will attack with very little provocation.” Little provocation after the humans took their planet, that is…

We live in a culture that would be unrecognizable to the people of a century ago. But that doesn’t mean the change is over. We still understand these archetypes, use them in our stories, and to a certain extent keep them as part of our culture.

Just as science fiction plays with the cultural change wrought by technology, Star Wars as science fantasy deals with our own changing culture. The aliens aren’t really meant to be aliens, just people in funny suits with motivations that we can quickly apprehend and use to drive the plot forward.

You know, archetypes. Stereotypes. We can get all jumpy about the way Star Wars uses these cultural shorthands to paint a quick, recognizable picture. But the problem doesn’t lie with the authors. The issue isn’t that Star Wars is racist. The problem is that we are.

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The Metaphors of Genres

There’s a disconnect between our imagined humanity and the reality of being a primate. Many of the modern beliefs that we have are aspirational, rather than descriptive.

Whether it’s about the relationship between genders, different ethnic groups, the nature of human violence, or what-have-you, there are a whole variety of beliefs that we’d like to be true, and that we judge each other by.

But at the same time, these ideas (which are a good chunk of culture) are proscriptive rather than descriptive of human nature. Or to put it another way, these rules tell us how to get along, not what it means to be a person.

“Are You Not Entertained?”

Borghese Gladiator Mosaic
Let’s not think too hard what this all means for Roman entertainment choices.

The funny thing (though it isn’t all that funny) is how clear this all is when we look at the safety valves that exist in society and the escapist entertainment that we consume.

It just takes a different perspective for us to understand ourselves a bit better. We just need to take the idea that what we seek out as entertainment is somehow a metaphor for what we’re missing in real life.

That doesn’t mean that everyone who plays shooter games really wants to be some kind of mass murderer. But it might mean that we players, in our everyday lives, find it more necessary to avoid conflict than we instinctively would.

On the other hand, that doesn’t mean that we should listen to our instincts! It means that the everyday world we’re confronted with isn’t much like the one that we were evolved to exist in. Well, to coin a phrase, “no duh!”

The Detective Story

The theme of a detective story isn’t always that the good guys win in the end. To tell the truth, a lot of the protagonists aren’t particularly “good” people anyway. What is always true in stories that are true to the genre is that everything that happens, happens for a reason.

All detective stories have an underlying theme: no matter how messy things look, they all make sense in the end. Tony Hillerman. Agatha Christie. Heck, even Steven Brust’s Vlad Taltos series.

In detective stories, things make sense in the end. And that’s a far cry from our real world experience, where we’ll never know it all, see it all, or be able to piece it all together — in the real world, things often don’t make rational sense.

The Action Movie

In just about all action movies, being “right” is the reason that the main character wins. It doesn’t matter how many baddies stand against him or her, the truth of their claims are proof against the realities of tactics, numbers, and training.

Of course, “right makes might” is fantasy fulfillment in the most blatant way. How many times have we been in the right, only to lose out to a more eloquent (if wrong) argument, or more deft political maneuvering? And how frustrating is it that the world is terribly complicated, and problems can’t be solved just by killing them all away.

But we live lives where cooperation is more important than conflict. We work with people, we live with people, and we depend on people for all the necessities of life. Action movies let us dream of a world where it’s more important to be right than it is to get along.

The Romantic Comedy

If wanting, on some basic level, to kill all your problems away (and not acting on it!) makes the action movie genre appealing, then the opposite, the story about being loved in all your imperfection, is the basis of the Romantic Comedy.

To put it all in perspective, most romantic comedies are about someone connecting romantically with an “impossible” partner: the unpopular girl and the captain of the football team, the office clerk and the prince, the heir and the stuntwoman. We might say that the metaphor of the Romantic Comedy is that “love conquers all.”

Romantic love, as part of marriage, is a pretty new (and culturally constrained) idea. Historically, many marriages were as sexy as Wall Street mergers — and as carefully considered.