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The Curriculum of The Clone Wars
By Jason Tiearney
“A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” This phrase struck a chord with society in 1977 with the release of Star Wars and continues to dominate popular culture into the 21st century. Movies, video games, books, comics, and toys have whet the appetite of kids of all ages for the past thirty years, and excitement for the franchise has risen to new levels with the recent resurgence of Star Wars on television in the form of The Clone Wars. The show fills in the gaps between the movies Episode II: Attack of the Clones and Episode III: Revenge of the Sith and follows the adventures of Anakin Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and other Jedi in their battle against the evil Separatist forces who are trying to destroy the Republic, which holds the galaxy together in such a careful balance.
The Clone Wars airs on Cartoon Network, and the target market is understandably boys aged 6-12. First of all, the show is a cartoon, which is traditionally understood as a children’s genre, although many might argue that it is an animated show and thus somehow more broadly appealing. The marketing strategies including toys, clothes, and games also pander most obviously to young boys. On the other hand, anything bearing the name Star Wars carries a demographic that stretches across both genders and all ages. Older Star Wars fans bring an entirely different set of presuppositions to the show, as well as a broader knowledge of the story arcs of the entire film saga. As a result, the actual audience tuning into The Clone Wars every week is diverse, which requires the show’s creators to find a balance between the younger viewer and the older “super-fan.”
The final product thus contains a mixture of overt and hidden themes, which viewers of different ages will understand at varying levels. The most prominent of these themes is the nature of friendship and the battle between good and evil, but the show also addresses in a more subtle way the importance of individuality and the justice and injustice of war. Most children will easily pick up on the more overt themes, while the older ones will recognize some of the deeper questions residing underneath the surface. Adults, on the other hand, can more easily recognize the varying levels of themes, and therefore evaluate the educational value of the show. Television shows and media culture are growing not only in popularity, but also in their value as a pedagogy, in which individuals are not necessarily “aware that they are being educated and instructed” (Kellner & Share, 2005, p. 372). The current success of The Clone Wars reveals that many people tune in every week, so it is important to recognize how the show educates and instructs its viewers, with the result that young people can maximize their enjoyment and educational benefit.
Before attempting an analysis of The Clone Wars, it is important to introduce some key terminology. First of all, the concepts of the overt and hidden curricula will constitute a large portion of the analysis in this paper. The overt curriculum is fairly easy to define as the prominent value message, which would be framed in an educational context as the learning objectives. A definition of hidden curriculum is considerably harder to pinpoint, however, because it encompasses both formal and informal education. Hidden curriculum might be most basically described as what someone learns, although the teacher may not intend to teach it (Martin, 1983). The other important element of the hidden curriculum is the transfer of a specific ideology (Althusser, 2006). The individual or apparatus that is in control has the ability to determine what ideologies are reinforced. The relevance of these terms to The Clone Wars will become clearer as we examine each of the themes mentioned above.
Each episode of The Clone Wars begins with a short, moralistic phrase, a sententia, which sets the moral and educative tone for the entire episode. Some examples of these sententiae are “Heroes are made by the times” from “Bombad Jedi”, “Truth enlightens the mind, but won’t always bring happiness to your heart” from “The Hidden Enemy,” and “Trust in your friends, and they’ll have reason to trust in you” from “Downfall of a Droid.” Usually the lesson inherent in the phrase is easy to grasp by viewers of all age levels and is appropriate as a lesson or reminder for all ages. The most common themes of these sententiae are friendship and the importance of loyalty. Both of these concepts are important ideas for young children to understand and apply early in their lives.
The most prominent friendship relations in The Clone Wars are those between Anakin Skywalker and his companions, including his female apprentice, or Padawan, Ahsoka Tano, his droid R2-D2, and his mentor Obi-Wan Kenobi. As Anakin is the main character of the show, the themes of friendship and trust often take center stage. One particular two-episode story, “Downfall of a Droid” and “Duel of the Droids,” depicts Anakin’s heartfelt devotion to R2-D2 as a friend even though droids are expendable in the context of the Star Wars universe. Anakin is a natural role model for young boys, as is his Padawan Ahsoka Tano for young girls and boys. Their relationship is thus a model and a lesson for young children in the importance of friendship and trusting that your friends will support you. Some might argue that this is a lesson learned with difficulty in the competitive environment of American schools.
While the strong bonds of friendship and trust between Ahsoka and Anakin are a prominent lesson in The Clone Wars for younger viewers, older viewers bring an entirely different set of presuppositions to Anakin’s role in the friendship. The older generation of Star Wars fans knows Anakin’s ultimate fall to the Dark Side, the evil in the balance of the Star Wars cosmos, as a result of his inability to emotionally distance himself from his attachments. With this lens, the poignant scenes of friendship between Anakin and Ahsoka in The Clone Wars take on a much darker tone. Even Anakin’s actions to save his droid in the previously mentioned two-episode story endanger not only his life, but also the lives of others. Anakin’s seemingly harmless friendships, as they are developed in the show, ultimately provide some of the seeds for his life’s ruin.
The show’s resulting curriculum of friendship is understandably difficult to encapsulate. On one hand, the target youth audience is inundated with messages of the importance of loyalty and friendships; on the other hand, the audience with knowledge of all the Star Wars films can see the negative result of dangerous emotional attachments. The resolution to this disconnect must lie in the intended audience of The Clone Wars, the young viewers. The overt curriculum teaches that solid friendships are crucial to success and happiness. Because the target audience, however, is generally unaware of some of the darker themes of the Star Wars saga, the dangerous side of emotional attachment could be considered a hidden curriculum. Anakin and Ahsoka’s friendship primarily sends positive messages to young viewers, but at the same time the negative consequences of that friendship present an ulterior message.
One particular episode, “Rising Malevolence,” illustrates the hidden messages and negative consequences of Anakin’s attachment to Ahsoka when that attachment leads to disobedience of direct orders. Ultimately, Anakin’s authorities begrudgingly accept his disobedience because the end justified the means. The hidden curriculum for children here is potentially dangerous. When they see their favorite heroes and heroines subverting authority in the name of a good, in this case friendship, children may be influenced to mimic Anakin and Ahsoka’s actions. There is, undoubtedly, some good in standing up for a person or an idea in the face of unnecessary opposition, but a small amount of disrespect for one’s authorities can quickly become dangerous and result in negative consequences for more people than originally intended.
This particular episode of The Clone Wars, along with many others like it, is an example of the potential dangers of popular culture as an educative tool. Most would admit that movies and television are a strong influence on all ages, but on young people particularly. Nixon (2006) argues that children base some of their identity on the media they consume, especially during their formative years, because of their tendency to mimic what they see. The Clone Wars does not promote drugs or sex, and if the show has a vice to promote, it does glamorize violence to some extent. The main harmful ideology of the show, however, is that it does contain a potentially negative attitude toward authorities. These negative precepts in the show will not become a problem if parents and teachers sit down with their children and ask the right questions about Anakin and Ahsoka’s actions and whether they were justified or not.
Ahsoka Tano does more for The Clone Wars, however, than provide a convenient friend and mentee for Anakin Skywalker. Ahsoka is a child in a world of adults, and kids can identify with her feelings of repression and her desire for freedom. First, Ahsoka is from an alien race and thus transcends stereotypes of the strong male or the perfectly proportioned female. She is impulsive and has a naïve view of the world around her. Her attempts to fit into the social world of the adults around her mirror the complex social relationships between children and adults in the real world (Dyson, 1997). Often, Ahsoka’s ideas, although counter to the conservative worldview of her superiors, are worthwhile and successful, which earns her reluctant praise from her master Anakin and his peers. Ahsoka provides a connection point for younger viewers to the prominent themes of The Clone Wars, and although she is a girl, her character can be universally accepted by both genders as the voice of youth.
Despite all of the attempts to bring in female viewers with the character of Ahsoka, Star Wars in general remains the domain of men. Men are stereotypically the most vocal fans of the film franchise, and The Clone Wars taps into a predominately masculine mindset. Explosions, lightsaber duels, and non-stop action appeal to males, and even the character of Ahsoka retains more of the masculine characteristics of young women. In addition, the male characters dominate much of the show’s narrative, with the female characters often taking a back seat. Some of this male dominance can be attributed to the male target audience, but feminist theory (Storey, 2006) would pose that the show further advances masculine cultural oppression. While feminist theory may be extreme in the case of The Clone Wars, it is important that young children become aware of the male-female relationships, especially that of Anakin and Ahsoka.
The show would be a bit monotonous, however, if the only themes and resulting curricula revolved around the friendship of two Jedi. Another prominent theme in The Clone Wars is individuality. Contrary to the expectations of a show that contains the word “clone” in its title, uniqueness and individuality constitute much of the discourse surrounding the clone troopers. As a short background, all of the military infantry for the Republic, the good guys, are clones of one man. Thus, they all look and speak similarly. Cloning is a prominent issue in the Star Wars universe, with a particular focus on the ethical issues of cloning humans for the purpose of having absolute control over them. Hanley (2005) argues, however, that cloning does not necessarily produce identical beings who think and act exactly alike, but rather leaves the development of the clones to a nurturing environment where their upbringing and resulting personality are determined and controlled by outside forces rather than by the innate nature of the clones themselves.
Hanley’s ideas about cloning become the core of the clone ideology in The Clone Wars. In the show, the notion of sameness is constantly contrasted with the individuality of each of the clones. These contrasts are most apparent in the visual and aural aspects of the characters. Visually, each of the clones wears a different haircut, which can range from a traditional military buzz cut to dyed mohawks. In addition, each clone decorates his armor with various colors or insignia that represent his achievements, battle experiences, and personality. Just as their basic appearance and armor emphasizes their sameness, the same actor, Dee Bradley Baker, voices all of the clones’ voices. While maintaining a similar tone in each voice, Baker makes subtle changes in inflection or timbre to differentiate individual clones and give them distinct personalities. Sometimes, the clone’s voices are even more distinctive than their physical appearance.
Two episodes of The Clone Wars illustrate the individuality of the clones particularly well. The first episode, “Rookies,” revolves around a batch of new recruits at a remote outpost, bored from their lack of action. A surprise attack forces the clones to rely on their individual characteristics and personalities, and in the subsequent fighting, each clone contributes to the battle uniquely based on his individual nature. In this episode, the clones have very little to distinguish them visually because of their lack of experience in the field, but the voice acting characterizes each clone uniquely. Another episode, “The Deserter,” finds Captain Rex, one of the main clone characters, face-to-face with a fellow clone who deserted from the war because of his lack of conviction for its cause. Contrary to the previous episode, the voices of the two clones are nearly identical while their appearance is drastically different. Rex is fully adorned with his military costume and thus enveloped in his military identity. The deserter Cut Lawquane, on the other hand, wears the simple outfit of a farmer and has embraced his identity apart from his military programming. In the end the two clones part, but each has a newfound respect for the unique choices and personality of the other.
As discussed, one does not have to look far to determine the curriculum of individuality in The Clone Wars. All ages will be able to recognize themes of uniqueness and individuality by watching the clones interact with each other and with the Jedi. As young viewers begin to shape their identities, The Clone Wars provides an excellent foundation for discussions about why all humans are unique despite potential similarities in appearance. Further, although the clones are all white, students can go even deeper into discussions about uniqueness across cultures and races in their homes and classrooms, with the potential result of providing a voice for some marginalized groups of society (Fain, 2004). Because the differences between clones are so pronounced, students can easily take the next step to understanding and appreciating those who are very different in appearance. Ultimately, students will gain a more complex and informed understanding of the world around them and the individuality of everyone they meet.
An analysis of a show entitled The Clone Wars would be incomplete, however, without dissecting the show’s stance toward war. The basic conflict of the show occurs between the Republic, which has the aid of the good Jedi and the clone troopers, and the Separatist forces, who are led by an evil Sith and use an entirely mechanized army. The Jedi are traditionally peacekeepers in the Star Wars universe, and they fight for the Republic’s side because they think it is the surest route to peace. Much of the galaxy is involved in the war either directly or indirectly, but some people have managed to stay neutral and pursue peace, as seen in “Defenders of Peace” and “The Mandalore Plot.” Unfortunately, the peacekeeping Jedi always end up bringing the war to the peaceful races in The Clone Wars.
The actions of the Jedi in the war provide the clearest insight into the show’s curriculum of war. Their peacekeeping purpose is often directly contrasted with the real actions of peaceful people. For example, in “Defenders of Peace” the Jedi crash land on a planet full of militantly anti-war aliens called the Lurmen. The Lurmen demand that the Jedi leave their planet immediately because war follows the Jedi everywhere they go. The Jedi, on the other hand, argue that the war would have reached the Lurmen’s planet eventually; therefore, the Lurmen should take some precautions to defend themselves. In the end, the Lurmen reluctantly agree to discard their peaceful ways momentarily and successfully defend their homes. For the Lurmen, the arrival of the Jedi, while it may have been a temporary good, ultimately changed the fabric of their community for the worse.
Episodes such as “Defenders of Peace” leave considerable questions in the minds of all viewers, young and old. The Star Wars universe is traditionally recognized for its clear representations of good and evil, with very little room for moral ambiguity (Dees, 2005). Darth Vader wears a black suit while Princess Leia appears in bright white in the opening scene of Star Wars: A New Hope. In The Clone Wars, however, the characters who are supposed to be the supreme good, the Jedi, are the primary means for moral ambiguity. For the most part, the act of destroying the opponent’s droids has no moral impact, but when the Jedi enter a culture and impose a warlike system on it, one must question if they are really doing their jobs as defenders of peace and upholders of the moral good. Questions such as this provide fertile ground for discussion about the justice or injustice of war and the possibility of peace, not only in the Star Wars universe but also in reality.
While the curriculum of war in The Clone Wars does pose some moral ambiguity, its purpose is not to take one side or the other in an anti- or pro-war debate. If the show attempted to do this, it would, in fact, lose some of the strength of its curriculum. By posing the primary good characters as somewhat morally ambiguous, The Clone Wars begs its viewers to ask difficult questions with difficult or impossible answers. The show also leaves room for multiple perspectives from multiple alien races in addition to the dominant ideology of the Jedi and Sith. The conglomeration of a variety of moral and social opinions does not impose one specific ideology but rather encourages dialog between contrasting ideologies. It is the openness to questions and ambiguity in the context of war that constitutes the strongest element of the curriculum of The Clone Wars.
If some hesitation remains about the curriculum of The Clone Wars and its possibilities as an educative tool, one need look no further than some current classrooms. The Star Wars universe in general provides an easy access point to education for many children, and the themes of The Clone Wars tap into the franchise as a whole. Literature classes offer parallel themes between Star Wars and world literature from the dawn of man, as well as opportunities to engage in meaningful writing through a medium such as fan fiction (Mahiri, 2001). In addition, there is a movement to teach media literacy, the ability to “read, analyze, and decode media texts” (Kellner & Share, 2005, p. 372), which is parallel to the more common print literacy. One potential way to use The Clone Wars specifically is to compare the war in the show to wars throughout history and ask difficult questions about the motivations of each side. Overall, whether The Clone Wars is officially part of a school’s curriculum or not, viewers have ample opportunities to learn from their couches.
The Clone Wars television show has reached millions of people across the world and provides a weekly escape into the action and romance of the Star Wars universe. The show is fun and exciting, but at its core it has complex issues of friendship, individuality, and war. The treatment of these themes constitutes a broader curriculum for the show that operates on the levels of age, gender, and ideology. An older viewer and a discerning younger viewer can recognize the questions posed in the show and use them as a springboard for further research. In addition, the youngest target audience for the show will ultimately start asking the intended questions about the deeper issues. Parents and teachers should be ready to recognize and use the show as a valuable instructive tool to help students draw connections between what they like to watch on television and what they can learn from its curriculum. The Clone Wars will continue to entertain and influence children for many more years, so it is only fitting to have an understanding of what they learn when they sit down in front of the television.