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“Whatever you do, don’t stare”: Modeling Representations of Otherness in the Star Wars Expanded Universe

On April 21st, 2021, Mark Algee-Hewitt, Quinn Dombrowski, Nichole Nomura and Matt Warner will present the first results on their analysis of novels in the Star Wars extended universe.

The Star Wars franchise offers a powerful set of representations of otherness within its transmediated cultural artifacts. While previous work on representation of racialized, gendered and othered bodies in the Star Wars universe has rested on the visible signals of identity and otherness that visual mediation presents to viewers (in the films, televisions series, and graphic novels), relatively little work has been done on the textual representation of these markers of difference in the novels. Within a purely textual medium, how is otherness communicated and how does it map onto our own categories of race, ethnicity and gender identity? When is it necessary to identify a character as an alien? As a humanoid? How do these identities intersect with gender? And to what extent does human-ness play the role of the default representational category, echoing the ways in which whiteness is an unmarked category within racialized depictions of characters in non-science fiction literature?

In this project, we leverage computational textual analysis to explore the background discourses of the human and the other in the extensive universe of the Star Wars novels. Using a corpus of nearly 400 published Star Wars novels written between 1978 and 2020, we combine embedding spaces, machine learning models and close reading to explore how different authors mobilize similar representations of the human and the non-human (the humanoid, the alien, the robotic) in ways that replicate and influence the discourse of otherness in our wider culture.