Jar Jar Binks Strikes Again

The fact that American business uses ethnicity as a proxy for taste and preference when marketing its products is hardly a revelation. After all, the idea that in some important sense ethnic divisions are real has held sway in American culture since, well, always, and there’s no reason to expect business to be especially enlightened or sophisticated about the question. But there is something perplexing about the sight of presumably well-intentioned people behaving with singular obtuseness when it comes to what’s generally called “diversity.”

I touched on this a few weeks ago with a column on Business Week’s attempt to demonstrate its openness to “black” issues. But an even more dubious example of the phenomenon just emerged, with the news that Lucasfilm appears to be responding to criticisms (including those of our own Bruce Gottlieb) that The Phantom Menace was racist–because of Jar Jar Binks’ bizarre Step’n Fetchit impersonation and the Semitic shopkeeper, to say nothing of the evil Asian mercantilist lords–by planning a set of new, more culturally sensitive, roles for the second film in the series.

According to Variety, the new characters include “a Native American character, said to have a forceful, spiritual nature”; an Asian character, “possibly trained in martial arts”; and Indian and/or Hispanic characters, with talents yet to be determined. (But perhaps including what? Snake-charming and dancing?)

The incredible thing is that Lucasfilm is apparently serious. In other words, its answer to the charge of ethnic stereotyping is to introduce a whole new set of stereotypes, but to make them good. This is the “if we say Jews are all smart, that’s just fine” approach to diversity, and it’s something I thought went out of fashion sometime in 1966. And while I suppose you could view as some sort of weird victory that the people who made a movie that earned more than $400 million could still be concerned about ensuring that their cast is diverse, the fact that what diversity really means to them is a collection of seemingly benign stereotypes makes it a pyrrhic victory at best. And what’s most painful is that Jar Jar is still scheduled to return.