Professor Discusses ‘Star Wars,’ Politics

Professor Dan Nexon drew comparisons from the “Star Wars” saga to modern political science at a conversation in the Mortara Center for International Studies on Wednesday. The event, titled “Star Wars as Political Science Fiction,” was attended by over 50 people as part of the Mortara Center’s Culture and Politics lecture series. Director of the Mortara Center Kathleen McNamara said the event aimed to begin the new semester on a light note.

“The goal of the event was, number one, to have fun at the beginning of the semester, before everybody’s sort of buried in their books,” McNamara said.

Nexon, a “Star Wars” fan since he saw the original movie when he was five years old, used his knowledge as a political scientist and academic to explore various features of the movie franchise as both a cultural phenomenon and political science fiction. Using a flashing blue lightsaber as a presentation pointer, Nexon connected a variety of theories and arguments from international relations and other academic disciplines to aspects of the films that represent cultural barometers, political critiques and general social mythology. Nexon focused much of his talk on “Star Wars’” most recent release, “The Force Awakens”, which is the third highest-grossing film in history at press time, with a global profit of over $1.88 billion. Nexon explored the controversy surrounding the casting of the main characters of the film.

“The new version has been widely celebrated and even decried by a few, for having a different kind of cast of characters: a female Jedi in training … an African-American male and a Hispanic man,” Nexon said. “We think it’s important, if you have certain kinds of values, to see different kinds of faces, different kinds of genders, different kinds of races represented in something like ‘Star Wars’.”

Nexon said the mass media representation of these different types of characters contributes to the general shaping of popular attitudes and public imagination, especially among younger viewers.

“To me personally, as somebody who has a daughter, who loves science fiction and fantasy and has had a very difficult time with the ways in which popular culture gets filtered down to her, it was really exciting to see this [type of casting] for the first time,” Nexon said.

Nexon added that the political implications of the movie franchise have occasionally appeared in the national political forum, particularly in 1983, when President Ronald Reagan announced the Strategic Defense Initiative, a missile defense system aimed to protect the country from nuclear attack.

“Critics soon labeled [the SDI] Star Wars to discredit it, and say ‘Oh this is science fantasy, it could never be true,’” Nexon said. “This is a horrible tactical blunder, because what is the purchase of “Star Wars” on the imagination? It’s the good guys fighting the evil empire, and so the advocates of Star Wars quickly appropriated that label and turned it against their critics.”

Nexon said the fantasy universe stands with other complex fantasy fictions as commercialized forms of folklore.

“In our modern society, we don’t have folklore anymore, which is public property. Folklore is commercially owned; it’s produced through mass media,” Nexon said. “Now, the fact is, I think that ‘Star Wars’ is modern folklore, and I would make the same claim about ‘Harry Potter’, but ‘Star Wars’ is really in some ways our most powerful folkloric product of the last half-century.”

Nexon concluded the discussion by emphasizing how examining one’s own culture deeply, as in the case of “Star Wars”, can be an enlightening experience.

“One way to approach this stuff is to say that this is just commercial entertainment, that you should just sit back and enjoy it,” Nexon said. “But where’s the fun in that?”

Nivu Jejurikar (SFS ’18) said she appreciated one of the talk’s lessons about the relationship between culture and politics, noting how closely related the two fields are in both the film saga and reality.

“I think that one point that was interesting was that culture and politics affect each other symbiotically … so I thought that was an interesting concept and one that is applicable not only to the ‘Star Wars’ series but also to other movies and works of art that are a part of our culture,” Jejurikar said.

Preston Marquis (SFS ’16) said he enjoyed the critical engagement of “Star Wars” fans at the event.

“It’s not very often you get a bunch of ‘Star Wars’ nerds in the same room to have a very intellectual discussion about the real-world applicability of what ‘Star Wars’ means,” Marquis said. “It was a great day for Star Wars fans and for political science students alike.”

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