Friday, November 7, 2014

These Aren’t the Tricks You’re Looking For

Today we’re going to get deeper into some of the running themes of the Prequels here, how they repeat themselves over and over again, and how one thing recurring over the entire six movies can tell a message.

So, what other scene bothers many old school Star Wars fans? Perhaps Obiwan Kenobi misusing the “Jedi Mind Trick”

Wanna buy some death sticks?

OBI-WAN looks at him. He moves his fingers slightly.

You don't want to sell me death-sticks.

I don't want to sell you death-sticks.

OBI-WAN moves his fingers.

You want to go home and rethink your life.

I want to go home and rethink my life.

For fans of the Jedi, this scene is disturbingly paternalistic. Uh, Obi-Wan, clearly you have good intent, but taking away someone’s free will to make them follow a better life path does not seem like a very good idea. It’s more than a little arrogant, which is against the view we have of the Jedi Order as humble and accepting.

So we must ask. What is a Jedi Mind Trick?

We might as well ask “What is the Force?” We’ll get to that. But here is a good point to make an interesting delineation. The Jedi see using the Force as both a way of listening to the universe for currents and destiny and the right choice, and as a reference to their magic powers that bend things to their will. Telekinesis and the mind trick, mostly. These two types of Force power really are not treated the same throughout the movies.

The Star Wars Wikia gives a good summary of every time the mind trick is used. Showing only the movies here:

  • In 32 BBY, while on Naboo, Qui-Gon Jinn used a mind trick to convince the leader of the Gungans, Boss Nass, to allow Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi to depart in a bongo with Jar Jar Binks. [ALIEN]
  • Later, on Tatooine, Jinn attempted to convince Watto, a Toydarian junk dealer, to allow him to use Republic credits to buy spare parts for Queen Amidala's royal starship. Watto asked Jinn if he thought he was "some kind of Jedi, waving [his] hand around like that." He claimed that, being Toydarian, "mind tricks don't work on me… only money."  [FAILURE]
  • In 22 BBY on Coruscant, Obi-Wan Kenobi refused the offer of a slythmonger, Elan Sel'Sabagno for cilona-extract "death sticks", which were powerful narcotics. Kenobi convinced the slythmonger with a wave of his hand that he didn't want to sell him death sticks, and instead he wanted to "go home and rethink his life." [ALIEN]
  • A few days later, Padmé Amidala asked Anakin Skywalker if he was going to use the mind trick on her. He replied that it would only work on the weak-minded, implying that Padmé's mind was too strong—and Anakin knew it (or was otherwise just a pass that Anakin made on Padmé).
  • Around 21.7 BBY, Jedi Master Yoda used the mind trick to make Captain Typho –responsible for Padmé Amidala's safety– recommend that they needed to save Luminara Unduli and Barriss Offee on Ilum, which was a "slight deviation" from their route. Although Padmé clearly recognized the trick, she still happily ordered Typho to go to Ilum. [NOT WHITE]
  • In 21 BBY, Obi-Wan used a mind trick on a Weequay pirate to convince him that he did not want to stand guard, and that he wants to deactivate the cell bars and go out drinking. [ALIEN]
  • Obi-Wan again used a mind trick to avoid any unnecessary entanglements, on the sinkhole world of Utapau. In order to procure transport needed to track down General Grievous, Obi-Wan used the Force to persuade a local Utai dragonmount-handler to assist him. The Utai allowed Kenobi to ride Boga, a loyal varactyl mount, to reach the tenth level of Pau City. [ALIEN]
  • In 0 BBY Obi-Wan once more made use of the Jedi mind trick, this time to convince a stormtrooper that Luke Skywalker and he did not have the droids for which the Empire was searching, and that it would be best if they moved along. [CLONE]
  • Obi-Wan also used it to distract Imperial officers while disabling the tractor beam holding the Millennium Falcon captive onboard the first Death Star, although this was clearly not a direct mind trick. It may have been a Force manipulation, as Obi-Wan Kenobi uses the same trick in 19 BBY, towards the end of the Clone Wars. [CLONE]
  • Luke Skywalker used a mind trick on Bib Fortuna in 4 ABY after entering Jabba's Palace. [ALIEN]
  • In 4 ABY, Luke Skywalker used the mind trick to convince Bib Fortuna to allow him an audience with Jabba the Hutt. Jabba later criticized Fortuna for falling for such a mind trick. [ALIEN]
  • Luke tried to use it on Jabba, who told Luke that his "mind powers will not work on him." [FAILURE]

Oh dear. Almost every recipient of a Jedi Mind Trick is an alien or a clone. And a black man, great. (The clone status of Stormtroopers in the Original Trilogy may be uncertain. But they aren’t full-fledged individuals, more akin to something other than a normal human.)

The Republic (and later, Empire) are run by white human males (non-clones too). Star Wars has aliens, drones, clones, and several other scifi creations, but the top of the class hierarchy there is basically the same as it is in modern day America. Whatever the government of the galaxy is, the culture of it definitely has white humans on top.

The “Jedi Mind Trick” is class intimidation. You be clever and confident at someone who has lower status than you, and your sheer willpower gets them to puppet your words. This is a thing in the real world.

Again, these dozen points are not a coincidence. Mind control is a very tactically useful power, and there are many times the Jedi could use it to get what they want, particularly on other white humans, but they don’t. The ways the movies use to constrain this power from being game-breaking, say a lot about how this universe works.

There’s some tossed off comments about it only working on the "weak-minded”. That’s definitely the sort of (unfalsifiable) language a privileged group uses to explain their advantage over oppressed groups.

Right. So why doesn’t it work on those two aliens who prevent such obstacles to the plot (Watto and Jabba). What do these aliens have in common, besides vague claims of being strong-minded?

They are both slave owners.

Class intimidation doesn’t work on someone who literally owns other people.

Chilling, all of a sudden. There are extremely disturbing things going on with the Jedi Mind Trick. Which should have been obvious since we are talking about mind control. The fact that throughout the other movies the (white human) Jedi make mind control look charming and benign, tells us a lot about racism and classism. It tells us how quaint they can look on the surface, even when we know the violence that is being done. Episode 2 is where the films start to lift this veil, and start to bother us with how bad some of these tools are. And always have been.

This scene says how we treat people of lower class than us. Now stop trying to sell me a death stick, and go home and think about your life.


Throughout this analysis, one response that will be common is “okay maybe you can see that, but did the author intend it?” Did Lucas intend for the cute Mind Trick to be a recurring symbol for white human - oppressed class relations?

What if he did not? This recurrence would then mean that when presented with the tool of casual mind control, the primary way he sees to use it is “confident white men convincing relative aliens to parrot their words.” Which would be a reflection of the world Lucas was in, after all.

In a piece of art that is representing reality (and the world of the Prequels is definitely a stand in for multicultural, liberal, capitalist, governmentally broken, flawed America), it’s impossible to separate what aspects of reality the author is purposefully including, and which slip in through the logic of the real world that the author can’t let go.

And when it comes to something as thoroughly polluted as the Jedi Mind Trick, it doesn’t really matter either.

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