A Critical Introduction to the Sith Academy Corpus

by Professor P. Adder
[Read The Plaid Adder's author bio]


On May 19, 1999, George Lucas released the most recent installment in the Star Wars saga, Episode I: The Phantom Menace. Its birth was attended by the usual hoopla that accompanies the entry into the world of any new member of a ruling dynasty: prophecy, public proclamations, and of course the flooding of the marketplace with merchandising tie-ins. In a corner of the Web known to the damned as Siubhan's House of Horror, however, the advent of the young heir apparent to the Star Wars fortune was celebrated a little differently. Barely two weeks after the film's release, the Sith Academy series sprang fully-spawned from the head of Siubhan.

The birth of a new genre is always a ray of light in the dark world of literary scholarship; any opportunity to mine a vein which has not already been exhausted by hordes of tenure-hunting monograph-writers is eagerly seized and exploited. So it is no surprise that in the short month of its existence, the Sith Academy tale has already been analyzed and explicated by most of the field's major players, with interesting results. Jacques Derrida's "The Phantom Logos: Darth Maul as (De)Center of the Universe" was an early and influential contribution to the field. Claiming that the sudden explosion of interest in Darth Maul's barely-realized character proves Derrida's contention that "absence is the highest form of presence," he reads the Sith Academy series as an attempt to stabilize the film as text by replacing the emptiness at its center with a fully-realized character--an attempt which ultimately fails because "the very nature of a multiply-authored and collaborative genre introduces internal tensions and contradictions which ultimately deconstruct the very character they attempt to create" (Derrida 3564). It was swiftly followed by Jacques Lacan's elegant if predictable essay on the libidinal economy of the Sith universe ("Men In Lack: The Dark Side and the Doubled Phallus"), and Eve Sedgwick's more thoughtful and provocative "Between Sith," a penetrating analysis of the role of the "little twit apprentice" in the triangulated relationship between Sidious and Maul. As Sedgwick argues, the early introduction of what she calls "the vexation stipulation" permanently interpolates the young Obi-Wan Kenobi between the Sith and his apprentice, conferring on him a central importance that belies the amount of contempt and abuse that tends to be heaped upon him by the authors and their Sith alter egos. As she writes,

"Nowhere is this made more explicit than in 'Darth Maul Gets Laid,' where the incoherences that structure the hypermasculine heterosexual identity claimed by Darth Maul, and ostensibly conferred upon him by the Sith Academy writers, are finally revealed when Maul inexplicably winds up in bed with Obi-Wan. As the author's resort to the narrative expedient of the Pan Galactic Gargle Blaster (itself a meta-commentary on the intertextual nature of the genre of fanfiction) indicates, Maul can only fulfil these foundational but disavowed desires through a total lapse not only of consciousness and will but of the narrative continuity itself." (Sedgwick 346)

Susan Gilbert and Sandra Gubar have in the meantime contributed what has become the standard feminist reading in "The Madwoman in The Maul: Pre-Menstrual Rage at the Sith Academy." Noting that most of the stories appear to have been female-authored (although as she concedes some of the pseudonyms are gender-ambiguous), and noting also that Maul's favorite color, aside from black, is red, Gilbert and Gubar read the Sith Academy stories as a collective validation of female rage and frustration at the limitations imposed upon modern women by the genre of science fiction and by life in general:

"Darth Maul becomes a representation, in masculine form, of the equally rage- and hatred-filled female doppelganger he confronts in such tales as 'Darth Maul vs. IKEA' and 'Darth Maul Flies the Unfriendly Skies'--the pre-menstrual woman. Like PMS, Maul's identity as a Sith gives him something our culture almost never offers women--the license to vent anger and frustration through verbal or physical violence. But while PMS as a construct is both empowering and disempowering--in that it validates these otherwise forbidden emotional responses but at the same time pathologizes the woman who 'suffers from' them--Maul's rage need not be supported or explained by a diagnosis. Maul's feelings of rage and hatred are always already justified by the terms of the genre, which specify that this powerful, sexy, intelligent being be subjected to what creator Siubhan terms 'a bunch of menial crap'--tasks which are clearly beneath his talents and expressly designed to evoke that rage." (Gilbert and Gubar 21)

Helen Vendler, holding true to her identity as "The Last Living New Critic," rejects all such claims and reads the Sith Academy phenomenon simply as a commentary on the formal limitations of the film itself. She points out, for instance, that although several authors are represented, some formal characteristics are always adhered to, even in excess of the requirements laid out in Siubhan's submissions guidelines. Vendler breaks these down in her essay " 'I've Got A Bad Feeling About This': Attack Through Allusion in the Sith Academy Stories":

"Many of the same flaws that were excoriated in fan-written reviews of the film are encoded into the structure of the Sith Academy story itself. For instance, although Maul and Sidious clearly, consistently, and consciously identify Qui-Gon and Obi-Wan as their natural enemies, Obi-Wan never seems to realize that 'the nice man' ('Darth at the Laundromat') with the horns and the 'Sithlords Kick Ass' T-Shirt is a Sith--just as, in the film, the Jedi Council fails to sense the evil emanating from Palpatine/Sidious. Similarly, the ritual repetition of Obi-Wan's cry of dismay ("NooooOOOOoooo!") at the end of every Sith Academy tale comments on Lucas's own repetition of it in A New Hope and Phantom Menace. The prominence of Maul himself, of course, is itself a pointed commentary on his near-nonentity status in the film itself." (Vendler 56)

While all of these readings have merit, none of them fully grasps the complexity of this fast-growing and protean genre. Nor, indeed, can I hope to do so in such a short space. Rather, I prefer to take the time left to me to examine in detail one specific aspect of the Sith Academy phenomenon.

Darth Mary Sue: Women, The Workplace, And A Bunch of Menial Crap

Although Siubhan has established a few rules by editorial decree, as it were (Obi-Wan must be vexed, the story must be PG rated, it must be funny, etc.) some have simply evolved with the genre. Often this happens when a story contributes some facts about the Sith Academy universe which then become, officially or un, "canon." For instance, the introduction of Maul's cat "My Apprentice" has been incorporated into the "official" canon, and subsequent tales generally include and refer to the cat (with the exception of "Darth vs. the Airport," where Maul goes gleefully off on a trip without so much as a thought about who will take care of My Apprentice while he's away). In terms of the "unofficial" canon, which exists by unspoken consensus among the writers, the most influential Sith Academy story is probably "The Foul Apartment Lesson," in which the author first establishes that Maul lives in the kind of sub-standard, poorly-maintained, built-from-cardboard-and-staples shitbox familiar to many of us. Several later stories revolve almost entirely around Maul's attempts to render the place habitable ("The Cleaning Lesson," "Darth Maul cleans the fridge," etc.). Even stories with some other focus often begin in this apartment, whose foulness (augmented by Maul's slovenly habits) becomes the catalyst for whatever lesson Sidious devises in order to get Maul up off the couch and out of his own filth ("Darth Maul Gets Laid," "Darth Maul vs. the Laundromat," etc.). Clearly this setting has become central to the series.

Maul is a Sith; with his mental powers he should have no trouble getting himself some better digs. ("You will give me the penthouse apartment rent free...with maid service...") Yet, despite his grandiose ambitions and formidable skills, Maul has a crappy apartment, a limited wardrobe, no time for dating, and no friends outside of the people he comes into contact with through the Sith Academy. Suddenly faced with the task of maintaining his own apartment, doing his own cooking and his own laundry, and working long hours for a job that doesn't give him either the money or time to attend to all of this, Maul deals with the conflicting demands placed upon him by withdrawing into an electronic world consisting of the Internet and Play Station. Meanwhile, his life is controlled by a "sadistic bastard" ("Darth Maul on Jerry Springer") who puts him through a seemingly endlessly tedious and repetitive process of "training." In other words, Maul's life is the life of either a college graduate in an entry-level job, or of a graduate student in the humanities, or both.

The graduate school analogy is particularly compelling given the constant repetition of a motif established in "Darth Maul Gets a Pet": the idea that Maul must become a Sith by rising up and slaying his master. Almost all of the subsequent stories include some reference to this future event. The structure of the Sith system ("there are always two: a master and an apprentice") mimics the economy of the academy, in which there are a finite number of tenure-track positions which become available to new candidates only when the people already holding them die or retire. As in the academy, the first thing a new Sith must do when he rises up and slays his master is take on a new apprentice for whom he is both mentor and tormentor. And yet, this motif is also a perfectly natural expression of the frustrations experienced by the average B.A. in the standard entry-level job: overeducated and underpaid, Maul is kept a perpetual "trainee" on the pretext that his rage and hatred still need to be honed. In both situations, as in the Sith Academy stories, the line between "apprenticeship" and "exploitation" is extremely blurry; Maul is supposed to be learning to be a Sith, but in actual fact he is doing 'a bunch of menial crap' that no one else in this universe is willing to do. And, like many people in entry-level jobs, Maul fantasizes about rising up and slaying the boss who refuses to allow him to advance to the next stage.

So Maul is, like many of his authors, a twenty-or-thirty-something languishing in an insufficiently challenging and remunerative job or graduate program. Is he also, like so many of his authors, a woman? Surface indicators would appear to tell against it; Maul is hypermasculine not only in terms of his physique but his personality. He combines, for instance, a stereotypically male love for technology (the Mauler 5000, the Play Station) with an often-mentioned lust for impossible fantasies like Lara Croft, and of course wields an extremely phallic weapon. And yet, at the same time, there are indications that he is living a woman's life, or more specifically the life of a working woman.

Consider the evidence. Maul hates housework, but is constantly being forced to do it (various authors have Maul cleaning and painting the apartment, disinfecting the refrigerator, doing laundry). Maul has a cat. Maul babysits ("Party Hearty"). Maul is in the clutches of a male boss/mentor who sees him as a sexual object ("Darth Maul on Fashion Emergency," etc.) and who is able to prevail upon Maul to do his (the boss's) own shitwork ("Darth Maul Mows the Lawn"). If we read Maul as an allegorical depictions of an intelligent, capable woman frustrated with her experience in a male-dominated profession, certain things begin to make more sense--including the otherwise rather strange transformation of Obi-Wan's character.

In the film, Obi-Wan is only marginally better developed than Maul. However, what development there is is curiously at odds with his depiction in the Sith Academy tales. Aside from the infamous "NooooOOOOOoooo!" scene, Obi-Wan's relationship with Qui-Gon is, in the film, more contentious than close. The film opens with Obi-Wan questioning Qui-Gon's judgment ("I have a bad feeling about this"); Obi-Wan goes on to complain to Qui-Gon about his maverick tendencies ("You could be on the Council yourself...") and in general look sort of irritated throughout the film, although that could just be Ewan MacGregor waiting for the check. Yet in the Sith Academy stories, Obi-Wan has been transformed from this grumpy malcontent into a doe-eyed puppy who hangs on Qui-Gon's every word, worships the ground he walks on, and would happily fetch his slippers if asked. In fact, an overwhelming desire to please his master (in all senses of the word) is the Sith Academy Obi-Wan's foundational characteristic. Maul, on the other hand, looks forward to rising up and slaying his master and "enjoying it mightily" ("The Cleaning Lesson").

Maul and Obi-Wan represent the two most common responses to the patriarchal hierarchy in which working women are trapped. Obi-Wan internalizes the value system that puts him in the apprentice position, believing that Qui-Gon is so wonderful that he deserves his position of authority, and trusting that he will advance by being the "good apprentice" and serving his master any way he can (up to and including the granting of sexual favors). Maul, on the other hand, accepts the reality of Sidious's dominance but submits to it only because doing so will eventually allow Maul to become powerful enough to rise up and slay him. Obi-Wan is the "good" employee--loyal, hardworking, sincere, and deluded into thinking that if he just shows how dedicated he is he will get ahead. Maul is the "bad" employee--Machiavellian, hostile, someone who "has an attitude" and is most definitely "not a team player," but also hip to his master's shit.

The contempt heaped upon the head of poor Obi-Wan--who in addition to being happily subservient and naturally neat and tidy is insecure, sentimental, clinging and incurably co-dependent--represents the rejection of both particularly disabling "feminine" characteristics and the traditionally "feminine" response to oppression, which is to endure and suffer rather than rise up and slay. Maul, on the other hand, models an alternative approach: keep saying "yes, my master," but bide your time until you are ready to reveal yourself to the Jedi. It is clear which approach the Sith Academy authors favor.


Future Sith Academy stories may prove this analysis wrong, as the canon develops and the universe changes. One thing is clear, however. There's a lot you can do with a huge, tattooed, spiky-headed red-eyeballed incarnation of rage and hatred--certainly a lot more than Lucas would ever dream of. The possibilities appear to be endless. Come find out if you don't believe me. Enter the Academy. Join us on the Dark Side. MOOHOOHAHAHA!



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