Last month I participated in an online roundtable discussion of Star Wars: The Last Jedi (2017) on ‘Confessions of an Aca-Fan’ (the official weblog of Professor Henry Jenkins). Other participants included Dr William Proctor (who convened the roundtable), Dr Rebecca Harrison, Dr Suzanne Scott, Dr Mar Guerrero-Pico, and Professor Will Brooker. The first instalment can be found here.
Professor Jenkins introduced the roundtable as follows:
Over the weekend, Warwick Davis, noted for his performances in various Lucas-directed films, weighed in on current controversies around The Last Jedi: “It’s a piece of entertainment, it’s not about making political statements. It’s just there for people to enjoy. You go in there and are supposed to lose yourself in the world the director has created. Star Wars has always been a great example of that – it’s pure escapism and you can forget the 21st century for a couple of hours. That was George Lucas’s philosophy with Star Wars– to make a fun adventure.” This is characteristic of a Hollywood move which seeks to distance itself from politics and thus absolve itself from critical discussion: “Get a life! It’s only a television series.” The reality is that Star Wars has always been about politics — if nothing else, Lucas’s choice to base the stormtroopers on, well, stormtroopers or to tap the aesthetics of Triumph of the Willfor the final moments of A New Hopemeans that he was tapping certain political narratives to give the story much of its punch.
So, the question is not whether one group or another is “politicizing” Star Warsbut whether what kind of politics seems “natural” within the context of a Hollywood blockbuster franchise and whose politics seems intrusive, whose politics gets read as, well, “political.” The discussions around The Last Jedi allow us to take certain soundings about where our culture is at in terms of embracing an ethos of diversity and inclusion, in terms of rethinking old genre formulas to encompass people whose stories have not been told in that term before.
This is an important part of the story of The Last Jedi‘s reception, but it is ONLY one part of the story. There are also questions about how we define notions of quality in a transmedia era — and what notions of quality are appropriate when factoring in somewhat different and still emerging narrative expectations, ie. what information needs to be contained in the film, what we may legitimately access from other sources, what expectations we have about closure or plot development as the unified Hero’s Journey narrative whichStar Wars helped to popularize in Hollywood gives way to what Jeff Gomez has called “the collective journey” structure.
And there are also issues around how fandom gets represented in the media, how we break through what is often a monolithic conception of Star Wars fans in the hand of journalists, and how we deal with a legacy of gender politics which still breaks fandom down into male and female binaries despite efforts towards greater fluidity.
The resulting exchange is lively and thoughtful. I don’t necessarily agree with every perspective represented — I am personally pretty enthusiastic about The Last Jedi(not necessarily as the best of all possible Star War Movies but as a step forward for the franchise) — but I have learned something from all of the participants here.
There are moments of tension in the discussion, but the participants are able to work through their disagreements with some degree of mutual respect and with some openness to each other’s arguments. You will get four installments of this discussion. And the discussion will continue further as, coming soon, we launch a new podcast, How Do You Like It So Far?, which I am developing with Colin MacClay from the Annenberg Innovation Lab and which will take up The Last Jedi as our first extended case study. Watch for more soon.
In 2014, Mina was diagnosed with Chronic Fatigue Syndrome and Fibromyalgia. One of the significant symptoms is a weakness of the muscles which meant she required living aids to assist her with raising her son. “I went into the local mobility shops and was dismayed to see that the limited range of aids were all fashioned towards elderly people or people with little appreciation of the more alternative ways of fashion,” said Mina. “My main issue came when I was invited to a wedding. I had a great outfit but my living aids make it look so ghastly! So I had to go without and suffered, leaving the event early.” It was then that she struck on the idea of modifying them herself. She did the same thing with her wrist and knee supports.
In the light of last week’s post, which described Victorian attitudes towards the disabled as ‘a combination of fear, pity, discomfort and an idea of divine judgement’, it was encouraging to see that the neo-Victorian update doesn’t share these feelings in any way, shape, or form. The steampunk subculture’s love of crafting has effectively turned disability—often a marker reserved for evil or monstrous characters in popular culture—into a superpower.
It turns out that this topic (like many topics) has been on the steampunk community’s collective mind for a while. Steampunk Touristtalks about why this subculture is a better fit with disability than others:
When it comes to Steampunk […] one isn’t restricted to that sort of rigid rule set. Rather than being a predetermined cast of characters, Steampunk is an artistic style. While it can stand alone, it can also be added to other things to make them Steampunk. You don’t have to be someone else; you can create your own character. What that means to a person with a physical disability who relies on a device is that their device – be it a wheelchair, cane, oxygen tank, leg braces, or even glasses – can be dressed up and blended into a costume, or even made the centerpiece of it. […] Within the world of Steampunk, those things don’t make them stand out as “others”; they’re merely smart, fashionable accessories. And one can easily imagine that were someone brave enough to dress up a prosthetic limb with Steampunk flare, they would most likely find themselves the belle of the ball at any event, and for all the right reasons.
Steampunk literature is a disruption of the historical narrative. When I’m creating a universe for my characters, I treat history like the icing on the cake. Or, sometimes, the rosettes. I am creating a world with airships, sky pirates, auto-baubles and appropriated Victorian aesthetics. I pick and choose which parts I borrow from our history and which parts to embellish.
So, in a steampunk setting, what does accessibility look like?
In the Tales of the Captain Duke, Professor Sewell is the morally-ambiguous Tony Stark figure. She becomes one of the first students at Lovelace University, a school founded by Mary Somerville and funded by the heirs of Ada Lovelace. She pioneers the field of biomechanical engineering with her incredible prosthetics and reshapes the Victorian understanding of disability. The classic image of the crippled, impoverished veteran pushing himself on a scooter is undone, reshaped into a foreman supervising work at a factory on eight-foot legs. The Professor disrupts society with her inventions, and challenges her peers’ understanding of the possible.
Do you have an example of how steampunk approaches disability? I would love to hear about it!
I have a special request for all my fellow Star Wars fans – but especially the ones who remember when it all started.
I’ve got a couple of questions about the fandom and marketing that, as much as I already know, I’m just not up to speed on. It’s partly for a work project (more info below), but also just out of interest.
Do you remember reading anything that described Star Wars as a boys’ club – or, on the flip side, recall seeing an appeal to female audiences either in storytelling or in marketing?
If you’re a female fan, what first drew you to Star Wars?
What kinds characters, stories, or merchandise has the franchise marketed with a clear idea of men/boys or women/girls in mind?
What are some of the ways (good, bad, and hilarious) in which Star Wars has tried to appeal to women/girls?
What kinds of things have been perceived as gender-pandering, by fans or by the media?
I’m especially interested in concrete examples from before the prequels, but would welcome anything you can send my way. Films, toys, EU, Happy Meal tie-ins. The more specific, the better.
I’m too young (1987) and too foreign (grew up on US military bases) to remember examples from 1977-1990, and I’ve probably missed out on some recent ones as well. The information available online about Star Wars marketing and mythmaking is pretty sparse before 1995 – no surprise, given that the internet wasn’t really a big thing until then – and there’s no way I can afford all the paper fanzines, adverts, articles, and reports I would ideally like for this project.
Here’s a list of some topics I’m already looking at [updated 13 November 2016]:
I would hugely, hugely appreciate any info you can give me. Tips for where to look or who else to ask are also very welcome.
You can get in touch with questions or suggestions on Twitter (@MegenJM), via e-mail (DeBruinMJ@cf.ac.uk), or just by commenting on this post.
May the Force be with you!
A little background info / disclaimer
I’ve been a Star Wars fan since 1994, and have been hanging around TFN since 2001. I even penned and beta-read some fanfic on the TFN forums, though I can’t for the life of me remember my original login password. Now I’m a teacher and academic researching popular culture (more here: www.angelsandapes.com). Although my fandom is a huge part of who I am, and why I ended up doing this kind of work in the first place, I haven’t had the chance to write about or research Star Wars – until now.
I’ve just been chosen to write a chapter for the upcoming book Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling. It’s scheduled for publication in 2017, to celebrate the 40th anniversary of ANH. The point of this book is to argue that Star Wars ‘laid the foundations for the forms of convergence culture that rule the media industries today […] spreading that storyworld across as many media platforms as possible’.
My chapter will argue that even though the news media tends to pitch Star Wars as a boys’ club, it actually did a remarkable job of inspiring female fans from the very beginning. Rey has gotten a lot of attention lately, but she’s only the latest in a long list of reasons a woman might want to watch Star Wars. Even aside from Princess Leia, there have been lots of ways the franchise has gone out of its way to try and appeal to women, and even though some of its early attempts fell flat or flew under the radar, it helped to pioneer a lot of the storytelling and marketing strategies that have taken over twenty-first-century culture.
I will obviously ask for your permission before I even think of using anything you say in the book, so feel free to speak your mind. I’m mainly interested in whether other people’s experiences overlap with mine.
Last week, the first teaser trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story hit the internet. If you somehow managed to miss it, you can watch it below. ScreenRant also has a great breakdown of the trailer here, as does io9 here, if you aren’t in a place where you can watch YouTube videos.
Scheduled for release in December, Rogue One is set just before the events of A New Hope (1977), the very first Star Wars film. Fittingly, the plot for Rogue One is taken straight from A New Hope’s opening crawl:
It is a period of civil war. Rebel spaceships, striking from a hidden base, have won their first victory against the evil Galactic Empire.
During the battle, Rebel spies managed to steal secret plans to the Empire’s ultimate weapon, the DEATH STAR, an armored space station with enough power to destroy an entire planet.
How exactly? Well, unlike the previous seven films, Rogue Onewill not follow the legacy of the Skywalker family. In fact, neither Rogue One or the other planned standalone films will cross over with the regular, episode-based saga at all. This sets them somewhat apart from the films in the Marvel universe, which tends to liberally sprinkle in the cameos. The tone of Rogue One is allegedly darker and morally grey, the genre is more ‘grand heist’ or ‘war movie’ than ‘space opera’, and the story is more personal. Basically, Rogue One is about some of the bit players in the bigger, more epic story the films in the main canon portray.
We’re a long way from the Mos Eisley cantina…there’s nary an alien or monster to be seen in the teaser trailer. There’s not a sign of Jedi, Sith, lightsabers, space battles, dogfights, or any of the other staples I’ve come to expect from Star Wars. Except for Mon Mothma, not a single familiar face appears, though I’ll be shocked if we don’t see at least a glimpse of Vader in the final product.
For Petty, then, while the Rogue One might still be a Star Wars film from an aesthetic perspective, and in the sense than it is set in the same universe, it takes a new approach to the franchise’s tone, genre, and central themes. Personally, I’m not sure whether this is the case, though admittedly I come to the new Star Wars films from a different perspective than many viewers: as a long-time, and rather highly involved fan. I have seen the Star Wars universe take numerous different forms, both inside and outside of ‘canon’ (a contested term these days) and have participated in creating some of them myself.
Jared Petty may well be in the same situation (possibly minus the Earl Grey), and I’m sure he doesn’t mean to make any kind of value judgement here. Quite the opposite – he seems very positive about the possibilities Rogue One signals, precisely because of its apparent willingness to go in untested directions. Towards the end of his review, however, he makes a noteworthy statement that echoes what a lot of people, including Kathleen Kennedy, have been saying about Disney’s plans for future standalone Star Wars films:
If it works, Rogue One will open the door for other kinds of tales to be told in the Star Wars galaxy: scary stories, exploration epics, true romances, maybe even more comedic and deeper dramatic experiments.
While true, from a certain point of view, Petty’s statement is basically still predicated on the assumption that the Star Wars films are the only real Star Wars stories. While this may be a valid assumption, given that the films are all most people know of the franchise, many of the official Star Wars comics, television shows, and (before they were redacted from Star Wars canon) the material of the Expanded Universe have played with genre and tone, and have explored the world from the perspective of minor characters. These stories may not be ‘canon’, but they have made an impact on many past and current fans. One example childhood me remembers with particular fondness is Tales from Jabba’s Palace (1995), part of a series of short story anthologies that focused on minor characters from the original Star Wars trilogy.
The Rogue One teaser itself already contains a number of references to obscure fan favourites from the original trilogy, like Mon Mothma or the Gonk droid. This suggests that the film, like The Force Awakens, will do its best not to alienate its hardcore fanbase. In addition to downplaying the stories told off the big screen, however, the idea that Rogue One will be a completely new type of Star Wars story ignores the ways in which the film’s entire approach to the Star Wars galaxy has actually been replicated many times over in fan culture.
By this I’m not at all trying to say that the Star Wars franchise needs to pander to the fan community’s every whim, or that it must stick to any kind of canon. I am simply intrigued by the way that now, more than ever before, the most prominent parts of Star Wars ‘canon’ are coming to resemble the fan creations it has been inspiring for many, many years.
Story from the perspective of a minor, unnamed, or practically nonexistent character in the original film trilogy? Check. Darker, more adult overtones? Check. Fills in gaps and stories hinted at by ‘canonical’ stories? Check. Wild genre shifts? Check. Strong female lead? Check. Fandom has done it all many times over. If people thought that The Force Awakens was essentially fan fiction, what will they make of Rogue One? It’s likely that most won’t even be aware of the similarities it bears to fan-led productions. Others might make the familiar move of classifying it as homage or transformative fiction, rather than fanfic.
In part, this shift into what is essentially ‘professional’ fan fiction no doubt comes simply because many of the people now working for Lucasfilm and Disney were themselves massive fans of Star Wars – both as children and as adults. They were always fans in the commonly understood sense of the word, but now they are also professionals. Hollywood, and Star Wars in particular, are getting very good at mining both fan culture and independent film for creative talent. This was also evident in the appointment of relative newcomer Gareth Edwards (Monsters, Godzilla) to direct Rogue One.
In general, Lucasfilm has treated its fanbase in a welcoming and encouraging way. This is of course not without ulterior motives, restrictions, and gender biases, as Henry Jenkins already pointed out many years ago. In any case, the people who once wrote the fanfic now regularly write the ‘real’ thing.
So who decides what is a ‘real’ Star Wars story, and what is not? Technically, that job falls to Pablo Hidalgo, who works as part of Lucasfilm Story Group to make sure each new story fits together coherently with the others. Hidalgo, himself a founding member of the Star Wars Fanboy Association, answers the question of what makes something canon in less than 130 characters:
When you ask ‘is it canon?’ The answer means ‘do other storytellers need to take it into account?’ That’s all the answer means.
I would argue that Disney most certainly needs to take the huge body of stories that already exist into account. We’ve already seen how mild fan blowback about the elimination of the Expanded Universe stories from canon has threatened to spill over into the ‘real world’. Disney seems highly sensitive to the fact that fan opinion matters, and I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect them to cater to this group however they are able. What’s more, I think that is exactly what they are doing as they construct these spinoff stories, though perhaps not in the way we expected. I am incredibly interested in the extent to which Rogue One will come to resemble a piece of fan art, and there may well be follow-up posts to this effect. It is an exiting time to be a fan, and an especially exciting time to be a Star Wars fan.
I will also be closely following the ways in which Disney capitalises on the fan community to inspire, create, and market both this and future spinoff films. Things are off to an intriguing start, as it was recently announced that Gareth Edwards, Rogue One co-producer John Swartz, and executive producer John Knoll will be judges for this year’s Star Wars Fan Film Awards. Who knows – a winner of this year’s award may even, in a few years’ time, see his name (the winners are almost always male) in the credits of a canonical Star Wars film. In the wake of the Rogue One trailer, several professional artists (some working for various Star Wars properties) also tweeted fan renditions of the film to fellow fans – but also, inevitably, to customers.
I’m currently wrapping up a draft of my thesis that looks at the way intertextuality functions in the monster mashup. I argue that it revives the past in a very specific (and monstrous) way, while at the same time having wider implications for studies in historical fiction, adaptation, and remix culture more broadly. More on that later.
At this exact moment, I’m looking for your help in researching my next chapter. This chapter will examine the way remix culture, with special focus on the monster mashup, deconstructs the relationship between fan, superfan, and antifan. What, exactly, is the distinction, and how do both individual fans and corporations capitalise on these categories? Any relevant sources or information you have on any of these topics would be much appreciated. You can send them to me here in a comment, on Facebook or Twitter, or by e-mailing me at DeBruinMJ@cardiff.ac.uk.
The premise is this. Contemporary culture, we are told, is obsessed with the remake and the reboot. There is nothing new or original to be found. Remix takes this idea and runs with it, creating new objects explicitly out of old ones, and blurring the borders between the original and the derivative. The recent popularity of this creative trend has interesting implications for fandom and fan studies, which has long been concerned with the things fans create (products, communities, artworks) around the intellectual property of others. Beyond questions of legality, what distinguishes fanart from homage, or a fan from a superfan (professional fan), in this context?
Take these t-shirt prints, and the above poster print. Qwertee.com capitalises on specific types of fandom, and targets specific kinds of fans. In addition, the company assumes a positive, even fan-like stance (right down to in-jokes in the copy) in order to sell these t-shirts.
Using examples from the world of monster mashup (suggestions welcome!), in my next chapter I hope to explore how the language of fandom is employed in discussions of artistic appropriation in twenty-first-century popular culture. Monster mashups – in which fantastical monsters run amok in historical texts and contexts – range from actual fan productions to big-budget projects cashing in on fan aesthetics and interests. These texts often construct themselves as the figurative monsters of the creative world, and are marketed as revolutionary responses to copyright law and big industry, or even as anti-fan productions.
In the case of Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, for example, a marketing campaign that started off from an anti-fan perspective (‘making the classics less boring’) was quickly transformed into one that sold Seth Grahame-Smith and Quirk Books as ‘true’ fans (‘the book underscores what we all originally loved about Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice’). I’m hoping to argue that in the monster mashup, and in remix culture more broadly, the line between fan, superfan, and anti-fan is a fine one.
What follows is part two of a spoiler-free discussion of The Force Awakens (the new Star Wars movie), and its cultural context in science fiction, fandom, and nostalgia culture. You can find part one right here.
Last week I started my breakdown of The Force Awakens with the disclaimer that I am a long-time Star Wars fan. I looked at arguments that this most recent film is unoriginal, that it is powered by nostalgia rather than innovation, and I supplied a few counterarguments to these claims. Do we always have to see nostalgia as bad, and originality (assuming originalityeven exists) as good?
In his latest book, Remaking History (2016), Jerome de Groot talks about the role of historical fictions in the cultural imaginary. ‘It is necessary’, he argues, ‘to look on novels, or films, or plays, or games, or TV series, not as poor versions of history, nor within a binary wherein they are the margins of a centrifugal culture, nor as parasites on “proper” historical knowledge and practice, but as establishing historical modes of awareness, engagement, narrarivization, and comprehension’ (p. 6). For me Star Wars, with all its nostalgia, and its fetishisation of various historical aesthetics, very much fits into this discussion about how we represent and engage with the past – and by analogy, how we build the future. Speaking specifically about Westerns, De Groot suggests that they ‘are not myths at all, but complex historiographical entities enabling the unpicking of foundational stories and histories’ (p. 61). Star Wars may not be a full-blown Space Western, but it too contains these inherent possibilities. The real question is, who is actually allowed to do the unpicking of our stories and histories? Who is the ‘we’ in this scenario?
This brings me to another question that The Force Awakens hasraised.
Is The Force Awakens essentially fan fiction?
A short answer to this question is yes. Another, even shorter answer is no. Both answers are correct.
Like many of us, J.J. Abrams is a long-time fan of Star Wars. It’s shaped him as a creator, it’s been referenced in his previous work, and (ironically) influenced his work on Star Trek. The chance to actually make an official Star Wars movie must have seemed like a dream come true, and Abrams’ love of the series comes through in every frame, and every piece of referential symbolism and imagery. The fact remains, though, that Abrams is an industry professional as well as a fan. His devotion to other stories and worlds is generally read as a point of inspiration and homage, rather than an insular fantasy.
Not even Abrams can escape the scorn levelled at fan culture in general, though. The Guardian‘s Catherine Shoard applauds Disney for its choice of Abrams, a ‘highly expert, professional superfan’, to helm The Force Awakens. She points out that returning the reigns to franchise creator George Lucas would only have resulted in more fan disappointment. Problematically, though, she goes on to characterise fans as parasites, bullies, and spoiled children:
The Disney deal looks set, then, to go down as the moment when ownership of cultural properties officially passed from creators to consumers. Those people raised on video games and talkboards are no longer prepared to tolerate the concept that fictional worlds exist only within the imagination of one person. In fact, they are indignant at being denied the keys. Like cross toddlers dodging bedtime, they will have their stories.
This is simply an unfair and inaccurate depiction of fan communities, in a long history of unfair and inaccurate depictions. Recent media coverage of ‘Cumberbitches’, for example, has inevitably fixated on the intensity of fan devotion to actor Benedict Cumberbatch, characterising his followers as infantile, obsessed, and irrational. As Henry Jenkins and others have pointed out, female fans are especially at a disadvantage in terms of how they are represented in popular (or academic) media.
But it’s important to remember that Star Wars fans can be found in all genders, cultures, and walks of life (though who they root for may differ). Star Wars fans want more Star Wars, yes, but most also want good Star Wars, and are perfectly capable of fulfilling their own need to engage with the narrative gaps and opportunities the franchise creates. It didn’t take long at all for truly fantastic fan art based on The Force Awakens to begin rolling in, and excellent fan-made films, short stories, and communities have been making the rounds since before there was an internet.
Is The Force Awakens culturally lazy, or even dangerous?
Like any major franchise, particularly in the adventure genre, The Force Awakens has its downfalls – though for the moment it has escaped some of the homogenising tendencies of blockbuster cinema. It does definitely still represent that specific brand of cultural imperialism that Hollywood is known for, but politically it sides with the left-wing branch of populism rather than its right-wing counterpart. It’s not particularly deep in the film school kind of way that some fans seem to expect, but neither is it as unimaginative and derivative as some critics would have you think.
As I argued last week, The Force Awakens simply takes both the visual pastiche that characterised the original Star Wars and the subsequent culture of pastiche that has since sprung up around the franchise, and combines them into one big, tongue-in-cheek mashup.
Although its portrayal of the fight between good and evil is unpleasantly conservative, The Force Awakens is part of a greater story arc, and the series has the potential to nuance this portrayal in later films. Many equal (and greater) films suffer from the same, lazy good/evil binary, and occasionally this can even serve an important purpose. Consider the recent Mad Max: Fury Road, Django Unchained, or even Nolan’s Batman films, each of which seem to care relatively little about their villains’ personal motivations for being evil (‘being bad is just so much fun!’), and yet still manage to tell important and compelling stories, with equally important and compelling political agendas. Fury Road has been heralded as a feminist masterpiece (though not everyone agrees), and for Jerome de Groot Django Unchained presents ‘an aesthetic of the past that does not ignore the horrors of the past and that, through excess, might achieve a better communication of the grimness of events than can be achieved by a discourse – costume drama – that is somehow now a compromised mode’ (Remaking History, p. 179).
Even if subverting this conservative good/evil binary is not at the top of Disney’s current agenda, The Force Awakens and its sequels have the potential to shift other Hollywood trends in a positive direction. The film’s balance of gender representation easily blows past all the earlier Star Wars movies, and its racial diversification is almost as solid – though naturally the fact that almost all the main characters speak Western variants of English is one of those problems science fiction and fantasy have been running into for ages. The film even leaves space for multiple sexual identities, and one of the franchise’s new official novels features an openly gay character. These are representations we’ve only ever really had in Star Wars fan fiction, never in the franchise itself. While it could (and should) be argued that this is also part of the Disney’s new marketing strategy, I just can’t see it as a bad thing.
The nostalgic, historical aesthetic of Star Wars (‘A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…’) only serves to increase the impact of such representation. If this is what the past looks like, what’s so bad about building the future on it?
If anything, my reservations about The Force Awakens are still largely personal. At the risk of mixing traditionally rival fan cultures, I’m reminded of that episode of Star Trek: TNG where Captain Picard lives a whole lifetime in the span of 25 minutes. He comes back to the Enterprise, and suddenly all the people he knew and loved, and all the experiences he had, are nothing more than a memory. It feels strange to live in a world where the 50-odd years of EU history following the original trilogy have suddenly ceased to be, and where my favouriteStar Wars characters don’t (yet) exist.
I reserve the right to change my opinion about The Force Awakens. So please, leave a comment disagreeing with me. I am very interested in discussing this with you. As I think about The Force Awakens more – as I watch the Blu-Ray release in April, the original trilogy spin-off Rogue One (2016), and the next official sequel, Episode VIII (2017) – I may well come to feel very differently about it all. But for the moment I’m quite content, both as a fan and as a critic. And that’s an achievement that should be applauded no matter how ‘produced’, nostalgic, fan-driven or unoriginal it may be.