Monday, 24 October 2016

Why I Hate Star Wars

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I didn't see much of Star Wars as a child, only Return of the Jedi. It didn't make much of an impression, to be honest, just a film that entertained me for an afternoon at a children's party. It would be over ten years until I saw the rest of the original trilogy. I actually watched Blade Runner and The Crow, and I think The Matrix before I actually sat down to see A New Hope and The Empire Strikes Back

This perhaps is where things went wrong, perhaps I was too old for them by that point. Like Marmite, it may be that it's best to see these films young if you want to love them. 

To make things worse, I watched them as part of the  research for my dissertation on SF and feminism, looking at the subtext and so on in an attempt to see if science fiction films carried hegemony, or if they set out to establish new normative ideas. Inevitably I found they did the former, reinforcing the ideas that were already in play, and in places cutting against new concepts. The whole thrust of the original trilogy seemed to be nothing more than badly dressed up propaganda, Cold War narratives about the USSR being EVIL, and the need for the USA... Rebellion needing to go off and be big damn heroes, while women and people who weren't white men learnt to be grateful for the largesse of the Americans. If I were to compare it to Alien, to throw a contrasting tone into the mix, I'd point to the feminism inherent in Ripley's character, to the fact that the people who survive longest are the 'bolshy' woman (who also seems to be the only true professional on board the Nostromo, the trade unionist, and the black guy. Our expected 'heroes' all die at the hands of the xenomorph, leaving unlikely heroes and a cat whose name 'Jones' identifies him as being a part of the proletariat. Contrast that to the way that white lives are protected in Star Wars, aside from Obi Wan Kenobi (who died because Alec Guinness specifically asked to be released from his contract), the only protagonist who actually dies in the original trilogy is Lando - the black guy. This is something that was repeated in the prequels where Mace Windu bites the big one - something that's arguably necessary for the overall story but which at the same time does prompt the question of why cast a black guy if you're going to kill him off? 

It doesn't help that the aliens, in a fashion that's pretty common to all SF but particularly to American comics, films and TV seem to be parallels to human cultures, dressed up to make them even more 'other'. Yoda is pretty much your stereotype Japanese wise master, sitting out in the middle of nowhere to deliver his wisdom to one more student, while Chewbacca seems to fit into the role of Tonto to Han Solo's Lone Ranger. They lack agency of their own, being reduced to support roles for white males. Perhaps that was forgivable in the 1970s and '80s, even with the 'Ewoks are pygmies' fiasco of Jedi, but when a character in the supposedly more enlightened 1990s is pretty much Yellow Face via CGI, I do feel that you're just underlining the problem with the franchise; it's stuck in 1930s stereotypes and perpetuating them for a modern audience. We just get to feel superior because we're 'oh so much better than the previous generations'. 

Or are we? The fact that there's been a backlash against the rise of diversity in SF would seem to suggest otherwise. The Sad/Rabid Puppies, the whole GamerGate farrago, and so on. I feel sympathetic to some of the feelings that are being stirred up (and do feel that in some areas newcomers to SF, Fantasy, and Horror fandom haven't helped themselves - the obnoxious attitude of Twilight fans at San Diego Comic-Con a few years ago, for example). In addition, you could argue that the fact that the representation of the alien races in SF as blatantly being akin to other Earth cultures, whether in the form of the Arab like Sand People, or the obvious USSR parallels in the Empire, or in Star Trek in the form of the first version of the Klingons, underlines the very Americanness of these franchises and the fact that they feel content to other different cultures to the point of depicting them as alien life forms. Is this part and parcel of being an American? I doubt it, but it does feel like there's a safety in showing 'those people over there' as something exotic rather than dealing with the idea that humans are complex and difficult. Sometimes, as in Trek, there's a definite air of using this sort of depiction for good, but that's not the case with Star Wars, where it feels much more like American Exceptionalism, a way to indulge in propaganda. 

Star Wars has found itself in the centre of one of these internet wars, over the decision to have a black character as a protagonist and to have a female Jedi in Episode Seven. With the promise that there are gay characters to come, much of fandom has thrown its collective teddy out of the pram. Star Wars is supposed to be American and to reflect those values. Apparently, that means white men win, and everyone else knows their place in the grand scheme of things.

Granted these things might have arisen because Lucas was reaching back to the old Pulps, but if that's the case why do similar themes crop up in his THX1138, particularly in the form of the dangers of massivity (through is use of white) and authority figures lacking faces? It feels as if he had a particular theme in mind for his SF work, and as if he hasn't strayed far from it since. 

To return to the things I hate in Star Wars, it does seem that the original trilogy is all about the return to power of a privileged white, male, elite. The fact that Leia also has the potential to be a Jedi is glossed over (and one has to assume that she either chose not to follow her brother into being a mystical knight - cue the spooky sound effects- or stepped away because she was needed elsewhere) and her character arc in the original films seems to take her from 'kick ass princess' to 'soppy girl who's coolness is undermined by falling in love'. Added to that, the writers put her in a position where she's forced to kill Jabba in a 'dishonourable' fashion - undermining the idea that she's as good as the men (who are shown to be honourable warriors rather than assassins*). This wouldn't be so bad, but for the fact that the early 1980s were replete with unflattering depictions of women, many of them underlining the idea that women could not be trusted, and were somehow alien - more 'othering' in other words.

I think Padme's arc speaks for itself, so I won't touch on it here. 

Lastly, because I look at the subtext a lot of the time, it feels like the whole franchise is stuck in a time warp, talking about another time all the time. It doesn't feel relevant in a world where there's no Cold War (or if there is, it's sleeping), and the racism and sexism that seem to be baked into the franchise feels out of step with the place we're in now. 

*And in that light should we be asking similar questions about the fact that the only superheroines in the MCU so far are the spy, the assassin, and the unstable reality warper? Hey Marvel, perhaps you should get a more front and centre female character in focus soon? (Please?) 

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