May 13, 1999
Vol. 18 No. 16

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    [star wars]

    Doniger says Star Wars explores myth of humanness, among others

    By Theresa Carson
    News Office

    “Classics happen fast in America,” said Professor Wendy Doniger about the Star Wars series, the first prequel of which will premiere in movie theaters Wednesday, May 19.

    In a recent Time magazine article about the new film, The Phantom Menace, journalist Bill Moyers noted Doniger’s scholarship in mythology. While interviewing movie producer and Star Wars creator George Lucas, Moyers called to mind Doniger’s idea that myths put us in touch with the duality of ourselves: our physical beings as well as what Moyers called the “omnipotent magical world of thought.”

    Doniger, the Mircea Eliade Professor in the Divinity School, is known to use film and television examples to illustrate her points. For instance, her most recent book, Splitting the Difference: Gender and Myth in Ancient Greece and India, cites Hollywood films such as Face/Off and Multiplicity.

    In the Time interview, which appeared in the April 26 issue, Lucas said he is remaking old myths. Doniger agrees. One of the reasons for the series’ popularity is its success in addressing our curiosities about worlds beyond our own––another element of mythology, Doniger said.

    The Star Wars series, she said, is layered with myths. For the most part, myths are stories that are told in many cultures, said Doniger, who is both a Star Wars and a Star Trek fan. “Mythology in general is not tied to a single religion or culture.”

    Among its many themes, Star Wars takes into account “one of the great mythological themes: What does it mean to be a human being? How are we different from animals and gods?’” Doniger said.

    What makes R2D2 and C3PO––androids that display personalities and emotions––different from human beings? “They have both our virtues and our flaws, but they are indestructible,” said Doniger. If they are damaged, they simply are put back together, unlike humans, she said.

    However, Doniger does not believe the film industry should define who we are as human beings. The ready-made myths of Hollywood make for intellectual laziness, she said. For instance, some young people craft their identities from Hollywood mythology “instead of reading books and figuring out what they think about the world,” Doniger said. “Hollywood is the wrong place to look for an identity.”

    Lucas would add that entertainment cannot be a substitute for spiritual experiences. In the article, he told Moyers, “I would hate to find us in a completely secular world where entertainment was passing for some kind of religious experience.”

    Lucas said he finds it amusing that academics dissect and analyze his stories. To which Doniger good-naturedly remarked, “How else would we respond? Academics are people who study things.”

    When asked if she agreed with Lucas’s statement that myths do not threaten people, she replied, “No, I think sometimes they do threaten us.” They sometimes communicate our deeply, commonly held fears, she said. But by expressing them in myths, we make them less threatening.

    “A myth––like a Hollywood film––is a story that we hear in a group,” she explained. If the shared fear is communicated in a group, then it becomes less

    frightening, she said. Doniger plans to take part in the collective experience of viewing The Phantom Menace, but long after its release when the crowds have departed.