All art is political, but science fiction is perhaps the most conscientiously political genre in all of fiction. So it’s been odd to witness the mini-controversy surrounding the recent Rogue One: A Star Wars Story, which has centered on discussions of whether the original Star Wars trilogy was intentionally political, or whether its latest incarnation has somehow muddied once-pure waters.
The furor over Rogue One had been brewing for weeks prior to the film’s release, due to some (since deleted) tweets from one of the film’s writers, Chris Weitz, in which he pointed out that the Empire as portrayed in the Star Wars franchise is “a white supremacist organization.” The subsequent backlash against Weitz from the online collective of right-wing extremists, neo-Nazis, racists, fascists, sexists, and other members of the so-called “alt-right” who also identify as Star Wars fans (who are apparently unfamiliar with sci-fi’s inherently political underpinnings) involved a hashtag, #DumpStarWars, which argued that Star Wars shouldn’t be politicized. This then prompted Disney CEO Bob Iger to tell the Hollywood Reporter shortly before the film’s release that “there are no political statements” in Rogue One. Iger’s statement spawned a universe of polite dissent from critics pointing out all the ways in which Rogue One is explicitly not only political (or at least “political-ish”), but anti-Trumpian.
What I assume Iger meant is that there is no explicit contemporary political endorsement in Rogue One. It’s a weird technicality to use about a sci-fi franchise as overtly steeped in politics as Star Wars, but it’s an argument that baffled sci-fi fans have seen before. Remember when William Shatner stated that Star Trek, arguably one of the most explicitly political franchises in history, was never political? He also seemed to have been mistaking “political” for “politically biased,” and he also couldn’t have been more wrong.
It’s easy to speculate that this recent de-politicizing of overtly political science fiction is a new trend, especially given the current heightened political climate. But the truth is that science fiction has been controversially politicized and de-politicized for as long as science fiction has existed.
Science fiction is a flashpoint for political anxiety
The practice of associating or de-associating art with specific political messages is actually a powerful political tool, one used for centuries across the political spectrum. In other words, people may try to de-politicize art, but they’re often doing it in order to make political points, which just proves that art is always political.
Science fiction has been the subject of this sort of rhetoric since its inception. Mary Shelley, who invented the genre with 1818’s Frankenstein, was accused by multiple critics upon the novel’s release of committing religious impiety; still other critics pointedly dismissed its literary competence, with one adding that the fact the writer was a woman was “the prevailing fault of the novel.” So, in the cultural context in which Shelley lived and wrote, even these cursory attempts to dismiss the work’s significance were politicized, steeped in reactions to the book’s subversive nature and Shelley’s daring to set foot outside of her prescribed gender role.
The case of Star Wars illustrates just how impossible it is to remove art — especially culture-changing art like Star Wars — from political contexts. Art always stems from real-world contexts, and those contexts are almost always informed in some way by political concerns.
The original Star Wars trilogy was created in a time where it was universally understood that fascism was the ultimate evil, and Nazis were really, really evil. So even though Star Wars explicitly based its villainous Empire on Nazi Germany, and even though the original trilogy was about the overtly political fight to conquer fascism, Star Wars viewers have, up until now, been able to take comfort in the relative safe distance of this particular political allegory. Nazis were over, done with, thankfully vanquished; they’d entered into the safe, distant artistic realm of generic “good versus evil.”
We can see this safe distance in contemporary reviews. The 1977 review of Star Wars from the Telegraph states that “The story is unpretentious and pleasantly devoid of any ‘message,’” followed immediately by, “A group of unscrupulous interstellar politicians have overthrown the legitimate authority and created an evil galactic empire.” Ironically, in asserting Star Wars’ lack of message, the reviewer ends up acknowledging and stating that very message — namely, that the overthrow of legitimate authority by a minority group hellbent on seizing as much power as it can, at the expense of human beings across the galaxy, is a Bad Thing. But at this point in history, such a message was considered benign, so clearly relegated to the past that it doesn’t bear consideration as a real “message.”
That safe distance no longer exists. In our current political climate, up is down and black is white, and Nazis, the ultimate evil, are now directly linked to the incumbent Trump White House. (Both White House chief strategist Steve Bannon and National Security Adviser Michael Flynn’s now-fired former chief of staff, his son Michael Flynn, Jr., have explicit ties to the white nationalist, anti-Semitic collective known as the alt-right.)
So the alt-right, trying to make itself not look like the ultimate evil, has every reason to argue for a fake narrative of Star Wars that has never existed.
How do you re-write the narrative of Star Wars? Pretend you’re the true fans who knew what it was about all along.
Hordes of Star Wars fans have spent the past month arguing that even though the original Star Wars trilogy was an allegory in which our heroes fought Nazis, it wasn’t inherently political, because it wasn’t commenting on contemporary politics.
Of course, given the ample evidence to the contrary — in the form of decades of interviews, reviews, articles, debates, and critical interpretations of the franchise — claiming Star Wars is apolitical requires a lot of work. In response to an interview with Rogue One actor Riz Ahmed about the film’s “political reality,” members of Reddit’s alt-right-ish Gamergate haven KotakuinAction swung into action to float the idea that Star Wars has never been political.
“Plenty of movements from either left or right (sometimes both) fought some sort of oppressive government at some point in history,” ran one comment, while another bashed what the user deemed to be Lucas’s failed attempt at inserting political allegory into what was only “a fun, dumb Sci Fi fantasy nostalgia trip for people who loved Flash Gordon and the Hidden Fortress.”
The idea that Star Wars was originally intended only for a group of “real” sci-fi fans is central to this act of reinterpretation. If you’re a Star Wars fan and a participant in an overtly misogynistic community like KotakuinAction, which has ties to the alt-right, there’s only one way you can justify holding on to belief systems that are so antithetical to the franchise you love. It’s a two-step process: You have to pretend the franchise has evolved away from a purer non-political state, and you have to reject the idea that the new developments in the franchise were intended for you to begin with. So goes this comment by redditor XDforlife:
if youre a fan of the originals, its best not to hold your breath expecting anything amazing out of these. theyre not meant for you, they are meant for mainstream audiences who most haven't even seen the originals, and the rest vaguely remember it. the plot of last years star wars showed that, with its lazy ass writing and braindead plot
and now they figured how to monetize it yearly by making it in to their own version of the hunger games.
In essence, these redditors are letting go of the new Star Wars in order to justify their desire to hang on to the old Star Wars.
By now you’ve probably noticed that none of this has anything to do with the actual content of Rogue One.
Rogue One could have been about literally anything and it still would have incurred this debate
At this particular moment in American culture, Rogue One would likely have sparked a cultural debate no matter what its actual content was. The fact that Rogue One also has a strong female lead and a diverse cast is fuel for geek culture’s ongoing and absurd debate around stories that have the audacity to suggest that women and people of color actually exist and do things. But that debate is just a side-order of the real conversation about whether minorities and women have the same rights and access to opportunity as their straight white male counterparts. Throw in the newly unashamed argument that entire swaths of human beings should be deported by the millions and kept from entering America altogether, and these questions, which are all explicitly political, directly concern Star Wars’ ongoing narrative.
Rogue One’s director, Gareth Edwards, has called the Star Wars franchise “a life lesson for kids.” In its approach to good and evil, Star Wars has just about the broadest, most simplistic approach to morality you can find in the universe: that is, “good” means a basic respect for humanity and freedom for all humankind, and “bad” means a giant threat to both of those things — a.k.a., a genocidal evil galactic empire.
But since we’ve elected a president who’s been endorsed by the Ku Klux Klan and ushered in support from people who now openly heil him, we have to reckon with a lot of unpleasant societal truths. Among these unpleasantries is that, apparently, a subset of Star Wars fans has rejected Star Wars’ political message, even though it’s basically presenting us with a lowest common denominator of fundamental human rights: that is, it recognizes that law-abiding people from all walks of life have the right to exist in peace and live their lives without being threatened by governmental powers.
It seems that we can no longer assume that even this soft-serve brand of political messaging is universally acceptable. Right-wing hipster arguments that the Empire are actually the “good guys” have always been an edgy and provocative stance to take; but now they’re politically charged in a way that Star Wars has never been.
The politics of Star Wars should always have been allowed to stay warm-fuzzy and mundane. Its dictum that Nazis are bad should always have remained a benign, foregone conclusion. But it didn’t. Ironically, we forgot that Star Wars’ themes were only safe and benign because we had universally accepted governing democratic principles that rejected authoritarianism and white supremacy.
Those governing principles are no longer a sure thing. And even the old, innocent Star Wars of the past is a newly crucial political statement about freedom in a galaxy not-so-far away.
Correction: The original version of this article included an inaccurate citation. It has been removed and Vox regrets the error.