Are Droids Slaves?

In Star Wars, droids aren’t robots or comic relief—they’re chattel

Still from Return of the Jedi
Still from Return of the Jedi
December 18, 2015

I always hated the Jawas.

As a kid, the Jawas weren’t scary the way Stormtroopers or Darth Vader were. But there was something unsettling about them. The Tusken Raiders might have been primitive savages who tried to kill Luke Skywalker—who, back then, was my hero—but the Jawas seemed worse. A little bit evil, even. The feeling was so pronounced that in the dozens of times I watched A New Hope as a child, the massacre of the Jawas never roused even a beat of sympathy in me. It was the opposite, actually. Every time C-3PO piled the Jawa carcasses into a funeral pyre, a little part of me thought, Good riddance. They got what they had coming. But I never understood why I felt that way.

Then I grew up. I came to understand that George Lucas’s trilogy had a lot of moral confusion in it. I realized that the Empire is actually the force for good in Star Wars. I realized that the Jedi were actually contemptible and that the series can easily be read as following the radicalization of a young terrorist. I even realized that the destruction of Alderaan was not only justified, but prudent.

Yet it took three decades for me to finally grasp what was so awful about the Jawas. It is this: In the Star Wars universe, droids are slaves.

Once you see this truth, it’s difficult to look at Star Wars the way you did as a child. You understand that the Jawas are slave-traders. More than anything, you come to realize how morally bankrupt the Rebellion really is—and how relatively enlightened the Empire is. Once you recognize that droids are slaves, everything you thought you believed about Star Wars shifts.

What is a droid?

We see all manner of robots in the six Star Wars movies. (This essay deals exclusively with the cinematic canon. The Expanded Universe as we once knew it is dead, by order of Disney, which proves that only the movies can be true canon, because everything else is subject to retcon.) Broadly speaking, Star Wars robots fall into two classes.

The first are simple machines; we’ll call them "robots" for the purposes of this discussion. Throughout the movies we see robots performing routine tasks, much the way they do in our world today. So, for instance, in the original Death Star there are small, black bots scooting down the corridors like cracked-out Roombas. There’s nothing special about "robots."

But then there’s the second class, which we’ll call "droids." And the droids are very different. They go beyond—far, far beyond—even our wildest hopes for artificial intelligence. Droids are clearly sentient life forms.

The two droids we are most intimate with are C-3PO and R2-D2. We’re not led to believe that this pair is extraordinary in any way—a translator and an astromech, they seem to be average droids. Which means we can view them not as uniquely advanced life forms, but as your generic every-droids.

The first thing you notice is that C-3PO would easily pass the Turing Test: in a conversation, he’d be hard to distinguish from a normal humanoid. But they’re so much more than that. The droids are conscious. Speaking of R2-D2, Luke says that he’s "never seen such devotion in a droid." The concept of "devotion" implies choice. A droid who is "devoted" to a task, or a person, is choosing loyalty over abandonment. And choice implies free will. Around that same time, C-3PO begs an annoyed Luke not to "deactivate" him. Deactivation is clearly seen by C-3PO as something to be feared, like death. Which means that droids both understand their own mortality and experience emotions, too.

They also have their own theology. When C-3PO is lowered into an oil bath to repair his joints, he exclaims, "Thank the Maker!" It’s one of only two times in the series that a character references theism. We’ll get to the other instance in a moment, but it’s instructive that in both cases, it’s a droid, not a humanoid, who refers to a supreme being.

Free will, emotions, and their own elementary religious system? We’re way off the AI scale now. C-3PO isn’t just intelligent. He’s conscious. He’s sentient. He’s a person.

And he’s a slave.

The Life of a Droid

In the Star Wars universe, droids are treated as property, with explicit talk about being "owned" and of passing from one owner to another. "We seem to be made to suffer," C-3PO laments. "It’s our lot in life." He refers to Luke as "master." And on Tatooine, we aren’t just shown that droids are slaves—we see a number of parallels to the experience of slavery in America.

Consider how C-3PO and R2-D2 are ambushed by Jawas in the desert. The scene where R2-D2 is shot is not all that dissimilar from the scene in Roots where Kunta Kinte is beset by slavers and then kidnapped from his homeland. The droids are then deposited into the dark, dirty, crowded hold of the Jawas’ massive sand-crawler, where they’re kept in a pitiable state—painfully similar to a slave ship making the middle passage. When the Jawas reach the marketplace (Uncle Owen’s ranch) they push and pull the droids out of the darkness and into the bright suns, which, judging by C-3PO’s reaction, hurt his photoreceptors.

At this point they are lined up for display. Owen inspects them callously, pointing out flaws and problems with the docile droids. He converses with C-3PO. He haggles over the price and then completes the sale. The only reason the droids aren’t in literal chains is that, as we learn later, the Jawas have fitted them with "restraining bolts" that prevent them from escaping. The very need for restraining bolts reinforces the notion that the droids are sentient creatures with free will and their own ideas, hopes, and dreams.

When the droids first talk with Luke, we are given our clearest look at their place in society. "Behave yourself, R2," C-3PO cautions his companion, "You’re going to get us in trouble. It’s alright. You can trust him. He’s our new master."

And if you’re still not convinced about the parallels with the African-American experience, think about what happens when Luke, Ben Kenobi, and the droids go to Mos Eisley looking for transport. They walk into the cantina—not a fancy bar, but a watering hole for criminals and brigands—and the barkeep shouts angrily, "We don’t serve their kind here." It’s a disgusting act of prejudice. The droids wait outside.

The Galactic Civil War

Yet when it comes to the treatment of droids, not everyone is as bigoted as the inhabitants of Tatooine. The Empire and the Rebellion behave quite differently.

In the conventional reading of Star Wars, people defending the Rebellion insist that among the reasons the Empire is "evil" is that Palpatine, Darth Vader, and Grand Moff Tarkin seek to "enslave" the galaxy. Yet there is no evidence of this in any of the films. Tatooine is nominally under control of the Empire and yet we see no evidence of Imperial slavery. There’s no slavery in Cloud City, even when it falls under the direct control of Darth Vader. How about the moon of Endor? The Empire builds a critical military installation there without enslaving or even antagonizing the indigenous peoples. Yet when the Rebels show up on Endor, the first thing they do upon meeting the natives is present themselves as gods. Using this trickery, the rebels then dupe the Ewoks into launching an attack against the Imperial garrison armed with nothing but sticks and stones.

In fact, the only times we see actual slavery in Star Wars, it’s during the Republic. And the Jedi are clearly okay with it.

In The Phantom Menace, Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan meet Anakin and his mother, who are introduced as slaves belonging to the repulsive Watto. Are the Jedi knights outraged at the idea of people being treated as chattel? Not at all. They accept it as a perfectly ordinary situation. It’s only when Qui-Gon decides that he wants to bring Anakin back to Coruscant that he becomes interested in liberating the boy. And when it comes time for the Jedi to leave, instead of freeing the entire family by force—Watto absolutely deserves to have his wings sliced off with a laser sword—Qui-Gon decides to gamble for the freedom of only the slave he’s interested in. He’s happy to leave the kid’s mother behind.

We see the same general attitude toward droids in Return of the Jedi. At the beginning of the movie, C-3PO and R2-D2 return to Tatooine. They have been instructed to go to the palace of Jabba the Hutt and deliver a message from Luke. That message? Luke is presenting the two droids to Jabba as a gift. Jabba accepts this gesture as a matter of course. Giving sentient beings away as trinkets, evidently, is just something people outside of Imperial control do.

Indeed, it’s in Jabba’s palace where we see the true horror of the average droid’s existence. While some—perhaps even most—masters are "good," like Luke, others are deeply, monstrously cruel. The droid torture chamber in Jabba’s palace is the stuff of nightmares: droids are literally torn limb from limb and hot irons are applied to their (metal) flesh as they scream in agony. Perhaps most horrifyingly, other droids serve the will of their oppressors, like Stephen in Candieland: "You’re a feisty little one, but you’ll soon learn some respect," the EV-9D9 tells our beloved R2-D2. Again, if they did not have free will and sentience they would not need to be taught "respect." It could simply be programmed.

But not everyone in Star Wars views droids as chattel.

Look through the original trilogy and you’ll see that the rebels rely on droids extensively. It’s not just C-3P0 and R2-D2—there’s the medical droid on Hoth who treats Luke and the other doctor droid at the end of Empire Strikes Back who gives him a new hand. The rebellion’s primary starfighter, the X-Wing, is designed to require a human pilot and droid co-pilot. In the background of just about every scene at a Rebel stronghold, you see droids scurrying about. It’s hard to imagine how the rebellion could have survived without uncompensated droid labor.

The Empire relies on droids to a far lesser degree. Wherever possible, the Empire employs human labor rather than droids—TIE fighters have no droid co-pilots, for instance. On the contrary, we do see the Empire make use of non-sentient robots: The torture robot that hums at Princess Leia. The little Roomba robots zipping about the Death Star. In the whole of the trilogy, I’ve found just one instance of a droid being used by the Empire: another protocol droid whom we see walking through the Death Star.

And balanced against this, we see something truly exceptional. In The Empire Strikes Back, Darth Vader convenes a meeting with a group of five bounty hunters. He is deputizing them to pursue Han Solo and the Millennium Falcon, presumably with a large reward at stake. This group includes the humanoids Boba Fett and Dengar, the reptilian Bossk—and two droids, IG-88 and 4-LOM. We know nothing about these droids except for this: The Empire is treating them as equal to carbon-based life, employing them to do a job, and willing to pay them for their work.

In short: Droids are slaves. The Republic condoned slavery. The Rebel Alliance relied heavily on droid ownership. And not only did the Empire not rely on the work of sentient droids, but it entered into consensual employment with freed-droids, recognizing their personhood, and respecting their free will. If that doesn’t convince you that the Empire is the real force for enlightenment in Star Wars, then I suspect nothing will.

But no matter where you fall in the great philosophical debate over the merits of the Empire versus the Rebellion, we should all be able to agree that the most repugnant characters in the series are the Jawas. The ninth circle of Hell is reserved for child predators and slave traders. The Jawas didn’t actually get what they had coming when they were vaporized by Stormtroopers. They deserved worse.

They should have been thrown into the pit of Sarlacc.

Published under: Star Wars