Medals, Species, and Identity in Star Wars Episode IX
As you may guess from the title, this contains two or three mild spoilers from Star Wars Episode IX and multiple spoilers from other Star Wars films and books. Do that with what you will.
Episode IX has been out for a week as of this writing and it has encountered mixed receptions from critics and fans alike. On the film critic aggregation site Rotten Tomatoes, it is the lowest-rated film of the five new ones (even lower than Solo), but among the audience score, it is tied for first with The Force Awakens. One of the main criticisms leveled against it is that it engages in too much fan service and, as a result of the distraction, loses some level of coherent storytelling.
One such moment is when Maz Kanata delivers a medal to Chewbacca from Leia. This medal is a callback to the first movie, Star Wars: A New Hope (ANH), when Leia gives out medals to the main characters of the film after destroying the Death Star. Notably, only Luke Skywalker and Han Solo get a medal while Chewbacca (and the droids) do not earn the honor. A well known, and argued, oversight from 42 years was remedied. There may have been production-related reasons why this occurred, but there are also a few in-universe explanations as to why Chewbacca left ANH without a medal.
While this small moment in Episode IX seems to clearly be a nod to longtime fans of the series, it has other important implications that critics and social media commentators are quick to overlook. Before we get to the meaning of the medal, a few key points worth mentioning.
First, each of the new Saga movies (VII, VIII, IX) seems devoted to dealing with one of the three main characters from the original trilogy (again forgetting Chewbacca and the droids) and their relationship with the next generation. Episode VII primarily focused on Han, his present life, his past choices, his mistakes, and his attempt to reconcile with Kylo (which proves to be his ultimate end). Episode VIII focuses on Luke, his isolation after failure, his disconnectedness from being the hero, and his unwillingness to shoulder the burdens of others’ expectations. Eventually, he gets out of his force-isolating funk and sacrifices himself to buy the Resistance a bit more time. Episode IX was set to be Leia’s story, though Carrie Fisher passed away two years ago. While they had filmed some scenes with Fisher prior to her death, it seems clear that some of her lines and interactions had to be scrapped or given to other characters and her presence in the movie is weaker than originally planned. Leia’s final, posthumous act in the film is important, not just to Chewbacca or the fans, but to her story as well.
Leia’s background is important in understanding the importance of why and when Chewie gets a medal. After her mother’s death, she is given to the Organa family, an important political family from Alderaan with one spouse serving as a Galactic Senator and the other as Alderaan’s Queen. While part of the Senate, Bail Organa had become friends with Leia’s mother (both a Senator and former Queen herself) and together created a political faction that laid the foundations of political resistance that would later help create the Rebel Alliance. While the Organa family was not in favor of the actions of the Empire, they were participants in its political system and Alderaan was a member of it until the planet’s destruction.
Being a member of the Empire subjects you not only to its policies but also to its propaganda. During Episode III, prior to the creation of the Empire, there is a battle between the Republic (clone troopers) and the Separatists (droid army) over the planet of the Wookiees, Kashyyyk. The Separatists desire to control the planet due to its strategic location. The Republic wins this battle and forces the separatists from the Republic-loyal planet. However, once the Republic gives emergency powers to Palpatine and he transforms it into the Empire, he uses the garrisoned troops on Kashyyyk to take over the planet and enslave the Wookiees. The Empire promptly blockades the planet and uses Kashyyyk for both its labor and resources. Han helping Chewie escape from Imperial enslavement is part of the life-debt that defines their relationship and drives their actions in various adventures, including Han and Chewie’s drive to free the planet after Episode VI.
Along with the blockade comes quite a bit of propaganda to convince the Empire’s subjects that Wookiees are animals and sub-human.* The speciest propaganda is most evident in the canon non-film works, but we get small snippets of it throughout the films. This should not be too surprising as the Empire’s hierarchy is dominated by white, male humans and deviation from that serve as notable exemptions that exist mostly outside of the films. The Empire is a speciest, racist, and sexist totalitarian government. The rebel alliance also has a gender and race problem in the original trilogy but does far better on the species front. The non-film expanded universe shows more diversity for the rebels while also expanding the role of women in the Empire. The canon novels of the Aftermath trilogy and the young adult book Lost Stars both feature prominent women in the Empire.
In Solo, Imperial soldiers refer to Chewbacca as a “beast” that they intend to feed Han to and, after they think Chewie kills Han, one soldier asks, “You tired, you mangy Kashyyykian moof-milker?” A campaign of propaganda would not only affect the soldiers that control Kashyyyk, but also the Imperial subjects of the Empire more broadly, and we see this in Princess Leia. Leia’s views of Chewbacca are not charitable as she often robs Chewie of both his agency and his humanity. Early in ANH, she yells, “Will someone get this big walking carpet out of my way?” When she rejects Han’s advances in Empire Strikes Back, she conjures up something much more horrifying to kissing him and suggests that she “just as soon kiss a Wookiee.” Her droid is not much kinder when C3PO calls Chewbacca a “Fleabitten furball” and tells Lando Calrissian at one point to excuse Chewie’s behavior because he is “only a Wookiee.”**
The freeing of Kashyyyk happens offscreen sometime in between Episode VI and VII and Leia’s awarding of the medals to just Han and Luke is consistent with her adopting the propaganda of the Empire. If we believe Lucas’ explanation, then Kashyyyk being enslaved. would make the following explanation he gives unbelievable and contradict other retcons: “The whole contingent from the Rebel Alliance went to Chewbacca’s people and participated in a very large celebration. It was an honor for the entire Wookiee race.” Instead, for Leia and the alliance, Chewie is a mostly non-sentient non-actor or, at best, a sidekick to Han. It is only at the end of Episode IX that she redeems her microaggressive slights and views by giving Chewie what he earned over four decades previously.
Justin Vaughn and I have argued that science fiction is a useful tool to examine counterfactual political science topics and Star Wars not only provide insights into institutions and conflict, but also identity and recognition. The next struggle for the characters in the Star Wars universe is to recognize the work L3-37 was doing in Solo and elevate droids beyond the mere tools for human ends. After all, there are many a cantina, not unlike the one in Mos Eisley on Tatooine, where their kind are not served.
*Writers tend to define different aliens in Star Wars as being different species and not different kinds of humanoid races. As such, I will keep in line with that idea despite Star Wars having aliens that clearly come from exaggerated human cultural and racial stereotypes.
**Wookiee should have two Es, not just one as the poster below incorrectly has.
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