By: Danielle Sanchez, Assistant Professor, Colorado College; Founding Editor of Historifans
When I was watching the first episode of Obi-Wan Kenobi (2022) on Disney+, I was pleasantly surprised by the way the show hinted at a few issues that are frequent topics of conversation in my course, The Empires Strike Back: From Anti-Colonial Conflicts to Star Wars. During one of Queen Breha Organa’s parties on Alderaan, Senator Bail Organa mentions to Breha’s brother-in-law, Kayo, that they need to eventually deal with the troubling issues of slavery and taxation in the Outer Rim. Kayo responds that he needs to “save the bleeding heart for the Senate.”1 Additionally, a young Leia Organa defends her kindness towards droids after her cousin mocks her for treating them with respect (and delivers a great burn):
Leia’s cousin: You thank your droids?
Leia: It’s good manners.
Leia’s cousin: You don’t need manners when you are talking to droids.
Leia: Then I guess I don’t need manners when I am talking to you.Obi-Wan Kenobi, “Part 1,” Disney+, May 27, 2022.
These two allusions to slavery and droid rights in the first episode of Obi-Wan Kenobi allow viewers to briefly think not simply about labor and exploitation in Star Wars, but also how powerful figures like Senator Bail Organa were contemplating these issues.
Whenever I teach Frantz Fanon’s powerful and famous text, The Wretched of the Earth, students always shocked by the ideas that violence is a necessary part of anti-colonial revolutions and Fanon’s assertions about the important role of the lumpenproletariat in the process of decolonization. Why? As Fanon asserts, “The colonized man is an envious man,” and if a revolution was led solely by elites, it will only replicate the types of oppression embedded in colonialism.2 Instead, Fanon argues that the lumpenproletariat, the “cohort of starving men, divorced from tribe and clan, constitutes one of the most spontaneously and radically revolutionary forces of a colonized people.”3 As a result, the lumpenproletariat must collaborate and not simply participate in the revolution because they alone have nothing to lose.
In the context of Star Wars, we must then ask, “Who are/is the lumpenproletariat?” I argue that droids are the lumpenproletariat in the Star Wars saga. While some might quickly dismiss this idea based on the argument that droids are programmable and not stakeholders in galactic political institutions, I want to push back against such ideas by emphasizing that some droids are sentient, have feelings, and create original ideas. An excellent example of droid sentience is C-3PO’s emotional response to the plan to erase his memory in Star Wars: Episode IX- The Rise of Skywalker (2019).
Solo (2018) is the only film in the Star Wars franchise to address the issue of droid rights. L3-37, a piloting droid, made a strong case for droid rights, but humanoids seemed unwilling to listen to her well-reasoned arguments and pithy quips. L3 encouraged other droids to advocate for their rights and called attention to discrimination, including a bar that banned droids. L3 lived and died committed to the fight for droid rights. She ultimately launched a revolt on Kessel after she tackled the pesky issue of eliminating restraining bolts installed in droid laborers in the planet’s mines. In the end, L3 died a hero, but the oppression of droids continued well after her death.
Droids in Star Wars need more rights, but what role should they have in a revolution? Fanon states that the lumpenproletariat “give the liberation struggle all they have got, devoting themselves to the cause like valiant workers… These jobless, these species of subhumans, redeem themselves in their own eyes and before history.”5 If we buy into Fanon’s idea of the lumpenproletariat as a central part of a revolution, then yes, droids like L3-37 should absolutely be on the front lines of the fight. Yet, I am not convinced that collaboration in a revolution is enough to ensure droid rights in the post-war period. Treating droids with respect may be important to people like Leia Organa, but respect isn’t enough. Conventional leaders will always be incapable of fully understanding the struggles of the most marginalized beings in the galaxy. A revolution cannot be successful unless it liberates everyone, not simply those that galactic elites deem worthy of liberation. For this reason, droids (those with nothing to lose), are not only an essential part of a revolutionary struggle, but the only ones who are capable of liberating the galaxy from fascist, classist, and humanoidist exploitation.
Ultimately it was the Rebel Alliance, and not a general uprising of the droid lumpenproletariat, that defeated the fascistic Galactic Empire. However, the ideology of the revolution led by the Rebel Alliance was fairly superficial. As Fanon predicts, bipedal humanoids and aliens launched a fight against the Galactic Empire to defeat the spectacular violence of Darth Vader and Emperor Sheev Palpatine’s regime. Defeating Vader and Palpatine ultimately meant recreating a political system that worked for the few rather than the marginalized masses, including droids, slaves in the Kessel spice mines, and the vast majority of beings living throughout the galaxy in slums like Level 1313 on Coruscant. Their lives, for the most part, remained the same, whether they lived under the Galactic Republic, Federation, or Empire.
So what could a droid-led revolution have looked like a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away? In terms of leadership and priorities within a droid-led revolution, I would argue that droids would certainly fight against the oppression and violence of the Galactic Empire, but would not necessarily advocate for a return to the status quo of the Galactic Republic. While the Galactic Republic vilified the Separatists, largely because of the ways then-Chancellor Palpatine co-opted the movement, many of the original ideas behind their cause may have resonated with the droids. A major critique of the Galactic Republic and Senate was that these entities were led by out-of-touch elites who did not understand the Outer Rim, a vast region of planets and communities that simply wanted the right to self-determination. These tensions are certainly central to the “Water War” arc of Clone Wars, in which the Quarren people from the planet Mon Cala were tired of their second-class citizenship under the Republic-backed Mon Calamari monarchy. The Galactic Republic’s decision to support the Mon Calamari and defend their rule had no regard for Quarren rights or Mon Calamari political legitimacy, corruption, or exploitation; rather, they were solely concerned with the aquatic planet’s strategic significance and the fear of losing Mon Cala to the Separatist movement.
What does this have to do with droids? The “Water War” on Mon Cala provides us with the opportunity to think through a few pressing issues, including minority rights and the limits of political participation among marginalized populations in both the Mon Cala monarchy and the larger Galactic Republic.
A droid revolution, in the tradition of Fanon and L3-37, would advocate for concrete political gains for the galactic masses. If droids had the power to lead a radical revolution, I think that they would likely advocate for intragalactic actions or perhaps a charter that would protect minority rights, outlaw slavery, guarantee compensation for droids, and create structures for universal access to education and healthcare across the galaxy. After all, each of these actions build upon the demands of L3-37 in Solo. In pushing for these universal rights, droids would create opportunities for not simply democracy, but also protections for the most marginalized beings in the galaxy.
A droid revolution, in the tradition of Fanon and L3-37, would advocate for concrete political gains for the galactic masses. If droids had the power to lead a radical revolution, I think that they would likely advocate for intragalactic actions or perhaps a charter that would protect minority rights, outlaw slavery, guarantee compensation for droids, create structures for universal access to education and healthcare across the galaxy. After all, each of these actions build upon the demands of L3-37 in Solo. In pushing for these universal rights, droids would create opportunities for not simply democracy, but also protections for the most marginalized beings in the galaxy.
While this hypothetical intragalactic charter for universal rights may cover major civil rights and social justice issues, it is also necessary for us to think about the concept of freedom. Members of the Galactic Senate and the Rebel Alliance may have felt they were engaging in a fight for freedom, but we must ask, freedom for whom? The idea of freedom is complicated, especially when we consider the late Tyler Stovall’s final book, White Freedom, which argues that freedom as a concept relies on the limitation of the freedoms of Black people.7 Freedom for the Galactic Republic relied on the marginalization and exploitation of droids and others. Sovereignty in Star Wars required subjugation through slavery, corrupt bargains with abusive regimes, second-class citizenship, and non-representative political structures that privileged elites, specifically humanoids.
For droids, freedom is drastically different. Freedom for droids would entail full rights, including corporeal autonomy, as well as restorative justice efforts to ensure that droids and other marginalized populations have greater opportunities to determine the future of their planets and the galaxy. Yes, liberation for all may be painful for some, but it is only through such a revolution that the galaxy could progress towards a more just future.
I am also fairly certain that there would be more accountability among those who would perhaps identify as allies of droids during and after a droid-led revolution. Perhaps in that scene from Episode IX when the team decided to erase C-3PO’s memory, events would have unfolded differently. When C-3PO asserts, “I’ve just thought of something else we could try,” his comrades would have perhaps honored not only his corporeal autonomy, but also would have been required to listen to his idea.8
Dr. Danielle Sanchez (she/her/hers) is an Assistant Professor in the Department of History at Colorado College. Her research focuses on the Second World War in Africa, specifically popular culture, consumption, and social movements in wartime central Africa. She teaches a range of pop culture and history courses, but her favorites are Health and Healing in African History, The Empires Strike Back: From Anti-Colonial Resistance to Star Wars, and Writing Graphic Novels. Her nerdy obsessions: knitting, Star Wars, Harry Potter (except the TERF crap), contemporary romance novels, and the MCU. Twitter: @drdanisanchez
- Obi-Wan Kenobi, “Part 1,” Disney+, May 27, 2022.
- Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (New York: Grove Press, 2004), 5.
- Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 81.
- Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker, directed by J.J. Abrams (Lucasfilm and Bad Robot, 2019).
- Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth, 81.
- Solo: A Star Wars Story, directed by Ron Howard (Lucasfilm and Walt Disney Pictures, 2018).
- Tyler Stovall, White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2021).
- Star Wars: Episode IX – The Rise of Skywalker.
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