The new spin of Jar-Jar: Star Wars through the lens of Harry Potter

jarjar1Jar-Jar Binks, the long-despised, floppy-eared, duck-billed, orange alien who character-bombs Star Wars: Episode 1 The Phantom Menace, is experiencing a resurgence of popularity of late. More than once in recent weeks, I have listened as a Star Wars fan quite passionately came to Jar-Jar’s defense. Yes, I said Jar-Jar. Jar-Jar Binks. Yeah, I know. I wouldn’t have believed it myself had I not heard it with my own ears.

And frankly, the reasoning employed to defend Jar-Jar makes sense to me. But that may be because I can appreciate where these Jar-Jar defenders may be coming from: Harry Potter.

Let’s go back. Who is Jar-Jar Binks?

Jar-Jar is a Gungan from the planet Naboo, an outcast from his own people, whose life is saved by Jedi Qui-Gon Jinn early in The Phantom Menace. Qui-Gon, ever clear-sighted, sees Jar-Jar’s potential to assist the Jedi, and allows him to tag along in fulfillment of a life-debt, despite the liability Jar-Jar’s bumbling, trickster persona presents. Jar-Jar goes on to act as a bridge between the humans who have adopted him and his Gungan people, creating an alliance that helps save Naboo, thwarting the Trade Federation baddies. Later, in Episode 2: Attack of the Clones, Jar-Jar un-saves the day by motioning the Senate to grant Palpatine more control, ultimately facilitating the creation of the Galactic Empire and the Clone Army. (Letting Jar-Jar fill her Senate seat while in hiding = not one of Padmé Amidala’s shrewdest moves. I mean, what the heck, Padmé? This isn’t Student Council.)

Jar-Jar is a mostly CGI character, portrayed by African-American actor Ahmed Best doing a throaty little-kid voice, and speaking in a dialect George Lucas invented. And here’s the real problem. It was too reminiscent of certain Afro-Caribbean dialects – a socially toxic combination with a (very talented) black voice actor and Jar-Jar’s bumbling, ne’er-do-well character. While Jar-Jar’s general annoyingness and lack of appeal to most people over age seven contribute to his unpopularity, his dialect and character ostensibly pushed him from disliked to hated, from annoying to offensive.

The result was fan outcry. Jar-Jar Binks, thinking fans said, is an embarrassing character who perpetuates negative racial stereotypes – a Stepin Fetchit sort of anachronism beyond which the world of entertainment had, we thought, long ago progressed. And Amy H. Sturgis has pointed out how dissatisfaction with Jar-Jar pointed to other weak points of characterization in The Phantom Menace: namely, Lucas’s over-reliance on racial or ethnic stereotypes to create his “exotically other” characters, like the Neimoidians as the inscrutable Asians, or Watto, the slave-owning junk dealer, as the penny-pinching Jewish merchant. This is damage the Star Wars franchise has worked carefully to repair with diverse characters, like Finn and Maz Kanata, who are both heroic and authentic in Episode 7: The Force Awakens.

So how does one defend Jar-Jar Binks in this “politically correct” day and age? By conflating him with Dobby the house elf, of course.

“Be nice to everything!” is the lesson Jar-Jar Binks teaches one host of a popular Star Wars podcast. jarjar2Qui-Gon Jinn could see Jar-Jar’s usefulness, despite others’  clear disdain for the Gungan. This foresight on Qui-Gon’s part helps save the planet – and everyone on it – later in the film. The podcast host went on to conjecture that Yoda’s strange, child-like behavior upon first encountering Luke Skywalker in The Empire Strikes Back is meant to bring this lesson full-circle. Yoda imitates Jar-Jar, the host theorized, in order to teach him that wisdom and power can come in many forms, even that of the fool. So, the host concluded, Jar-Jar is the key to everything. (I wish I could remember who said all this on which episode of what podcast (I’m pretty sure it was the very excellent Full of Sith), but I can’t take notes while jogging, or at least I don’t, so apologies to the unnamed but very clever theorizer.)

The podcast host’s theories immediately made me think of Dobby the house elf. Harry does not have to give Dobby his sock, freeing him from the Malfoys, just as Qui-Gon is under no obligation to invoke the life-debt which frees Jar-Jar from punishment at the hands of the Gungans. But both do. And both pathetic life forms, Jar-Jar and Dobby, go on to provide essential service to the heroes.

DobbyThe difference is Dobby’s service is to the end game, whereas Jar-Jar’s is short-term. Jar-Jar sinks back into “plot device” territory when he is used by Palpatine to seize power, whereas Dobby goes on to become a devoted servant to Harry Potter and his friends, and a formidable freedom fighter, even sacrificing his own life to rescue Harry and company from Malfoy Manor, the setting of his own former enslavement. Dobby’s arc from “pathetic life form” to “heroic contributor to ultimate victory” is complete, unlike Jar-Jar’s.

I agree that “Be nice to everything!” is a valuable lesson both characters might teach fans. But in Star Wars, the lesson is incomplete (the Yoda part of the theory is interesting, but an uncorroborated stretch as a link to Jar-Jar). One almost needs the lens of Dobby’s character arc in Harry Potter to come to the host’s conclusions about Jar-Jar, for his contribution to the good guys’ successes in Phantom Menace are nullified – or at least severely compromised – when he is manipulated by Palpatine in Attack of the Clones. It’s a zero-sum game with Jar-Jar.f38699558

But not with Dobby. The ultimate lesson the house elf teaches Harry, as he digs Dobby’s grave in Deathly Hallows, is this: it’s not about you. It’s about the end game. Dobby’s death gives Harry the perspective he needs to walk away from his pursuit of the Hallows and focus himself on destroying the Horcruxes. A pretty important perspective, really. Kind of makes up for that pudding Dobby drops in book two.

Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen Harry Potter characters influence the way fans encounter and interpret characters from Star Wars. What do you think of this new spin of Jar-Jar Binks? Is it influenced by Dobby, or motivated by something else? Share your thoughts below.

Connect with Emily Strand on Facebook and Twitter (@ekcstrand).

Comments

  1. Dennis Siler says

    John,
    This is great food for thought, and helps me despise the character a bit less, especially if I see him as corollary to Donny. While on the subject, have you seen the Jar Jar as hidden Sith theory? A quick Google search should turn up numerous hits. I think you would enjoy it.

  2. Dennis Siler says

    Sorry, but I fell victim to autocorrect. “Donny” should have read “Dobby” in the previous message.

  3. Emily Strand says

    Hi, Dennis – thanks for the comment. I have indeed heard the Darth Jar-Jar theory… very tongue in cheek I imagine, but it would be fun if Disney found a way to work it in. (Then again, it will make it much less than a zero-sum game for Jar-Jar, if he went and joined the Sith. WWQ-GS? (What Would Qui-Gon Say?)) Thanks for reading and posting.
    es

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