Discourse is important, and there are aspects of Orientalism which remain constant, however there are things that alter the discourse too. This in turn changes how we represent the Orient. (If you’re curious what discourse means, or consistency in Orientalist representations, go here). These changes in how we think and talk about the Orient occur in what Said calls manifest Orientalism. One of the most important things that can change manifest Orientalism is…
No matter how hard you try, you cannot escape your context! We are firmly rooted in the time we live in, the culture we are born in, and the political culture of the time. These are just taken for granted and affect how we view and understand the world. According to Said, there isn’t anything we can do to escape. All we can do is accept the truth of context. This is a main argument of Edward Said’s book Orientalism. Said basically calls out academics for believing they are able to write and think impartially and apolitically. Said argues we are all affected by discourse, and our political and cultural contexts.
So what can be gained from analyzing the context of the different Star Wars trilogies?
Hopefully, by placing the films within their historical context, we will be able to better understand how when each grouping of films was made alters the content of films, and how the Orient is represented.
The Original Trilogy
Star Wars Episode IV came out in 1977, not too long after the turbulent Vietnam War. In fact, Abigail De Kosnik, an Associate Professor at the University of California, Berkeley, goes as far as claiming that the film is a parable about the Vietnam War!
In her chapter titled, “The Mask of Fu Manchu, Son of Sinbad and Star Wars IV: A New Hope: Techno-Orientalist Cinema as a Mnemotechnics of Twentieth Century U.S.-Asian Conflicts,” De Kosnik argues that film is a form of “memory technology” that passes on “cultural memories,” though she is particularly interested in films that depict U.S.-Asian relations. According to her analysis, the battle between the Empire and the Rebels in Star Wars: Episode IV was purposely made by Lucas to be a retelling of the Vietnam War. The Rebellion could be read as the Oriental North Vietnamese, and the Empire representing the Western United States 1. The out gunned North Vietnamese were able to repel the technologically advanced and imperially minded United States. In turn, the Rebellion of the Original Trilogy was able to unite and blow up the Death Star with two tiny proton torpedoes.
Personally, I’m not sold on her source for this information, or the idea that Lucas actually stated that his intention was to retell that story, but that’s besides the point.
So whats the point of bringing this up?
The context for this argument is there…
That darn inescapable CONTEXT.
Whether or not the Rebels are purposely representing the part of the North Vietnamese is irrelevant to me. After the Vietnam War, a big portion of American Society became disillusioned with warfare and America’s growing imperial motives. The sentiments and culture of the time (the CONTEXT of the time) embedded those themes into the story, and resulted in what Said would call a sympathetic representation (one that highlights the similarities of the East and the West, or causes us to identify with the Orient). This is arguably why our main character, Luke Skywalker, seems to be from an Oriental planet.
Obnoxious Side Note
Edward Said believed that Americans did not make the imaginative investment in the Orient like the British or the French, who originally had colonies there. According to Said, when the United States first encountered the Orient, save for a few exceptions, it was mainly on a Foreign policy level.
I disagree a little. I think that Americans were more willing to imagine themselves as the near Orientals and sympathetically identify while still representing the Orient much as it had been.
This could be why our main characters, Luke Skywalker, Anakin Skywalker, and Rey are from remarkably Orientalist planets but are obviously not supposed to be seen as Orientals. They seem out of place, but are still at home there, in the dangerous and alien Orient. It’s American Heritage! Just think about the Shriners! What a bunch of weirdos!
Also, one of the earliest American Orientalist films, The Thief of Bagdad (1924) (one of the source texts of Aladdin, yes that Aladdin), has a very white, and very likeable Douglas Fairbanks playing the Thief in a very loveable way! The enemies are the evil, super Asian Mongols, not the Near Orient residents of Bagdad, who seem to get in so many magical adventures.
Maybe it has something to do with the United State’s distinctly colonial past. This past combined with America’s post-World War I stance on self-determination sets up a complex relationship with the colonies and mandates in the Near Orient, granted our representations changed drastically once we developed imperial interests in the region… but lets not go there yet…
Back to the Context of 1977… Star Wars…
RIGHT… talking about Star Wars
Abigail De Kosnik does make another point about the context of the first film which would have profound implications for the development of the films: the growing popularity Asian philosophy and Asian religion in Western counter-culture in the 60’s and 70’s.
De Kosnik makes connections between the Force of the Star Wars universe to “the Dao” of Daoism, arguing that the Dao influenced how the Force was imagined. This Dao (standing for general Oriental spirituality) is then turned into a tool to target the Deathstar’s only weakness. De Kosnik points out that this is simply another instance of the West using the Orient for its own gain.
While connections to Asian philosophies are not described as such in the film, we as viewers can understand them as representations. Christian Feichtinger, a lecturer of Religious Studies at the University of Graz in Austria, wrote an article exploring this titled, “Space Buddhism: The Adoption of Buddhist Motifs in Star Wars,” in which he ties the Jedi to warrior Buddhist monks. Richard Anderson and Dave Harper, in their contribution to Buddhism and American Cinema titled “Dying to be Free: The Emergence of ‘American Militant Buddhism’ in Popular Culture,” tie the representations of Jedi masters to a growing trend of “American Militant Buddhism” in cinema. The book The Dharma of Star Wars by Matthew Bortolin, is similar to Feichtinger’s work and explores connections between the Force, the Jedi and Buddhism and Buddhist Monks. These images and themes seem to have worked their way into the film because of the context in which it was created. As a result, these ideas have become integral parts of the Star Wars universe.
De Kosnik concludes by stating that “If Western modernity was so insistently on a path of unjustifiable warmongering [indicated by the Vietnam War], then perhaps the low tech of Asia—simple weaponry and decoys, and philosophies such as Zen and Daoism—could constitute an appropriate counter measure to Western [modernity]” 2.
There are parallels to be drawn here with the idea of the West being rejuvenated by Eastern Spirituality, which Said addresses at several points in Orientalism. Said ties this to what he terms the “Romantic Orientalist Project” of the 18th and 19th century. During that time, romantic ideals began to shape Europe’s interest East, specifically reorienting it to Eastern religions and philosophy.
Edward Said ties this to the CONTEXT of increasing faith in science, sympathetic identification (seeing hidden elements of likeness between the West with the Orient), and secularizing society. The East became imagined as opposite of the secularizing trend, and through the use of Asian religions Europeans hoped to rejuvenate their society. This is just like American attitudes towards the Eastern philosophy in the 60’s and 70’s highlighted above. However, as Said points out, “What mattered wasn’t Asia, but Asia’s use to Europe” 3.
Through the context of the first trilogy, the films were imbued with somewhat sympathetic representations of the Orient, an anti-imperial plot and Eastern religious imagery.
So what about the Prequels??????
Many aspects of the Star Wars universe were firmly put into place by the Original Trilogy, and these seem to be left as in the Prequels. Tatooine has seemingly not changed in the time span from Episode I to Episode VI, and many of the Orientalist tropes remain, just as the Hutts remain in power. The Prequel films even expand on the religious imagery of the Jedi, developing the representation of militant Buddhism 4. However, there are noticeable changes, and I would argue that there is a palpable shift in the cultural and historical context during the Prequel Trilogy.
I think the changes to the overall story lines between the Original films, and Episode I are pretty apparent. Heck, Darth Vader is a child. This film is notoriously hated on for obvious *cough* Jar Jar *cough* reasons, but if you haven’t watched it in a while I recommend it! From the beginning of the film, we seem to be thrust into the beginning of a political thriller. We initially meet two Jedi, Qui Gon Jinn and Obi Wan Kenobi, who are on a diplomatic mission to negotiate a treaty with the Trade Federation.
It has been pointed out that the Neimoidians lead the Trade Federation in Episode I, are incredibly Orientalist representations of Asians that draw parallels to Fu Manchu (check out this blog post that goes into it). These seem to be the first representations of “Far East Orientals” in the series.
So why does Episode I focus on trade relations, and blockades to countries? It seems that this trilogy has traded anti-imperial themes for forced trading agreements and diplomacy?
This is because during the 90’s trade was omnipresent on the American political field. The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) was passed in 1994, with a resultant surge of imports and also there were increasing imports from Asia (look here for a hardcore analysis of United States trade policies during the 1990’s).
So given the context of Episode I it makes sense that umbrella plot of the film would be focused on a trade agreement, and diplomacy.
And then the shift occurs.
There are radical differences between the plotlines between Episode I and the rest of the Prequel Trilogy.
Midway between the release of Episode I and Episode II, 9/11 occurred, which radically altered the political and cultural context of the United States and much of the world. As a result of this change, gone is the focus on trade and diplomacy, and instead Episode II and Episode III become like a political thriller focused on warfare and the change of a republic to an Empire. [If you have any idea about how long a movie takes to be released you will probably realize that filming for Episode II wrapped about a year before 9/11. However, I feel that the context here added poignancy rather than direct influence on the material itself]
Many people have pointed out parallels between the Republic’s slow dismantling into an Empire, and things like the PATRIOT act. Anakin even states, “If you are not with me, you are my enemy” in Episode III (2005), echoing Bush’s “with us or against us” stance during the War on Terror. Furthermore there are deep discussions about just rule and the maintenance of democracy between Anakin and Padme that echo discussions during the Bush presidency (if you’re curious check out a brief analysis here and a little deeper one here). In Episode II (2002), Anakin travels to Tatooine because his mother is in danger, only then to massacre a village of Tusken Raiders (he notes that it wasn’t just the men, but the women and children too). In some ways, this can be read as echoing attitudes towards the Middle Easterners during the early 2000’s. There is a moral dilemma posed to the viewer about Anakin’s actions, and we are given hope that he can be redeemed. We understand that it was unethical, and un-Jedi-like for him to massacre the sub-human Oriental Sand People, but they are violent Orientals after all. It is only in Episode III, with the massacre of all the humanoid Jedi younglings that we understand that Anakin has done something unforgivable and cannot be redeemed.
It truly seems that the politics of Republic are modeled on the political climate of Bush Era. While this makes sense, George Lucas states that he already had many of these ideas in place around the time that the Original Trilogy was being made (see herealso posted above.) However, even if Lucas had already planned to have a transfer from Republic to Empire, there are enough clear allusions to the real world political context that the films are undoubtedly grounded in the context of the Bush regime and the War on Terror.
The Context of Episode VII: The Force Awakens
We are living it! Right NOW! So what connections are to be made?
Well, if we are following the films in sequence, (instead of chronologically, because George Lucas reasons) this film follows the death the Emperor, and Darth Vader in Episode VI (1983). It seems that the Empire is done. HOORAY! The end of political oppression and villainy… right?
However, these new villains, The First Order, are unlike previous baddies in the Star Wars films, primarily because they are non-governmental. They are not the Empire, or the deteriorating Senate that preceded it. Instead, the main governmental body is the New Republic, the good guys. It seems that the First Order has broken off from the New Republic, and are doing their fascist paramilitary warfare thing against the New Republic in a corner of the Universe. It is also important to note the iconography of Kylo Ren’s cruciform lightsaber, and the Knights of Ren which seems to be a secret dark side military organization within the First Order. Both of these seem to imply Crusader era weaponry and organization, which is further cemented by the religious connotations of the Force.
Now why would that make sense?
YET AGAIN IT’S CONTEXT!
Militant groups, like ISIS, the Taliban and Boko Haram are omnipresent in the media and our conscience. It seems that religion is increasingly being used to legitimate warfare. Additionally, it seems like fascism is on the political radar in Europe and the United States. As a result, there seems to be an increasing divide between East and West. No longer do the anti-imperial plots of the Original Trilogy seem to be relevant for our context, instead we are given what can be read as a group of organized terrorists living on the super-weapon Starkiller Base (AKA Bigger Death Star), who are waging warfare on the government from the outside. The First Order is a group who wants to avoid democratic entanglements, and instead goes militant.
Gone is the subtle political manipulations of Senator Palpatine, a true Frank Underwood before his time. Instead we have flame-throwing and the massacre of villagers on Jakku.
Speaking of Jakku…
There are interesting things about the context here. Through all the Star Wars films, it is remarkable how little the representation of the near Orient, embodied by these desert planets, changes.This is because they almost exclusively follow tropes about the near Orient that have remained in place for centuries. However, The Force Awakens gives us an Oriental planet, but this time it is not Tatooine… it seems similar, like why make the change? But there is a distinct difference between Tatooine and Jakku, and lemme tell you, there are interesting things afoot…
All of the extras on the planet of Jakku are Refugees…
According to Mojtaba Komeili, Iranian video and photography director, who worked as an Jakku (aka Abu Dhabi) extra on Episode VII, claims that “we [the overwhelmingly local extras] were all refugees in that camp” source. So, this reveals a lot about how the Middle East is currently imagined. While Tatooine was simply a dangerous, and alien place on the outer rim, Jakku is just as removed but instead of itself being dangerous there seems to be a distant sense of danger. So whats causing these refugees?
Obviously the paramilitary First Order…
The context for The Force Awakens seems to be firmly grounded in the Syrian Refugee Crisis, ISIS, and rising fascism and nationalism in Europe and The United States. As a result these themes work themselves into the new film, and alter the representations of the Orient.
So What have we learned?
Discourse profoundly affects how we think and write, and there are things in discourse that never change. However, context also has a big role to play in determining how things are written about and imagined. One could say that context and discourse work together to shape how we view the world, and how we create films, television shows, books and media.
But what a dim picture of the world!
Where is the innovation? How can people be creative when they seem to be unconsciously influenced by so much? Is Said saying that discourse and context have complete control over what is thought and produced by us?
There is still a place for the individual in the discourse, but that’s a different page…
1. [De Kosnik, Abigail. “The Mask of Fu Manchu, Son of Sinbad, and Star Wars IV: A New Hope: Techno-Orientalist Cinema as a Mnemotechnics Twentieth Century U.S.-Asian Conflicts.” Techno-Orientalism: Imagining Asia in Speculative Fiction, History, and Media. Eds. David S. Roh, Betsy Huang, and Great A. Niu (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press 2015). 98]↩
2. [Ibid., 100]↩
3. [Said, Edward. Orientalism. (New York: Random House, 1994 ). 116]↩
4. [Anderson, Richard and Dave Harper. “Dying to be Free: The Emergence of “American Militant Buddhism” in Popular Culture.” Buddhism and American Cinema. eds. Bridge, John and Gary Storhoff. (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2014).]↩