They provide a backdrop against which scholars can examine globalization, race, power, multiculturalism, gender and social norms. And they have cool lightsabers and cute robots, too.
The Star Wars movies—now expanded into multiple prequels and sequels—have been wildly popular since Luke Skywalker, Princess Leia and Darth Vader first came to life on the big screen in 1977.
But entertainment value aside, the movies hold powerful messages about the responsibilities of citizenship and other social issues, says Professor Jill Mitten, a lecturer in communication studies, who teaches Pop Culture and Star Wars Citizenship at Longwood University.
If you actually look at what impacts the lives of people around us, pop culture plays a tremendous role in influencing people’s thinking and actions.Professor Jill Mitten, lecturer in communication studies Tweet This
“What we do in the course is use the Star Wars universe as a basis to understand pop culture’s tremendous impact on citizenship,” said Mitten. “I think sometimes there’s an erroneous assumption that artifacts of pop culture are lowbrow and therefore of little value. Whereas, if you actually look at what impacts the lives of people around us, pop culture plays a tremendous role in influencing people’s thinking and actions.”
The Star Wars-focused course is one of a long list of equally thought-provoking Citizen 110 offerings taken by all freshmen as part of Longwood’s signature Civitae Core Curriculum.
“Woven throughout the films are ethical dilemmas—like the discrimination we see against the Droids—that provide opportunities for students to use their critical thinking skills and reasoning,” said Mitten, adding that the public speaking emphasis in all Citizen 110 courses is especially valuable for communication studies majors.
Mitten comes at the course material from two angles: looking at citizenship within the Star Wars universe as well as at how the films “mirror our societal norms of the various times the films were released.” Over the past four decades, progress has been made by characters in the films, the last of which came out in 2019, just as it has for people in the real world, she said.
“The Star Wars universe of films 7, 8 and 9, more so than any of the other films, more closely resemble a diverse society with a good deal of the barriers we had seen in the past broken down,” Mitten said.
At the same time, there are aspects of the films right from the start that were progressive for the 1970s, Mitten said.
Stepping into the Star Wars universe, we can allow ourselves to see things differently and become enlightened through new perspectives.Professor Jill Mitten, lecturer in communication studies Tweet This
“Having done my own research, [Star Wars creator] George Lucas was very progressive in his thinking. Take the role of Princess Leia. He abandoned the ‘wilting flower’ princess roles that had been written until that time, making Princess Leia a very strong and powerful character. The way he created that character, she resembles many female characters you find in 2021,” Mitten said.
Taking social issues into a fantasy world makes Star Wars an effective teaching tool, she added.
“The films are really liberating in that regard. We are freed from our predispositions and our usual perspectives and assumptions because the world is so dissimilar to our own. Stepping into the Star Wars universe, we can allow ourselves to see things differently and become enlightened through new perspectives,” she said.
Ultimately, what Mitten wants her students to take away from the course is “the ability to view any situation through the eyes of a citizen leader. That means forestalling assumptions and jumping to conclusions in order to analyze a situation and then engage in civil discourse with goodwill at the center.”
Pop Culture and Star Wars Citizenship is one of the courses under the umbrella of Citizen 110, taken by all freshmen as part of Longwood’s Civitae Core Curriculum. Taught from a variety of perspectives and a diverse range of disciplines, Citizen 110 encourages students to focus on the relationship between individual rights and responsibility to the common good while at the same time building skills in ethical reasoning, critical thinking and public speaking.