Religion prof explains our love of Star Wars
Kenneth MacKendrick is a professor of religion in the Faculty of Arts at the University of Manitoba. His current research focuses on the relationships between cognition, imagination and religion, with a particular interest in pretense, fantasy play and imaginary companions. In his courses, he addresses the nature of good and evil, myths and myth-making, the identification with heroes, and how discourses on religion develop.
Oh, and he loves science fiction.
With the release of The Force Awakens, we asked MacKendrick to share his thoughts on the phenomenon of Star Wars.
UM Today: What’s the big deal about Star Wars?
Kenneth MacKendrick: It’s a paracosm. Right from the very first screen, you get the impression you’re entering into it, putting you right into the middle of the story. It’s a built world, and we have to unravel the details as we participate. It’s familiar enough for us to engage, but strange enough to hook us and pull us in.
What about the good versus evil theme?
There’s an obvious dichotomy built into the series. Darth Vader is very sinister, and there’s no question of his character. He’s depicted wearing black, while in the first scene, Luke is wearing white, so it’s a very tried and true story of good guys versus bad guys.
On the other hand, it’s also a story of a boy on a quest. It’s a “coming of age” story that is a very popular plot in films and books. Again, this is one reason why Star Wars works; it’s very familiar on many levels.
“Star Wars is useful.”
Why does Star Wars “work?”
Much of it is the merchandising. You can get the lunchbox, the books and all the toys. The books are very available, as are the other vehicles to get the public interested. The number of Star Wars movies has been fairly small during the past 36 years, whereas Marvel is making four films each year! There’s also a good continuity across all the films that carry the narrative. And the merchandise itself is reflected in the movies. You can get a toy light saber. A Millennium Falcon. A Death Star. Fans can literally “buy in” to the narrative.
There’s also a very good consistency in the material. How the Force works is very consistent, for example. There are simple rules on how it works. People are either basically good or basically evil, and while both can use the Force, good seems to have edge – sometimes. It’s like Harry Potter’s magic. It can never fail if used properly, and the predictability makes the story attractive.
Part of the enduring appeal of Star Wars is its utility. Star Wars is useful. It can be read (or used) as a political allegory (for example, the Cold War), as pure science fiction fun, a coming of age story, male buddy-buddy film, or as having deep-seated religious meaning. Each of these interpretations makes the film accessible to different audiences which can then use them for their own purposes and needs.
If Star Wars is a male “coming of age” story, why does it attract a female audience too?
The shift in gender is already there. My research shows that for much science fiction, women are reading the books more than men. Stories and fan fiction have a largely female audience, who are consuming it in great numbers. It’s women who mostly write Star Trek and Lord of the Rings fiction. Star Wars is analogous because although it’s being marketed to men, with a male cast, there’s a female audience wanting to see that. The Star Wars toys are being marketed to young boys, but the female audience is interested in epic, the saga, and more of the character and rich world development in the story. The marketing of Star Wars today is reflecting something not reflected before, aimed at both a male and female audience. And marketing to both makes economic sense.
As a professor of religion, how do you view Star Wars in that context?
There is a debate among academics in religion as to whether or not Jediism, the “religion” in Star Wars, should be considered a “real” religion. On the pro side, it’s recognized that Jediism is an invented religion. For some scholars, this is what religion looks like in the 20th and 21st Century. It’s no different than the “Church of Elvis,” which exists in today’s culture. On the no side, Jediism is described as simply a parody, like a joke, so it shouldn’t be called a “real” religion.
But my view is that I don’t care. It’s more important that some people want to claim it is a religion at all. I mean, it’s inadequate for fans to label Jediism just fandom or a social club. Look at what happens on May 4th, when the Internet announces that day is a holiday that should be taken off work. In some places, Jediism has acquired the powers and privileges afforded established religions. It’s a good example of how fiction takes on a life and applicability outside the realm of fiction. The movies Avatar and Harry Potter are very similar. They have spawned religious thought among their fans, who say they learned positive values and lessons from the films, like courage and bravery. We all get values and significance from narratives, and if Star Wars has done that for some people, that’s interesting.