The 'Star Wars' Way to Look at Life, Courtesy of This Epic New Book

Author of the newly published The World According to Star Wars Cass Sunstein rethinks all your assumptions about heroes, politics, sexism, and that galaxy far, far away.

Confession: I got my Princess Leia buns in a knot geeking out recently with Cass Sunstein, renowned First Amendment scholar and President Obama's top cop at the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, about his new book, The World According to Star Wars. Here, he rethinks all your assumptions about heroes, politics, and how the new Democratic presidential nominee would fare in a galaxy far, far away.

Marie Claire: People must have thought you—a well-known legal scholar and advisor to President Obama—were crazy to write a book about Star Wars.

Cass Sunstein: Between 85 to 98 percent of my colleagues thought, This is the worst idea you've ever had. Early on, when I got into it, I was giving the commencement address at Penn Law School the same year that my wife [U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Power] was giving the commencement address at the University of Pennsylvania. I told her I was going to do it on Star Wars, and she thought, That's terrible, that's going to be the worst commencement address ever. When I talked to my colleagues, they thought it just can't work because the connections to law and politics are too strained, the whole tale is too cartoonish. But I had a little spark in the stomach and it became a fire. When I started to sketch it out, I can't say that academic publishers responded with enthusiasm. I've never done anything even a little bit like this. And it's the most fun I've ever had.

MC: Historically, Star Wars has been viewed as a film that appeals to boys. But, in fact, legions of girls—like me—grew up with it and count themselves fans. Why do you think girls haven't always been part of the narrative?

CS: Whatever your gender, you can be a Star Wars fan. Of course I knew it from life before, but the core of enthusiastic female fans is a testimony to the non-gendered nature of the audience. My friend [jewelry designer] Courtney Crangi has been obsessed with Star Wars all her life and has seen the movies 150 times. When we first started talking about it, I was amazed that her knowledge made mine—which was even then pretty impressive—seem pathetic. And I think there are a couple of reasons for this. 

One is that the leader of the rebellion is Princess Leia. American theatergoers had never seen a princess like that. She's not a delicate flower, she's not passive, she's often the only one who has a clue. Often it's the guys who are confused, but she's not. She knows how to wield a gun—in certain respects she's actually the boss. 

There's a hero's journey, which is the primary tale of the original saga, and that's Luke's journey, but there's a heroine's journey too, which is Leia's, and it's played out pretty expansively in the story. We're talking about someone who, in New Hope [the], is roughly 19 years old and is maybe the most important person in the galaxy. She's the one who puts her life on the line, is unintimidated by Darth Vader. She strangles her captor with the very chains with which he bound her.

MC: You're talking about the famous scene in which Princess Leia, in a metal bikini, frees herself from Jabba the Hutt. I remember seeing posters of Leia in that bikini when I was growing up. It felt very much a scene intended for boys.

CS: It's fair to say that there's something retrograde about putting the leader of the rebellion in the position of "slave in a bikini." There's no question that that's a fair point. But, it is true, and it's kind of remarkable, that at this point in our history, the slave girl, for a time in the bikini, is the one who chokes her captor with her bare hands and using the chain with which he bound her. That's powerful stuff. That's more retributive feminism than I think teenaged boys had ever seen.

It's fair to say that there's something retrograde about putting the leader of the rebellion in the position of 'slave in a bikini'.

Princess Leia

(Image credit: Everett Collection)

MC: From a feminist standpoint, The Force Awakens is a pretty big departure from the previous movies, no?

CS: Well, even though Star Wars is easily read as feminist for its time—and even for now, with Princess Leia's role—people wouldn't make a movie like that in 2016, where the guys are mostly the tough ones, and the women aren't in positions of authority. That would just seem weird. In The Force Awakens, women as well as men are in positions of authority. And you don't have to work hard to do that­—it's not a statement, it's the world. I think The Force Awakens is easily read as a self-conscious effort to kind of correct the record about a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away where men weren't exclusively the people in positions of authority.

 MC: The Force Awakens was not written by George Lucas, as the original trilogy was. Can you envision Lucas creating a character like Rey? Or did it require another vision, like JJ Abrams, to devise a character like her?

CS: I could completely conceive of George Lucas doing the exact same thing. So I'll qualify that in a moment then explain my answer. The hero of the beloved original trilogy is Luke. The principle dynamic is the complicated relationship between Luke and his father. Not coincidentally, George Lucas' last name sounds a lot like Luke. That's the one he identified with. George Lucas had a tumultuous relationship with his own father, and people who know him say that you can't understand the backstory of the movies without knowing that his dad was occasionally difficult but also very loving. They had a big break between them. In those movies, he's very focused on sons and fathers. 

Star Wars The Force Awakens

(Image credit: Walt Disney Studios Motion Pictures)

But he's also not interested in a bunch of weak, helpless women. That's just not what activates him. So I could easily see him writing a movie in 1985 or 1995 or 2025 in which the principal character is a strong female figure. I think he could do that. I wouldn't be surprised, by the way, if he has done that, but we haven't seen the movie. He's written a lot of stuff or treatments that haven't seen the light of day. He's got a lot going on in his mind. And one thing I really admire about him is that he just doesn't have the natural intuitive sexism of many people in Hollywood, at least looking at the Star Wars movies. American Graffiti is a complicated one, but at the end, I'd say the same thing about it. His female leads are a little more grounded than the men, and they're not weak.

MC: Much has been made about the absence of Rey in the merchandising of the movie. What do you make of that? If fans have embraced a female heroine as the lead, why hasn't the merchandise reflected that?

there's a social obligation to highlight your most compelling character, even if it turns out that consumers are more drawn to male character.

CS: We can think of it in three different ways. First, does it reflect some kind of sexism on some part of the merchandisers? That's certainly possible. It's happened, a lot, where merchandisers aren't neutrally pursuing profits, but are basing their judgments on sexist stereotypes. A second possibility is that there's a bigger demand on the part of consumers for the male characters, and merchandisers anticipate that. That would really surprise me because Rey runs away with the movie. She's the most compelling character. The idea that people want Kylo Ren and don't want Rey—that would be surprising. A third possibility, which would also be surprising, is that even though Rey runs away with the movie, people don't like buying either Luke or Rey merchandise, they much prefer Kylo Ren or Darth Vader. Then it wouldn't be sexism. It would be that the journeying hero isn't a big moneymaker. I'd be surprised by that, too. In my own view, Rey is more compelling than Luke, who some people think has a degree of blandness. Rey just doesn't. 

It would be disturbing, by the way, if it were consistently the case that toy companies continue to accentuate the guy characters and downplay the female lead. I think that a company like Lucas Films, as the makers of the movie, ought to be conscious that they're helping to shape people's visions of their society and future. So there's a social obligation to highlight your most compelling character, even if she's female, and even if it turns out that consumers are themselves more drawn to male character, which I said would surprise me.

MC: Have you ever talked to Lucas about Star Wars?

CS: I talked to him once, not about Star Wars. Everyone wants to talk to him about Star Wars, and I didn't want to be one of those people. In person—at least on this occasion—he wasn't effervescent and giddy, as the Star Wars movies are. He's more focused. But I thought he was great. And I think the last thing he needs is some law professor asking him about Star Wars.

MC:  In interviews about the book, you've made parallels between Star Wars and our current political climate. Where do you think Hillary fits in to these analogies?

CS: Well, in a sharply polarized time, just coming off of both a frequently paralyzed legislature and a severe economic downturn, a leader who favors continuity has a clear challenge—particularly if the leader who claims continuity isn't particularly fiery. Someone who's calling for continuity has a challenge in getting people's blood racing. Star Wars may be kind of a cartoon, but the original trilogy depicts a political paralysis which breeds an interest in a strong leader who will make a significant break with the past. And Hillary Clinton is a person—whether you like it or not—of extraordinary experience. I don't know if we ever had a presidential candidate with that level of political experience. There's no learning curve for her. And that, in some periods, would be a huge plus. In the end, I think it will be a significant plus for her now. 

Hillary Clinton is a person—whether you like it or not—of extraordinary experience.

But there's a sense on the part of many people that the system is broken, and someone who wants to continue has the burden of persuasion. We don't see in the Star Wars universe—which of course is not our own but has some parallels to our own—a leader who cries out for continuity. I think President Obama has been an extraordinarily successful president, and that this period will record that with a bunch of exclamation points. But obviously not everybody thinks that. The fact that his approval ratings are up over 50 percent testify to the fact that the country in general sees him as a success. And that means that for all the polarization and the fire, our republic is not crumbling. It's not perceived as crumbling. It's perceived as challenging. So in the end I think she'll be fine.

MC: Is President Obama a Star Wars fan?

CS: I have talked to him about Star Wars recently, in the Oval Office, and he is definitely a fan.

MC: He's seen all of them?

CS: Article 2, Section 1 of the Constitution creates executive privilege, and as for government regulation and information policy, so too for Star Wars, I will not disclose discussions in private with the President of the United States.

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