Content warning for discussion of suicide
This was originally going to be a part of “Twin Suns” series, but with #SWRepMatters trending, I felt it was appropriate as its own piece: a conversation-starter regarding the representation of mental disabilities/mental illness in Star Wars.
As I have been working on my close read of the Star Wars Rebels episode “Twin Suns,” I have been skirting around using certain language. In part one, I talked about the mask Maul slips over his “obsession.” In all parts, I have mentioned a regression of his “state.” However, as I near a particular scene, which will prompt me to talk in-depth about The Clone Wars episode “Brothers,” there is something that I cannot avoid.
Unfortunately, there is a significant degree of ableism tied into the manifestation of Maul’s state in “Brothers.” In multiple interviews, Maul has been referred to as “mad” and he is displayed in “Brothers” and following media as mentally unstable. To its credit, the way Maul’s arc is painted frames his mental instability as a result of his plunge into the Dark Side, instead of the reverse (aka the show is not saying that he is evil because he is mentally ill), and I agree that what Maul went through on and post-Naboo would result in psychological trauma. It’s not an issue that Maul is a mentally ill character.
The issue is that “evil” has been used synonymously with “crazy,” “unbalanced,” “psychotic,” etc. without providing a balance in demonstrating that good people can struggle with these same things. Without that balance, it can be easy to read characters like Maul as “evil because they are mentally ill,” regardless of the creators’ intent. Unlike Halo or Star Trek, where mental disabilities have been explored as they affect heroes and villains alike (to varying degrees of success) Star Wars has mostly relegated such things to their villains or to comic relief.
Now of course, there are thousands of headcanons regarding characters having PTSD or depression, and there’s a lot of canon evidence to support those theories, but the thing is that such illnesses are not as deliberately portrayed and discussed by the creators as Maul’s. Mania, hallucinations… these sort of illnesses and symptoms are frequently used as the basis for villainy in multiple stories, despite the fact that there are real-life coping mechanisms for them, and those people who have it in real life are deserving of help and support, not fear and hatred.
Why Does It Matter?
Media is powerful. Stories are powerful. Representation is important, both to inspire those from the represented group and to inform those who have not had contact with the represented group. This can work in a positive manner. For example, Cortana’s rampancy in Halo 4 was empowering to one fan who struggled with anxiety and depression:
…Cortana went through [my symptoms] too. There were parts in Halo 4 where she was overwhelmed, struggling to “breathe”; displaying classic signs of anxiety attacks. There were parts where she forgot things without realizing the gap in her memory (“I’m sorry – did I miss orbiting a giant Forerunner planet at some point?”). There were parts where she lashed out at others – even at John – in a clear parallel to mood swings. All of it was relatable – and as the years went on and I learned words for what I was experiencing, it didn’t stop being relatable.
But it was also inspiring, because she won. She fought the Ur-Didact – an ancient alien warrior – and won. She saved John, she saved Earth, she saved millions of innocent lives. And as dramatic a comparison that may be, it gave me hope. Because it said I could still be successful. Despite my failing memory and the confusion and the tears, I could still win. I could still have control. (Fictional Agency and the Lack Thereof, quoted with permission)
Representation can also be a negative thing. The same portrayal of Cortana in Halo 4 ended up reflecting real life issues too closely for another fan of the franchise:
Halo 4 came out at a bad time for me. I had just started college, away from any structure I had had before in the past 18 years of my ADHD existence. I knew someone who literally (and hopefully jokingly) threatened to kill me in my sleep for my ADHD behaviors. Life was not good then, it was probably the beginning of the formation of my depression. I remember tearfully messaging my main IRL Halo friend on Facebook “They keep on talking about wanting to put Cortana down like a dog, I can’t stand it.” (Curing or Coffin? Why not Coping? A Third Option for Cortana, quoted with permission.)
Negative representation can also have wide-reaching effects. Jaws completely altered the cultural understanding of sharks, with disastrous results to our environment:
The success of this film was immense, being the first film to ever cross the $100 million mark at the box office. Audiences were shocked and frightened by the portrayal of the Great White Shark as a ruthless and even vengeful monster, which prompted an international sense of panic towards beach tourism that was only worsened by the commercial opportunity to make dozens of B-movies that further used the shark as a man-hunting predator.
Further to this, it became increasingly popular to hunt and kill sharks, much to the dismay of Peter Benchley, the author of the original text that the film was based on, who has become a staunch defender of them in the years since (which you can read more about here).
The reality, as we know, is so far removed from the impression that this film gave about sharks, as they are amongst the lowest-tier of things that cause human fatalities, and they’re an essential part of the ecosystem. (Halo 5, Cortana, and Ableism)
Star Wars is a landmark franchise, and its cultural impact stretches far beyond Jaws’, to the point where actual religions have been formed from its content. People are listening to what it has to say, and so what it says matters, which is why “we complain that Jar Jar Binks seems to recall awfully racist sidekicks of the past… or when we affirm that, no matter how loudly Lucasfilm insists that things have changed, the creators involved in the saga remain strikingly white and male” (Burden of Empire: The Complex Relationship Between Star Wars and Fascism).
Let’s Get Personal
The connection media (and Maul’s story specifically) makes between mental illness and righteousness is something that I see debated in real life, in the church. My faith has an interesting dance with ableism. On one hand, I firmly believe that Jesus didn’t just die for our sins, but for our ailments and sickness as well. But at the same time, I don’t believe that a lack of healing in someone’s life means a lack of faith or righteousness. If I did, it’d be mighty hypocritical of me to be sporting these glasses while telling someone that if they just had enough faith, they wouldn’t need their medication for whatever chemical imbalance they have in their brain.
Unfortunately, not all Christians see it that way, and I lost a good friend to this. He struggled with depression, but because of the social stigma surrounding mental illness, I and many others did not know this until he had already committed suicide. His family did know, and his parents did their best to get him the help he needed , including antidepressants. However, the Christian culture around him pressured him to not take that medicine, because if he truly believed in God, then he wouldn’t need them. Therefore, if he needed them, he was a bad or weak Christian.
I have seen this equation of mentally ill = evil (or at least not-righteous) take my friend’s life.
It’s not an issue that Maul is mentally ill.
It is an issue is that we aren’t also shown heroes coping with mental illness. It is an issue that words like “crazy” have been used synonymously with “evil.”
Representation matters in Star Wars, and for a franchise that carries the legacy of a champion of mental health, I think it’s well past time they began thinking critically how they will represent those with mental illness and disabilities.
Update – 9/30/2018
Ahsoka Tano has now moved from headcanoned PTSD/depression into canon, according to author of Ahsoka, E. K. Johnston.
Transcript in case of Tweet deletion: “I wrote Ahsoka with PTSD and grief-related depression. She does not come up swinging, though she does eventually get up. Most readers really appreciated that, but there are always people who say I wrote her incorrectly.”
I’m very glad this was confirmed. We need more representation of mental illness and mental disabilities in Star Wars.