Identity Politics in George Lucas’ Star Wars
John C. McDowell
Jefferson (North Carolina): McFarland & Company, 2016
Paperback. xi+196 p. ISBN 978-1476662862. $29.95
Reviewed by Christina Flotmann-Scholz
In his study John C. McDowell examines identity formation in George Lucas’ Star Wars saga but also looks at how the stories as integral parts of popular culture might contribute to shaping real-life discourses on identity. He combines Cultural Studies approaches, narratology and psychology with close readings of episodes one till six, as the most recent episodes seven and eight had apparently not yet been released at the time of writing. His work is roughly divided into two parts. The first two chapters deal with the representation of violence in the movies and show how the use or rejection of it are connected to forms of power. They also contain an analysis of violence in Star Wars as part of a wider social and cultural discourse on violence in the West which might influence our thinking about power structures. Thus, chapters one and two adopt a broader perspective, examining ways in which cultural ideologies concerning violence/power shared by a larger group of people might influence the construction of identity within this group. In the third and fourth chapters McDowell goes on to discuss gender and ethnicity, more personal aspects of identity which nevertheless have a strong political dimension and are also closely connected to the issues of violence/power. The two parts go together well as the first one accentuates the social and cultural framework within which the gender and ethnic identities discussed in the second part are constructed and regulated.
Throughout his study McDowell attempts to defend Lucas’ stories against critics who perceive them as simply conservative and reactionary [cf. 3]. He particularly criticises some of the approaches to Star Wars as a new myth as well as to gender and ethnicity in the films for adopting too narrow-minded a perspective. To him, these analyses serve the critics’ own agendas rather than really doing justice to the works in question [cf. for instance 114]. According to McDowell, these approaches largely focus on more dominant readings of the movies and foreground ideological content the critics deem problematic in its effect on potential viewers.
McDowell himself subjects the movies to ‘producerly’ readings which go beyond the seemingly dominant ideologies of popular stories to look at gaps and breaks that might serve as access points for different or even contradictory understandings.(1) According to him, the films do not always yield straightforward messages and are frequently ambiguous when it comes to their ideological underpinnings.
In the first chapter he specifically analyses how critics have come to see Star Wars as perpetuating the myth of redemptive violence, i.e. violence that is somewhat necessary to restore a state of stability and order. Structurally, this myth of redemptive violence leads to an ever-repeating circle in which phases of peace and prosperity alternate with times of war and instability. In this reading of Lucas’ movies violence is morally condoned if it serves a return to the ‘good’ order. This structuring is ideologically problematic as it promotes a Manichaean world picture in which the two sides of good and evil are fixed, naturalised and therefore frequently left unexamined [cf. 17].
Although McDowell concedes that this might be questionable in ideological terms, he believes that these readings are too one-sided and do not go far enough. His analysis instead foregrounds a different and less obvious structuring principle of the tales in the second chapter, one that simultaneously deconstructs the binary between good and evil. He rightly claims that the stories are about two contrary ways of using power, one that is self-serving and self-aggrandising (practiced by Darth Vader and his ilk) and one that is selfless and focused on others (exemplified by Yoda and later Luke Skywalker). In this reading, the rather essentialising question of who is good and who is evil loses significance and is replaced by the question of who uses power in what way. This highlights personal choice and the possibility for change and hints at an understanding of identity that is not fixed and stable.
McDowell continues his analysis in this vein throughout chapters three and four. For the representation of gender, too, he sees the movies as oscillating between an essentialising view of the role of women and a more progressive construction of them, oriented on a perception of identity as multifaceted and based on various social and cultural factors instead of biology.
Chapter four on the representation of ethnicity elegantly takes up the argument of the first two chapters once more, only on the more concrete level of the characters this time. According to McDowell, critics have often perceived the representation of aliens in science fiction films as negative. They claim that aliens have been constructed as fictional others to the mostly white, male, Western protagonists to avoid the direct mention of real-life conflicts between nations or ethnicities. In this reading, aliens become the politically correct other that can comfortably be used as scapegoat and ostracised. For McDowell, however, these critics fail to acknowledge a figure such as Yoda who does not easily fit into this schema. The aliens in Star Wars, he argues, are not dehumanised, ridiculed or rendered evil per se, but it is once more their actions and choices regarding their use of power that determine them. Thus, for him the treatment of the aliens follows the same logic of deconstruction that characterises the Manichaean structure of the story as a whole.
In both chapters three and four, McDowell again sharply criticises academics who try to read an anti-feminist or racist agenda into the films, averring that “[t]o claim that SW is racist and/or sexist or not is to say as much, then, about the politics of the reader’s gaze” . This is undoubtedly true. However, the question of whether certain ideologies are part of popular texts or read into them by recipients, seems to be a bit of a chicken-and-egg problem. The argument, for instance, that those recipients who see junk dealer Watto as racially marked simply bring their own prejudices to the character [cf. 132], is certainly valid. It might, however, just as easily be turned around to say that it is the text which at least facilitates a stereotypical reading. I wonder if it is not both, the text offering ideological access points and the readers co-creating the text by either accepting or questioning the messages on offer. The term ‘reader’ is also tricky and would have deserved some more attention as there is of course a difference between academic reviewers of a text such as Star Wars and its ‘regular’ audiences, whose reactions to it might vary considerably.
In the chapter on gender, some of McDowell’s points do not entirely convince me either. He for instance dismisses Veronica Wilson’s criticism of the representation of Padmé Amidala [cf. 102-104]. According to Wilson, Padmé is initially shown as strong, smart and (politically) active (episodes one and two). In the course of episode three, however, the representational focus shifts to her love affair with Anakin, her pregnancy and the fact that though intelligent, she is rather ineffectual when it comes to preventing the fall of the Republic and her husband Anakin. She is then killed off at the end of episode three. Wilson reads this as a regression in her role [cf. 102]. McDowell on the other hand explains her death as a plot device and part of the dramatic structure that Star Wars resembles [cf. 109]. He similarly rejects Wilson’s critical concerns about using two women, Anakin’s mother Shmi and his wife Padmé as incentives for Anakin’s actions and later transformation into Darth Vader [cf. 104]. Here, McDowell resorts to Anakin’s problematic psychology to explain his unduly fixation on the two women [cf. 106]. Certainly both assessments are consistent with McDowell's focus on narratology or the psychology of the single characters respectively. However, looking at the level of representation and the possible ideological underpinnings it might have, I consider Wilson’s perception of these two examples as problematic to be equally justified. Although Wilson’s phrasing that Lucas ‘blames’ Padmé and Shmi for Anakin’s fall [ibid.] might be a bit unfortunate, this depiction of the two women supports the essentialising logic that the treatment of violence and aliens seems to go against. We are ultimately looking at a phenomenon of popular culture and must assume that many if not most recipients are not familiar with dramatic structure but are frequent readers of popular stories. Those tales are usually based on repeating formulas which either operate on a larger structural plane or on the level of smaller plot elements such as for instance stereotyped characters.(2) Strong women who become ineffectual once the male hero enters the scene as well as women who merely function as incentives for male action are examples of these kinds of structural elements common to many popular stories. As McDowell asserts with respect to the myth of redemptive violence in the first two chapters, recurrent generic elements can produce a tendency toward the uncritical acceptance of ideological tenets [cf. 17]. Thus, one would assume, it is also legitimate to criticise the repeated use of such patterns. McDowell’s treatment of these two examples is especially surprising given the fact that he himself believes the danger of essentialisation in the representation of female characters in Star Wars to be considerable [cf. 99]. As there are so few women in the saga and their representation is not as diverse as that of the aliens, individuation only works on the level of the few single characters. Princess Leia, for instance, as McDowell argues, represents a rather diverse type of femininity [cf. 84-86]. For the women in general, however, the element of choice between good and evil on the structural level is largely missing, which makes their representation more one-sided and essentialises their alleged function as nurturers and enablers of the male characters.
Despite these points of criticism, the study is remarkable for its coherence and honesty. McDowell generally does not shy away from taking up points that might go against his more liberal reading of Star Wars, for instance acknowledging that “by no stretch of the imagination can Lucas’ subsequent SW saga be called a ‘feminist text’ or a racially emancipatory text […]” . Still, he provides countless examples that refute critics who solely see the stories’ reactionary potential and points out the ambiguity of the texts. In marked contrast to some critics of popular culture who only discuss their subject matter in abstract terms and then go on to denigrate it, McDowell really knows the movies, including the texts of the Star Wars Expanded Universe which he frequently cites to prove a point. He offers many thorough close readings that support his line of argument and complicate some of the existing positions which he discusses. In conclusion, his book thus not only provides its readers with insights on identity formation in the first six episodes of Star Wars, but also goes beyond the movies themselves to look at their place in the formation of cultural discourses on violence, gender and ethnicity. His critical stance, also towards the recipients of popular culture themselves, gives potential readers of his study incentives to examine their own perspectives when it comes to questions of power, exclusion and participation in society.
(1) Cf. John Fiske, Understanding Popular Culture . London: Routledge, 2006 : 104-105.
(2) Cf. John G. Cawelti, Adventure, Mystery, and Romance : Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 1976 : 5-6.
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