Regardless of the galaxy or the faraway land where your favorite piece of fiction takes place, the “otherness” that attracts you must be couched in a sense of familiarity. Decisions and struggles need to ring true in dual contexts — the narrative and the consumers’ brains — for a fantastic tale to resonate. This is the reason that fictionalized worlds have proven rich soil for social science academics. The Dark Knight and Harry Potter were researchers’ favorite touchstones over the last decade, but Star Wars came first — and proved academically relevant in a very different way.
Practically built chapter by chapter from Joseph Campbell’s powerhouse book The Hero With A Thousand Faces, Star Wars is so thick with mythological archetypes that it can be — and has been — used to make studies of almost any aspect of the human psyche palatable to a broader audience.
But where Star Wars proves useful, providing easily understood and universally familiar quandaries without necessitating reductiveness, is in studies of religion, politics, and some messed up families.
Jediism and Religious Desire
With the premier of Star Wars: The Force Awakens around the corner, thousands of people are signing up to join the Church of Jediism. These followers may be new, but the Church isn’t. In 2001, an internet campaign encouraged people in the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand to identify as ‘Jedi’ when filling out that year’s census survey. More than 500,000 people complied. In the United Kingdom, Jediism not-so-officially became the fourth largest religion.
While the internet-prank component to Jediism can’t be denied, some people do legitimately believe in the power of the Force — the energy and divine power channeled by the Jedi Knights, warrior-monks by a different name. These people don’t believe in the real existence of the film’s characters, but do believe in the cosmic energy of the Force.
“For Jediist, the Christian concept of God and the Hindu concept of Prana can be combined because both really refer to the Force,” writes Leiden University religious studies professor Markus Davidsen. “Religious Jediism can be seen as a convergence of Star Wars fandom and salad bar spirituality.”
Jediism has become a core topic to the academic study of ‘fiction-based religion’ — faith based in fictions that don’t purport to be fact. That Jediism is an interesting lens through which to see Christianity shouldn’t come as a surprise. Both have roots in standard myths and Star Wars already bears numerous parallels to Biblical stories. The most common academic analogy made is between Moses and Luke Skywalker — both raised in obscurity then tasked with saving their people. The key difference is that one is a fictional character and the other is a historical figure. But religion has historicized the former and fictionalized the latter. That they meet in the middle is not insignificant.
Star Wars is Civics
George Lucas has never shied away from talking about the moral and political dimensions of his films. In a 1997 interview the filmmaker, who has long claimed that the Emperor was inspired by Richard Nixon and the rebellion was inspired by the North Vietnamese, said:
“I wanted it to be a traditional moral study, to have some sort of palpable precepts in it that children could understand…. Where do these lessons come from? Traditionally, we get them from church, the family, art, and in the modern world we get them from media — from movies.”
In a 2014 study published in Games and Cultures researchers make the case that this desire by Lucas — to instill a particular sense of morality — is particularly achieved when people play the game Star Wars: The Old Republic. In the multiplayer game players have to either join the Empire or the Republic and then actively choose how to proceed faced with the political turmoils of the galaxy.
“Within SWTOR players wrestle with political conflicts first posited centuries ago by Enlightenment thinkers and have an opportunity to use the game as a springboard for political reflection in the contemporary world,” writes the Manhattan College researchers.
They argue that “following the Star Wars precepts should improve society” and surveys conducted with SWTOR gamers appear to support their claims that the ethos of the films inspires gamers to be more civic minded. At the end of the game, the majority of the players stated that members of the Empire have a moral and legal right to revolt — the importance of freewill trumping any charade of peace the Empire provides.
“I do feel like the Jedi Philosophy in general can help in real-life situations and is beneficial,” said a survey respondent. “In a few small ways it [being a Jedi in the game] made me a better person.”
Star Wars Characters Have Issues
With sexual-tension between siblings, major romantic betrayal, and some serious Daddy-issues; many of the character’s in Star Wars would do well to see a therapist. In a 2014 paper researchers used Darth Vader as a classic case of parental influence leading to the development of ‘dark’ personality traits — machiavellianism, narcissism; psychopathy. Meanwhile, French psychologists argue in Psychiatry Research that young-Vader (Anakin Skywalker) meets the criteria for borderline personality disorder — a diagnosis, they believe, could be useful in educating the public and medical students about the symptoms.
Acknowledging the approaching release date of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, psychologists in a 2015 paper argue that the pop culture phenomenon hasn’t been used enough as an example of psychiatric themes. They think the films are an “untapped” resource and offer their own stabs at Star Wars therapy: C3PO is obsessive compulsive; Yoda has surface dyslexia; Luke Skywalker is an example of prodromal schizophrenia. They describe Jar Jar Binks as the “low-hanging fruit of psychopathology,” an easily identifiable example of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder.
Something social science can prove: Jar Jar Binks would have been a lot less annoying with a handful of Adderall.