Skip to main content

Humansplaining: Star Wars From the Aliens’ Perspective

Human diversity in the Galaxy Far, Far Away has been a major focus of this site, and myself personally, over the years, but there’s been a parallel conversation running alongside that all along in the representation of droids and aliens: how many, which kinds, what are they doing? While real people seeing themselves directly and fulsomely represented in these stories—in the films especially—is certainly a higher priority, Star Wars is arguably not very well equipped to address things like racism and sexism in a direct fashion, and instead normally chooses to do so through subtext and metaphor.

The Mos Eisley cantina is notable for being not just the first major showcase of the galaxy’s alien demographics, but for the first instance of “metaphorical prejudice” in the form of Wuher banning the droids from his establishment. That moment coupled with an Imperial officer describing Chewbacca as a “thing” not long after makes George Lucas’s view of prejudice quite clear—even if the overall whiteness and maleness of the film’s protagonists does him no favors.

Droids and aliens, then, have never been there just for texture, but for metaphor as well—a way for the story to comment on real human biases without overtly importing them into its universe. While Solo‘s recent efforts to engage with droid prejudice were, well, inconsistent at best, the fact is that the films have never even attempted to put nonhuman prejudice on the front burner.

Lack of foregrounding, however, doesn’t equate to silence: if you choose to take the demographics seriously and not just as texture you’ll find that the films have been saying quite a bit. The goal of this piece, then, is to do just that—assume every human role and every nonhuman role is one hundred percent deliberate, and extrapolate accordingly. To be clear, this is very much a thought experiment, and not a suggestion of intentional messaging on the part of the creators.1 ILM and Lucasfilm’s creature shop (whew, just calling it that in this context is awkward) have done a lot of amazing work over the years, but how that work is distributed throughout the story tells a story of its own. What messages do we come away with when we treat that subtext as text?

The Old Republic

It’s inarguable that throughout the saga, whenever something important is happening, it’s driven by humans and surrounded by humans. The first thing we see is two human Jedi dispatched by a human chancellor to assist a human queen. Years later, when a major political power is shown to be led by an entirely nonhuman council, they’re actually being manipulated by two human Sith. The Rebel Alliance is organized by human senators and royalty (from the Core Worlds no less), give or take one human renegade who breaks away from their authority for unrelated reasons. Once the New Republic’s human chancellor brings back some semblance of plurality the First Order literally flees the known galaxy rather than live like this—only to ultimately fall under the sway of whatever the hell Snoke is. By the end of The Last Jedi, both the First Order and the Resistance are led not just by humans, but by humans from the same family.

or-senate

But way back at the beginning, we get what I’m going to assume is (and certainly should be) our most accurate look at the galaxy’s overall demographics: the Republic Senate. While even there humans are the only species seen representing more than one world, it’s very hard not to come away with the conclusion that nonhumans represent, literally, the vast majority of the galaxy. That bears out pretty well in the form of the Jedi Council, though by the dawn of the Empire it’s gone from one human to three—what better illustration of the increasing imbalance in the Force could you ask for? With this view of the galaxy in mind, it’s easy to assume based on The Phantom Menace alone that there are vast populations of nonhumans out there who simply don’t participate in galactic affairs beyond token representation—and that’s not even considering diverse planets like Tatooine, which is explicitly stated to be outside the Republic’s jurisdiction. The deliberate contrast between the Naboo and the Gungans, then, doubles as a handy microcosm of galactic society: a visible, politically active human populace running around on the surface while a robust nonhuman society minds its own business just out of sight.

This seeming lack of importance could only feed the misgivings of the Separatist Council, who break off from the Republic a decade later and take a sizable chunk of the galaxy with them. While the actual council members are clearly shown to represent major corporate and financial interests—they’re minorities and the one percent at the same time—it’s easy to see how those optics could sway numerous other nonhumans to their cause, even with the human Dooku nominally in charge.2

Their attempt at independence is rebuffed, of course. The human chancellor, with his army of human clones, handpicks his favorite human Jedi to slaughter not only the Separatist Council but countless Jedi representing countless species. While the senate is still around—at first—Emperor Palpatine ushers in the most overtly pro-human government the galaxy has seen in known history.

The Empire

While the lower ranks of the Imperial army become more diverse in terms of race and gender as the clones are phased out, they remain overwhelmingly human, as do the upper ranks, as do the moffs. Nonhumans who wish to serve Imperial society are met with unofficial discouragement at best and open hostility at worst. Those who do flourish are either the Force-adept nightmare wraiths of the Inquisitorius3 or one-in-a-trillion intellects like Thrawn.

How awful this is! After surviving the worst of the Clone Wars only to be met with the boot of the Empire, surely the nonhumans of the galaxy banded together to restore freedom and democracy and stuff? Nope. Early resistance on planets like Ryloth and Kashyyyk did some damage, but never really spread beyond those planets—and led to massive enslavement of their populations. Not every species has the Wookiees’ or the Twi’leks’ taste for battle but we can probably assume this kind of thing happened fairly often during those early years, tapering off as Imperial forces expanded their presence and word of harsh reprisals spread among those who were considering rebellion.

rots-canthamhouse

Into this environment a Rebel Alliance at long last came into being—led not by veterans of those local conflicts but by a handful of human senators from prosperous worlds scarcely touched by war. One of their less privileged leaders, Saw Gerrera, grows tired of the senators’ unwillingness to fight dirty and breaks off, taking what seems like ninety percent of the nonhumans with him. The story rewards the Partisans for this defiance with near-total obliteration. The lesson is clear: the human senators are right and the nonhumans and extremists are wrong.4 Humans, by virtue of their favored position in Imperial culture, are seemingly the only ones who can afford to concern themselves with the galaxy at large rather than just their immediate survival. How many stories have been written wherein the Big Three find themselves humansplaining to some local populace why the Alliance is the only real way to fight the Empire? It’s to the great credit of Star Wars Rebels that when this appeal is made to Cham Syndulla, rebel hero of Ryloth, it comes from his own daughter.

The human rebels aren’t without their own unconscious biases, either. Chewbacca bears multiple species-specific insults during the original trilogy—“furry oaf”, “walking carpet”, et cetera—that would get someone’s arms pulled off in different circumstances. He’s pretty chill by Wookiee standards, but if this is how humans talk to Wookiees normally you can understand why they’d have reservations about signing up for some great human war.

Anyway, the films themselves are happy not to concern themselves with that stuff—though the sudden appearance of Sullustans at the same time that the rebel fleet is “massing near Sullust” does suggest that they’re making new friends, as do the scattered other nonhumans present at the Endor briefing. The Mon Calamari, of course, play a major off-screen role in the events between Rogue One and Return of the Jedi, which only makes their absence in A New Hope and The Empire Strikes back even more conspicuous. If the Star Wars comic series ever makes it past Hoth it will be very interesting to see what Ackbar (and Hera Syndulla for that matter) is up to at that point.

The New Republic

Each era of the story thus far has had a pretty clear idea of what it wanted to do with nonhumans, even if it was a marginal concern. The topline idea behind the sequel era, though, is that there really isn’t one. Does the First Order have the same prejudices as the Empire, and they ditched the New Republic rather than accept minority status? Probably to some extent, considering that it’s a bunch of the same people. But they’re led by a nine-foot-tall robe goblin. Is Snoke an Inquisitor type, who clawed his way to the top through raw power, or a Thrawn type, whose strategic prowess left the First Order with no choice but to put him in charge, despite the bad taste it left in their mouths? I have no doubt that there will eventually be a great story there, but it’s completely beside the point of the sequel films from the look of things.

On the Resistance side, it’s largely a continuation of the Rebel Alliance status quo—scattered nonhumans at various levels of authority but almost exclusively humans at the top. The Force Awakens even doubles down on that old “humans know better” subtext by contrasting Leia’s aggressive military posture with the New Republic’s noninterventionist, Neville Chamberlain-inspired nonhuman chancellor. I’ll give Leia one thing, though—the Abednedos are with her. Maybe there’s a story there too.

Maz Kanata’s clientele don’t tell us much that the cantina and Jabba’s palace didn’t, but Maz herself walks a compelling line between supporting the Resistance in theory and staying out of it in practice, at least until the First Order knocks her house down—such is the fate of all nonhumans who don’t want to help out.

ubialla-attsmun

More interesting are the demographics of Canto Bight. While no known separatist species are present,5 the film’s explicit labeling of them as war profiteers suggests a connection between these people and the one-percenters on the Separatist Council. While DJ speaks of the war as a neverending cycle, one wonders if we saw the beginnings of this particular racket in the Clone Wars: species who seceded and lost, but whose means allowed them to capitalize on the rise of the Empire even as they sold out their fellow nonhumans. A secretive cohort raking in profits over multiple generations while the humans fight it out? I’ll leave you to unpack that one for yourselves, dear readers.

*     *     *     *     *

Alas, it may be too late for a clear message to emerge from the sequel era’s use of nonhumans—keeping Chewbacca around isn’t going to cut it this time. Given that he’s unable to speak Basic and they wouldn’t dream of subtitling him, I don’t really begrudge his use in the last couple films (and I actively admire Solo‘s avoidance of the “life debt” concept in his linking up with Han). But I am more than ready for them to give us a major nonhuman character who can at long last explicitly represent that perspective in the films. The entire point of “metaphorical prejudice” is to teach audiences why prejudice is wrong, and not offering fans a carefully-considered entry point into the mindset of a nonhuman downgrades the metaphor to mere window dressing.

Unless Keri Russell is playing a Twi’lek and Episode IX visits Ryloth, I think the sequel trilogy is past the point of engaging with this seriously—and Solo demonstrates the pitfalls of engaging with it half-seriously. I suspect the best-case scenario going forward is a new major character in Rian Johnson’s trilogy (or dare I hope, in The Mandalorian) who can take on a Chewbacca-esque role while actually being able to speak for themselves and call bullshit on the humans when necessary. Because there’s been a lot of bullshit so far—and that carries with it an implied message whether they’re trying for it or not. It’s long past time they try.

  1. Though it does seem to be in some cases, as I’ll discuss later. []
  2. We know his noble birth and Jedi background made him a major political figure but I can’t help but wonder if the average citizen saw Dooku as more of a figurehead for the Confederacy—someone who gave rousing speeches while the nonhumans were off getting shit done. []
  3. I don’t believe we’ve yet heard of an in-universe bias toward “scary-looking” species but it’s certainly easy to imagine. []
  4. I feel compelled to note here that I actually do think the senators are right—but this is about optics, not principles. []
  5. I’ve admittedly only flipped through the TLJ Visual Dictionary—if Pablo Hidalgo did anything on this feel free to leave a comment below. []

4 thoughts to “Humansplaining: Star Wars From the Aliens’ Perspective”

  1. “The entire point of “metaphorical prejudice” is to teach audiences why prejudice is wrong, and not offering fans a carefully-considered entry point into the mindset of a nonhuman downgrades the metaphor to mere window dressing.”

    Was Yoda the closest the franchise has ever gotten to addressing that, especially in his first few scenes in ESB?

    1. Yoda as an “entry point” character is tough because he’s so aloof and wise, at least compared to the human mains. Honestly I’d say Jar Jar was the most successful the films have been at giving us an alien we can identify with—and boy oh boy, is that saying something.

  2. Interesting piece!

    I think that the canon reboot missed a major opportunity to update the Rebel Alliance based on what we now know about the Clone Wars. I was always tantalized by the hints dropped in earlier works that the Mon Calamari or the Sullustans might have been Separatists before they were Rebels. It’s still lurking in the background in the newer material: the Visual Guide says that Cassian got his start as a Separatist, and some of the FFG roleplay material mentions that many Gran and Muun end up on the side of the Rebels (while also doubling down on the Sullustan separatist ties).

    Still, I think there would be a really fun story to be told about Loyalists like Mon Mothma and Bail Organa coming to terms with Separatist big-wigs like the Nemoidians to produce a united front against the Empire. Perhaps Loyalist reconciliation with Separatists plays a role in driving Saw Guererra away from the Alliance?

    1. If we ever get a Bail/Mon focus novel on the formation of the Alliance I definitely expect that to be a big part of it—but with the Cassian series incoming they might be treading lightly on that material for now.

Chime In

%d bloggers like this: