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'Whatever You Do, Don't Stare': Modeling Representation of Otherness in the Star Wars Expanded Universe' at 'Realizing Resistance Episode II: Uncharted Galaxies'

On May 3, 2021, the Star Wars project presented "'Whatever You Do, Don't Stare': Modeling Representation of Otherness in the Star Wars Expanded Universe" at the conference Realizing Resistance Episode II: Uncharted Galaxies.

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 (Wetmore, 2005; Pearson, 2008; Wälivaara, 2018; Howe, 2012) 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 (Brekhus, 1998)?

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.

  • Brekhus, Wayne. “A Sociology of the Unmarked: Redirecting Our Focus.” Sociological Theory 16.1(1998): 34-51.
  • Howe, Andrew. “Star Wars in Black and White: Race and Racism in a Galaxy not So Far Away, 2012” Sex, Politics, and Religion in Star Wars: An Anthology. Ed Douglas Brode and Leah Deyneka; Plymouth: Scarecrow Press, 2012. 11-24.
  • Pearson, Wendy Gay. “Alien Cryptographies: The View from the Queer.” Queer Universes: Sexualities in Science Fiction. Ed. Wendy Gay Pearson, Veronica Hollinger, and Joan Gordon. Liverpool: Liverpool UP, 2008. 14-28.
  • Wälivaara, Josephine. “Blind Warriors, Supercrips, and Techno-marvels: Challenging Depictions of Disability in Star Wars.” Journal of Popular Culture 51.4(2008): 1036-1056.
  • Wetmore, Kevin J. Empire Triumphant: Race, Religion and Rebellion in the Star Wars Films. New York: McFarland, 2005.