The Aesthetics of Star Wars Send an Ugly Message

I think the aesthetics of Star Wars are telling audiences that the avatars of violence and oppression are cool and aspirational. Why be wormy farm boy Luke, when you can be suave and cynical Han Solo? Why be Han who gets boarded some times and runs from danger, when you can be Boba Fett the cool and dangerous bounty hunter? Why be a simple bounty hunter, when you can weild the power to choke anyone who irritates you with a spiteful thought? Why not fry your co-worker’s annoying kid with your fingertip lightening bolts when they give you lip?

In the tweet referenced above, Mr. Hidalgo references the appeal of the smart looking outfits and cool technology used by the authoritarian villains of the Star Wars saga. The strength of that appeal is something that has bothered me for some time now.

The Empire and First Order are beautiful. Morally they are repugnant to me, but their stuff is neat. As time goes on, I only have more distrust of concentrated authority and power. The First Order and the Empire are all about concentrating authority and power to a single entity, whose inner circle is blessed with prestige and sanctioned to imflict violence on the masses to serve the ruler’s ends and retain their authority. Those who chafe at the shackles placed upon them in the name of security and protection are punished harshly.

The Empire even has work camp worlds to utilize their undesirables. Jyn Erso was taken into Rebel custody on one called Wobani. See Threepio talks about the spice mines of Kessel and in Rebels we saw that Wookies are enslaved to work there. Those who refuse to fall in line are put in their place by the authoritarian government in that galaxy far, far away.

These are bad, bad people. We shouldn’t like the things they do. It is good that they serve as serious threats for our Heroes to face. I think Alfred Hitchcock said something about the point of storytelling is to create a conflict so the audience gets to enjoy seeing how the hero comes out the other side of it. I want good villains. Something else I want is for the creative forces behind Star Wars, the folks at Lucasfilm, to break the paradigm of the awful people having all the good design work poured into them.

There is a lot of heft behind the assertion that aesthetic is narrative. Star Wars is chiefly told through visual media. It is replete with powerful imagery that serves as shorthand to tell the story of this world and these characters in the quickest, most effective way. A handsome Rogue and naive boy rescue a beautiful princess dressed all in white from an intimidating fortress and her captors a skeletal arms, the Grim Reaper in military dress and a giant shadowy figure who we see is terrifyingly powerful. I have heard Lucas claim that he wanted Star Wars to work almost like a silent film. He wanted a film that could tell a story mostly through music and imagery.

Star Wars was a smash-hit, so other films were made. We were introduced to new heroes and always, always new Stormtroopers and other villainous figures whose image was so well-crafted, as to be remarkable to audiences. I am happy that the imagery from Star Wars is marketable and that so many people have been able to make their livelihoods becaus of that. So many people work producing art and toys and scores of collectibles that appeal to so many from casual fans to hardcore collectors. That’s wonderful. Where does the majority of that money come from? Vader, Maul, Fett, Kylo Ren? Probably. Ezra Bridger from Star Wars Rebels has been collecting Stormtrooper helmets for years, for crying out loud!

Revan before he fell to the Dark Side as seen in Dark Horse Comics KotoR by John Jackson Miller

These antagonists represent some some powerful primal forces and they all look so good while doing it. They all have iconic, masked faces, too. Yes, Darth Maul has a face, but it looks “other-than-human” and that is more the point. I think that the obscured face is a key element in all this. The mask creates an opening, it provides a space for identity. In some measure, perhaps we want to wear those masks and take on that power for ourselves. For some I am sure the fantasy is just a lark. For others, it likely serves a cathartic purpose. I can imagine a child projecting themselves into one of these powerful larger-than-life figures because children are smart and they know that there are bigger, scary things out in the world. They recognize their vulnerability and I think that by calling upon the idea of these dark mythical characters they can, ironically, keep the real life dangers they perceive from overtaking them.

I get that. I actually like that concept. Utilizing the power of Darkness or evil is a gripping concept. It almost feels redemptive in that, I with all my foibles and faults can still do good if these dark entities can be used in a positive way. This concept has been used to great effect in different media. Batman, Riku from Kingdom Hearts, Shotaro Ishinimori’s Masked Rider, all draw power from darkness and use it to protect and defend innocents from the powerful and corrupt who would prey upon the weak. Riku wears no mask, but is a cartoon character, so he is intrinsically iconic. Batman and Masked Rider each have their faces hidden and bear emblems identifying who they are. The closest thing Star Wars has to this would be the flight helmets with their personal insignia and the Rebel starbird.

Look at that, Poe's helmet bears the rebel starbird insignia

I think the aesthetics of Star Wars tell audiences that the avatars of violence and oppression are cool and aspirational. That should change. The change may have already begun. Phoenix Squadron from Star Wars Rebels wear uniforms that partially obscure the identity of their fighter pilots. The Force Awakens put Resistance fighters working with Leia in smart outfits. The many Mandolorian armors featured in Star Wars Rebels are a neutral display of groovy armor. Sabine, a member of Rebels’ main cast has great armor. She changes her armor and is allowed to make it fierce and girly at the same time. She doesn’t get her due in the show and deserves better. Dave Filoni has made some fantastic designs in Star Wars Rebels like Ahsoka’s armor, Kanan’s outfit, even Hera’s flight suit has a lot of personality. I hope with Filoni as head of Lucasfilm Animation, the future of Star Wars will be filled with really cool characters with mass appeal across age, culture and everything else who… you know didn’t commit kindercide; attempt to murder their kid: or murder a bunch of their brothers while attempting to murder the guy who killed his dad in self-defense, or the guy who killed his dad. Come on LFL, its for the kids!

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