Destroy All Monsters: "Our Lot In Life" - Droid Personhood In STAR WARS
Is BB-8 a boy? A girl? A non-gendered utility device? I don't know. And I'm off the internet through the release of The Force Awakens because honestly, I don't want to find out. I mentioned who was playing Captain Phasma to my brother last week, and he got super pissed at me. At this point, I guess we're all better safe than sorry.
The question of gender as it relates to droids is interesting, if only in how it connects to the other, less-discussed aspect of these characters from the Star Wars saga: the status of their personhood. Gender is one of the great convocations of personhood; or at least, one of the most significant rubrics by which we connote and understand one's personhood (rightly or wrongly).
When The Phantom Menace rolled out in 1999, I admit I found the arrival of TC-14 on the Trade Federation battleship quite delightful. Silver-chassis, "male" breast-plate, and carrying the honeyed feminine vocal tones of Scottish actress Lindsay Duncan, TC-14 broke the original trilogy's droid gender hegemony right from the off.
In the original trilogy, there were, for all intents and purposes, only two droids: Artoo and Threepio. They are both identified as male. Their assumed maleness is important because it cuts against another key question around the droids: their varying "classes" of personhood, with respect to their form and function.
C-3PO is an anthropomorphic robot -- he has a human-esque body -- and he is imbued with voice and personality, and assigned a male gender. R2-D2, on the other hand, could be mistaken for a garbage can, and while he certainly has a discernible personality, he has no comprehensible voice (to humans, anyway).
He too, though, is assigned a gender. In the droid universe, we could argue that Artoo and Threepio are both equally viable "people," in spite of vastly different physical forms.
There are a handful of other droids in the original trilogy, but their gender is entirely unassumed or harder to discern. Besides 2-1B, only one droid besides C-3PO speaks English in the original trilogy: EV-9D9, the torture droid at Jabba's Palace.
For most of my life I've presumed that EV-9D9 was female, based on ephemeral aspects of the voice and visual design (though I've later learned that "her" voice was, in fact, provided by Return of the Jedi's late director, Richard Marquand). But her gender is non-canonical and far less interesting than the other aspect of her personality: she tortures other droids.
She's the droid equivalent of a slaver, certainly, if droids are people at all; she oversees the reclamation and re-use of Jabba's droid staff. This is what the Jawas do as well, but we tend to discuss them as scavengers.
The aspect that sets EV-9D9 apart is the fact that while she is talking to Artoo and Threepio in Jedi, a medical droid is being pulled apart right next to her (and screaming in distress), and a GNK power droid is -- for no purpose I've ever been able to discern -- having hot irons applied to his feet. (He, too, is screaming -- as one would.)
Artoo screams constantly throughout the trilogy, and Threepio wails incessantly about the inequities of life. ("We're doomed!" is, of course, Threepio's catchphrase; but "We seem to be made to suffer, it's our lot in life" seems like his mantra.) What I'm getting at, though, is this: these droids either feel and understand pain, or are programmed to behave as though they feel and understand pain, if there's even a difference between those two things.
In Jedi, other droids even use the feeling and understanding of pain towards some diabolical end -- the control of the droid pool at Jabba's Palace, I guess, or perhaps simpler, more sadistic motives. (There's a great droid character in the current Darth Vader comic book who, genuinely, just enjoys torturing people.)
My question to you is this: if droids are capable of feeling and expressing pain, and are sentient enough to have recognizable individual personalities (Artoo is not Threepio and Threepio is not Artoo, and neither of them are E-3PO, who is just plain rude), aren't they people?
And if they're people, then in the Star Wars frame of things, aren't they slaves?
Now, there are slaves everywhere in Star Wars. Anakin was one, and so was his mother. Oola is a slave, and Princess Leia's second-most-iconic look is drawn from the uncomfortable 20 minutes in Jedi when she, too, is a slave. (And a sexual slave, at that. Ugh.)
For the most part, in the morality of the Star Wars universe, slavery is considered wrong - for everyone, that is, except droids. For droids, slavery is normal: they are devices constructed by people to do peoples' bidding, and no amount of personality seems to make our human characters treat them as anything other than machines. Friendly machines, to be sure -- Luke's relationship with Artoo recalls that of a master and a particularly clever golden retriever -- but disposable non-people, nonetheless. (If Artoo hadn't been able to be repaired at the end of Star Wars, would Luke's smile at the medal ceremony have been any less wide? Probably not. There's always another droid.)
There's an organic quality to how we got here. Star Wars, as most fans know, was loosely based on the overall plot structure of Kurosawa Akira's The Hidden Fortress. That film, like Star Wars, followed two bumbling, bickering characters -- peasants in feudal Japan in that case, an important distinction to recall -- through a conflict upon which they have no direct influence but into which they are embroiled anyway.
The feudal Japan aspect is significant because a lot of the plot of The Hidden Fortress is supported by the class structures prevalent in Japan at the time. Tahei and Matashichi aren't slaves, but they are peasants, which in the hierarchy of characters in The Hidden Fortress meant that they really were at the bottom, and of lesser education, moral virtue, and political interest than the Princess (/Leia), the General (/Obi-Wan), and pretty much everyone else.
If Artoo and Threepio are meant to mirror those characters, then the mirroring works, except in that the guidelines for the class system in Star Wars are far less clear. Is "droid" a "class?" Do droids have rights? Sure, it's a period of civil war when Star Wars takes place and the galaxy is in thrall of a fascist dictatorship, but there's still a reasonable sense of human rights at play, even among the non-humans. (Non-canonical sources have even indicated that the Empire outlawed slavery in the Outer Rim, putting paid all the Wattos who once owned the galaxy's Anakins.)
And the older Artoo and Threepio get in the saga, the butt of more and more cruel jokes, the more the question seems to stick itself directly in our face. With all assumed casualness, Bail Organa orders Threepio's memory wiped at the end of Revenge of the Sith, the apparent moral equivalent of restoring one's iPhone. (This is also, of course, the case of a writer red-circling his own inability to make his continuity work without a retcon.)
But... my god!! Wiping a character's memory?! A character we have followed through six feature films? Even if that memory is just of having been put together out of spare parts from Watto's junk-yard, and eventually being sold to Cliegg Lars before getting up-jumped to royal courtier among the hoi polloi of Coruscant, and witnessing the final drama of the fall of Anakin Skywalker? How would any of us feel about having that much of our history taken away by cybernetic edict, replaced with a blank slate whose only common element are the words that become truer every time I hear them: we seem to be made to suffer?
What seemed like paranoid grousing in '77 seems more and more like a knowing jab at an unfeeling Maker as we roll towards Ball Droid in the next couple of weeks. What sort of horrible people are the Star Wars characters -- Han Solo, who threatens Threepio with abandonment to the enemy for not being able to run fast enough, and Chewbacca, who pulls droids arms' out of their sockets if he loses a game of chess? Who are these monsters, who deliver unto their droids these lives of ceaseless burden and torment, and then escape the moral consequences simply by hitting "reboot"?
Destroy All Monsters is a weekly column on Hollywood and pop culture. Matt Brown ain't on Twitter this week.