Rogue One smacks of Star Wars‘ obsession with aggressive appropriation

As you might have read from my Rogue One review, I enjoyed it very much. But with the good comes the bad, and I had some gripes with it. One gripe I forgot to mention in my review was the uber-aggressive Arab world coding they were doing in it. It had gotten so aggressive on Jedha that I was literally taken out of the movie at points and was like, “Where’d they film this?!”

I was reminded of my distaste for these films when I saw Twitter user Dina’s thread on the subject. Key takeaways:

So key questions to ask here are 1) Why did the film get this aggressive with its coding, 2) How hurtful is it to the average American’s international knowledge, and 3) How can Hollywood wean themselves away from projecting the same stereotypes on foreign places?

1: Why did the film get this aggressive with its coding?

Star Wars has a history of being slightly aggressive with coding planets with real world analogs. Tatooine is basically the Sahara Desert, but was actually filmed in Tunisia and America’s Death Valley. Yavin 4 is a lush jungle planet, which was represented by Guatemala’s Tikal ruins and the forests the ruins reside in. For every planet, there’s a real world place. But beyond just the filming locations, other parts of the planets crib from real life as well. For instance, George Lucas got the name “Tatooine” from the real Tunisian city Tataouine. Similarly, as Dina points out, The planet Jedha gets its name from Jeddah, a city in Saudi Arabia.

Of course, seeing how this film is made by terrestrial humans who have never been to space, much less to other galaxies and off-world terrains, it’s understandable why the planets (which, if we’re being honest, act more like moons than actual planets with different continents and climates) feel familiar to us. It’s because they, in many ways, are familiar. They’re a collection of earth’s coolest/most awe-inspiring places, launched into a space opera.

However, using a desert for a desert planet is benign. When you start cribbing parts of cultures while layering stereotypical imagery onto planet’s people, then we have a problem.

Let’s get into what makes Jedha troublesome.

Jedha as Mecca: The official description of Jedha is that it’s a holy city for those who are disciples of the Force. Rogue One director Gareth Edwards has described it, quite literally, as Mecca. To quote him (via MTV News):

“If A New Hope is kind of like the story of Jesus, there must be a whole religion beyond that,” he said. “We felt like, for 1,000 generations, the Jedi were kind of these leaders of the spiritual belief system. It’s got to be like a Mecca or a Jerusalem, but in the Star Wars world.”

In the story of Star Wars, it makes sense that there should be a holy city. But does it have to be quite literally a city that takes all of the stereotypes of the Arab world and mash them together? Take a look at these pictures, culled from various press junkets and collections of official Star Wars images and screenshots:

Do these images seem familiar? Well, you might have seen some of their other brothers in Raiders of the Lost Ark:

and The Phantom Menace.

There are other tropes like this found throughout film and television. Dina notes Homeland, which is a great example, as well as Season 4 of Sherlock:

And Lawrence of Arabia:

And many more.

Hollywood’s fascination with what I’m calling “the bazaar aesthetic” is something that’s throughout film, and sure, bazaars exist throughout the Middle East and India, as shown below. But even then, there’s varying difference between bazaars; they don’t all look the same.

Hyderabad bazaar
near Charminar, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh, India. (Ryan/Flickr Creative Commons)

 

Grand Bazaar in Kapali Carsi, Istanbul, Istanbul (Antti T. Nissinen/Flickr Creative Commons)

But that’s not all to the Middle East. Take for instance Jordan, where some of the Jedha desert scenes were filmed. What Rogue One used were Jordan’s deserts for the outskirts of Jedha. That’s cool. But let’s also look at what else Jordan has to offer in the real world aside from its deserts:

Jordan Trip (Christian Heilmann/Flickr Creative Commons)

 

Amman, Jordan (Alicia Bramlett/Flickr Creative Commons)

 

Jordan Trip (Christian Heilmann/Flickr Creative Commons)

 

Aqaba Street, Jordan
The main street along the sea front in the centre of Aqaba, Jordan. (Rob/Flickr Creative Commons/www.bbmexplorer.com)

Of course, the main Jedha scenes were shot at Pinewood Studios in London, but I’m using these images of modern Jordan because the tropes of Jedha reflect on the Middle East as a whole. Hollywood would have you believe that the Middle East is all desert and open-air markets, but surprise! The Middle East is just like the rest of the world; full of paved roads, cars, and buildings.

Seriously aggressive sartorial references to the Middle East: It’s worth pointing out that the headscarves and ceremonial robes found in Jedha reference today’s headscarves, hijabs, niqabs, and burkas worn in various parts of the Middle East. Not that there wouldn’t be an outer space city that might have a cultural tie to head coverings, but it’s especially noteworthy that a place designed to be Space Mecca also has clothing with such overt references to Islam. Did the allegory have to be taken this far in Star Wars, to the point that we forget a little that we’re watching a film about distant planets?

Also, the act of using Islamic sartorial choices goes along with Star Wars‘ other practice of cribbing cultural and ethnic styles and arranging them in a mish-mash to “create” something otherworldly. This practice goes all the way back to Princess Leia’s “cinnamon buns,” the style stemming from Lucas supposedly using Revolutionary-era Mexican women freedom fighters, or soldaderas, as inspiration. However, there’s been contention with that statement, and some now link Leia’s hairstyle to the hairstyles worn by the women of the Hopi tribe. But the appropriation-as-inspiration practice was at its height during the years of the Star Wars prequels, in which Padme/Queen Amidala had styles ranging from Japanese geisha to ancient Mongolian elite, to African updo to actual Hopi hair buns.

Inspiration: Geisha

Inspiration: Mongolian headdress

Inspiration: Geisha

Inspiration: Hopi hairstyle

Inspiration: The hairstyles of the Mangbetu women of the Congo

I get that these styles are “cool,” but they aren’t just cool for cool’s sake; there’s are complete cultures these styles are attached to, and to rob them of their actual context by putting them in a “cultureless” space opera whitewashes these styles to a certain degree.

2: How hurtful is it to the average American’s international knowledge?

The answer is simple: Americans already believe in too many stereotypes as it is. Due to what the media tells us about foreign locales, we believe that cities that aren’t in the Western world are behind the times or haven’t been affected (for better or worse) by westernization and capitalism.

Another example of a modern movie casting a “noble savage” light on a foreign place: Doctor Strange. As I wrote in my review of the film, the film posits Nepal as a place that still hasn’t been touched by the effects of the 21st century.

The film portrayed Nepal as some mystical place without roads or modern transportation. Everyone looked like they were mere seconds away from getting on their knees to pray. Religion might be a huge part of a country, but that doesn’t mean everyone in the country have to look like devotees. The film shows a side of Nepal that looks like this:

Kathmandu, Nepal--Asan Tole Market by Juan Antonio F. Segal (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Kathmandu, Nepal–Asan Tole Market by Juan Antonio F. Segal (Flickr/Creative Commons)

This picture looks similar to the types of crowds Stephen Strange came upon as he was looking for The Ancient One. But Nepal also looks like this:

Shiddha Pokhari by Dhilung Kirat "This centuries old pond is situated at Dudhpati-17 the entrance of the ancient city Bhaktapur. This 275m×92m pond was built in the early fifteenth century during the reign of King Yakshya Malla. It is considered as the most ancient pond in Bhaktapur which is known to have many myths associated to it. Nowadays, the pond of both religious and archeological importance has been one of the popular hangout and dating destinations in Kathmandu valley." (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Shiddha Pokhari by Dhilung Kirat
“This centuries old pond is situated at Dudhpati-17 the entrance of the ancient city Bhaktapur. This 275m×92m pond was built in the early fifteenth century during the reign of King Yakshya Malla. It is considered as the most ancient pond in Bhaktapur which is known to have many myths associated to it. Nowadays, the pond of both religious and archeological importance has been one of the popular hangout and dating destinations in Kathmandu valley.”
(Flickr/Creative Commons)

 

Kathmandu Valley Sunset by Mike Behnken (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Kathmandu Valley Sunset by Mike Behnken (Flickr/Creative Commons)

 

Kathmandu , Nepal,Himalayas,Everest by ilkerender (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Kathmandu , Nepal,Himalayas,Everest by ilkerender (Flickr/Creative Commons)

 

Boats at Lake Phewa in Pokhara, Nepal by Mario Micklisch (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Boats at Lake Phewa in Pokhara, Nepal by Mario Micklisch (Flickr/Creative Commons)

 

Nepal, Kathmandu, Boudhanath by SCILLA KIM (Flickr/Creative Commons)
Nepal, Kathmandu, Boudhanath by SCILLA KIM (Flickr/Creative Commons)

The point is there’s a lot more to Nepal, to just Kathmandu, than the film suggests. Is there time to visit every locale in Nepal? Of course not. But there was enough time to not give Nepal the “noble savage” treatment, which means, according to Wikipedia:

A noble savage is a literary stock character who embodies the concept of an idealized indigene, outsider, or “other” who has not been “corrupted” by civilization, and therefore symbolizes humanity’s innate goodness. In English, the phrase first appeared in the 17th century in John Dryden‘s heroic play The Conquest of Granada (1672), wherein it was used in reference to newly created man. “Savage” at that time could mean “wild beast” as well as “wild man”.[2] The phrase later became identified with the idealized picture of “nature’s gentleman”, which was an aspect of 18th-century sentimentalism. The noble savage achieved prominence as an oxymoronic rhetorical device after 1851, when used sarcastically as the title for a satirical essay by English novelist Charles Dickens, whom some believe may have wished to disassociate himself from what he viewed as the “feminine” sentimentality of 18th and early 19th-century romantic primitivism.[a] 

Even though the film didn’t have any of the extras speak, it clearly showcased Kathmandu as an idealistically mystical, Othered space, with closeups on holy men and temples. The extras also weren’t wearing Western clothes, something that further separated them from actual depictions of 21st century Nepalese people. Western exports have made their way all around the globe, including Nepal, and as you can see in the above pictures, folks are wearing leather jackets, hoodies, polo shirts, slacks and jeans. Even the woman with the shawl on in the first picture is wearing Westernized sandals, a long-sleeved red shirt and some green pants, and one of the men buying her wares, the guy with the leather jacket, has an iPod. If you took a shot of the extras in the Kathmandu sequence and put it in black and white, it could act as a shot from a film about Nepal in the 1800s, not the 21st century. This is not to say that portraying Nepalese people wearing traditional clothing is anachronistic; what I am saying is that painting a picture of the Nepalese as a people who haven’t been affected by world commerce and capitalism is a false picture.

The “noble savage” idea wasn’t explicit, but it was very subtly implied in order to make Kathmandu seem like a perfect place for The Ancient One and to act as further contrast to Stephen’s New York sensibilities and, indeed, his whiteness.

When movies decide to portray places in a stereotypical fashion, it’s too easy for the stereotype to be accepted as the truth. It’s even more dangerous to use stereotypes in science fiction; when a place can look like anything and be anything, why rely on stereotypes? But when stereotypes get used in science fiction or fantasy, they’re usually couched in the excuse of “Well, it’s not real anyway! It can look however the creator wants it to look.” But when we’re limiting what’s possible in the imagination, we’re also dulling our senses to what actually exists in reality.

3: How can Hollywood wean themselves away from projecting the same stereotypes on foreign places?

The quickest answer is for Hollywood to start using a bit more imagination when coming up with a look for a futuristic place. Too often, science fiction relies on stereotypes or cultures-as-backdrop to do much of the heavy lifting in a scene. For instance, Blade Runner, in which an aggressive Japanese undercurrent can be seen in futuristic San Francisco.

Actress Alexis Rhee portrays the geisha depicted in Blade Runner. (Warner Bros.)

Of course, it can be explained away that San Francisco has a high Japanese population, so perhaps San Francisco would embrace more of Japan the more futuristic it gets. However, there’s hardly an Asian person in Blade Runner–Alexis Rhee, who is the billboard geisha, and James Hong as Hannibal Chew, round out the film’s Asian population. So the whole effect comes off as a cynical costume for a huge audience payoff.

Currently, we have Ghost in the Shell coming in where the original Blade Runner left off, using Japan itself as a costume for a film lacking in Japanese characters.

It literally uses the same billboard idea from Blade Runner. (Paramount Pictures)

Hollywood has got to stop relying on tired tropes like these. It only helps keep America in the dark about its neighbors, and it keeps movies themselves from having an even greater impact than they could have.

Star Wars images: Lucasfilm/Disney