Star Wars deals with a large number of sci-fi beings, and uses them to say a lot about our world. We just discussed how Force ghosts are more message than person, so the next question that comes to mind is where droids fall on the spectrum. Are they "real people", who should be afforded dignity and happiness? Are they part of the Force?
Long before I started writing this blog, two comments about droids stood out.
- The droids in Phantom Menace talk to each other as if they have social structures that connote some level of independent action (the droid captain has to tell the other droid soldiers what to do), while they are also dependent on a central computer.
- The characters, particularly good characters, often treat C-3PO like an object, wiping his memory or selling him to Hutts without any respect to his wishes.
But subtle statements about the droids and their status populate the entire series. I mentioned "machines making machines" earlier… which perhaps could best be described as "machines commenting on machines making machines" for even more escheresque terminology. The most loaded scene is probably R2-D2 playing holo-chess against Chewbacca, when Han and C-3PO give the famous warning "Let the wookie win."
So what are droids? Droids are servants, through and through. But just because they aren't servants doesn't mean they aren't still people.
One of our first introductions to them is as Leia has given R2 and C-3PO a secret message and put them on an escape pod. The Imperial officer who scans the pod says it shows no life signs, and so dismisses it as a threat.
The (racist) Imperials do not detect for droids, only for biological people. And in doing so, they miss a key thing that leads to a major defeat for them.
This would be just like a British upstairs/downstairs comedy of manners, where the fact that the elitist gentry ignores the servants becomes their downfall. Servants are still people, as it is so easy for the elites to forget.
C-3PO is particularly interesting, which is to say, he is very self-consciously servile. He treats most humans exactly like an eager butler. He's fronting, pretending to be part of their upper class, while never actually claiming equality. He's gold plated.
(C-3PO really does not get along with the other underclasses. He insults Chewbacca, the 70's blaxpoitation cariacature, and condescends to the Ewoks when he first meets them. This is the sort of status-affirming class conflict our history is all too familiar with, where the people not at the top of the pyramid find it most important to emphasize that they are still above some other groups. By the end of Return of the Jedi, though, C-3PO is giving a gentle funeral service to the natives he was previously mocking.)
And we get this sort of… gentle effeminity across droid depictions. The droids of the Trade Federation army are purposefully non-threatening, which Lucas said he was going for. We're supposed to think of them as vaguely cartoonish and silly. Much like Jar Jar makes us uncomfortable, to demonstrate that treating him badly is still wrong.
(I'm particularly struck by how philosophical C-3PO often his. He off-handedly spouts theological truths, like we would expect more from the wise servant figures of an Alfred or Wooster.)
"But Blue," you might ask if you were philosophically inclined, "these are beings deliberately made to be our servants. Why do the humans owe equality or respect or autonomy to people who's very definition is to serve humans?"
And the movies show that even if a being desires to help you, you can still treat it badly or well. Senator Bail Organa coolly orders C-3PO's braind wiped at the end of Episode 3, at once pretending indifference while being quite clear at the violence that is being done. This recalls the scenes on Tatooine in Episode 1, where Anakin matter of factly states that there is a bomb in his head and he doesn't want to be a slave, but gives up on this moral message when the Jedi just ignore him.
C-3PO whines, but he whines about things that are very legitimate to be hurt by. Having his brain wiped, being lost in a desert, being sold to slavers. We laugh, the same way we laugh at Jar Jar when he insists he is sentient because "I spake!" It's against our ideas of politeness and stoic manners, but it's still true.
We should remember that just because someone is coded on the side of "good" does not mean they are acting correctly. Luke is plagued by the Dark Side. Good characters continue the logic of classism and corruption throughout the series. It is only in brief glimpses of transcendental logic do even the best characters manage to follow the Light Side. Only when they trust other people.
In comparison, Leia trusts the droids and works with them. R2-D2 himself "talks" to other computer systems on Bespin, and convinces the computer to do things around the security locks the Empire has put in place.
Which answers the question about those battle droids. They do have independent existence and have to hear orders from superiors to know what to do. But also they are slaved to a central computer that if it shuts down, they will shut down. This is not a contradiction, but instead a demonstration of how cruel the universe is to the lower classes. They are damned if they do, damned if they don't, just like the system wants them to be.