Sunday, May 26, 2024

Old Star Wars vs New Star Wars: Part 1: Racism

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Generally, love and hate are things mysterious, and when it comes to fandom life, even more so. But once in an eon, an event comes that we can be absolutely sure will be loved and hated; it is the case of something old vs something new. Like, Old Star Wars vs. New Star Wars.

This is a case divisive. The most thorough research is done, the most severe questioning performed over every newcomer and every old fan. And if they are found guilty, they are declared no true fans. What is their crime? Well, they dare not to hate New Star Wars.

But while hate is, in and of itself, irrational, hatedom uses different arguments to rationalise their agressive denial to accept Disney creations as a part of their beloved universe. And there the voice of reason has an ability and even, I think, an obligation to speak, if not always to be heard.

I do not want to ignite a flame war. All I want is, to show that the idea about great Star Wars That I Used To Know, brought down by greedy tycoons, is a false one. That while the Old EU was certainly great, it had great flaws. And that those flaws were much improved in the New EU.

A Song For Old EU

old star wars vs new star wars
Gather them all!

I should confess, I loved it. I got to know Star Wars not from the films, but from books. They were poorly translated novelizations of the Original Trilogy. But while Leia was named ‘a princess of Aldebaran’, it was great reading for a seven -years-old me. It was a door half-open, a door into yet undiscovered land where a good fight is fought, and a brave princess leads her brave comrades against evil and oppressive Empire.

When I grew older, my love didn’t fade. On the contrary, the prequels came onto screens, and many Star Wars books were translated into Russian for the occasion. Thus I came to know brave pilots of the Rogue and Wraith Squadrons, and Thrawn’s devious mind games.

But my main love was the Old Republic era. I loved the eclectic aesthetics, the moral dilemmas, and the characters of that time. I loved that unique feeling of Star Wars, that hard-to-catch moment which makes this universe different from all other space operas.

Old EU gave us that feeling and what’s more, if you get it from the prequel trilogy, it’s due to the old EU’s very existence. The mysteries of the Force and the technical glory of Coruscant, slavery, and democracy hand in hand, unfading radiance of the past eons and dim light of an uncertain future, even the Jedi Code…it was all created and probed there before it was found good enough to become part of the main canon.

What the Original Trilogy made as an outline, the Expanded Universe fleshed out. It gave form to hints and name to things mentioned only. If there were no EU, the Star Wars Universe would be bare and past-less; and still, in the New Star Wars, those old worldbuilding bricks are quite needed and used.


But, you see, even though I loved the Old EU, I couldn’t help complain about its shortcomings. While they couldn’t really 100% spoil the story for me, they were bad enough to be a prick in my eye. From book to book, from game to game, and from comic to comic, it continued. Those were things all-permeating, things from which there was no escape and no refuge.

I really want to talk about it, and I feel one essay would be not enough to sort everything out. So, in the first two parts I will talk about ethical problems with the Old Star Wars—mostly racism and sexism, but a bit of other complexities, too. And then in the final part I will touch the continuity issues: the warped timelines, the all-present OOC, the complete lack of desire to really tie in their tie-in production. and other such matters.

Sometimes warped art and warped plot converge

Then again, I still love Old EU. What’s more, I really like the Knights of the Old Republic comic series, despite it being my primary example source for the third part. But should our love be blind? Or should our eyes be open to flaws and negative traits? I prefer the latter option.

Racial Question

And the first issue to address would be the question of race in Star Wars universe. Your first thought would be probably about usual fantastic racism, both Watsonian (racism in-universe towards certain species) and Doylist (creators’ racist stereotypes unintentionally wrought into fantastic species depiction). It is certainly present in the Old Star Wars; but none the less the real life racism is present there, too.

People of Color Are Not Real Humans?

old star wars vs new star wars
Totally non-human

When I first raised this question on a local SW convention, I was answered that only a “SJW” would blame filmmakers for using non-white actors as cheap aliens. They said it was not a question of racial relations, but a question of money, as make-up and CGI are expensive… etc.

As is she, of course

Still, I am not convinced. When we saw Mace Windu or Adi Gallia, or Depa Billaba, they were not named non-humans. Even master Luminara Unduli and her lookalike padavan Barriss Offee were human enough. Actually, I first thought their tattoos signified something religious, not something racial. Yet the visual guide and the comics said they all were not Humans at all.

People who wrote those guides or designed comics’ plots were not restricted by anything but their own imagination. They invented species completely alien to our eye: talking trees, thinking stones, even metal non-humanoid robotic civilisations. And yet people of color were labeled ‘near-human species’. In the most offensive cases the only difference was ‘skin color’ pure and simple. Like, ‘Humans’ means ‘White Fair-skinned Humans Only’?

Of course, I don’t think those guys who turned Chalaktans or Tolothians or Korunnai into non-humans were malicious racists. Though I certainly think racist inertia dictated their decisions.

Did New SW improve it?

Short answer: yes. First, both Korunnai and Tolothians/Chalactans are referred as a culture, not a race. But what is more important, even if those ones were still aliens, New Star Wars gave us Finn, Shara Bay, Rae Sloan, and Rose and many more non-white-skinned characters who are officially labeled as members of human race.

So, no more white supremacy here.

The Problem of An Evil Race

An evil race is a traditional, yet deeply problematic High Fantasy trope. And as Old Republic Era was basically High Fantasy In Space… you get it. So the Sith were invented—space orcs with naturally oppressive regime, inability to become good, and all that jazz.

old star wars vs new star wars
A space orc with a very suspicious chin for you

The same was the fate of the Yuuzhan Vong—at least at first. Fortunately, they escaped genocide after certain fandom response and were rewritten into thoroughly deluded race that needed White Saviour Luke Skywalker to turn back from their evil ways and become worshiping him instead of their old gods of war, hatred and carnage. Which is unquestionably better than undergo a genocide, isn’t it?

Or take Tusken Raiders…

The problem? You see, it is Star Wars, not D&D. All races here are biological species, and to declare any biological species naturally evil is racist. Okay, speciesist, but nonetheless. And even if the Sith were culture, not race, idea of good people genociding members of certain culture makes me feel uneasy.

Did New Star Wars Improve It?

We don’t know yet. The Old Republic Era is yet unrevealed to us. But the overall trend is to turn focus back to the clush of ideas, not races. That’s why the First Order employs all peoples, as well as the Resistance. It is not your blood, but your heart that dictates what path you would follow.

Real-life Stereotypes in Star Wars

It is no secret that many Space Opera/Fantasy authors use copycat cultures in their worldbuilding. It is, sadly, no secret that ‘cultures’ too often means ‘national and racial stereotypes’. Old Star Wars were no exception here.

If a race looks like African people (the same Korunnai), they would inevitably be (noble) savages who live in the jungle and have special relationship with wild animals! The Chalaktans are visually designed like Hindus? Of course they are all mystics, religious people who meditate on dim philosophical categories! The Kiffar are American Natives in Space? Of course they are pathfinders and medicine men!

Then again, it’s a game of associations that rules over the authors. And those associations are too often racist.

Did New Star Wars Improve It?

I think, yes —at least in the respect that people of color are humans now, so the unwanted parallels are inadvertently driven into the next section.

About Hats And Why They Can Be Toxic

A planet of hats is also one of the sadly omnipresent High Fantasy/Space Opera tropes. It is more about lazy writing than racism, usually. One feels unable to create diversity on every given instance (be it a planet, a nation, or a land) and instead gives them all one defining quality. A simple solution always in hand, isn’t it?

Traditional Togrutan dressing, anyone?

But what if we merge it with Space Jews trope and then make several quite interesting Human cultures, while reserving hats for Aliens? This becomes much less innocent, doesn’t it?

Then there was a problem unique for Expanded Universe. Trying to tie their works to the films, they extended the lifestyle of film-present aliens to their whole kind. Twi’lek women were shown as exotic dancers and implied sex slaves? All Twi’lek women should do it! A Kalamarian admiral Akbar is a skilled tactician? His whole race is! Bossk is a bounty hunter? All Trandoshans are natural hunters!

It went to the extent that a mentioned-only race (Bothans) received their hat due to ‘many Bothan spies’ who died. Yes, they all are natural spies and slicers, all of them.

And the Hats’ Fashion Is Bad

I mean, I have nothing to say against a hat like ‘they wear red dresses’ or ‘they have a tradition to tell stories’. But for a reason mysterious Star Wars hats are much worse. Almost every time we meet a Species of Hats it means one of these: either (1) their females are sex workers/sex slaves, or (2) they are bloodthirsty, or (3) they are naturally devious criminals. Pepper this with several noble savage/proud warrior race species and you would get a picture.

And any way round they exist to serve Human characters. Either literally, or as antagonists (see Evil Race).

My ‘favourite’ example is Zeltron race. Their defining quality is empathy. They really feel bad if someone near feels bad. So, they would become… a sex worker race! Yes, because positive emotions and pleasure is very important for them, they constantly engage in wild orgies with drugs and alcohol. And they consider fidelity to be a mental issue. Ah, and they all can perform as sex workers, but the best of them are ritual sex workers, who always agree to every patron’s wildest desire. And they are quite happy to serve Hutts.

What about those Zeltrons who don’t engage in that lifestyle? Ah, they are broken-minded sado-masochists.

Did New Star Wars Improve It?

Yes! I went through all the new species’ pages on Wookiepedia, and there was nothing like ‘the character of this race in the movie was a criminal, so they all are criminals’. There are hats—like, we have now a species of natural talkers—but nothing so bad as it was back then.

What’s more, it rethinks old races in a new way. The Twi’leks of old were a species of sex worker beautiful women and proud warrior/cunning criminal ugly males. They sold their own children into slavery for them to escape their home planet.

Now we have them reimagined. Neither Cham Sindulla is ugly, nor Hera Sindulla is just a sexy addendum to the main hero. The Twi’lek culture changes, they no more are savages and black market traders, but proud members of Galactic society. We see them fighting for freedom, not for new routes for slave trade.

Sort-of Conclusion: Old Star Wars vs New Star Wars

As you can see, almost every moment that was wounding in the Old Star Wars has been improved now. Maybe, it is due to times a-changing. People who work on the Star Wars franchise nowadays are less bound with old stereotypes and old ideas. What’s more, they are conscious of what they are doing and the implications of their work…something their senior comrades lacked.

It doesn’t automatically excuse flaws their own works possess. A story can be totes good and have no racist implications. Personally, I’d also wish some more Alien characters find their way into New Star Wars. I miss Twi’leks, for example. While I don’t want to see another sexual object aka green space babe, I’d want to see a new Twi’lek character on a wide screen. Hera Sindulla, for example?

Images courtesy of Disney

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