How far can you trace back the cultural heritage of Star Wars?
Arguably, you could trace images and ideas expressed in Star Wars back to Ancient Greece. While this seems ridiculous, there are similarities between the Tatooine of Star Wars, and depictions of the East beginning with Ancient Greeks and continuing up to today!
According to Edward Said, these similarities exist because ideas about the Orient are passed down culturally, and are a part of a discourse called Orientalism. (What the term discourse means should become clear through this page, and I will address it later. If the anticipation is killing you, you can click here and read a scholarly definition.) Because this discourse is so strong, many of the ideas about the Orient do not change, and are merely carried through each generation culturally. The Greeks viewed the Orient as different and lesser, and so they represented it in a particular way.
But how is the Orient different from world of the Greeks, and how did the Greeks know that difference?
IMAGINATIVE GEOGRAPHY! That’s How!
Edward Said describes this process of Imaginative Geography, which is basically making a personal-space bubble for your community, and its surroundings. You identify with everyone in the bubble, and everyone outside is, well an outsider. An other. Of course the bubble doesn’t actually exist, it’s imaginary.
Through this process of imaginative geography, Said believes that we define ourselves negatively, as in “we are not like those people,” or “we are not like the evil barbarians, therefore we are civilized. We are the heroes, they are antagonists.” You could refer to this process as othering, which is basically taking a whole group and defining it as different, “not like me,” bad, and my personal favorite, alien. Instead of taking each member of the group as individuals, they are taken to all be defined by their difference. The problem with this, as Edward Said points out, is that it dehumanizes the people of the East in the eyes of Westerners. This makes it easier for things like racism, colonization, and warfare to happen.
It is important to keep in mind this is not something that anyone can control, Said believes this is how our minds are able to organize the world, and as a result groups are able to identify how alike they are and become communities.Through imaginative geography and othering, the Greeks were able define themselves against Asia, representing it as both different and worse than them. This division is still seen with ideas about Westerners vs. Easterners.
From the earliest extant Greek plays you get representations of Asians and Oriental as the other. Two main themes emerge about Asia (The Orient) in these works and have remained in representations of the Orient through today, and show up in Star Wars!
- They (Asians, Orientals) are distinctly different, opposite and lesser
- The Orient represents danger
We get both of these ideas almost immediately when we first visit Tatooine in Star Wars Episode IV. From the intense space battle between Princess Leia’s ship and Imperial Star Destroyer, we are dropped on to the radically different desert planet of Tatooine. Immediately, the advanced spaceships we have just seen battling is juxtaposed to this bleak and undeveloped desert. It is nearly comical seeing two droids, symbols of a scientifically advanced society, dropped into this seemingly uninhabited landscape (pictured). This echoes and emphasizes the difference of Tatooine from whatever society we had just seen battling in space. Also, C-3PO vocalizes that they are actually in a worse predicament then being in the middle of the space battle; it is “a desolate place.” R2-D2 and C-3PO instantly are endangered when they are taken by the incredibly different, incoherent and tiny junk-hoarding Jawas. Tatooine is even shown to be dangerous to those who live there; Luke is nearly killed by the nomadic Tusken Raiders, sometimes referred to as “Sand People,” who seem to occupy a space between human and animal.
As viewers, we identify with the human character of Luke and we understand that he is radically different from the inhuman violent Tusken Raiders, just as C-3PO is more proper and polite than the rude, uncivilized Jawas. The juxtapositioning between the cleanness of space and the dirt and heat of Tatooine immediately show it to be a less developed and backward place. The people who live there can be as violent and unrefined as they are alien, or different.
Ideas about the Orient were further refined from the original two themes as encounters with the Orient became more possible. Through contacts like the Crusades, further representations of and ideas about the Orient were added, many of which still have cultural resonance. Most important, in my view, are the ideas that the Orient was viewed as a fraudulent version of the West, one that is worse than the “original,” and the notion that because the Middle East is on the fringe of the Christian world, it is a natural asylum for heretics and outlaws.
Edward Said points out these tendencies in medieval Christian attitudes towards Islam. Islam was originally interpreted by the West as a fraudulent version of Christianity, which is why it was often referred to as Mohammedanism. This labeling occurred because Islam was understood as a poorly refashioned Christianity, and thus Mohammed was equated with Jesus Christ. In Said’s interpretation, the tendency to view new things as possible iterations of things we have seen before is merely a function of how people understand the world. As we experience new things, it becomes necessary to relate them to some past experience to better understand, and gain control over our world. Just as we can understand the different spaceships in Star Wars are different types of spaceships, Islam was viewed as a different type of Christianity. Just an inferior, and heretical version pieced together.
This idea of a “fraudulent” Orient on the fringe of the Christian world, one that merely adopts and tries to reapply Western attitudes can be found in Star Wars, specifically in the relationships to technology on Tatooine and Jakku. It seems that nearly everything on Tatooine is used or broken technology, something that probably originated with the Empire or another more advanced planet and found its way to Tatooine to be sold or pieced together. This is something that is seen through the Original Trilogy, the Prequel Trilogy, and even the Force Awakens. From Episode I, where Qui Gon Jinn attempts to find a part for the Nubian Royal Starship in Watto’s shop (pictured), to Rey’s rummaging through old Imperial wreckage in Episode VII, the viewer understands that desert planets are not technologically advanced, and refashion bits of machinery taken from more advanced planets. Because of this, these planets are understood to be backwards, and can seem out of place in such an advanced universe. Additionally, both Jakku and Tatooine are understood to be outside of the main parts of the galaxy, Tatooine is on the outer rim and Jakku is similarly removed. Because of this, they have become havens for outlaws and criminals, which is how medieval Europe viewed the near Orient. It is important to note that the attitudes towards technology on Jakku and Tatooine are not a tendency for the whole Star Wars universe—these junk cultures are contrasted to the production of advanced Western style cultures like the sprawling metropolis of Coruscant, or the kingdom of Naboo.
While these themes may not be enough to convince that Tatooine is a representation of the Orient, the actual visual representation of Tatooine has incredible similarities with Orientalist art of the Nineteenth Century!
Pictures are worth a thousand words.
So look at these pictures!
Tatooine and Jakku could stand in as a setting for most of these Orientalist Paintings, and it almost seems as if the costume and set designers used them as a guide. This at least doesn’t seem to be the case for the original trilogy or the prequels. However, for concept art of the Force Awakens shown above, the caption reads “Rick was suggesting, ‘Well, maybe it could be more like an Orientalist or North African look, this desert town. Middle Eastern, harkening back to nineteenth century paintings” 1.
So for the world of Jakku, Orientalist art was the guiding principal. The production team purposely grounded themselves in Orientalist imagery and vocabulary for the creation of this desert planet. One way of thinking about this is that they could have been trying to make Jakku feel like the planet Tatooine, which is absent from the film. However, by doing that they cement the idea that these desert planets are reliant on Orientalist themes and imagery.
Originally, George Lucas did not consult Orientalist paintings to design his planet, or think about how he could incorporate Greek themes about Asia. So why does his vision for Tatooine echo these ancient themes and visual cues enough that in order to recreate them, concept artists for the new film series consulted Orientalist representations to create Jakku?
Orientalism is a DISCOURSE
When George Lucas set out to create his desert planet, the visual vocabulary and themes he could use were limited by Orientalism. When he thought of the desert planet of Tatooine, he couldn’t help but imagine the Middle East (Near Orient) as it had been handed down to him culturally through different mediums (film, television, news, art). This is what is meant when it is said that Orientalism is a discourse… it is almost like a culturally determined censor that determines what can be said or thought about the East. Basically a jedi mind trick of huge proportions that tells you how to think about and represent the Orient. While Lucas probably didn’t consult the Greek representations of Asia, medieval ideas about Middle Eastern Cultures or the paintings of 19th Century Orientalists, the connection between them can be made. This is because the images, themes, representations are part of an archive, or set of information, in the discourse that is immediately drawn upon when the Orient is thought about by a Westerner.
According to Edward Said, these basic ideas about the Orient (which he refers to as latent Orientalism) do not change. Latent Orientalism is an unconscious certainty about what the East is like, it is basically static (unchanging), different, backward, passive, and strange. These ideas about the East remain unchanged.
What does change is how the Orient is talked about and understood during different time periods, which Said referred to as manifest Orientalism. Manifest Orientalism is affected by context (historical/cultural) but that’s a different page…
1. [Szostak, Paul. The Art of Star Wars: The Force Awakens (New York: Abrams Books, 2015). 61]↩