Monday, April 19, 2010

Orientalism and Star Wars Episode 1: The Phantom Menace

In Edward Said's groundbreaking 1978 book, Orientalism, he argues that the West has constructed, "a colonial discourse that produced the ideas about the Orient—the East—that the discourse purports to describe…constructing the East as sensual, lazy, exotic, irrational, cruel, promiscuous, seductive, inscrutable, dishonest, mystical, superstitious, primitive, ruled by emotion…[and] descriptions of the East in these terms generated a discourse that produced and then continued to produce the East in such terms" (Parker, 248). By characterizing the East as an inferior and alien "other", then the discourse necessarily constructs its polar opposite as a West that is rational, honest, civilized, and superior. Through this discourse, the West occupies a privileged position, where its ideas and values are treated as "universal truths" (Parker 249).

In the 1999 film, Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace, George Lucas constructed good and evil characters that seem to reflect the ideas of good and evil produced in Orientalist discourse—that is, the good characters are white, beautiful, human, rational, and straightforward, while the evil characters are dark, ugly, alien, emotional, and devious. After the movie's premiere, Lucas's critics were quick to accuse him of racism and claimed that he modeled his alien characters after various foreign and minority groups. Lucas, of course, was quick to defend himself in an interview with the BBC and denied that his characters draw on racist caricatures and stated that his accusers were, "basing a whole issue of racism on an accent that they don't understand" (BBC News, 1999). Perhaps, then, it is just a coincidence that the evil, desert-dwelling creature, Watto, was given an Arabic name and spoke with a perfect Arabic accent—and yes, I am familiar with Middle Eastern languages and accents. His characterization of Watto recalls Said's statement that the West has a limited awareness of the reality of the Arab world and what it has created," instead is a series of crude, essentialized caricatures of the Islamic world." (Islam Through Western Eyes, 110).

Although it appears that it may not have been Lucas's intent to perpetuate racist stereotypes through his characters, it is difficult to dismiss the presence of racial overtones, especially in light of how he has constructed his characters in the past Star Wars films. The heroes have always been handsome humans, who wear white and speak with perfect British or American accents; while the evil characters tend to be dark, deformed, and/or masked, and speak in foreign accents and/or in guttural tones. Even the character Darth Vader, which means dark father, undergoes a transformation from blonde- haired blue-eyed Anakin Skywalker in his innocent youth to a broken man who is encased in black and speaks with the voice of James Earl Jones once he becomes evil. When Darth Vader is redeemed, at the end of the movie, his black mask is removed and he becomes white again in voice and body.

In the movies, the prevailing pattern seems to be that darkness is a signifier of death, destruction, and evil, while white is its morally superior opposite. Again, perpetuating racist stereotypes was probably not George Lucas's intent in Phantom Menace, but given the prevailing pattern of evil=dark, alien, and other while good is equated with whiteness, humanity, and beauty in the preceeding movies, it is difficult not to find patterns and draw conclusions about ethnic stereotyping in the Phantom Menace.

Works Cited

Parker, Robert. How to Interpret Literature: Critical Theory for Literary and Cultural Studies, New York: Oxford University Press, 2008.

Said, Edward W., "Islam Through Western Eyes," The Nation, April 26, 1980, January 1, 1998

Said, Edward W., Orientalism, New York: Vintage Books, 1978.

"Star Wars: Lucas Strikes Back," BBC News, 14 July 1999. 5 May 2010.

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