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Stanford PhD student rips ‘Star Wars’ for … ‘Orientalizing’ stereotypes

One of the signs of a decaying civilization is when even the most innocent forms of entertainment lead wannabe academics to “investigate” them, and then they tell you how wrong you are for liking them.

Another is when such an opinion, suited for an obscure niche academic journal, gets printed in one of the nation’s largest daily newspapers.

Remember researchers delving into how much James Bond drinks? (James Bond!!) How about The Lion King being “fascist ideology writ large”? Or how a “sexy” Mr. Rogers costume was “inappropriate”?

Now, it’s Stanford PhD student Jeffrey Chen who, shortly before Christmas, took to The Washington Post to inform us that the “Star Wars” films — wait for it! — “reinforce our prejudices.”

“[I]f we take a moment to think about it, George Lucas’s galaxy is, and has always been, far, far away from being an original or an inclusive creation,” Chen begins. It suffers from “Orientalizing” stereotypes — “patronizing tropes that represent an imagined East, or the Orient, as inferior to the rational, heroic West.”

Somehow, the “uniformed conformity”of the Empire represents the former, while the “scrappy individualism” of the Rebel Alliance, the latter.

But Chen’s biggest gripe is reserved for the films’ music.

“[John] Williams’s music associates the ‘good guys’ with the grand orchestral style of the European Romantics (think of the beautifully hummable melodies for Luke, Leia and Rey), while the themes for the ‘bad guys’ are expressed in the vocabulary of Chinese, Indian and Middle Eastern music,” he writes.

If at this moment you’re either rolling your eyes or offering a subtle guffaw (or both), DON’T DO IT!! Chen says this “cannot simply be written off as harmless or insignificant.” (You can imagine him banging his fists on the table clamoring for you to accept his thesis.) Williams’ score, Chen argues, “reinforces, even at an unconscious level, the primacy of Western culture against an imagined ‘other’ that reproduces harmful prejudices in pop culture [and can] communicate nuances you can’t see; it says things the film doesn’t say.”

In a nutshell, all of this “reinforces American identity as being distinctly Western European in sound, even if we have moved past this thinking in other areas, especially in matters of race.”


Call me nuts, but did anybody — anybody — associate Darth Vader, the Empire, et. al. with negative Asian stereotypes? The only “other” I saw, especially as a teen with the original trilogy, was the Empire as Nazi Germany. That lasted for a while, perhaps until I came upon the 2002 Weekly Standard piece by Jonathan Last, “The Case for the Empire” which, unlike Chen’s missive, has fun within the fun of “Star Wars.”

MORE: Star Wars Stormtrooper costumes banned at Princeton: too ‘upsetting’

MORE: Spoof paper on ‘midi-chlorians’ accepted by peer-reviewed journals

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About the Author
Associate Editor
Dave has been writing about education, politics, and entertainment for over 15 years, including a stint at the popular media bias site Newsbusters. He is a retired educator with over 25 years of service and is a member of the National Association of Scholars. Dave holds undergraduate and graduate degrees from the University of Delaware.

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