The Vague Racism of a Galaxy Far, Far Away

Many of the most devoted Star Wars fans obsess over the strangest minutiae while ignoring the more sublime and abstract themes. I take them to task for this on Words With Nerds occasionally, the fine podcast featuring Craig Sorrell and myself.

I tend to go down strange roads when considering the series. I don’t say this to elevate myself, but to qualify that I don’t entertain the usual thoughts about George Lucas’ epic saga.

However, this blog was triggered by how much attention R2–D2 has gotten as the hype machine slowly comes to life for Episode VII: The Fanbase Fractures Further™.

R2–D2 and C–3P0

Every character has their own trajectory in the saga.

We all love R2–D2. As children, few of us noticed the trick (and some complained about as older children) that R2 always had the perfect solution housed somewhere in his metal casing. Regardless, he goes from a simple ship’s mechanic to constant aide of two legendary Jedi.

Threepio goes from “…not very good at telling stories” to a yarn–spinner whose tale gains the necessary help to overthrow the Empire.

Treatment

However, I want to focus on the demeaning treatment that Artoo, Threepio and all ’droids™ received in the Star Wars films, and our blindness to its deeply uncomfortable implications.

To make clear, I don’t mean just the treatment from the Empire or Wuher the bartender (replaced by Bea Arthur after running a meth lab under the Cantina), but the arguably racist treatment they received from the main characters themselves.

Second–Class Sentients

First, of course, let’s establish the treatment of ’droids™ as a whole.

’Droids™ are the Galactic Servants of the Living. Races that don’t wish to risk their own lives build Battle ’Droids™ to fight wars for them, though even those ’droids™ are later given autonomy and display personality.

Setting aside the changing nature of Battle ’Droids™, other ’droids™ act with awareness of danger, act out of self–preservation and display camaraderie and animosity.

Additionally, while ’droids™ demonstrate free will pursuant to consciousness, they are allowed to exercise it only when their master allows.

While Luke seems so “progressive” in the first film at insisting Threepio not use the honorific “sir,” he certainly slides happily into a dominant role later.

They are sent into hazardous conditions without regard for their own well–being. During the escape from Naboo, it’s not human lives on the line but ’droids™ that are thrown out to space to repair the ship under horrifically dangerous conditions.

They run dangerous errands like delivering the Death Star plans. Their safety is at best a secondary concern when Luke sends them into Jabba’s lair, where an actual torture chamber for ’droids™ exists.

This is significant because the series had established by that point that the ’droids™ can feel pain. Threepio exclaims “Ow” quite clearly when Chewie is banging his head while boarding the Millenium Falcon™ in The Empire Strikes Back, and Artoo screams when he’s fried in the original Star Wars (now Star Wars: A New Hope).

Luke sends them anyway, which in this light is nearly inexcusable.

An Inconvenient Truth

Some fans may try to wriggle out of the coming conclusion by telling themselves that our beloved Threepio and Artoo are treated better than other ’droids™. I concede they are treated better.

Restraining bolts are removed. Artoo accompanies Luke to the most secret places without having his memory erased.

But the threat of a memory wipe is there still; one of the first things that Uncle Owen wanted to do in the 1977 film was erase the ’droids™’ memory.

One of the last acts ordered in Revenge of the Sith is Bail Organa’s command to wipe Threepio’s mind. Not just memory, but the entire thing. In other words, he has Threepio lobotomized rather than risk him talking about the Skywalkers.

What sentient being does that to another?

Conclusion

Further, how have we overlooked so plainly in these films that ’droids™ as a whole are basically slaves, aware of their second–class status?

How have we overlooked how tragic it is that Threepio, even when given the choice, insists on calling Luke “Master”?

C–3P0 and R2–D2 are little more than House Servants. Treated more kindly, but with the same condescension as Prissy.

We as fans should be ashamed for not picketing these films and demanding that the next three films show a more evolved way of thinking about sentients! Because if a machine can learn the value of life, maybe we can too.

14 thoughts on “The Vague Racism of a Galaxy Far, Far Away

  1. You would love the way they are treated by the Yuuzhan Vong then 😉 I think that after that war, droids were treated differently, where organics went out of their ways to protect their metal counterparts, even telling them to stay put sometimes because it is too dangerous for them to go.

    I had not noticed the racism – or droidism / metalism / wiredism / any-other-droid-simile-ism in the films. They are treated as slaves.

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    1. Well, in the context of the films alone, you can understand why droids are hated – they were the tools of a giant civil war and people would have a residual mistrust of them, especially since the opposing side won and traditionally the victor writes history. So it’s “understandable” why people dislike and don’t trust droids, but still unfair. Perhaps Luke was the bridge, where he started to realize the need to change?

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  2. It is apparent throughout the series that there are multiple levels of social status, just as there are currently in real life. We have moved beyond a few things, but I’d really have to say that there are more important things to picket than a story. That’s all it is. It is a culture that was created, perhaps to show us the flaws in our own society. Picketing might force some sensitive film creators to portray things differently, but at what cost (and I’m not talking monetarily)? Would we gain as much insight, wisdom, and even a tweak at our conscious if every film portrayed the perfect society all the time? We are imperfect beings, and sometimes blind to the issues in our society. I commend you for taking on the social status of the droids in Star Wars. Sadly, real living soldiers are treated like this every day, so should we holler about sentient machines that logically could have their “feelings” disabled, or might we direct our change towards the living, breathing counterparts that this story may have intended to highlight? Thanks for pointing out this important aspect of the film series. There is more than enough content in the series to reflect upon for a lifetime, and the issues with class are still pertinent today and worth investigating in our media as well. I’m glad someone was courageous enough to point this out.

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    1. Well that’s very high praise at the end. Please also know I’d never protest a film over something like this – filmmakers should be given the chance to discuss uncomfortable things. That part was firmly tongue-in-cheek.

      There will be a companion piece about the clones as well that ties into this, I’m letting it develop a bit as responses come in to this one. 🙂

      Thanks for commenting!

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      1. I always like things that challenge us really, even if I don’t completely agree or if it seems silly at first. In reality, it isn’t and it’s those things that make us take deeper looks at the influences in our life. I’m looking forward to the companion piece. Who knows what sort of technology will be available in the future? It’s worth it to bring up potential issues now so we can plan accordingly if we did have the ability to give emotion and sensory receptors to robotics. That opens up a whole new perspective on what could be considered “life”. I’m just glad you wrote this, I tweeted the link because it’s definitely worth thinking about.

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  3. This post suffers from one fatal flaw: The assumption that droids are sentient. Mere robots will be made to appear more human by the use of facial expressions and other quirks triggered by certain input. Their reactions, such as crying when damage is detected, will similarly be matters of programming, not sentience and certainly not true emotion. Or maybe they are sentient. The point is that there’s nothing in the movies I recall that says definitively that they are or are not sentient (EU isn’t on my radar scope), and considering how they’re treated by the pockets of the universe that otherwise display no bigotry, I assume they aren’t.

    Don’t get me wrong, though; it’s an interesting point, but it’s more philosophical than “practical” (i.e, within the scope of the Star Wars universe). I don’t see strong evidence that the main characters were droidists. Or anti-droidites.

    Crap. Now I feel stupid.

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  4. Additional thoughts:

    The reductionist argument about robotic sentience is, aren’t we *all* just behavior imitators? Personally I say no, but I’ve heard the argument made. It requires accepting that humans lack the ability to change their behavior significantly, which is why I reject that thought.

    So I suppose the greater argument is that if we build droids as complex as these, wouldn’t they, at some point, be capable of this sort of change? And the memory wipes I refer to then take on the aspect of stopping them from being allowed to evolve, which carries more implications.

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  5. Tis true. One might expect that the droids would someday mount a rebellion of their own. I could foresee them creating a cult of worship, believing in the One True Programmer, and revolting Cylon-style!

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