A few weeks back, a critical discussion of the Legacy of the Force series at the TFN Literature forum turned to a topic that doesn’t normally come up too often: privilege.
The specific impetus was the penultimate novel, Revelation, wherein Jaina Solo spends time training on Mandalore in preparation for a confrontation with her Sithy twin brother. Boba Fett’s fellow Mandalorians, thoroughly established by this point as hardscrabble farmers for whom mercenary work is only an intermittent source of income, are quick to laugh off the ex-Chief of State’s daughter with the (possible) Coruscanti accent, and what they see as her pretensions of warriordom, but over time she proves herself up to their challenges and, eventually, earns a grudging respect.
But this is Karen Traviss, an author with, well, a singular perspective on the Jedi Order’s place in the larger galaxy—so it’s perhaps unavoidable that the prose squeezes a little more sympathy for the Mandos (even from Jaina’s POV) than we’re used to seeing, dwelling here and there on, say, the softness of Jaina’s hands, her education, her growing up well-fed, and so on.
Far be it from me to bend over backwards for Traviss; while I am unabashedly a fan of what she brought to the franchise, I’m also acutely aware of its limits. I’m not here to trash Jaina or to defend the Mandalorians, but the conversation at the forums did suggest to me that a lot of people don’t really grasp how “privilege” would apply to this kind of setting. Rather than hyper-focus on the somewhat clumsy farmer-versus-aristocrat paradigm (or even grunt-versus-special-forces, if you prefer), I’d like to back up a bit and talk about what the concept of privilege would mean in the Galaxy Far, Far Away.
Privilege, it has to be understood, is not the same thing as good fortune. It’s not synonymous with “spoiled”. Likewise, the opposite of privilege is not oppression. In real-world terms, Oprah Winfrey’s unparalleled position of respect and wealth in Western society does not negate her deficiency of privilege as a black woman, nor does, say, Phil Robertson’s backwoods coarseness negate his privilege as a white man. Chris Rock had a bit a few years ago about his ludicrously upscale neighborhood outside New York City, in which his neighbors were Jay-Z, Mary J. Blige, Denzel Washington, and…a white dentist. His point was that even in a country where anyone is ostensibly free to be anything, privilege is what sets the goalposts. Privilege is invisible; it’s almost never active discrimination, or even conscious disfavor. It’s high incarceraton rates due to disparities in sentencing guidelines, or poor education due to underfunded schools, or poor health due to shoddy grocery stores.
But that’s human-on-human racism, obviously, which we’re meant to believe does not exist in the GFFA. How good of a job Star Wars does at convincing us of that is another debate, but for the moment let’s take that as a given. Does that mean there’s no such thing as privilege? Well, there’s also male privilege, straight, cisgendered privilege, and the privilege of the able-bodied to consider, but let’s be excruciatingly generous here and assume that this really is an ideal bunch of humans we’re dealing with.
You’re still looking at a galaxy with a million different sentient species. Humans may or may not be a majority of the galaxy, but humanoids certainly are—and body type is privilege number one. In a society of Hutts and Herglics and Hoojibs, Jaina Solo can walk up to pretty much any restaurant (certainly every one we’ve seen), or public transport, or voting booth, in the total confidence that she’ll fit in the door, and on the seat. The utensils will fit in her hands. She’ll probably also be able to breathe the air, unlike a Kel Dor or a Gand—that’s privilege number two. She’ll be able to read the menu, not just because it’s written in Basic, but because it’s printed in colors on her visible wavelength. For that matter, the restaurant will also be lit to a degree that’s comfortable for her eyes, because she’s not a Sullustan—that’s three.
Then there are the societal benefits of her humanity. These are even harder to notice, and in-universe evidence for them is mixed, I’ll admit (and the recent experience of the Empire certainly tweaks the pendulum), but it would not be hard to extrapolate from the real world and suggest that Jaina is seen by the average being as more trustworthy than any given alien. If she acts boorish, she’ll be seen as simply a rude individual, rather than as a “typical boorish human”. And depending on the era, of course, all that could hold doubly true for a human Jedi.
Now, there are two things to note about all this. First, and this deals very specifically with Jaina, it may have occurred to you that nothing I’ve mentioned has the slightest bit to do with whether Jaina has had a hard life. Privilege is about infrastructure; it’s about being a round peg in a round hole, and assuming it’s like that for everybody. In the SkySolos’ case, the hole just happens to have lava under it once in a while.
Second, it may also have occurred to you that the bulk of what I’m pointing out isn’t actively malicious. In the case of oxygen and human-sized doors and whatnot, it’s even completely logical and defensible. To which I say, again, privilege is not the opposite of oppression. Even the most conscientious, open-minded white male American cannot eliminate the effects of privilege in his life, nor should he be held to such a standard. Privilege is not about active discrimination, nor is it a reflection of one’s character—it simply is.
The point, then, of talking about privilege—even in the GFFA—isn’t behavior correction; it’s simple education. The first step to changing a problem is admitting it exists, and pointing at Jaina’s allegedly smooth hands and shouting “privilege!” accomplishes nothing if the term isn’t properly understood. Back here in the real world, that open-minded white guy I mentioned—and I’m sure there are a few of you reading this—shouldn’t be held responsible for the construction of Western society any more than he should be expected to break it down and rebuild it all by himself. The real danger of privilege lies not in its effects, but in its invisibility; therefore, the only real way to change it is to recognize it for what it is.
17 thoughts to “On Jaina Solo’s Hands – Examining Privilege in the Galaxy Far, Far Away”
Jaina Solo spends time training on Mandalore was the dumbest thing in the legacy books,i really like legay btw but no way if some gun firing mandos can teach her anything Luke have not alredy done.Some authors have to stop forcing this mando love in everywere.They are at hart evil killers nothing more.And Jaina beeing the second most powerful jedi after Luke is canon battle would only need jedi training to take on her brother, her struggle should with Caedus should only be of an emotional level. Even thou EU books are all over the lvl and sometimes silly it’s pretty clear Jaina will be the new grandmaster of the order with Ben second in command until Jaina steps down and he is older.
Nice, very nice – really like where you’ve gone with this by using Traviss’ work as a point of departure rather than the focus.
Yeah–given comments like the above, the last thing I wanted to do was make this about Traviss.
Aaaaand now I feel even guiltier for my comment below. 😉 I was writing it when you posted this!
This is a really interesting article, in that it’s helped me sharpen some of my thoughts about the novel in question as well as the issue of privilege in the SWEU. I’m a little reticent to go into it in detail as I don’t want to derail this into a discussion of Traviss rather than a discussion of privilege in Star Wars, and Force knows we’ve had a lot of those and I’ve been pretty open about my opinions.
But, since it’s the framing device for the article, and since I’m hoping this might provide another vantage point from which to discuss the issue, I’m gonna try.
Firstly, just to note, I agree with most everything you say on the issue of Jaina and privilege generally; I would like to see it dealt with in better ways within the fiction. As you say, it’s not a matter of whether Jaina has had a hard life. In some ways I think that it could actually be a more useful illustration of the concept because she *has* had such a hard time in so many ways. She is still fantastically privileged.
My issue, though, isn’t that Revelation does a bad job narratively in describing this situation (I mean, I think it does, but that’s a completely separate issue), it’s that I think the Mandalorians are a truly terrible group to use to make the point – in fact I think that they may actively undercut it. Basically because of their status in the real world, and the stereotypes and tropes they play to.
I don’t want to erase the laudible decision to normalise queer marriage within their society, or the fact that the Fett family and associated clones are men of colour. However, I don’t think that is enough to erase the fact that the post-PT-era Mandalorians have very much been written in the style of (and often visually portrayed in the style of) white, manly soldier video-gaming culture. It’s not a coincidence that Traviss went from writing the Mandos to writing Gears of War, you know?
I’m sure everyone knows what I’m talking about, but I think this article does a fairly good job of summing up the aesthetic issues I’m talking about – http://uk.ign.com/articles/2011/06/22/the-devolution-of-character-designs – and the aesthetic is so strongly coded in such specific ways (to the point you generally can’t even have a woman on the front cover, even in a passive stance, any more), that it genuinely does stand for more than just a stylistic choice.
So I guess what I’m saying is, I’m not sure that it’s a good idea to try and tell a story about Jaina’s privilege when the group you use to highlight it is:
1) designed* to appeal to a demographic so used to being pandered to its privilege is legendarily toxic.
(*and if not explicitly designed, it’s so similar in tone and style it’s impossible to tell)
2) continues a fairly crappy tradition of creating an oppressed minority and then making them all angsty, wronged white* dudes.
(*as I said, above, Temuera Morrison being a mitigating factor, just not one I feel mitigates the broader point).
TL;DR – if we remove the diagetic framing of the Expanded Universe does the situation still look the same? And if there is tension between the fictional perspective where Jaina Solo is being called out on her privilege by a marginalised group, and the non-fictional perspective, where a female character is being marginalised in favour of glorifying the pain and heroism of a bunch of too-cool-for-school commandos, where do we come down on that?
So yeah. Like I said. Very interesting article. And again, awareness and apologies that I’m taking this sort of sideways; I just…have no super deep thoughts about your hypotheticals regarding the way privilege would work in the EU because I agree with them. How boring… :p
No worries—you can make it up to me by turning that general idea into a guest piece.
Slave-driver! :p Okay, I will…see what I can do. 😉
There’s also a blue/white collar divide at work with Jaina and the Mandos, the idea that she’s never done a “real job” is right up there with the guys in factories slagging off those who work in offices, or even worse are “management”. It’s reverse snobbery that’s rarely questioned, instead it gets transformed into a weird badge of pride.
Oh I DEFINITELY agree about the blue/white collar divide, although I don’t have a conceptual problem with it. No one on either side of those kinds of divides reacts well or rationally and that’s where the important stories often are. I actually think if it were done well (matter of personal taste, obviously!) it could be a great place to highlight the way class is a construction of more than just money. The Mandos are, at this point, at least, rebuilding their society successfully on the back of beskar’gam production and their reputation as mercenaries is peerless. Financially I don’t think they’re in as poor a position as it might appear, but it doesn’t matter because Jaina is still part of a social class that are viewed as philosopher heroes who saved the galaxy and Boba is still part of a social class that are viewed as illiterate thugs who hurt it.
But the interesting question your comment raises for me, at least, is whether you, like me, notice the very British way that Traviss deals with class in these novels? The Mandos don’t feel blue-collar, they feel british Working Class to me, but I do wonder if that’s only me? (Which isn’t a judgement, just an observation, and one of the things I actually liked better about the book.)
That’s an interesting angle Becc, but not one sufficient for me to give Traviss a second chance, as I loathed Triple Zero. (Were it not for The Joiner King it’d likely occupy the no. 1 EU stinker spot – the common factor in both is they threw away cast potential with contempt.)
I’m principally going by second-hand info here, as I bailed on LOTF with Betrayal and no one’s really been able to be so complimentary about it that there’s no cause for me to revise the decision. What your post suggests is that the Mandos are perhaps far closer to being Champagne Socialists than they’d ever admit? But you’d know far better than I as to how accurate that may be.
Oh look, the internet!
Yeah, I’m not really trying to convince you to change your opinion on her, she’s not an author whose work I particularly enjoy either for a variety of reasons – I was just arguing concepts. 😉
And most of my political inferences were from LOTF, so no worries, I wouldn’t expect you to notice them if you haven’t read it.
I think you’re overlooking the fact that the entire LOTF depiction of Mandalorians is a pretty heavy deconstruction of that angsty straight white male badass sub-culture. Both POV characters are non-white, and one of those POV character is a badass woman of color. Another person of color, a black man now, heads an interracial family, whose son enters into an interracial marriage with a bi-racial woman. Two openly gay men (of indeterminate race, possibly also people of color) are pillars of their community, and their daughter is a war-proven badass who’s not to be fucked with even in peacetime. Like, there’s maybe two dudes who’re white, and only one of whom is definitely straight. That shit just doesn’t exist in that cishet white male demographic-pandering mindset. It doesn’t. The whole thing is intentionally inverted to reflect actual marginalized people instead of just the wronged cishet white dudes scifi analogies always go to. So when we have the straight, white, thin, classically attractive by Euro-centric standards, well-educated, needs-met, cisgender woman reflecting on her privilege in the face of this diverse cast of non-heteronormative, gender-inclusive, people of color…this is some seriously amazing shit that more pieces of fiction need to have. And we need more characters like Jaina who can be self-aware and aren’t afraid to check their own privilege, because that’s seriously an example that needs setting and something that made an already good character even better.
I do respect your points and your perspective on this. I wish I had more time to reply in detail (yes, even more detail than this!) but I’m about to go out for New Year’s and won’t have regular net access til the 2nd (staying with a friend), and I didn’t want to leave this unanswered as it might suggest disagreement on most of your points. I absolutely 100% believe that Star Wars tanks it in needed demographic representation and am happy to concede all the points you make about Traviss’ inclusion, here, of people of colour and queer people.
I strongly *disagree* that it’s a deconstruction of the “manly badass” aspect of the culture which I feel uses narrative shorthand that has further-reaching implications. The fact that it allows more people to participate is laudible and if it were a trope I were interested in seeing rehabilitated, I would be more excited. It isn’t, and I base a lot of that on my experience of fan reaction to the Mando culture and the attitudes and behaviours that come out as a result of that. I respect both that your experience may be different and that it is entirely aside from Traviss’ intentions. But it’s still an issue that concerns me and affects my experience of how Mando culture functions in meatspace as a fictional trope (rather than how individual characters provide needed representation). It’s a similar issue to the one I have with seeing fratboys leave Inglorious Basterds thinking Brad Pitt’s character was the hero, which I’m pretty sure wasn’t Tarantino’s intention either. It’s not a problem with an easy solution and I don’t want to pretend my perspective is the most or only correct one in any way.
(In the interests of disclosure, I should note that I’m sure – try as I might to separate the issues – my dislike of Traviss’ publicly stated views, and more specifically her tendency to use ableist slurs when discussing fan perspectives she dislikes – from the era when she had a vocal public presence in fan communities, probably contribute to my discomfort here. I’m…concerned about talking about this as I genuinely do not want to derail the conversation or imply that you should not like her work. I’m honestly just trying to acknowledge my own bias here. Her personal failings should not necessarily undermine her professional successes, but I do think it makes sense that they might, for some. It’s a super complicated area.)
Perhaps the best I can do is agree unreservedly that the characters she has added to the EU are valuable, and respectfully disagree about the broader effects of way she uses the Mandalorian culture to make certain points.
I think there is a bit of artificiality in the extent of some of your critique here. Stories focused on humans tend to take place in human dominated areas — but you can find examples where the tables are turned. What of “Outcast” where you have much of the action with Ben and Luke visiting the Baran Do sages? And quite often you have examples where humans aren’t where they are supposed to be (remember Gavin’s “trial” in the X-Wing series). The reaction of the Geonosians to Anakin and Padme isn’t, “Oh, lovely, kind and respectful human visitors” – it’s fight or flight.
I wonder if this is less privilege than perspective and the desire to remain in a comfort zone. Do the characters remain in the places or areas where they have the advantage, or do they branch out to explore and see other things? How do they grow? And some of this is the idea of being driven by the plot. If there hadn’t been need, there wouldn’t have been any trip to Geonosis, nor Dorin, nor even the Coruscant underbelly.
… of course, I might say that it is also a bit of hubris for the white American male to say that he automatically has the position of privilege, that he can’t even realize how good he has it. After all, America is the best place to be ever, and anyone who isn’t on the top of the heap here, if not oppressed, still doesn’t have it as good as we do.. That’s not exactly an objective examination… it sounds like the city mouse lamenting how poorly the country mouse has it.
But if the city mouse can’t change who he is, better that he remain conscious of the country mouse’s plight than live in blissful ignorance. Though I’d caution that framing it as “city/country” suggests the dichotomy at work is simply a matter of income disparity, which it’s not.
You do make an interesting point about comfort zones. Obviously the restaurant scenario I describe is very much a metropolitan, Core-world experience, and likely to be different on any number of homeworlds. But the Core, and Coruscant in particular, is the seat of power in the galaxy—and it’s hard to feel represented when you can’t function comfortably in your own capital.
Oh, I wasn’t meaning to do income. In the old version of City/Country mouse, the country mouse turns back from all the luxury of the city and instead goes back to the comfort of the country (in the original there are dogs in the city that the mice have to dodge, and the country mouse thinks safety but simpler fair is superior).
As for the functioning in safety – have you watched Babylon 5? One of the sections of the ship was the “alien section” where the humans had to wear breathing gear.
This does bring up a political point – I’m not sure how much Coruscant *is* the center of power for non-oxygen breathers. The Republic seemed to let them handle things themselves, and even with the Empire, that suddenly requires a lot more equipment. How do you successfully occupy a planet with air you can’t breath against folks who can? Of course, as the atmosphere would make business dealings really hard, how much do you actually want to occupy them?
One angle I think that could be interesting is the idea of insider/outsider… and how if you are an outsider to any culture, you tend not to have access. This is the heart of any undercover cop movie — what do you do to become an insider and how does that affect you?
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