Mike: Many, many moons ago, before The Force Awakens and before the Expanded Universe reboot, our own Jay Shah wrote a piece entitled Senseless Sexism in the Galactic Empire. His premise, in short, was a) that the Star Wars setting offered no logical explanation for an Empire that actively discriminates against female officers, and b) that in practice the EU’s attempts to engage with the issue had been flawed to the point that it would have been better left out altogether.
Jay was reacting to the simple fact that because Imperials are the bad guys—and more importantly, stand-ins for real-life oppressive governments—many are quick to ascribe any and all bad qualities to them. Surely there’s an anti-alien contingent, as witnessed in A New Hope and further supported by the prequel trilogy, but does the Empire actually discriminate against women, or people of color, as well? It’s easy to get that impression when every Imperial in the original trilogy is a white man (though the Rebels in ANH and The Empire Strikes Back aren’t much more diverse), but looking at their successors in the First Order complicates the issue—as do prominent non-film characters like Rae Sloane, who has largely been met with joy from fans for making the overall setting more inclusive, and demonstrating that anyone can be, well, “the bad guy”.
With all this serving as prelude, in the aftermath of last week’s heated US presidential election, Chris Weitz and Gary Whitta, two writers attached to Rogue One, tweeted the following:
Chris Weitz @chrisweitz
Please note that the Empire is a white supremacist (human) organization
Gary Whitta @garywhitta
Opposed by a multicultural group led by brave women.
While nothing tossed off on Twitter (and since deleted) should be taken as canon, and it certainly can’t undo the existence of the powerful, serious black woman who becomes the nominal leader of the Imperial military after Palpatine’s death, I thought Weitz and Whitta’s comments (and let’s be real, the current events that prompted them) merited a revisiting of this topic. So I’ll put the question to all of you: as a separate matter from the “reality” of gender and race discrimination within the GFFA, which can never really have a definitive answer, is there value in explicitly, rather than allegorically, linking the Empire to misogyny and white supremacy? Can there be a sliding scale of interaction with real hate, or is it all or nothing?
Jay: One of the things I like to point out is that while Star Wars was always a political allegory — there was something Nixonian about Palpatine and the Empire in the OT — it’s never explicit. At least until the PT, where subtlety seems to vanish out the window. This trend continued with TCW down through Darth Plagueis (which I criticized in my Politics and the EU series of pieces). I think it’s of limited value though, and hampers the storytelling by making it contingent on a specific real-life scenario instead of general concepts of dictatorship, evil, and hate that are essentially curated from all over history and art.
That, to me, is a completely separate thing from the audience making connections or identifications. I think the movies speak to people in different ways, and if Rogue One gives them hope, that’s great. That’s also how I view the tweets from Whitta and Weitz — less “this movie is about supremacy” and more “this is something you can take away from the movie.”
That said, if SW wants to tackle supremacist groups — go for it, so long as it’s actual engagement and not just “bad guys discriminate.” I’d want to see something tackling why hate and scapegoating attracts people and how it brings civilization down. The rise of the FO or rise of the Empire is great for that. Or if they want to take on the heavy subject of living in a society brainwashed to hate, like the FO… go for it. Be bold. Tell risky stories.
That’s all I want. Don’t do it half-hearted. But I’m also speaking of a literary realm — movies have different roles and RO may well be doing this theme exactly right: by visuals and implication and not explicitly.
Mike: Something you and I have talked about outside of the blog is the idea of sexist subtext seeping into the Empire even in the books in terms of how other officers interact with Sloane, not to mention Commander Beck specifically calling out sexist attitudes in the Imperial Security Bureau holding back her advancement (which could just be her ego talking, but at least demonstrates that sexism is a Known Thing and within the realm of possibility). Is it possible that us contemporary Earth beings simply aren’t capable of writing a sufficiently egalitarian Empire yet? Certainly the problematic female Imperials of the EU were considered much more acceptable twenty years ago; are we maybe just not yet as advanced as we’d like to think we are? And if not, is it better to lay an intentional framework for in-universe sexism—and responding to it—rather than try to avoid it altogether and fail?
Sarah: I think it’s honestly difficult to say; Jay mentioned not wanting to half-ass supremacist stories but as you say is it worse to avoid it all together? Yes we should definitely push Star Wars (and all media really) to be thoughtful with the stories it tells and not go for a shallow exploration…but at the same time at least a surface-level analysis touches on important themes and can create a conversation in pop culture.
Because I’m of two minds on this. On the one hand, I partly think that it’s too easy to go with a blanket “bad guys discriminate” characterization. One of the things I’ve enjoyed the most about recent books is the number of Imperial characters whose POVs we’ve been able to explore; most notably, Rae Sloane and Ciena Ree. They are well-intentioned people serving a cruel system and they manage to justify it to themselves in all manner of ways. It’s a reminder that evil is not just white hoods and swastikas; much of it is everyday people rationalizing and normalizing evil deeds in order to keep the status quo.
But at the same time, this past year has shown that racism is still very much alive and well in this world. And there is something to be said for approaching this issue with all the subtlety of an anvil to the face. The Empire has always been heavily allegorical of the Nazi party, from the uniforms to the color scheme to the existence of stormtroopers. And furthermore, as an institution it has been unequivocally coded as Wrong. There is no sympathy for their viewpoint, no exploration of why people suppport the Empire, no #NotAllImperials. Simplistic, yes, but it drives the point home that this is 100% not an okay view to have. And I think that’s an important message too. For children and young people to see a multicultural (and multispecies) group of people work together and defeat what is more or less an embodiment of white supremacy can have a powerful influence. It reminds me of a quote from Neil Gaiman (paraphrased from G.K. Chesterton): “Fairy tales are more than true — not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.”
And what is Star Wars if not a modern day fairy tale?
David: There are few things about Star Wars that worry me more than the current topic, or that have made me think and write more about it, to the point of sometimes making me wonder about my place in the fandom. So excuse me if I get a bit too personal with this, but I think it’s the only point of view I can adopt right now.
Three weeks ago I was in Walt Disney World watching the fantastic closing show, a gorgeous hybrid of pyrotechnics and projected video that also cheekily included a platoon of stormtroopers pushing the crowd out of the central square and joking at them in character. Kids ate it up. I did not. I turned to my wife and said, “please notice that we have the fictional representation of a fascist army acting exactly the way real fascist armies have in the past… as a joke.” She smiled because she knows where that came from. She’s heard from my mother’s lips many stories about being kicked out of public squares by real-life stormtroopers, usually with more blood and fewer fireworks involved. And she also knew that even if I was joking, that a small speckle of disquiet had suddenly appeared inside of me. Both because of the connotations and because I had briefly accepted it as normal because it came to me with beautiful colors and familiar music.
The banalization of fascism troubles me to no end.
We’ve often talked in this blog about how important fiction is, about how it has a palpable and specific effect on our real life. We use narratives as a tool to understand the world. And precisely for that reason, it worries me that Star Wars could be the only window people are using to understand the reality of what fascism stands for, that a vocabulary that wasn’t even intended to be used as anything other than diversion could be simplifying a concept that shouldn’t be simplified. I find it very disturbing that that fairy tale that Sarah was talking about could be the only language a significant sector of the population has to understand, process and respond to the idea of authoritarian populist movements: as a vaguely defined evil empire with cool toys that can be defeated by plucky heroes because good always wins at the end. And, of course, it worries me even more that this evil force could be portrayed as actually socially illuminated. As anything other than ultimate evil, actually.
Star Wars is often defined as escapism but, in some regards, it’d be more appropriate to call it exploitation. It owes that to its pulp roots. Pulp novels were entertaining but yes, not especially nuanced. The Empire is not there to make a point about social realities: it’s there because everyone hates Nazis and they are fun to punch in the face (and murder) without moral quandaries and the Vietnam War was a time when people was more than happy to accept clear moral lines to feel some respite. Yet that was forty years ago, and time has turned these harmless plastic Nazis into action figures and groups of fans that visit children in hospitals. It’s a reality of Star Wars that I have to accept, but I can’t help worrying thinking that when the real-life stormtroopers raise their heads again they’ll have a fantastic vocabulary at hand to appear before our eyes as a palatable—and even cool—option.
Rocky: The escapism aspect of Star Wars is the part that I love to watch when I need to see the good guys win, even in very difficult circumstances. That feel matches well with seeing the sexist Empire defeated, but that does seem to be a kind of archaic trope when the new Star Wars that we’re getting now is much more diverse than previously. Honestly, I think some of it is just that the creators of fiction live in our world, where sexism is very much a thing, and trying to write a society that has a different perspective is hard. I’m liking seeing more female Imperials, just because out of all of the things a fictional society could discriminate for, being female seems a bit arbitrary in a galaxy that has so many different species.
Ben: In terms of depicting life in a totalitarian regime like the First Order, Greg Rucka took a stab at that with Before the Awakening and showed a very controlled environment. Technically the First Order may be more diverse than its predecessor but that doesn’t mean it’s nice and benign.
On the one hand I quite like the angle the new stuff has taken on the Empire, that it has these insidious and seductive ideals to mask its true, brutal nature, which prove to be very successful at gaining it willing followers across the board. People like to see Nazi analogues defeated in stories but it tends to be accompanied by the sense that We could never be Them. No? If anything, if we’re being honest, it might be, in most cases, there but for the grace of God go we. We were lucky enough not to be in a country that went so bad that it in turn inflicted horrendous choices on those within it.
On the other hand, should it go too far, it then does end up crossing the line from explaining and enlightening how totalitarianism operates to making excuses for it. That should never be the case but that line isn’t always easy to see either, it moves around and varies.
Mark: It’s interesting to compare the Empire to that other Lucasfilm property, Indiana Jones, where the Nazis themselves are portrayed cartoonishly – particularly by Last Crusade, where Hitler himself is treated as the subject of a joke. I think that’s potentially more damaging in terms of cultural perception of fascism, and by comparison, the Star Wars films themselves play the Empire pretty straight. Perhaps the more troubling aspect – that “banalization” – is more to do with everything else that has grown up around Star Wars, the cultural phenomenon and merchandising behemoth.
And I share David’s concern about the Empire being “socially illuminated.” The First Order is oddly contradictory so far – its ranks are diverse, but its leadership, Hux and Kylo Ren, are angry young men clinging to a vision of an old Empire that they never had to experience themselves. That rage and radicalism brings to mind the neo-fascist movements that have risen up since the 1990s, and I think there’s plenty to explore there if they choose to. You could even argue they have a responsibility to explore that, to delve into their motivations and how it all happened, and treat it with absolute seriousness.
Mike: Let me ask you this, David (and the rest of you)—on balance, do you think Star Wars has had a positive or negative influence on the popular understanding of fascism? However fun and superficial its chosen medium might be, if we assume that on some level SW intends to communicate that this is bad, is it failing, or just succeeding less than you’d like?
David: It’s hard to say, Mike, but I’d say it’s failing. Even if we understand superficially that the Empire is bad, its position in pop culture is very different. Unlike Mark, I think the distortion caused by Star Wars is more dangerous than the one caused by Indiana Jones, and I think the main reason is the massive merchandising apparatus. It’s, plainly, the commodification of fascism, both in the sense of being turned into an object of trade and in the sense of being reduced to an economical transaction; in layman terms, you can’t pretend to criticize a thing when you are also making billions of dollars out of selling merchandise of that thing. You are taking the violent history of mankind and reducing it into a very lucrative brand.
Even if Star Wars itself purports to be a fairy tale of good versus evil—and in the case of the prequels a cautionary tale against the rise of totalitarianism—any positive influence it could have had in our culture gets completely lost when the figure of the evil empire is turned into a commodity, a marketable item. If you take this into account, and you add that the inherent evil of the Empire is further diluted by a very progressive portrayal, the end result is… not good. So I don’t think that it’s either failing or not being good enough: I think it’s a negative influence.
Not that I think the movies are free of responsibility: after all ANH ends with a sequence out of Triumph of the Will starring the good guys. One of fascism’s strongest tools is its power to enthrall and fascinate. The Empire is sanitized (mass murder happens from afar, for example, and it’s little more than an SFX explosion when Alderaan is destroyed) used as a backdrop to create a visual spectacle. Is Star Wars responsible for our not taking fascism seriously anymore? Well, it would be silly to say so, but it would also be a mistake to deny its part of responsibility, as small as it might be.
Of course, this all creates a few paradoxes. Would it be better if Star Wars portrayed concentration camps and minority purges? It wouldn’t make for a very entertaining movie, of course, or at the very least the end result would be completely different. It simply wouldn’t be Star Wars. And if I think it’s that bad, why do I keep consuming Star Wars? Well, this is not the only facet of the saga, a saga that has inspired many people to give the best of themselves, and I have to take the good with the bad. Even if the social influence can end up being negative, the individual influence can be very positive, But I can’t deny the bad.
Ben: This reminds me of one of the motivations Kieron Gillen had for doing the Uber series: To take the Nazis away from being standard, stock caricature villains, beloved of video games and film, and render them as incredibly scary. Now that’s one very fine razor line to walk but I think he pulls it off very well.
David: Yes, Uber is really good, and it was very controversial when it came out because of its refusal to back down from a visceral, brutal portrayal of Nazis.
Ben: Gillen was also very aware that, if he didn’t get it right, it could have easily been co-opted by neo-Nazis. There was a hardback of the first trade with a huge amount of extras, including a very in-depth interview on this with Gillen.
Rocky: One of the things I loved so much about The Force Awakens is how the First Order felt scarier to me than the Empire did when I was a kid. I think some of it was based on what normal villains Hux and Ren are- I know I’ve run into them at some point in life, and it’s so intimidating to see the fictional version of villains that you know. They weren’t normalized in the sense of being less scary- they were normalized as someone you might run into. That kind of everyday evil is something that I think really makes fiction make an impact.
Jay: Yeah, I think I agree with Rocky. Banalization of evil is a thing. I know we want fascists to be fascists, but the cartoon villain version of Imperials went out the door with ESB. They were being humanized even then.
One of the constant stories of SW is how easy it is for liberty to die and be replaced with tyranny. I think a very nuanced and complex Empire is necessary for that, because it shows that anybody can become a fascist. Even decent people. Fascists don’t all wear the stormtrooper uniform. Some of them look like us.
In other words it’s not endorsement or rehabilitation of evil — it’s a warning.
Mark: That’s one reason I’m looking forward to Rogue One, and particularly Bodhi. I hope it will bring some of the texture we have seen in the novels – someone who is “just doing his job” and trying to rationalize the consequences of what his work is supporting. The everyday person’s complicity with fascism. I’m glad they’re bringing that to the films, and to the wider audience.
Rocky, I find what you say about the First Order and how “normal” they look really interesting. The interrogation scene really sums that up – Rey describes Kylo as a “creature in a mask,” reducing him to something monstrous and inhuman … and then he takes his mask off, and underneath he’s just a man. That’s a powerful message.
David: I understand what you mean about the messages and the warnings the movies try to send, but I still think they all get swallowed by the inevitable need to go “buy Kylo Ren and General Hux Black Series Two-Pack, only at Toys ‘R’ Us.” Kylo might be a creature in a mask, but it’s an extremely cool mask that has gone through tens of iterations to be as attractive as possible, especially to kids. What’s the real message here?
Concerning the central topic, and also what Jay said, there are many ways to portray “everyday Nazis.” A critical engagement with our history is always desirable, but I don’t think this is what we are getting. Petra Rau talks in her book Our Nazis about the difference between real fascism and media “fascism”, this last one being an imaginary construct projected onto our modern culture. Star Wars exclusively deals in “fascism”, a toyetic, progressive, mediated and sanitized version of what fascism is. The connection between this “fascism” and real-world fascism is minimal. As Jay says, fascists can look like us, but when does Star Wars do that? The corruption of the Dark Side turns Anakin’s eyes yellow, and when he crosses to the other side he becomes a dark knight. Even Emperor Palpatine becomes a deformed monster. They don’t look like us, at all.
So then, if I think that the portrayal of everyday fascism is important, why don’t I think that including women and minorities is a good idea? Why do I insist that it sends a fastidious message? Italian philosopher Umberto Eco wrote in his very influential article Ur-Fascism that all fascisms share certain traits. One of them is the rejection of modernism and the fear of difference. Eco says, “The first appeal of a fascist or prematurely fascist movement is an appeal against the intruders. Thus [fascism] is racist by definition.” By neglecting to portray this side of the Empire, Star Wars is portraying a distorted version of the evils of fascism and transmitting a strange message: that tyranny is okay as long as it’s equal-opportunity tyranny.
I agree with Mark that Rogue One, with all the new cinematic language it brings with it, is very promising, even if it can’t escape the same merchandising trap. Here’s hoping.
Jay: I brought up some of Eco’s thoughts on fascism in my piece on Imperial sexism. Fascism is atavistic and reactionary — rejecting the contemporary for a constructed fantasy of the past. But all that is contingent on what the past looked like. The Star Wars past isn’t necessarily our past. There’s nothing to suggest that women in power or humans of various ethnicities were excluded from power in the past, that the late Republic is anything but a continuation of things as they always have been.
So what I think is that if we try to make the Empire feel like fascists rather than cartoons, the idea of making women the “other” or making dark-skinned humans the “other” doesn’t really make sense.
David: Yes, I’ve heard that in-universe perspective before, and while it’s not wrong in that it’s completely coherent, at the end of the day it’s a matter of choice. Yes, there’s no IU reason why the Empire should be as racist as our world (although Fry and Wallace created a great one in the EU with the Pius Dea Crusade), but that’s a poor excuse, I think. There’s no reason for the inhabitants of the GFFA to be human-looking or to speak English, either. Or for marriage or democracy or any other Western social rules to exist in that completely alien world. They exist because Star Wars is always relatable, because we need a reference, because there is an implicit contract with the audience that says with a wink that after all that galaxy is not that far away. And if it portrays the Empire as equalitarian, that’s something it’s saying about our real world, and that’s probably not the message that Lucas intended.
Mike: Well I don’t know that any of us would call the Empire equalitarian within an IU context; it’s just that the “other” it’s reacting to, borne of the chaos of the Clone Wars, is alien species—at least to the extent it’s about an “other” at all. By not making the Empire prejudiced in the exact ways that we understand contemporarily, Star Wars isn’t not addressing prejudice, it’s just addressing it one step removed from reality—making it, yes, more palatable to a mass audience. But that’s better than ignoring it entirely, I think; it’s how Star Trek got away with some pretty progressive ideas back in the day.
Though now that I think about it—isn’t there room to tell a cautionary tale about the rise of tyranny that doesn’t address prejudice? I can appreciate the idea that true fascism may be racist by definition, but simple authoritarianism doesn’t have to go hand in hand with fascism, I don’t think; can’t SW tackle one without having to wade into the other?
Jay: I think authoritarianism is dangerous enough and capable of being cloaked enough that giving it yesterday’s problems is losing the opportunity to keep Star Wars the timeless tale of freedom vs. tyranny. The fascists come cloaked as your friend — and then they repress and control you. So it’s not that I’m saying that the Empire should be egalitarian and equitable — far from it: the Empire’s whole thing is that it’s iniquitous. I’m not saying that the Empire is making a progressive stand by incorporating women, but rather — in a galaxy full of aliens, the aliens are the other. Women are part of the OK group the same way that current racists are fine with Irish and Italians and the like, while racists of 100 years ago didn’t consider them white at all.
Discrimination is on a sliding scale, and I think in the GFFA the Empire’s moved beyond the point of human racism and human sexism. Not because of being particularly morally advanced, but just the way human society is. It has other people to oppress and repress.
And keep in mind that the Empire may not be sexist or whatnot, but it represses and oppresses male and female humans all the same. That’s important. Humans suffer under the Imperial yoke, even while being the Empire’s preferred group.
* * * * *
Mike here again—while I’m grateful that Weitz and Whitta’s comments offered us an opportunity to dig into this important and divisive issue once more, I wanted to add that not only have their original tweets been deleted, but while this conversation was unfolding Weitz revisited the subject from a more moderate and, well, calm state of mind. I thought it was only fair to give him the last word, lest readers come away from this with the wrong impression.
People. My sincere apologies to Star Wars fans whom I hurt with comments connecting an innocent escape to ugly politics. (1)
— Chris Weitz (@chrisweitz) November 15, 2016
(2) I've read a lot of our comments and understand your disappointment. I'll do better.
— Chris Weitz (@chrisweitz) November 15, 2016
I feel hate directed towards either side is wrong; and though the people have a right to peacefully asssemble, violence is never the answer.
— Chris Weitz (@chrisweitz) November 15, 2016
If I could go back in time, I'd behave differently. I say this knowing I'll be trolled. That's the cost of public speech.
— Chris Weitz (@chrisweitz) November 15, 2016
To clarify. I'm apologizing for my emote white supremacist tweet. I still stand with people threatened in this vile season.
— Chris Weitz (@chrisweitz) November 15, 2016