by Dan Rubey
Cut, no. 18, August 1978, pp. 9-14
George Lucas's enormously popular STAR WARS (1977) plugs into the central nervous system of its audience by mixing an American love of machinery with the heroic myths and dreams of western European civilization. This technological fairy tale reflects in the symbolic language of its images the desires and ambiguities produced by living inside a machine-oriented technology, supported by anachronistic ideologies of individual heroism and metaphysical justification. STAR WARS embraces technology in order to enjoy the sensations of power and exhilaration it offers. Then it falls back on heroic individual action and the metaphysical, non-rational Force to solve the problem of eroded values and depersonalized experiences created by that technology. The film's combination of traditional models of individual combat with the technology of electronic warfare re-romanticizes war, creating a new set of heroic images appropriate to a technological age and the kind of electronic warfare the United States waged in Vietnam. The meaning of STAR WARS and much of its appeal depend on the ways in which the striking special effects reinforce the fantasies and mythic echoes of the plot.
THE VISUAL IMAGES
The visual aesthetic of STAR WARS is a machine aesthetic, one that invests machine surfaces with the life and interest denied human forms. The film uses images of size, speed, sharp contrasts and violent action to create a visual counterpart to the plot structures, in which the young rebels are menaced by monstrous and powerful enemies.
The visual and aural experience of STAR WARS was intended to be as overwhelming as possible. The 70mm film and Dolby quadraphonic sound amplify the impact of the images and the volume of the sound, enclosing the viewer in the world of the film. The general visual pattern involves contrasts between overwhelmingly large images and vulnerably small ones. In the opening shot, for example, a tiny spaceship is pursued by another ship of enormous size which slowly enters the screen from the right top corner, moves into the center of the screen, and finally fills it entirely, engulfing the smaller ship. This visual dichotomy of small and large reinforces the dichotomy of good-young-less-powerful versus evil-older-more-powerful that organizes the plot, and it helps the audience participate emotionally in the vulnerability of Luke and the Princess.
Most of the special effects involve either explosions or simulations of dazzling speed and acceleration, usually involving bright light against a dark black background, as in the explosion of the Death Star or the jump into hyperspace. Stark contrasts of light and dark, black and white, are used to organize shots: the white ships against the black void of space, Darth Vader's black robes and Luke and the Princess's white ones. When the colors are not simply black and white, they are usually restricted to metallic gold and silver, the colors of the world of spaceships and robots. These patterns and the ear-shattering noises create a machine ambience for the film, a basically inhuman atmosphere —hard-edged, dry and metallic. Initially, technology seems menacing in images such as the enormous battleship, or the Death Star, or Darth Vader's face-mask. But every frame of the film celebrates machines and the speed and power they seem to promise, and the special effects create a technological kick for the audience.
The special effects of STAR WARS derive largely from 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY (1968), but a second-generation computer technology makes them much more sophisticated. Lucas's effects are classier and he can do more with them, particularly in simulating three-dimensional movement. But 2001 director Stanley Kubrick introduced new kinds of special effects to try to create visual images of a different order of reality and to force his audiences to participate in the disorientation of the characters in the film. Lucas simply uses special effects to heighten the intensity of his combat sequences, to make them super-real, while at the same time keeping us firmly grounded in the familiar world of World War II dogfights and police-movie car chases. The special effects in 2001 move us out of the technological world portrayed in the film and create feelings of otherness, other spaces, other kinds of experiences. In STAR WARS the special effects involve us more deeply in the technological, machine-oriented ambience of the film, producing visceral effects that heighten our involvement in the conventional patterns of the fantasy structure.
Compare, for example, the shot in 2001 where the space pod with Bowman in it rushes between the converging horizontal and vertical planes of colored lights in deep space, and the parallel shot in STAR WARS where Luke and the other pilots attack the Death Star by flying at great speed down a narrow trench in the surface of the space station. In both films the tremendous speed and acceleration produce excitement and a touch of fear in the audience. Kubrick's 2001 simply presents the visual effect, with only a vague context for it ("Beyond Infinity"). This lack of definition increases the audience's sense of disorientation. Bowman's helplessness inside the machine, his inability to control or even understand what is happening to him, gives the scene a powerful sense of ambiguity and anxiety. On the one hand, the pod is his only protection in this tremendously threatening environment, the only thing that is keeping him alive and connected to reality. But on the other hand, the pod itself seems like a trap, something encapsulating him, keeping him from the world outside. The very word "pod" suggests a seed pod, and the whole sequence becomes an experience of birth or rebirth.
In the comparable scene in STAR WARS, the combat context creates a focus for the feelings of anxiety and excitement generated by the visual effects, and transforms the anxiety into feelings of aggression and violence. Since the feelings of unease are given a specific focus on the plot level—the desire for the destruction of the space station—the explosion of the Death Star serves as catharsis. The sequence generates a desire to use the machine more skillfully, not to escape from it. For Kubrick, human dependence on technology is simply one stage in evolution, and the obelisks represent an extra-human reality. In STAR WARS, the Force is a better bombsight.
In STAR WARS, the special effects—the speed, lasers, explosions, the jump into hyperspace, the noise—excite and satisfy the audience in their own terms, almost apart from any connection to the narrative line. The constant contrasts of large and small call up feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness, which in turn reflect the frustrations (general and specific) of the youthful audience the film is aimed at. These frustrations are then satisfied by the feelings of enormous power created by the film's machine aesthetic and the special effects of speed, power and violence. The machine ambience of the film provides an illusion of power and control, the ability to escape the limitations of our bodies. It enables us to take on the nature of our machines and share in their power and relative invulnerability—the bionic fantasy of television shows and comic books. Machines move as fast as we can think, erasing the gap between thought and performance, desire and satisfaction, making us into comic book superheroes.
But this fusion with the machine and machine sensibility has some strongly dehumanizing side-effects, partly as a result of placing the machine between ourselves and what it acts on, and in part because of the nature of the film medium itself. As sophisticated viewers of film, we have learned to pay attention solely to what is presented to us on the screen and not to speculate about what is not shown. (Less cinematically-sophisticated audiences interrupt the film to ask questions about characters who have disappeared from the screen.) So when ships or planets blow up, we do not think about the people who presumably die in those explosions. The special effects tend to exist for their own sake, regardless of their function in the plot, and we take them in without examining their implications.
As a visual image, the destruction of the planet Alderaan looks very much like the explosion of the Death Star, and Obi-Wan Kenobi's brief attack of heartburn does not convince us that something tragic has happened. We do not experience the deaths of the people on the planet, and thus those people do not exist in the film. Both explosions are visual experiences to be enjoyed in aesthetic terms. Everything is a visual trip, an aesthetic experience.
This act of turning war into aesthetic experience seems connected to the increased use of airplanes in World War II, and to the images of the air war created in both the news media and in films about the war. World War II films tend to move in one of two directions—towards infantry "war is hell" movies that record the blood-and-guts suffering of the war on the ground and occasionally its effect on the civilian population. Or the films move towards air-war, fighter-pilot ones that romanticize war and combat and take place in the more abstract and generalized realm of the sky. These differences reflect real differences in the two modes of warfare, that of the ground troops who have no escape from the war and its implications, and the pilots who live in protected rear areas and fly to the war as if going to work, experiencing combat as moments of great intensity and exhilaration spaced out by respites in comparatively comfortable surroundings.
The actual physical detachment from the realities of war on the ground lends itself to the aestheticization of war and to a psychic detachment from what is really going on, which is evident in the treatment of the war in the media. In a Movietone News film clip, reproduced in Marcel Ophul's film on the Nuremberg trials, MEMORY OF JUSTICE (1975), the narrator describes footage of the night fire-bombing of Dresden, perhaps the greatest Allied atrocity of the war, as "magnificent bombing shots." And, in fact, aesthetically the footage is very beautiful. But such a judgment completely leaves out any translation of what those images actually mean—the burning and destruction of the city and the hideous deaths of 35,000 civilians.
These air-war films are the lineal ancestors of the combat sequences in STAR WARS. Lucas used actual footage of dogfights in those films to construct his own sequences. Lucas explains:
But despite its roots in World War II films, the sophisticated level of technology in STAR WARS—the use of computers, missiles and lasers, the flashing space-age control panels, the beeping radar gun-sights—actually reflects the air war in Vietnam, the technological warfare of what pilots called "the Blue Machine," the U.S. Air Force. STAR WARS is the first war movie of a new age of electronic combat, a prediction of what war will feel like for combatants completely encapsulated in technology, like the soldiers in Robert Heinlein's Starship Troopers (written in 1959).
The dogfights and one-man fighters are a romantic attempt to recapture the glamour of WWII films and disassociate ourselves from the destructive role that our bombers and rockets actually played in Vietnam by projecting that aspect of the war onto the Death Star. By associating the bad guys with the heavily armored Death Star, which destroys a helpless planet, and the good guys with the small one-man fighters, STAR WARS uses an image of ourselves from the past as a defense against our more recent history.
But this separation is not so simple. The technology of the air war in Vietnam was a natural outgrowth of the more primitive machines of World War II, and the attitudes of the pilots about what they were doing in Vietnam was fundamentally the same as the attitude expressed in the Movietone News film of the fire-bombing of Dresden. Totally cut off from the effects of what they were doing by the speed and accuracy of their machines, the pilots viewed their bombing runs as aesthetic experiences, as exciting and exhilarating moments in their lives—the experience that STAR WARS recreates through its use of special effects. In Peter Davis's HEARTS AND MINDS (1974), one of the pilots says that the bombing runs were like "a singer singing an aria." The pilots took pride in their technical expertise; they found the excitement of seeing the bombs explode to be "incredible," "thrilling, deeply satisfying." But they never saw any people, or any blood. As one flyer says,
Robert Lifton argues in his study of Vietnam veterans that technological warfare like the United States air war in Vietnam has an avoidance of guilt built into it. Lifton says,
In this kind of war in which the killers and their victims are separated by such vast distances, the only awareness of the "enemy" comes as electronic feedback in the form of blips on a screen. This technological detachment from the realities of war makes possible what Lifton calls "numbed warfare: killing with a near-total separation of act from idea." The sensory equipment of the machines becomes an extension of the pilot's sensory equipment —a substitute for it—and along with it the pilots seem to take on the machine's lack of moral sensibility as well.
Fred Branfman records a statement by a flyer in a Washington Monthly article on the era of the Blue Machine in Laos:
This statement is a good description of Luke's final attack on the Death Star, the scene in which he switches off his gunsight and releases the missile instinctively, in a fantasy of bionic fusion with his ship, a fusion made possible by the Force.
STAR WARS reproduces the sensory experience and the excitement of technological warfare with its use of special effects. Then it uses the plot to provide a romance-fantasy structure that glamorizes and justifies this kind of experience. The film articulates and feeds on its audience's feelings of frustration and desires for escape, mobility and power. It satisfies those frustrations and desires with conventional fantasies about good and evil, the family romance, vague mystical forces that guide and give meaning, and images of war and combat as metaphors for competition and individuality. In the process, the film endorses both the traditional structures of racism, sexism and social hierarchy that have helped to create and maintain those frustrations, and the monocular attitudes towards technology that form an important part of the whole ideological package.
FANTASY SYSTEMS AND THE BIAS OF MEDIEVAL ROMANCE
STAR WARS is not a science fiction film; it is a combination of what used to be called "sword and sorcery" and "space opera," and is now usually lumped together as "epic fantasy." Lucas says he wanted to make a space fantasy in the genre of Edgar Rice Burroughs rather than Stanley Kubrick's 2001. He wanted to do a film for "kids" and "the kids in all of us" that would restore "the fairy tales and dragons and Tolkien and all the real heroes" left out of science fiction and films in general since the 50s.
Lucas wants to turn "some ten-year-old kid" on to outer space and the possibilities of romance and adventure in space exploration: "What we really need to do is to colonize the next galaxy, get away from the hard facts of 2001 and get on the romantic side of it." When we colonize Mars, we will "go with Stanley's ships but hopefully we are going to be carrying my laser sword and have the Wookie at our side." That is, the actual exploration and colonization of space Lucas hopes for in the future will be accomplished by the realistic technology of 2001, but STAR WARS will provide the fantasies and motives of the explorers. Lucas says,
These ingenuous statements about fantasy and kids and the irrational serve to disguise Lucas's conservative ideological bias, his assumption that humanity's greatest challenge still lies in expansion and the conquest of new territorial frontiers. Space is the new West, the new frontier to be opened and exploited. Instead of using our energies and resources to deal with problems we have created within the frontiers we already have, we can continue to direct them outward in fantasies of endless worlds and limitless expansion.
Lucas ignores the ideological character of these views by claiming he is working inside an eternal tradition of fairy tales and myths stretching from Homer's Odyssey to John Ford's westerns. He says of the kind of adventure he is trying to recreate for kids today:
But Lucas' picture of an unbroken tradition of adventure mythology stretching from Homer to John Ford ignores both the specific meanings these stories had for the societies which created them and the important differences between them. Myths and fantasies are not eternal: they are historical.
To trace the background of its genre briefly, the plot of STAR WARS is a chivalric romance plot. Chivalric romance as a specific form in western Europe was first developed in twelfth-century France by authors such as Chrêtien de Troyes, and remained widely popular throughout the sixteenth century. The form was revived in the nineteenth century by poets such as Tennyson (whose Idyls of the King is a reworking of the fifteenth-century Morte d'Arthur of Malory), and writers like the socialist William Morris (in his Well at the World's End). These works and others like them filtered medieval romances though a gauze of nineteenth-century concerns. In turn, they became the sources of the sword-and-sorcery fantasies of the twentieth century, among them Tolkien's Ring series, begun in the 1930s, and contemporary works like Michael Moorcock's Sword Rulers series. So, even leaving aside the relation between chivalric romance and romantic (as opposed to realistic) novels, romance has been one of the most successful and long-lived of the fictional structures of Western culture.
Romance developed originally in a period when the rigid class structure of the first stages of medieval feudalism began to relax enough for the formation of a commercial middle class and a lower order of nobility within the aristocracy itself. This lower order of nobility was formed primarily by the gradual granting of aristocratic status to the military class, the knights. In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, this class came to share the legal status, but not the power and wealth, of the great lords. And it filled an increasingly bureaucratic and administrative role in the growing governmental apparatus dominated by the lords.
Within this social framework, Arthurian romances like those of Chrêtien (stories about the British King Arthur and his knights) articulated the desires of these lesser nobles for upward social mobility within the rigidly hierarchical feudal system. The fantasy structure of romance in this period depends on a combination of Germanic feudal military codes and the newly rediscovered Roman idea of the state and the Roman conception of imperial power as based on "popular sovereignty." It modifies earlier forms of Christianity, in which God forbade the taking of Christian lives, into a newer style of imperial Christianity, in which the state became the supreme moral force on earth and could order men to kill soldiers from rival Christian states in its name. Within this fantasy structure, military action for God and country (increasingly symbolized by an aristocratic woman) provides the path to recognition, fame and acceptance (that is, social mobility). Combat becomes a symbolic rite of passage that has social as well as individual implications.
Romance fantasy was potentially revolutionary in the sense that it expressed desires for the overthrow of existing social hierarchies (often expressed through the reversal of male/female roles inherent in courtly love). But it finally served to support the existing hierarchy because the lesser nobility wanted to rise within the system and enjoy the fruits of being at the top rather than overthrow the system entirely, as the social conservatism of romance indicates. So as a genre, romance recognizes and expresses revolutionary impulses, but finally it defuses them and renders them harmless to the social structure as it exists.
This fundamental orientation persists within the form. When medieval romance (and medievalism in general) was revived in the nineteenth century, it was often used to suggest an alternative to industrialism and capitalism and their tendencies towards the destruction of human values. But this alternative had implicit within it a number of conservative and even reactionary strains. As Raymond Williams argued, this particular kind of critique of capitalism, with its nostalgia for past golden ages, knights in armor and flowing robes, carries within it a system of received social values which, if they become active,
This implicit conservative and reactionary strain is present in STAR WARS, and undercuts its tone of youthful rebelliousness. The final scene of the film, in which Luke and Han Solo walk between rows of uniformed soldiers at rigid attention to receive their medals, clearly echoes the march of Hitler, Himmler, and Lutze to the Nuremberg memorial in Leni Riefenstahl's TRIUMPH OF THE WILL. The grins that the heroes exchange with Princess Leia are meant to assure us that these three at least aren't taking all this military pomp very seriously. But since the scene and its totalitarian, fascist overtones grow so naturally out of the rest of the fantasies and images in the film, it seems fair to ask whether the grins really undercut this image, or if they simply allow it to function for us in much the same way that Riefenstahl's original image functioned.
The scene confirms all the hierarchical and militaristic values that have characterized the bad guys up to this point, and applies them to the heroes. Martial tones dominate the scene and the accompanying music. The military position of "attention" and the practice of lining troops up in precisely even rows is an attempt to deny the weakness and vulnerability of the human body, to make human beings hard-edged and precise like their weapons. Up to this conclusion, the bad guys have been associated with their rigid body-armor, impenetrable mask-like helmets, and heavily armored Death Star. When so drastic a reversal or transition takes place at the end, it becomes important to try to understand the nature of that transition.
In romance, the generation gap functions as a symbolic representation of the split between upper and lower social levels, or between those with more power and wealth and those with less. The desire to grow up and escape the frustrations and restrictions of childhood by becoming an adult is symbolically analogous to the desire for upward social mobility. This connection falsely attaches the sense of inevitability, which is a natural part of the process of growing up, to the desire for social mobility. Assuming there is no accident, everyone grows up; not everyone rises within the social system.
Luke represents both the youth/age and the class splits: he is young, living with his aunt and uncle. As we see him initially (and as he sees himself), he is a farmer, an unsophisticated, rural hick living on an unimportant planet in a backwater of the universe. Luke feels oppressed on the farm. His uncle needs his labor and refuses to let him go to the academy and become a fighter pilot, thus refusing to let him both grow up and move up socially. The youth/age, peasant/aristocrat split takes on another dimension, that of labor/management. Thus Luke's sense of frustration can resonate for the audience on a number of levels, depending on the circumstances of their own lives. Any or all three of these levels can be present at the same time. Luke's experience in the film provides a generalized fantasy vehicle through which the real experiences of the audience can be organized, "understood," and solved.
In the course of the film, Luke grows up by taking part in military action, moving simultaneously into a more cosmopolitan, aristocratic, big-city world. Indicatively, the language of the rural culture differs from the aristocratic one. Luke, his uncle and aunt speak plainly. Aristocratic characters like Princess Leia and Ben (Obi-Wan) Kenobi speak in the high-flown, ornamental rhetoric of romance and epic fantasy. This language can seem corny and even campy, but Lucas means it to be taken straight. Their dialogue gives the aristocratic, cosmopolitan world Luke is trying to enter a heightened reality above that of everyday life. Lucas' instincts are sound on the point.
But if Luke is to rise socially, his success must be explained. A fantasy system like that of romance, which wishes on the one hand to allow for social mobility but on the other to retain the hierarchical status quo, must contain within it some explanation for the fact that everyone in the society does not rise. If everyone rose to the top, those at the top could no longer feel superior to anyone. But on the other hand, if eligible people do not rise, then the social system itself appears unjust and the hero's success arbitrary and meaningless. These two requirements generate an ideology of individualism. The romance hero can win fame, glory and the boss's daughter and still not threaten the hierarchical status quo because he is a uniquely-talented individual.
In medieval romance the problem is solved by disguise and mistaken identity. The hero is placed in a situation in which his aristocratic identity is not known. He wins his victory and social acceptance through his own strength and courage, and then he reveals his identity at the end. This solution serves the dual function of proving that merit alone is enough to succeed but at the same time vindicating the social system by equating rank and merit in the hero's own person. In STAR WARS, a film which comes out of a north American culture that officially denies the importance of class, the problem is solved by racism.
ROBOTS, WOOKIES AND RACISM
The structures of racism in STAR WARS form an alternative, parallel hierarchy, so that the hero who is oppressed and inferior in one system can be superior in the other. Luke is on the bottom of the power and age hierarchies, but he is on top in the race hierarchy. He is human, as opposed to the non-human races, and most importantly, as opposed to the robots. And Mark Hamill's blond blue-eyed all-American Wasp good looks reinforce these racial resonances. In his position at the top of the race hierarchy, Luke acts kindly and generously to those under him (specifically in his treatment of the two robots), behaving as he wished his uncle would behave to him, and as the audience wishes their superiors would behave to them. This behavior marks Luke as a good person. His final success says that good people can, by their own conduct, overcome the unattractive aspects of the hierarchical system and make it function satisfactorily for everyone.
The price paid for this affirmation of the hierarchical system is a corollary dehumanization of those in lower positions. Thus a hierarchy that we perceive as unfair and oppressive when seen from Luke's point of view (the virtual slavery of his position in his uncle's house) becomes fair and matter-of-fact when Luke becomes master of the two robots. The robots (or 'droids for androids) are science-fiction Stepin Fetchits. They do the real work of this society but are discriminated against. The issue is raised explicitly in the bar scene when the bartender says he doesn't serve their kind, and earlier when C-3PO (See Threepio in Lucas' novel) says he "can't abide those Jawas."
The issue of racism has been explicit in science-fiction treatments of androids at least since the early 1950s, when Theodore Sturgeon published a story in Galaxy in which scientists had created a race of androids so similar to humans that the only distinction was the androids' lack of a navel. The story revolved around discrimination against the androids and the rape of an android woman who conceived a child as a result. The point here is not that the treatment of robots in STAR WARS is racist, but that the film makes use of and supports racist habits of thought when it divides its characters up into hierarchical levels based on their physical attributes. The fact that the film is forced to use racism to support and justify its fantasy structure should call that structure into question and make us examine its implications closely.
The robots and the Wookie perform another function in the fantasy system of STAR WARS. They serve as non-competitive, non-sexual comrades and friends, one of the chief emotional satisfactions of racism. We would like friends and allies who have our best interests at heart, but people prefer a leading role in their own play to a secondary one in ours. In fantasy, members of lower classes or races can fill that supporting role because they cannot compete with us. In the fantasy at least, they accept their inferior position without question and assume the role of loyal follower and trusted sidekick. U.S. literature is full of Indians and blacks who fill this role (James Fenimore Cooper's Indians, Huckleberry Finn's Nigger Jim, and so on). In an adventure fantasy you don't want subordinates striking for higher wages while you are being mashed in the garbage crusher, so you make them robots or Wookies who cannot move up in the hierarchy. Wookies and robots are not eligible to court princesses and they do not need money or glory. In the final ceremony only the white male heroes get medals. The Wookie walks down the aisle and then steps aside to join the robots and applaud like everyone else.
This focus on the individual and the recognition of individual merit as a validation of the social system itself requires a plot in which individual (rather than collective or group) action can serve a dramatic purpose. The plot of STAR WARS hinges on the fact that the imperial space station, the Death Star, has one vulnerable point, the exhaust vent into which one small rocket manned by one heroic pilot can shoot a missile and destroy the entire installation. So the outcome of the rebellion and the fate of the universe hangs on the outcome of one act by one man.
By placing such an apocalyptic weight on the actions of one individual, the film demonstrates both the importance of individualism to the fantasy system. It also reveals the difficulty in the late 1970s of creating a plot in which individual action can have convincing consequences for the society as a whole. Laser swords and guns and one-man fighters are the weapons of STAR WARS because they are the weapons of romantic individual combat, the equipment of fantasies in which things can be changed, outcomes significantly affected, by one person. This kind of individualized military combat (like medieval jousts) is an ideal plot vehicle for romance fantasy because it serves as a romantic and morally-justified screen for the more specific forms of competition which are the avenues to success and social mobility in the real world, and which cannot be so easily romanticized. Combat provides a setting for individual victories that singles out the hero and supports him with the moral force of the whole community. By setting things up this way, Lucas denies that people need to work collectively, or long, or even very hard for change. Individual heroism, at one spot, in one heroic moment, can win the war.
Because of this focus on individualism, collective action does not serve collective goals. It only advances the fortune and reputation of the hero. The other pilots' deaths simply make us aware of the difficulty of the task and increase the dimensions of Luke's victory, giving it the added motivation of revenge for lost comrades. Within the fantasy, only Luke, the vehicle for realization of our own fantasies, is real. Other characters simply serve as cannon fodder in an illusory pursuit of dimly articulated common goals. If the hierarchical system is to be preserved, not everyone can rise. Other characters tend to either serve as enemies who initiate and justify the action or as surrogate parents and comrades who help the hero and then drop out of the picture in one way or another.
The relationship between Luke and Han Solo has particular interest in these terms. Initially, Han is smarter, cooler, more sophisticated and more competent than Luke. His cynicism and worldliness serve as a foil for Luke's romanticism and naiveté. But as Luke's vague romanticism turns into Force-directed idealism, Han's cynicism turns into a negative kind of individualism, which undercuts him and eliminates him as a serious rival for the audience's affection and approval.
Han's withdrawal from the final battle serves two purposes. First, it functions as a criticism of real individualism, the kind of individualism which threatens society because it rejects society's values and imagines the possibility of a life outside its approval, a possibility that romance invariably rejects. Han's decision to take the money and run places him in an inferior position to Luke within the value system of the film, reversing their previous places in the hierarchy. Secondly, since Han leaves the collective pool of cannon fodder, he can avoid the deaths of the other pilots and return at the last minute to support Luke by keeping Darth Vader off his back while Luke scores.
SEXISM AND THE RESCUE FANTASY
As Princess Leia's withdrawal from the action indicates, this world of romantic combat is structured around male relationships and male-oriented viewpoints. Women exist primarily to provide motivations for male activity, to act as spectators, or to serve as mediators between different levels in the male hierarchy. When Luke's aunt isn't stuffing artichokes into the Cuisinart, she serves first as a mediator between Luke and his uncle and then as a motive for revenge when Luke returns home and finds her charred body, in a scene taken from John Ford's THE SEARCHERS (1956). Princess Leia, despite her attractive spunkiness and toughness, basically fills the same male-oriented roles. She is the traditional damsel in distress—her capture by Darth Vader begins the film and provides the motivation for Ben Kenobi's return and Luke's rescue mission. Although she does grab a laser gun at one point and fires a few shots, she is dependent on her male rescuers, and the only action she initiates during the rescue almost gets them killed in a garbage crusher. Her most memorable line, repeated over and over by her holographic image, is "Help me, Obi-Wan Kenobi. You are my only hope."
While Luke goes on from his initial helplessness and rescue by Kenobi to take a more heroic role, Princess Leia recedes into the background. During the attack on the Death Star she is merely a spectator. In the final scene, dressed in a décolleté gown, which symbolizes her role as a sexual prize, she stands on the steps between her father at the top and the young heroes at the bottom, mediating the gap between them and mitigating the scene's overt militarism. Her position in the system is clear. Her existence makes the rebel hierarchy a good hierarchy because she is a path to the top. By winning her favor, Luke can rise within the system. But her position is fixed. She is the prize which coerces men into joining the system. And she is the maternal figure who looks on approvingly while boys undergo their rites of initiation and become men.
This role assignment mirrors the ways in which sexism frustrates women in male-oriented societies, but the system is not without its adverse effects on men as well. Women are denied autonomy and a chance to participate on an equal level in the activities valued most highly by the society. They are pushed into the roles of maternal figures or sexual objects, encouraged to see themselves primarily in terms of men and male activities. But by identifying women with the system, men have ensured that when the inevitable feelings of entrapment and betrayal arise, they will be directed at women rather than faced realistically. This identification impels men back into the adolescent, narcissistic male camaraderie which Leslie Fiedler sees as characteristic of American fiction in Love and Death in the American Novel, and which Molly Haskell describes as a dominant theme of Hollywood films like BUTCH CASSIDY AND THE SUNDANCE KID in her book From Reverence to Rape.
In STAR WARS, the relationships that Luke has with Ben Kenobi and Han Solo are much more important and rewarding than his relationship with Princess Leia. The sexual implications in that relationship are undercut by Leia's maternal behavior to Luke and the focusing of her romantic attention on the older Han Solo. (In Lucas' novel Han Solo is described as "perhaps five years older than Luke, perhaps a dozen—it was difficult to tell.") Princess Leia is most attractive early in the film, when she functions inside this world of male camaraderie as one of the guys, and less attractive and interesting later as she takes on the female roles assigned to her.
In their roles, the two women in the film form two maternal poles that Luke moves between, one middle-class, the other aristocratic. Luke's movement from a lower-class culture into an aristocratic one reflects what Freud called the "family romance," one of the central fantasy structures of the film. Historically, the family-romance fantasy structure first became prominent in medieval chivalric romances in thirteenth-century English works written in or translated into English for audiences that were largely middle-class. In bourgeois romance, the family-romance fantasy structure is a substitute for the overt Oedipal rebellion of the adulterous triangles (Tristan, Isolde, and Mark; Lancelot, Guinevere, and Arthur) that characterize French romances written for the aristocracy. But in structural terms both fantasy systems are parallel. Both reflect the desire of those in a lower position in the social hierarchy to rise within the system.
Briefly, in the family-romance fantasy a child exchanges his or her real parents for more aristocratic ones, imagining himself or herself the orphaned or kidnapped child of royalty. The fantasy reflects the growing child's disillusionment with its real parents and their limitations. It substitutes for them memories from an earlier period in which the parents seemed unique and omnipotent. These idealized figures from the past then become omnipotent parents with whom the child can identify, protectors against the various threats the child is beginning to encounter in the real world, among them the Oedipal issues. The fantasy serves to repress Oedipal conflicts through regression to earlier, less mature conflicts, substituting pre-Oedipal fantasies of parental omnipotence and total identification of the child with the parent for more threatening fantasies of Oedipal sexual desires and rebellion. Rescue fantasies are an inherent part of the family romance, both in the form of rescue of the child by the omnipotent parents, and rescue (or avenging) of the parents by the child. The fantasy has a strong social dimension: lower-class children imagine aristocratic parents, aristocratic children imagine pirate or gypsy ancestors.
In STAR WARS Luke exchanges his foster parents, who represent the world of middle-class values and dullness, for more aristocratic ones—his dead father (now revealed as a fighter pilot, a Jedi knight) and Obi-Wan Kenobi, who functions as a grandfatherly substitute for his father. His mother is not mentioned since Princess Leia functions as an Oedipal mother, the woman he desires but who treats him like a child—"Aren't you a little short for a Storm Trooper?"—and as the woman he rescues but does not possess sexually. The Force then symbolizes the lost sense of parental omnipotence, the child's pre-adolescent, pre-Oedipal sense of his parents as all-powerful and all-protecting.
But sexuality does not disappear entirely. Adult sexuality between autonomous equals is replaced by sadistic fantasies of abduction and rape projected onto the villains, but nevertheless an essential part of the rescue fantasy. In order to rescue, we must first endanger. Rescue fantasy has a strong unconscious aggressive content. There are clear sadistic undertones in Leia's capture—her rough treatment by Darth Vader and the guards, the enormous phallic hypodermic needle that threatens to penetrate her mind, the leather boot-heels of the guards in the corridor as the camera retreats to leave the actual interrogation to our imaginations.
These sadistic elements sexualize Princess Leia's capture and define her as a sexual object, making her helplessness and victimization an essential part of her sexual identity in a way that Luke's early helplessness is not. Vulnerability and the desire to be protected and rescued are not restricted to women, as Luke's capture by the Tusken Raiders and his rescue by Obi-Wan Kenobi indicates. Luke's rescue by Kenobi fulfills the first part of the family-romance rescue fantasy, the desire to be protected by an omnipotent parent. But while Luke can move from the role of victim to that of rescuer, Princess Leia remains trapped inside the role of victim because of her sex, and plays no important role in the action after her rescue. Luke's vulnerability is an aspect of his youth and inexperience, while Princess Leia's is an aspect of her sex. Women exist as a pool of victims, the fodder for double-edged rescue fantasies.
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