Racism and Ethnic Stereotypes in 'Star Wars: The Phantom Menace'


I was doing my workout routine this morning and listening to AV Club's Reasonable Discussions podcast when host Kyle Ryan introduced writer Noel Murray for a segment on Star Wars: The Phantom Menace (Menace is going to be out in theaters soon for an eye-rollingly unnecessary 3D re-release). In recent days, Murray has taken some unpopular positions on films (example: defending the Matrix sequels) but he's super smart and I always find his arguments to be invigorating one way or the other, even if I disagree with him.

Murray made a few points about why he appreciated The Phantom Menace, but didn't really say anything controversial (for the record, I can't really agree with most of his praise for the film. At the very least, the positive is overshadowed by Lucas's stunning incompetence in other areas - but the negatives about this film have already been well-documented). Then, the following exchange occurred (you can listen to the conversation here at about the 20-minute mark):

Kyle: The biggest stumbling block for this film is Jar Jar Binks, for a lot of people. When I saw this a couple of years ago, I remember enjoying the movie more than I thought I did until Jar Jar shows up, and then it kind of takes a turn.
Noel: ...I can't defend that character. He's goofy, he's got the crazy accent. I don't think it's racist, I will say that. I think that criticism is a little bit overblown. These are characters. Yes he's got kind of a strange ethnic accent. What is it racist against? Floppy-eared people?
Kyle: ...he has kind of a Stepin Fetchit thing going on? And then the hooked-nose alien, Watto? And then the sort of Asian aliens that were the Nemodians at the beginning? If you didn't see the visuals and you just heard the audio, I would be put off by it.
Noel: I understand where it's coming from, but I think it's misguided. I think Lucas is trading on all of these old B-movie traditions which include kind of exaggerated villains with exaggerated characteristics. Theyr'e not specifically tied to any one race. They're just kind of generally exotic. That's always been my takeaway from it. That said, they're not like well fleshed out characters or anything. And in some cases they're actively irritating, so yeah, I certainly understand that.

Before I say anything else, let me just point out that as someone who hosts my own podcasts, I know what it's like for people to totally rip something you're saying out of context, so I'm going to try to be as cautious as possible here.

That being said, can we please stop pretending that the clearly racist caricatures in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace were a) not racist caricatures, and b) acceptable to our society? Like, at all?

Bruce Gottlieb over at Slate wrote up a pretty good summary of Lucas's racial offenses when Phantom Menace was first released:

Crafty Japanese trade villains aren't the only heavy-handed ethnic stereotype in The Phantom Menace. As the story continues, the heroes slip past the evil Japanese to a nearby planet. There, they attempt to repair their broken spaceship but are stymied by the hook-nosed owner of the local parts shop--Watto--who also happens to have a thick Yiddish accent! (To hear an example, click "Great.") Psychological manipulations that work on almost everyone fail with Watto--"Mind ticks don'ta work on me ... only money! No," he cries--and the heroes get what they want only through the bravery of a gifted slave boy (Anakin Skywalker). At the end of the desert planet sequence, Anakin is emancipated but separated from his mother, who still belongs to Watto. Even in a galaxy far away, the Jews are apparently behind the slave trade.

And then there's Jar Jar Binks, the childlike sidekick with the unmistakably West Indian accent and enormous buttocks. Jar Jar is likable, easygoing, and dumb as dirt--always being scolded or saved from death by the Jedi knights. His stupidity and cowardice are running jokes throughout the film. And his people, the Gungan, are a brave but primitive tribe who throw spears and rocks at the oncoming army in the climactic battle sequence. Only Hispanics escape Lucas' caricature, which is actually something of a mixed blessing since Hispanics often rightly complain that they are ignored in the national race debate.

In a 1999 article for the Boston Review, Alan Stone corroborates Gottlieb's take on things. He also identifies one of the reasons why Lucas got himself in trouble: he made the aliens English-speaking. Unlike aliens from the previous Star Wars films (see: Chewbacca, the Ewoks, all the people in the Cantina scene), the aliens in this film spoke our language and had accents and other characteristics reminiscent of the ones found in ethnic stereotypes:

What has made my student and many other cultists of his generation feel betrayed is the new ingredient in Lucas’s recipe: aliens who, unlike any of the previous exotic life forms, suggest racist stereotypes. The evil henchmen in this story seem to be Fu Manchu style Asians, and the primitive Gungan people who live under the sea suggest old Hollywood stereotypes of African-Americans.

A particular controversy has arisen around the Gungan character of Jar Jar Binks, who has been described as a science fiction version of Stepnfetchit. Lucas is outraged by this reaction; he claims that critics found it on the Internet somewhere and seized on it to disparage his film. He also says it’s in the eye of the beholders who have converted his orange amphibians into degrading stereotypes. He may be right, but I must report that I went into the film knowing nothing about the controversy and yet as soon as I saw Jar Jar Binks I knew why my student, an African-American, felt betrayed.

To be fair, Lucas has already responded to these allegations...in the most condescending way possible. In a 2000 article for Salon, Lucas was quoted as saying the following about critics of his film's racial politics:

“Most of them that I’ve met are reasonably dim-witted,” he said of critics. “I mean, they aren’t like the rest of us. They don’t have any knowledge of anything. They’re not successful in any world that I’ve … They certainly don’t know anything about history; they don’t know anything about film. They don’t know anything about politics. They don’t know anything about sociology or psychology or anything. I mean, it’s like, you get into a conversation with them and it’s hard to find a subject that they can actually converse on.”

[I don't need to respond incredulously here, because the author of that article, Alynda Wheat, already did it for me]

Many people have responded to the above allegation of racial stereotyping by saying "Well, they're aliens. Aren't YOU being racist by saying that these are ethnic stereotypes?" Good one. But hiding your ignorance behind the veil of a different species does not make it acceptable.

Star Wars: The Phantom Menace clearly invokes imagery and audio from racist ethnic stereotypes. The fact that the recipient of these stereotypical characteristics are non-human aliens does not change this fact (and yes, I realize that in Star Wars, technically ALL the characters are aliens, so no need to point that out). If you want to deny this, we can go back to the movies and do some scene-by-scene comparison. I quite frankly can't believe that I'm still having to even argue this point.

But to me, the question of whether Lucas has invoked these stereotypes (which I think he undeniably has) is much less interesting than the effect of his doing so. Does it make his movie "racist"? Does it lessen the film in any other substantive way? And what are its implications for how we talk about the film with children?

I'm going to try not to ascribe any intentionality to Lucas's actions. I doubt he's a racist at heart. In the above article, Stone suggests that these aliens came out of "suppressed stereotypes" from Lucas's psyche.  What I know is that most of the non-human-appearing aliens are presented as evil, devious, and/or scheming. Their accents and varying demeanors add to their "other-ness," and allow the audience to distance themselves, emotionally, from them.

It's not rocket science, this storytelling method that Lucas employs. There's a long cinematic history of using this type of imagery in this way. But I had hoped it was something that our culture tried to leave behind, not something that we still find defensible. Ultimately, The Phantom Menace is so artistically reviled that most people just throw the baby out with the bath water. Nonetheless, I feel a full accounting of the film's flaws must include this racial footnote.

Having spent a significant amount of time in the past two years studying media and its effect on children, I've learned that there aren't very many causal conclusions that can be drawn about whether or not violent imagery, sex, etc. actually have a concrete effect on child development. But one thing that I can confidently say is this: what we allow our children to watch matters. When they see The Phantom Menace, which features the triumph of (mostly) white characters over those people with the weird accents who talk, dress, and act differently than "us," what message does it send them?

I don't know the answer to that question. But I'm not going to pretend that it's not worth thinking about.

9 comments :: Racism and Ethnic Stereotypes in 'Star Wars: The Phantom Menace'

  1. I would add to your doubt about him being a racist by saying that in all likelihood it's pure laziness that explains the base stereotype characterizations of these secondary characters much like the rest of the film is full of bad lazy storytelling.

    And while not a racist definitely a humankind superiority advocate. Nothing wrong with that really since we don't currently have any interactions with aliens that I'm aware of.

  2. I don't think Lucas meant it that way, but he messed up when he gave the bad guys and nitwits traits of minorities. The weird thing is that that seems to run contrary to what's going on under the surface of the Star Wars universe. A friend of mine wrote an article about race in Star Wars that posits there's a message of racial harmony in this world. Sure, some races tend to be sleezier than others (Huts and Tuskans for example) but discrimination based on race, appearance or any other personal trait are absent. Language is rarely even a barrier. Han Solo speaks Wookie for goodness' sake. Unfortunately, that message of co-existence and tolerance gets lost when the less desirable characters in the universe remind us of races that exist in the real world. Did Lucas screw up? Heck yeah he did. The subtext of racial tolerance gets derailed when unsavory aliens that sound Asian pop up in the prequels, but I don't think it's fair to say he's selling racism to kids. Given the galaxy wide racial tolerance on display in every Star Wars film it's inaccurate to write them off as racist. Still, one must wonder how in control Lucas is over the messages he's sending whether they be good or bad. Was all the positive racial stuff a fluke or was the negative stuff? I don't know. Here's that article: http://www.flixist.com/star-wars-retrospective-the-multiracial-identity-203632.phtml

  3. I love how people are exhuming the racial stereotype arguments for the Phantom Menace 3D release. Stereotypes exist for a reason, and he is drawing from the world he grew up in. All filmmakers do this. It's intentional to the degree that he doesn't know any better than to depict different cultures as different from one another, i.e. clothes, behaviors, ticks, etc. There is no message in the film that portrays differences as being overly negative or positive, it is simply portrayed as matter-of-fact. I'm defending his artist merit as a filmmaker.

    If you had it your way, every character/race would be characterized the same, and that would be just as irresponsible. It's unrealistic to the world we live in and the perceptions of children everywhere.

  4. Dave, I appreciate you taking the time to write this, and I appreciate you being understanding about the circumstances of my comments, since I was talking off the top of my head and not attempting any kind of reasoned defense of these characters. To clarify: All things being equal, I'd rather Jar-Jar, Watto et. al. weren't so broadly drawn. I don't think they add anything of value to the series.

    I do stand by the essence of what I said though, which is that they don't ruin the movie for me. And I don't think they're "racist," inasmuch as I don't think Lucas intended them to denigrate African-Americans, Jews, Asian-Americans, or any other racial group. That said, as someone who believes that an artist's work can contain themes that he or she didn't intend, it'd be disingenuous for me to contend that these characters are devoid of any meaning. At minimum, they're indicative of Lucas' inability to distinguish between B-movies and real life. And even beyond what they say about Lucas, as you note, they can have a terrible meaning for people who feel diminished by these stereotypes.

    Do they have any lasting effect on children? You make a compelling case, I admit. I can only speak to my own kids, who have never seemed to identify iffy characters in fantasy films or cartoons with anything other than the characters themselves. (I.E. They don't seem to identify the crows in DUMBO as "black," but only as crows.) But you're right that there could be long-term effects that I don't recognize.

    Again, speaking strictly personally, these PHANTOM MENACE characters don't offend me, because I see them only as elements in Lucas' pulp pastiche. But I wouldn't insist that everyone should feel the same. There are certain things in popular entertainment that I'm especially sensitive to: such as depictions of southerners, or depictions of the autistic. When writing about movies that are especially egregious in regards to those subjects, I feel obliged to call attention to it. These are conversations worth having, even if we come to different conclusions.

  5. There was a South Park Episode not too long ago that dealt with similar issues regarding race. At the end Stan just looked at Token and said "I don't get it" Chances are if you're white and you're minority friends are telling you something is racist, but you don't see it, it probably means you don't get it, not the other way around.

    These characters are clearly based on racial stereotypes, and for you not to see that is fine, but don't try to defend them. Of course they don't offend you, cause your not the one they are offending. That's like if I make a derogatory remark about all women, and you defend me by saying it doesn't offend you. Of course it doesn't offend you, cause your a man. You have every right to say that you don't see the racial stereotypes throughout the film, but that's where you should stop talking cause there are a lot of us that are offended.

  6. It was a peculiarly old fashioned racism, the kind of stuff that if you're an old film fan you see all the time and just learn to accept and move on from because it's of its time. But it is just not something you expect to see in a modern film.

    It is spectacularly uncomfortable to watch if you are familiar with the racial stereotypes that Lucas is using (although on the other hand maybe I'm just a 'dim-wit' who doesn't know anything about anything); on the other hand children are not very likely to be able to instantly recognize these old fashioned characters and probably wouldn't even understand that Jar-Jar is meant to be a type of African American character in the first place.

    It says a lot about the film that such blatant racism is unfortunately the least of its worries.

  7. Almost all characters are based on stereotypes and two things primarily determine whether or not those stereotyped traits are offensive: the standards of the society in which they are viewed and the skill in which they are fleshed out as characters.

    In the former case consider the character of the Merovingian in the Matrix sequels. He is stereotypically French: pretentious, amorous, conniving, cowardly, speaks with an absurdly comical French accent, and is called “The Frenchman”. Imagine if this character was instead called “The African” and embodied all of the culturally stereotypical traits of an African man. This would not be acceptable to most people in our society, but all things being equal it is the same treatment as The Merovingian. But it is perceived – correctly I think - as being more offensive because the cultural context in which it exists. And context matters here. White Americans do not have a long societal tradition of oppressing French people and using offending imagery/language to denigrate them (though there are plenty of examples of that to be sure, ‘Cheese-Eating Surrender Monkeys’ anyone?). The racially stereotypical characters in the Phantom Menace are offensive because they exist in a modern cultural context – one that has moved on significantly from the one that produced the serials that Star Wars emulates - and whether or not George Lucas intended them to be racist is immaterial. He should have known that by regurgitating generations old racial shorthand into a cultural climate that had progressed was playing with fire.

    In the case of my latter point, that significant skill in characterization can rescue a character based on racial/ethnic stereotypes, think about these two character descriptions: a black junkie living on the street who is bumbling, fast-talking, always has a scheme up his sleeve and works as a snitch for the cops; and an alcoholic, womanizing Irish cop who has a hatred for authority and a self-destructive streak. Those two characters could be the basis for an offensive, stereotypical train wreck but in David Simon’s hands you get Bubbles and McNulty from The Wire. My point is that characters can begin from a stereotype (even a racial one) but if they are developed with enough intelligence and care they can transcend being a caricature and become a character.

    The problems with the characters in the Phantom Menace are that George Lucas possesses neither the skill to develop them or the inclination to do so. Like all characters in Star Wars they exist as archetypes and making their outstanding traits based on human racial characteristics he makes certain that those are the defining traits of their characters. These characters never had a chance to transcend their stereotypes and will always be viewed as nothing more than that.

    Lucas perpetrated negative racial prejudices (knowingly or not) by dredging up old racial stereotypes from a bygone era and made sure that they would be viewed as such by not spending the time developing them to as characters beyond their stereotype – though whether or not these particular characters could ever be redeemed is up for debate, they are that regressive. And I completely agree with you Dave that we should just call a spade a spade and agree that those characters in the prequels are racist caricatures and aren’t acceptable in our society. The problem is that what is or is not offensive is a concept that is always in flux, but if enough people participate in a discussion of what they believe is unacceptable I think we can slowly but surely raise the consciousness of our society.

  8. I think at the end of the day it boils down to the fact that Lucas is not a very good writer, nor an average one for that matter. His priority has always been, first and foremost, the spectacle. Everything after that is just secondary.

  9. I can't say that I disagree, because there were definitely some stereotypical undertones to the aliens usually associated with certain races and cultures. Nevertheless, I do think that it's kind of an overkill to condemn an entire movie simply because of those flaws.

    We've seen this recently with 'Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen', but I'd say that compared to 'The Phantom Menace', Michael Bay's film was just a horrible effort overall. I do not have the same opinion of 'The Phantom Menace'. Yes, it's pretty badly written, Jar Jar Binks is a terrible, terrible addition to the franchise, some of the acting is pretty awkward (young Anakin... real bad, but still not as bad as Hayden Christensen -- zing!), and I'd go as far as to say that the film itself is pretty clumsily put together in terms of editing and cinematography, but still find 'The Phantom Menace' to be a worthwhile effort for various reasons.

    I do not believe that anyone can deny the impact that characters such as Darth Maul, Qui-Gon Jinn, and to some extent Obi-Wan Kenobi (Ewan McGregor certainly helped us see him in a new light -- and I would argue a favourable one at that) had on the Star Wars culture as well as its mythology. And of course, who can forget moments such as the truly blood-pumping battle between the two Jedi and Darth Maul, and all the visually stunning battles that took place in the film.

    I can't say that 'The Phantom Menace' is a great film -- in fact it ranks lowest on my favourite Star Wars movies list -- but despite all of that I don't hate it, and in fact find myself enjoying it greatly every time I watch it.

    I saw it again recently at the cinema for its 'eye-rollingly unnecessary 3D re-release,' as Dave so aptly put it, and I have to say that I was engaged with the film throughout. As far as the 3D goes, I can't say that I was really impressed with it, and on some occasions found myself rather bothered by the darkness of the image. Then again, that might have just been an issue with the local theatre.

    P.S. Some people actually clapped at the end of the screening -- just something to think about.

    P.S.S. No, I was not one of them, you can put the torches away.

Post a Comment