'Star Wars' Worked in 1977 Because of Jungian Theories, But Is That Good?
Do you believe in the collective unconscious? Or is it all a lot of simple tricks and nonsense?
Understanding the giant appeal of Star Wars is kind of like trying to explain why the Bible is popular. Fans and pundits can point to psychological, psychiatric, and mythological theories for answers, but what does that prove? Is Star Wars good because it is good, or is it good because it affirms biases we already hold?
For decades now, when people have asked “Why is Star Wars popular?” hardcore Star Wars enthusiasts have had a bookish answer, ready to pull it out faster than Han Solo can unholster his blaster. It goes like this: Star Wars is popular because George Lucas cribbed from Joseph Campbell’s ideas about certain mythological structures that connect with people on a subconscious level. Conventionally, we call this the “Hero’s Journey,” and if you have a friend who loves talking about Star Wars, you’re probably sick of hearing about it. The notion that people were predisposed to like Star Wars unconsciously is something that seems easy to prove in terms of the 1977 zeitgeist in which it was new. But is any of that true anymore?
There’s certainly no question George Lucas set out to make a hit. The way in which he made Star Wars may have been risky, but his vision was always to cast a wide net. If mythology is what history called populism, then George Lucas is the biggest crowd-pleaser of all time. Here’s what he said in the 1997 Star Wars: The Annotated Screenplays:
“I had a longtime interest in fairy tales and mythology, that sort of thing. I had decided there was no modern mythology. I wanted to take old myths and put them into a new format that young people could relate to. Mythology always existed in unusual, unknown environments, so I chose space.”
But Lucas didn’t always intend to write a new series of space adventures. Because he was convinced to build a modern mythology out of old mythology, Lucas also initially wanted to outright remake old and crusty science fiction. From the same book, here’s Lucas admitting he first just tried to remake Flash Gordon:
“I liked Flash Gordon as a kid … It was the only action-adventure thing I came across as a kid that I could remember. So I got interested in that. I went and actually talked to the people who owned the rights to it. They said they weren’t interested.”
The rest, of course, is history. George Lucas went hardcore on crafting a movie series that did way more than steal from Flash Gordon or other science fiction; Star Wars was modeled on the psychological concept that a “monomyth” exists outside of just one story. A lot of this originates with psychiatrist Carl Jung’s theories about the nature of the subconscious. According to Jung, there is a collective unconscious, which means structures of our subconscious are dominated by our obsession with archetypes. In other words, according to Jungians, the dreams and stories we respond to are pretty much like a narrative version of the Force. Stories and characters that penetrate us and bind the galaxy together. Joseph Campbell applied this idea to storytelling in his famous book The Hero Witha Thousand Faces.
But, just like Freudians can’t prove that everybody wants to have sex with their mothers, Jungians can’t exactly prove that the monomyth and archetypal thing is true, from a strictly pragmatic or scientific point of view. Our emotional responses to Star Wars might happen because of the collective unconscious belief in archetypes and the importance of a monomyth, or it might just be a lot of simple tricks and nonsense.
Writing on her blog in 2013, famous science fiction author Ursula K. Le Guin had this to say about how notions of monomyth and the Hero’s Journey might not be all they’re cracked up to be:
“Jungians such as Joseph Campbell have generalized such journeys into a set of archetypal events and images. Though these generalities can be useful in criticism, I mistrust them as fatally reductive. ‘Ah the Night Sea Voyage!’ we cry, feeling that we have recognized something important — but we’ve merely recognized it. Until we are actually on that voyage, we have understood nothing.”
Infamously, in a 1978 essay, Le Guin criticized the adventure nostalgia of Star Wars and worried that the movie was overall regressive in terms of its messages. And she’s wasn’t alone, either. In his 1979 book, Breaking the Magic Spell: Radical Theories of Folk and Fairy Tales, Jack Zipes wrote about what he saw as the pandering and manipulative message of Star Wars.
“Essentially, the democratic system in America will function as long as the right people are in control, like Luke, Princess Leia and General Dodonna, who led the rebel forces. Yet, such illusions about democracy are forms of escapism preying upon wish-fulfillment of American audiences.”
Contemporary audiences grappled with this very problem around the time that Rogue One was released in 2016. For liberals, the film was about a diverse group of people fighting against an evil empire. But, for conservatives, the film was simply a parable for the American Revolution, complete with heavily-armed revolutionaries, wielding guns that look like real guns. The point is, though many want to claim Star Wars for their own political viewpoint, it’s monomythic status tends to be vague enough to be shoehorned into any political ideology. Even Margaret Atwood recently insinuated that the 9/11 terrorists might have been inspired by Luke Skywalker’s destruction of the Death Star in the original Star Wars film. If Atwood is right, then, in a sense, the monomyth concept of shared stories, at least in relationship to Star Wars, is true.
The problem then, of course, is that even though Star Wars touts a moral imperative, the nitty gritty ethics of what the characters do aren’t totally consistent. Luke Skywalker is a hero despite murdering countless people on the Death Star. Finn and Rose free the abused animals on Canto Bight but don’t do much to help any of the child slavery on that planet. These criticisms aren’t so much about calling out the characters in Star Wars for not being as a heroic as we think they are, but instead, opens up a conversation about how we, as fans, reconcile these problems.
The answer seems to be obvious. Star Wars succeeded in 1977 because George Lucas meticulously crafted a film that created a new mythology. Myths are, in a sense, where a culture vets its morals. And so, Star Wars, in being so successful, created an unstoppable force of confirmation bias. In, psychology, confirmation bias is the idea that we tend to interpret new ideas in a way that simply affirms beliefs we already hold. This can make people crazily overconfident or closed-minded. It can also be the source of faith and belief that lead to greatness.
The light side and the dark side of Star Wars don’t only exist in the movies themselves. They exist in our love of and obsession with these films. Most people who like Star Wars aren’t in favor of real-life wars, and yet, we somehow reconcile the endless depiction of horrible conflicts with our own beliefs. Jung would have explained this weird contradiction like this:
“The unconscious is not just evil by nature, it is also the source of the highest good: not only dark, but also light, not only bestial, semihuman, and demonic but superhuman, spiritual, and, in the classic sense of the word, ‘divine.’”
So, is Star Wars fandom good for you? No, but it’s not bad for you either. It seems that through these films, we’re working something out. Loving movies about families who murder each other isn’t weird. If anything, it’s common. Should we love Star Wars as much as we do? That’s one question we might not be able to answer. Or rather, we might not want to answer truthfully.
In a classic Saturday Night Live sketch, Bill Murray put words to the famous Star Wars theme. And If there’s a more prescient or accurate description of the way we Star Wars fans engage our brains with this insane phenomenon, it has yet to be discovered.
Oh Star Wars,
Nothing but Star Wars,
Give me those Star Wars,
Don’t let them end.
Oh Star Wars,
If they should bar wars,
Please let these Star Wars
Happy May the Fourth! Check out all the Star Wars events you should hit up, right here.