Monday, June 14, 2010

Is Star Wars Racist?

This essay was written as a discussion of the existence of racial stereotypes  and critical cultural theory in Star Wars. Feel free to leave me a comment. I'm open to debate and comments.

Ideologies, Connotations, and Polysemy in Star Wars: How to deal with race in space

One cannot deny the existence of dominant ideologies inherent in Star Wars. George Lucas' study of archetypes and his world views contributed to the film.

Star Wars clearly denotes an epic science-fiction film. Many light viewers of the films probably only see it, consciously, as such. Connotatively, the film has many meanings. From the viewpoint of this paper discussing race, we see such connotations as who a hero is and who he must become. How must this hero be mentored and by whom? Star Wars also connotates the meanings of good and evil--that there are even specific colors that signify good and evil: white and black. The film also messages about the existence of minorities, or aliens—how they are viewed and what their roles are as either dangerous encounters in our hero's journey or as assistants in helping our hero succeed.

Darth Vader becomes goodIn the original star wars films minorities have very sparse roles. The dominant roles are taken by Caucasians: Luke, Han Solo, Obi Wan Kenobi, Leia, and Darth Vader. Luke is mentored by Obi Wan, who acts as a patriarchal figure. Obi Wan has great wisdom, greater than that of Darth Vader and Luke learns to trust Obi Wan.

The dominant reading from the Star Wars saga speaks of ethical rebellion—that one must stand against immoral rule. Luke epitomizes the archetypal hero who goes from being an ignorant farm boy to a wise and skilled warrior for good. In the story, he and the Rebels stand against all odds in their fight for truth and freedom. Because they fight for good, they ultimately triumph. This notion of the oppressed revolutionizing is the backbone of early American thought.

Another dominant reading is that basic Jedi principles of self-control, consistent training, and a motivation for good, are the preferred principles that can make one become “good” and a hero.

As all artifacts contain potentially infinite interpretations, Star Wars is no different. Synchronic polysemy exists as different audiences view the film. Those of Christian backgrounds idolize the righteous qualities of the Jedi and the Rebels. Protestant faiths apply the protestant, rebellious for good nature of the film to their own faiths. Conversely, those of eastern religions might see the films as mirrors of buddhism, hinduism, and shinto. The spiritualism of some of these eastern religions appear in Star Wars, such as the spirits of the past who frequently visit Luke to offer him counsel. There is no supreme being in Star Wars. Those who die are melded into the Force, which acts as an energy field guiding and moving through all life.

Those of other races will also view the films differently. Anyone who is a minority might see a dominant oppression that exists in the films as well as in society. Minority racial groups will develop resistant readings of Star Wars:

  • One can start in a lowly state and achieve greatness only if that person is a white male. Luke becomes the greatest Jedi master in the galaxy while any minority groups, such as aliens and droids retain their roles as supporters of the hero.

  • It is implied that minority groups are unintelligent, misfits of society, and criminals. For example, Jabba’s lair represents the ghettos of the Star Wars world. His lair, prinicipally made up of aliens, is filled with criminals running from the law, prostitutes, and drug dealers. Another example is the signification of the noble savage in the ewoks. These side-role characters are technologically and religiously primitive and their principal purpose in the film is to suppor the main characters.

  • In the scheme of power structures, “whiteness” is superior to all other cultures. This is apparent in the differences between the dark side and good side of the force. Sith Lords are always dressed in black. Any scenes set inside the imperial vessels use primarily dark grays while the Rebel vessels are white. This black vs. white evidence is most notable by Darth Vadar. Vadar, who dresses in black, has an African-American voice (James Earl Jones). Only at the end when he becomes “good” and Luke removes his mask, do we see his true appearance as a white male.

Note: It is safe to assume that supposed elements of racism in Star Wars were not deliberate on the part of George Lucas. However, our environment affects what we produce. In this way, the surrounding culture during the 1970's dominated the dominant ideologies in Star Wars.


  1. Excellent read, I also wrote a similar paper for an English class, and it's great to find that someone else shares the same type of viewpoints on the film.

    Cheers mate.


  3. Dear God, the things some people "find" racism in . . . *eye roll*