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.