Star Wars and Political Discourse

7d7This post represents a section of my chapter for Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling that was cut for the sake of space. It looks at some of the ways Star Wars has explicitly engaged with political discourse over the years. 

Star Wars has always been a deeply political franchise. Not just in its themes, which include war, totalitarianism, multiculturalism, and civil disobedience, but also through its use in political debates and activism. George Lucas has consistently claimed that the first Star Wars film was an analogy for the Vietnam war, and that the villainous Emperor Palpatine had a specific real-life counterpart: “Richard M. Nixon was his name. He subverted the senate and finally took over and became an imperial guy and he was really evil. But he pretended to be a really nice guy.”[1] The franchise is also steeped in historical references which, while not directly political, certainly contribute to its politicisation by various groups. The Stormtroopers and other, visual parallels between the Empire and Nazi Germany are just one example.

© Billy Ludwig
© Billy Ludwig

The franchise has also frequently been read as making a specific political statement, as in Ep III, where Anakin Skywalker tells Obi-Wan “If you’re not with me, you’re my enemy.” This caused many US conservatives to protest that the film caricatured former President George Bush’s post-9/11 assertion that “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists.”[2] Ronald Reagan’s 1983 anti-missile defense initiative was dubbed “Star Wars”: a move that irked Reagan, but was shrewdly deemed good publicity by assistant secretary of defense Richard Perle, who reasoned: “It’s a good movie. Besides, the good guys won.”[3]

In a 2012 article, Jonathan Gray wrote about how fans used a scene from Ep V, in which a Rebel snowspeeder takes down an Imperial Walker with a grappling hook, as a metaphor to protest Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker’s Budget Repair Bill in 2011. One man played the scene on a loop using his iPad, chanting “The Rebels brought down Walkers. So can we!”[4] Others carried Star Wars slogans on signs, or dressed up as the vehicles from the films. The Star Wars references served as an important point of “morale and community building” among the protestors.[5] In another article, Andreas Jungherr describes how Darth Vader was used by the SPD (a German political party) to discredit Angela Merkel in the 2009 German federal election.[6]

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Stay tuned for the full article, on Star Wars and popular feminism, later this year!

[1] Christopher Klein, ‘The Real History That Inspired “Star Wars”’, History.com, 2015, para. 4 <http://www.history.com/news/the-real-history-that-inspired-star-wars> [accessed 24 February 2017].

[2] Derek R. Sweet, Star Wars in the Public Square: The Clone Wars as Political Dialogue (Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015), p. 10.

[3] Frances FitzGerald, Way Out There In the Blue: Reagan, Star Wars and the End of the Cold War (Simon and Schuster, 2001), p. 39.

[4] Jonathan Gray, ‘Of Snowspeeders and Imperial Walkers: Fannish Play at the Wisconsin Protests’, Transformative Works and Cultures, 10 (2012), para. 1.2.

[5] Gray, para. 3.2.

[6] Andreas Jungherr, ‘The German Federal Election of 2009: The Challenge of Participatory Cultures in Political Campaigns’, Transformative Works and Cultures, 10.0 (2011), para. 5.6 <http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/310> [accessed 10 February 2017].

Star Wars Identities

star-wars-identities-stormtrooper-posterLast month I visited the Store Wars: 40 Years of Merchandise exhibition in Hoorn, NL. It was a small, intimate affair that took a loving look at the way Star Wars has affected merchandising and fan practices. A few weeks ago, I took a trip into London for the travelling Star Wars Identities exhibition at the O2 Centre. Despite sharing a broad subject, the two could not have been more different. Identities features a number of original props, costumes, and concept art from the pre-Disney era. In practice this meant I got to see stuff from the original trilogy (1977-1983), the prequel trilogy (1999-2005), and the Clone Wars animated series (2008-2015). The Force Awakens‘ BB-8 also made an appearance.

The exhibition was, perhaps logically, much larger than the one in Hoorn. It also had quite a few more visitors. Tickets had to be booked for specific time slots, and once we arrived we were admitted in groups of 10 to 15. Although you sometimes had to wait a few moments for a path to the next costume or prop to clear, there was plenty of space and time for all of us to enjoy the exhibits—and to take lots of photographs, which almost everyone did.

Exhibits were often grouped by theme: droids, podracers, Jedi, ships. Major characters whose development was especially extensive or technical, like Yoda or Jabba the Hutt, had their own sections. I had no idea that it took so many concepts to arrive at the Yoda we know today. I’m half-relieved that Garden Gnome Yoda didn’t make the final cut, but would also love to see someone edit him into a fan version of Star Wars.

I’m not necessarily a believer in the sacredness of ‘original’ objects, and I won’t say I was paralysed with awe by Luke Skywalker’s jumpsuit, or the mural that hung behind Palpatine’s chair in Revenge of the Sith, but it was pretty amazing to be surrounded by so many objects that made up such a big part of my childhood. I’ve seen Ralph McQuarrie’s art so many times in books that it was somewhat surreal to see the pieces hanging up at an exhibition. Sort of like unexpectedly stumbling across a portrait of a distant relative at the National Portrait Gallery. There were many other great pieces of concept art as well.

The staging and lighting of the exhibits was very well done overall. I won’t lie that Darth Vader’s (or should I say, David Prowse’s?) suit, displayed in all its black glory against neon lights, gave me a little thrill. I was also excited to see the model Slave I and suit of armour belonging to its owner. As a girl I was most interested in the Jedi, but as an adult Boba Fett is my hero. The model Star Destroyer from A New Hope and the AT-AT and Snowspeeder used in the filming of The Empire Strikes Back were also personal favourites.

In addition to being visually stunning, there were a few neat technical aspects to Star Wars Identities as well. Each visitor was given a headset, which would activate when we faced certain exhibits. This let us focus on a particular video or audio clip without any distractions from other corners of the space. It also made me feel a bit like the exhibit was coming to life as I approached.

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These were our characters.

The highlight of the exhibition from an interactive standpoint, though, was definitely the ‘identities’ component. In addition to their headset, each visit received a bracelet at the start of their tour. When touched to various sensors throughout the exhibition, this bracelet would allow visitors to create their own Star Wars characters through a series of choices. After choosing things like race, appearance, and name, the exhibition takes you through your own Star Wars story—from birth, to crisis, to the ultimate choice between good and evil. At the end of the exhibition you can view the character you created, and e-mail yourself a copy of your character’s story as a memento of your visit.

The exhibition also asked visitors to think about the process of narrative and identity in general. What makes people who they are? What makes a person good or evil? What forces shape the characters of Star Wars, and what forces shape us? While at times this narrative felt a little contrived, it gave visitors of all ages something fun to do while waiting to get a peek at another exhibit.

This is not the exhibition’s first stop, nor will it be the last. Star Wars Identities is at the O2 Centre until 3 September 2017, after which it will set up shop in a new city. If you’re a Star Wars fan near London with £25 to spend (£18 at the concession rate), it’s definitely worth a visit. All in all I spent about two hours looking, reading, and listening.

Women of Star Wars

Image © Jeremy Selwyn
Image © Jeremy Selwyn

I’ve been writing a lot about Star Wars lately, and I’m afraid there will be a few more posts on the subject in the weeks to come. What can I say. When you’re working on something—especially something that was once a childhood obsession—it can hard to tear yourself away. This week I’m taking a little break from exhibitions and feminist analyses, though, to reflect on something small and unexpected and great that I discovered while doing research for my article.

There are a lot of interesting women behind Star Wars.

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I don’t just mean the characters on screen or page, though you can take your pick of those as well. Behind the scenes, women have also been a direct and important part of the Star Wars story, whether they worked on the crew of one of the films, for one of Lucasfilm’s many divisions, or in a managerial capacity. Though I already knew how important some of these women were to the universe I know and love, I’ve learnt a lot more about them over the past few months, and have discovered a few more in unexpected places. It’s been fascinating, and I would love to take the research further at some point.

Below are five ‘women of Star Wars’ you might find interesting too, whether you already know of them, or have never heard of them before. Each has impacted the franchise in her own important way, but it’s an eclectic collection. Let me know if there’s someone you think I should have included!

marcia2_thumbMarcia Lucas

While you’ll probably recognise the surname, you may not know just how much of an impact George Lucas’ ex-wife had on the first three Star Wars films. Besides editing them (she won an Oscar in 1978 for her work on A New Hope), she influenced their narratives on other levels as well. Michael Kaminski, the author of The Secret History of Star Wars (2008), wrote an extensive and illuminating article about her life and work. You can read the entire thing online, but here’s an excerpt:

Mark Hamill […] notes in 2005 how her sensibilities influenced the content and structure of [George Lucas’] films:

“You can see a huge difference in the films that he does now and the films that he did when he was married. I know for a fact that Marcia Lucas was responsible for convincing him to keep that little ‘kiss for luck’ before Carrie [Fisher] and I swing across the chasm in the first film: ‘Oh, I don’t like it, people laugh in the previews,’ and she said, ‘George, they’re laughing because it’s so sweet and unexpected’– and her influence was such that if she wanted to keep it, it was in. When the little mouse robot comes up when Harrison and I are delivering Chewbacca to the prison and he roars at it and it screams, sort of, and runs away, George wanted to cut that and Marcia insisted that he keep it.”

photoLucy Wilson

Wilson has held many roles at Lucasfilm. She started out as George Lucas’ assistant, and is said to have typed up the the script for Star Wars. She also worked as finance director in Lucasfilm’s licensing department, as head of publishing, and finally as head of the nonfiction George Lucas Books. In 2010 she retired, though if her Twitter account is any indication it looks as though she’s still keeping very busy.

Most importantly (to me, anyway), she seems to have been largely responsible for the launch and success of the Star Wars Expanded Universe books, which had a long and profitable run. In a post on the Barnes and Noble blog, Andrew Liptak explains how it all went down:

“I was trying to bring quality literature to a licensed fictional universe,” Wilson recalled. She also wanted to do something different from the typical tie-in novel. With the Star Trek novels as their main competition, Wilson knew she needed to differentiate her books. “[Star Trek was] constantly rebooting their program with new storylines. I didn’t want our plan to be like theirs, and one big difference was to make ours have one over-arching internal consistency.” Additional stipulations were that the stories had to take place after Return of the Jedi, none of the characters who were featured in the films could be killed off, and characters already dead could not be resurrected.

ken09-15_aKathleen Kennedy

If you haven’t heard of Kathleen Kennedy yet, it’s certainly only a matter of time. The heir to the Lucas empire following its sale to Disney, Kennedy has worked in Hollywood nearly her entire life, with some of its biggest names. Her production company, Kennedy/Marshall, is second only to Stephen Spielburg in terms of domestic box office receipts.

Since she took over from Lucas there have been a number of in-depth news reports on her career and her plans for the future. And though she hasn’t yet nominated a female director to helm a Star Wars movie, she has pulled together a diverse executive team.

IGN wrote:

Lucas stepped down, Kathy was named President, and now has full control over the future of the lucrative franchise. Considering their close working relationship, one can only assume that Kennedy and Lucas began discussions well before work on Lincoln began, and indeed, that the Disney deal was always a part of these discussions. The Disney/Lucas revelation rollout is still ongoing. But one thing is for certain: George Lucas has complete faith in Kathleen Kennedy.

“I don’t have to give advice to Kathy,” he said, during the most recent of his chat series with the producer. “She knows what to do. I mean, she knows better than I do.

“She has all the qualities to run a company like this. To make it great.”

We’re likely to be hearing a lot about Kennedy in the future.

kiri_hart-bab4846cc9d8Kiri Hart

Hart has been working at Lucasfilm for over 20 years in various roles, but in 2012 she became the Development lead for the company’s new Story Group. Basically, this group keeps track of the existing Star Wars continuity, and makes executive decisions about what kinds of stories will be told in the future. The Daily Dot explains it like this:

From a fandom perspective, the Story Group put itself on the map by torpedoing the Expanded Universe (EU), a vast network of tie-in materials that populated the Star Wars franchise for decades. Along with stories filling in the time between and after the movies, it introduced beloved characters like Grand Admiral Thrawn and Mara Jade Skywalker. Then in April 2014, Lucasfilm decided it was too unwieldy to link with the upcoming slate of movies. The EU was declared uncanonical, making way for a new universe encompassing episodes I-VI, the two animated series, and everything that came after April 2014. Now, everything goes through the Story Group, which provides background material and steers writers away from topics that will be covered in other corners of the franchise.

[…] The Story Group’s influence is everywhere, from the design of star maps in spinoff books to the diverse casting of the new movies—almost certainly stemming from the input of Kathleen Kennedy and Kiri Hart. The question now is how long this ecosystem can thrive. Other studios have hit serious problems trying to balance innovative creators with big-budget franchise properties. On the other hand, no other company has the same level of control as the Lucasfilm Story Group, which benefits from having an executive team full of lifelong Star Wars fans.

 

screen_shot_2015-11-23_at_15-10-28Sigurlina Ingvarsdottir

This video game developer and Senior Producer with EA DICE was responsible for 2015’s Star Wars Battlefront. Ingvarsdottir doesn’t work for Lucasfilm directly, then, but with one of their many licenses. She’s also a self-labelled Star Wars fan. While the game received mixed reviews for its price-to-content ratio, it still shipped over 13 million copies.

When Fortune magazine asked her how other people can get into the business of video games, she replied:

“I encourage people to spend time playing, to spend time prototyping and making games using all of the free engines and software available out there,” she says. “Most people have some understanding that to make games you need to be a programmer or a designer. But there are so many fields today. You can be a lawyer and work in games. You can be an economist and work in games. There are so many roles and so many ways you can be a part of making games.”

Do you know of more interesting ‘women of Star Wars’? Let me know so I can add them to my list!

Rogue One Was the Movie I Needed This Year…But It Wasn’t the One We Deserved

This post contains spoilers for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story (2016). If you haven’t yet seen the film, and would prefer to watch it with fresh eyes, stop reading now. As my final post of 2016, I wanted to write about something that allowed me to reflect on the year as a whole. Please note: I don’t mean to undermine anyone else’s opinion about Rogue One with this review. There are many valid understandings of what ‘good’ cinema (and good feminism) entails, and I firmly believe conflicting opinions about this subject can and should exist.

The internet is in general agreement that 2016 has been the worst year ever. It was a year that saw a seemingly never-ending stream of human suffering, war, political strife, and celebrity deaths. On social media and the news, it often seemed like there was nothing but fear, hate, and darkness in the world.

Enter Rogue One, a film Variety called ‘the most politically relevant movie of the year’. The first standalone film in Disney’s planned sequence of Star Wars tie-ins, Rogue One tells the story of the team of rebels who stole the plans to the first Death Star, revealing a small, key weakness in its construction and enabling Luke Skywalker destroy the doomsday weapon in the very first Star Wars film (Episode IV: A New Hope, 1977). The team is led by reluctant hero Jyn Erso (played by British actress Felicity Jones), the daughter of the scientist responsible for inserting the key weakness into the Death Star, and for notifying the Rebel Alliance of its existence.

Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) Photo by Jonathan Olley, © 2016 Lucasfilm Ltd. All Rights Reserved.

I wrote a bit about Rogue One when the first trailer was released, and I went to see it on December 15th, the day it opened in the UK. Because I’m currently working on an academic article that explores whether or not the Star Wars franchise can be said to have a feminist agenda, I approached the film in two minds: on the one hand as an academic, and on the other as a life-long Star Wars fan. I came away from it in two minds as well. A part of me loved it, and wholeheartedly agreed with the many reviews that hail it as a victory not just for feminism, but also for diversity and subversive politics in mainstream entertainment. Another part of me remained unconvinced, and even disappointed with what I saw as a series of missed opportunities. A third and final part of me, shaken by yesterday’s news that Carrie Fisher (writer, mental health activist, and the actress who portrayed Princess Leia) had died, continues to cast about for a way to tie these conflicting emotions and opinions together.

So, here it goes.

Concept art for Rogue One
Concept art for Rogue One.

To understand why I felt the way I did about Rogue One, it’s necessary to give a bit of background about the film’s place in the franchise. In the Star Wars universe, the films have always been the firmest decider of what is ‘canon’, and tend to be the part of the franchise that will reach the widest audience. Since Disney acquired Star Wars in 2012 there have been signs that this could change, but the films have played a large part in establishing audience faith in the franchise, and in setting the mould for what Star Wars will look like in the future.

2015’s The Force Awakens broke box office records by being doggedly faithful to the things fans loved most about the films from the 1970s and ’80s. Rogue One represented Disney’s first attempt to take Star Wars in a truly new direction, and establish a series of stories and properties that fit within the Star Wars universe, but that weren’t limited by the Skywalker narrative that dominates the central films. If The Force Awakens was Disney’s opportunity to show me it could make a Star Wars movie, Rogue One was its opportunity to show me that Star Wars could do something different while still feeling like Star Wars. (Side note: for those interested in the concept, Bioware’s 2003 video game Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic did a damn good job of using a familiar universe to tell new and interesting stories in new and interesting ways.)

TL;DR: Rogue One had a lot to do in just 133 minutes. And as a Star Wars fan I’m very happy with the way it did so. I found the experience visually and emotionally arresting, and thought the story was well-written, unexpectedly bold, and did a good job of balancing its enormous cast of central characters. Would I buy an extended version that takes the time to flesh out some of the characters more thoroughly? In a heartbeat, but I also felt that the film gave me more than enough subtle characterisations to help me understand and relate to each of its key characters from the get-go. The film was also chock full of references to (and cameos from) the original film trilogy, keeping my inner fan very entertained.

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A boardroom scene in Rogue One.

From a political perspective, I also admired the way the film depicted the Rebel Alliance as a collection of determined, action-oriented people who also happen to be largely made up of the marginalised in our own Western society: people of colour, women, the elderly. When Cassian Andor (played by Mexican actor Diego Luna) tells Jyn that ‘not all of us get to choose to rebel’ [not an exact quote, please do correct me], for me the implications were unmistakeable. It was a message straight to to all those out there who are fortunate enough to be able to ignore racism, sexism, and other forms of discrimination that are still widespread in our culture: you may think you’re an ally, but make sure you understand what that means. Not everyone has the luxury of leaving a situation when things get bad. Jyn Erso may be a relatively privileged white woman, but she gives her mind, heart, and body to the rebel cause, even when it is no longer strictly necessary. She also knows when to move aside and give other people the chance to step up. Ultimately, she shares the same fate as the rest of her team, dying on Scarif after successfully transmitting the Death Star plans to the Rebel Alliance.

This was exactly the message I needed at the end of 2016. It was a year that left many of us feeling helpless and hopeless, and Rogue One delivered a powerful message in response, from the marginalised, outnumbered, and outgunned members of the Rebel Alliance. ‘Welcome to the real rebellion,’ it seemed to say. ‘We’ve been fighting here for decades. Now that you finally understand what it feels like, and what we’re fighting for, here’s what you can do about it’. It was a call to fight terrorism (from left and right), totalitarianism, and discrimination, even when that fight is ultimately doomed.

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The central cast of Rogue One.

So far, so good. This reading is the one most reviews have taken in the aftermath of Rogue One, and if we only look at the story itself I think this reading is a good one. For ‘the most politically relevant movie of the year’, though, I feel obligated to dig a bit deeper than that. I’ll start by explaining why I don’t really agree with the people who think Rogue One is a feminist film.

Rogue One needed to prove to me that it could be a different kind of Star Wars movie, which it did very admirably, but Disney and Lucasfilm still haven’t convinced me that they aren’t the evil Empire in this scenario. They seem to insist on maintaining the stats quo because it’s the safe bet and it’s ‘what sells’—even when the message audiences are buying directly contradicts that idea. The Rebel Alliance—clearly the good guy in Rogue One, despite some new grey areas—is racially diverse, but the film’s protagonist is white, as is the leader of the rebellion (Mon Mothma). The titular ‘Rogue One’ team may be led by a woman, but the ratio of men to women in the film (± 7.7:1) is bad even by Hollywood standards. And though Lucasfilm executive Kathleen Kennedy prides herself on the gender parity of her executive team, she has essentially stated that the Star Wars franchise is not willing to be the one to break the gender bias in big-budget directing.

The women of Lucasfilm's executive team. Image © Christopher Patey.
The women of Lucasfilm’s executive team. Image © Christopher Patey.

As Cassian makes so explicit, it’s not enough to pay lip service to rebellion. We need to get our hands dirty, and this is something Star Wars the franchise still seems unlikely to do. This is evidenced not only by Disney’s haste to distance itself from the political implications of the film, but also in Rogue One’s overwhelming lack of gender parity in both cast and crew, and even in its CGI recreation of Grand Moff Tarkin (originally played by Peter Cushing, who died in 1994) and a young Princess Leia. This last point is relatively minor, but as a fan of Peter Cushing from his work with Hammer Horror, I found it surprisingly ghoulish. I remain unconvinced by John Knoll’s argument that a CGI clone is somehow equivalent to a new actor performing in tribute.

I also can’t forget Carrie Fisher’s open letter to Princess Leia upon hearing that she would be appearing in new Star Wars films. She wrote:

[W]hile you will forever be remembered loitering in star-infested landscapes, existing endlessly in imaginations and onscreen, I putter noisily in that infamous closet of celebrity—expanding, wrinkling, stooping, and far too often, stupid with age. Here we are enacting our very own Dorian Gray configuration. You: smooth, certain, and straight-backed, forever condemned to the vast, enviable prison of intergalactic adventure. Me: struggling more and more with post-galactic stress disorder, bearing your scars, graying your eternally dark, ridiculous hair.

Here Leia appears in Rogue One, then, as young and sure as ever. The audience is not even allowed to remember the Carrie Fisher of the past. Instead, we are given another version of the eternally young Princess. We haven’t even begun to untangle the ethical issues raised by digitally resurrecting the deceased for profit—even with the permission of their estate.

A young, CGI Leia in Rogue One.
A young, CGI Leia in Rogue One.

What about feminism, then? Rogue One makes a few feminist choices in terms of narrative, but on an industry level it could have been pushed much further. To be honest, I’m baffled as to why Disney is even playing it safe. Like The Force Awakens before it, Rogue One was both lauded as feminist by mainstream media and decried as ‘Social Justice propaganda’ by so-called mens rights activists (MRA). Both perspectives would seem to indicate that Rogue One is indeed feminist. It features a female protagonist, and women seem to fill all kinds of roles throughout the film, from diplomat to pilot to rebel insurgent. In a way, Rogue One is very much a story of how sacrifice knows no boundaries—be it gender, race, or class. At a young age Jyn watches her mother die in a largely symbolic gesture, trying to stop Director Orson Krennic from forcing her husband, herself, and her young daughter to serve the Empire. By the end of the film, we have come full circle, and it is Jyn who gives up her life for a lost cause. Neither Jyn nor her mother are expected to be particularly useful or relevant against the Empire, but each builds on the sacrifices of the other in the slow battle towards freedom. In this, Jyn becomes a proud successor to Princess (later General) Leia Organa, who strangles her oppressor with the very chains he used to bind her in Return of the Jedi (1983). She refuses to give up, and when there seems to be no hope, she makes her own.

In 2016, however, an empowering story is not enough.

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Leia takes out Jabba the Hutt in Return of the Jedi.

Rogue One could have taken the opportunity, with its first ‘original’ Star Wars movie, to go all the way. It could have given us a film that showed us how Hollywood films should be, not just in terms of racial and gender diversity on-screen, but in the way it navigated the industry. It took a bold chance, but it could have taken a much bolder one. Give us a cast and crew with gender parity, that includes people of all ages and economic backgrounds, and that is racially diverse. If any franchise had the money and the opportunity to do this, it was Star Wars. I won’t even go into how this film spectacularly failed to subvert the franchise’s serial obsession with heterosexuality. As a guaranteed blockbuster, but also as a relatively safe ‘spinoff’ film, now was the time to take the big risks.

As MRA website Return of Kings concluded after actually viewing the film, ‘Rogue One shows that Hollywood is listening to our complaints about feminism in films’. The rest of the review echoes many of the things I found so disappointing, and the fact that they were able to come to this conclusion shows just how much further Disney should have gone. As a film, I don’t think Rogue One was particularly feminist, or even particularly rebellious. As Michelle Goldberg’s aptly titled article on Slate argues, 2016 was also ‘the year the feminist bubble burst […] People who are committed to gender equality will try to salvage what they can of the last 40 years of progress. They’ll try to maintain their morale, but living in total opposition to the zeitgeist is hard.’ The odds are still firmly against equality. And Star Wars still has a long way to go.

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General Leia knows what I’m talking about.

Rogue One was the movie I needed this year, both because it reminded me of all the things that still need to be done, and because its story showed us where we can start. It reminded me that we need to keep hoping and fighting. We need to do something—anything. This is also the lesson that I will take from Carrie Fisher’s story. One of her many quotes that’s currently making the rounds of the internet feels especially relevant in the light of this review:

Stay afraid, but do it anyway. What’s important is the action. You don’t have to wait to be confident. Just do it and eventually the confidence will follow.

At the time she was speaking about mental illness, but Carrie Fisher was outspoken about social justice as well. So was the Star Wars character she embodied: General Leia Organa. Both Fisher and Jyn Erso show us that suffering, loss, and even death need not be the end. They inspire us to follow their example, and to take up the fight that they have been forced to abandon.

So let’s get to it.

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Store Wars: 40 Years of Star Wars Merchandise

fullsizeoutput_13b3Earlier this month I paid a visit to the Museum of the 20th Century in Hoorn. Seven years living in the Netherlands wasn’t enough to get me there, but my current research on Star Wars marketing—and the opportunity to gawk at some retro toys—finally made the trip worth my while. From 19 November 2016 through 29 October 2017, the museum is hosting a special exhibition called ‘Store Wars: 40 Years of Merchandise’, focused specifically on the Star Wars franchise.

In a number of different ways, the Museum of the 20th Century feels like a place out of time—making it especially fitting, I suppose, to host merchandise from a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. It’s built in a former prison, which itself is located at the edge of a peninsula on the far side of town. I arrived in Hoorn on a Sunday, when Dutch villages tend to be at their emptiest, and was also one of the first people into the museum when it opened at noon. The Star Wars exhibition was clearly the main attraction, advertised on numerous posters and banners in the walk up to the museum, and it was the first exhibit immediately visible once you made it past the ticket office. Ever the contrarian, however, I decided to take a look at the permanent exhibit upstairs before taking the more obvious route.

The museum has an imposing silhouette.
The museum has an imposing silhouette.

Essentially, the first section Museum of the 20th Century consists of a series of cordoned-off living and bedroom spaces, each decorated in the style of a different decade. Comically, most of the visitors to the museum seemed to have lived in similar spaces themselves, and much of the conversation I overheard involved one person pointing out a particular object of childhood nostalgia to another person. This portion of the museum gave way to an entire indoor village, with shop windows displaying retro products, and finally to ‘communications technology’, ‘toys’, and ‘home electronics’ sections that simply display a range of products next to each other, in chronological order.  Here I discovered some particularly horrifying devices that my own childhood in the ’90s didn’t include (1980s: did you actually ever use the electric meat-carving knife?). Overall it was a strange experience, in some ways out of time, but also very much defined by a present-day outlook on the recent past.

On the top floor of the museum I also stumbled across the first room of the Star Wars exhibition, devoted to all the franchise’s collaborations with the LEGO company. In large glass cases the museum had set up assembled versions of seemingly every single Star Wars LEGO set released since 1999. In the centre of the room were several full tubs of generic LEGO that visitors could use to make their own museum pieces. The room’s only other occupants—two children, a boy and a girl—raced each other from exhibit to exhibit to name all of the characters, ships, and locations from the Star Wars universe. Although I happen to be an amateur LEGO Star Wars collector myself, I was more interested in the older toys and merchandise, so I made my way downstairs to check out the exhibition proper.

‘Store Wars’ filled two large rooms in the museum, both decorated with life-size models clearly made by the locals, and illuminated by a dazzling, colour-shifting array of strobe lights that made me feel like I actually was back in the ’80s. Over the speakers, Star Wars theme music, lines from the films, and the audio from various advertising campaigns played continuously but unobtrusively—just enough to get me into the spirit of the exhibition. The first room was largely dominated by a low case full of the complete line of (unboxed!) Kenner action figures, originally sold between 1978 and 1985. The rest of the room was devoted to the original trilogy, and its first memorabilia. In addition to the Kenner figures, the walls were lined with some of the other early merchandise, including soap cakes, model X-Wings, and a few great examples of early Dutch-language boxes and advertising. Just off this room was a homemade replica of the Millennium Falcon bridge, with video from various Star Wars flight simulator games playing through the viewscreens.

The second room followed Star Wars merchandising into the late 1980s, and through the release of the prequel trilogy at the turn of the millennium. Highlights included Darth Vader roller skates, Chewbacca high-tops, and a few famous signatures. There were also a number of life-size figures that demanded a selfie or two—some because they were so iconic, others because they fell a bit short of the mark. Towards the end of the room I took the opportunity to see how I measured up, literally, to some of the major characters in the films, using a Star Wars height chart pasted on the wall, and the very end of the exhibition featured a children’s play area with a selection of Star Wars costumes and props to try on. Overall the exhibition had a good mix of things to look at, but also things to interact with, making it a brief but entertaining experience for the child in everyone.

There was very little from the two most recent Star Wars films (understandable given when this exhibition must have been planned and set up), but the cinema adjacent to the museum was advertising Rogue One premiere screenings, and it seemed like members of the Dutch branch of the 501st Legion—an international fan organisation—were going to be in attendance. The Dutch 501st was also present for the ‘Store Wars’ exhibition’s grand opening. The exhibition also seemed to pitch itself to male Star Wars fans. Most of the children’s costumes at the end of the exhibition were of male-coded characters, and the child’s bedroom exhibition that was part of the second room was labelled ‘A boy’s room from around 1980’. Like the franchise itself, though, it certainly wasn’t gender exclusive: while I was there I saw men and women, boys and girls pass through in equal numbers.

My only real complaint was in the gift shop, which had a range of Star Wars merchandise (mostly LEGO), but very little for the visitor on a budget. I would happily have bought some postcards, a magnet, patch, or pin, but the €40 BB-8 bomber jacket, though fabulous, was a bit above my current means. Ironic for an exhibition on a franchise that literally had a product in every market and price range, but perhaps understandable for a small museum in Hoorn.

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I would have bought this bumper sticker in a heartbeat

The verdict? ‘Store Wars: 40 Years of Merchandise’ is definitely worth a visit if you happen to be in the area. It may be small, but it was clearly assembled with love, and is packed to the rafters with Star Wars memorabilia. Be sure to bring a native along for the ride, though—all the plaques are in Dutch!

 

Is Star Wars a Boys’ Club?

© Andrew Burton/Getty
© Andrew Burton/Getty

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.

  1. 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?
  2. If you’re a female fan, what first drew you to Star Wars?
  3. What kinds characters, stories, or merchandise has the franchise marketed with a clear idea of men/boys or women/girls in mind?
  4. What are some of the ways (good, bad, and hilarious) in which Star Wars has tried to appeal to women/girls?
  5. What kinds of things have been perceived as gender-pandering, by fans or by the media?

yteorhfI’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]:

  • Princess Leia action figures (OT era)
  • Covergirl’s TFA make-up line
  • Responses to the casting of Liam Neeson and Ewan McGregor in TPM
  • OT early screening invitees
  • Female employees at Lucasfilm and LucasArts
  • Wear Star Wars Share Star Wars
  • Dathomir and the Nightsisters (in The Courtship of Princess Leia and The Clone Wars)
  • The ‘Tales from’ EU anthologies (Jabba’s Palace, Mos Eisley Cantina, etc)
  • R2-KT
  • Marcia Lucas
  • Leigh Brackett
  • Kathleen Kennedy
  • Comparisons between Leia and Padmé
  • Characters explicitly used as young adult role models (Ahsoka Tano, Sabeen Wren, Tenel Ka, Jaina Solo, etc.)
  • The #WheresRey campaign
  • Discussions about BB-8’s gender
  • HerUniverse.com

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!

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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.

If you’re looking for more of a technical explanation of what the chapter is about, you can check out my other blog post on it: http://angelsandapes.com/feminist-politics-star-wars/.

The Feminist Politics of Star Wars

This week started off with some exciting news: I get to draft a chapter for Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling, a collection of academic essays on the franchise edited by Dan Hassler-Forest and Sean Guynes. This collection is scheduled for publication in 2017, to coincide with the 40th anniversary of the first film release.

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The Project

In forty years a lot has changed for Star Wars, and my chapter focuses on the franchise’s feminist politics.

A recent YouTube video cut together all the lines spoken by women in the original Star Wars film trilogy, apart from Princess Leia. The total runtime was just over a minute. Women have been well represented among the ranks of Lucasfilm and LucasArts, but historically the franchise is not known for its groundbreaking portrayal of female characters on-screen. Even so, women have made up a significant and vocal portion of the franchise’s fanbase from early on. Though Princess Leia’s example is a powerful one, what else draws women to Star Wars, and how has the franchise adapted itself to tap into this market?

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R2-KT, the pink astromech droid. First created for a little girl with cancer, later honoured with a place in Star Wars canon – to the chagrin of some uninformed fans.

As you can read in the original call for papers, the focus of the collection is on transmedia revision both in and outside of the films:

The chapters in this collection will ultimately demonstrate that Star Wars laid the foundations for the forms of convergence culture that rule the media industries today. As a commercial entertainment property and meaningful platform for audience participation, Star Wars created lifelong fans (and consumers) by continuing to develop characters and plots beyond the original text and by spreading that storyworld across as many media platforms as possible.

Ashley Eckstein, the voice of Ahsoka Tano and founder of HerUniverse.
Ashley Eckstein: Star Wars fan, voice of Ahsoka Tano, and founder of the clothing line HerUniverse.

From the myriad female-led stories in the Star Wars ‘Legends’ (Expanded Universe) novels, to the casting of stars Ewan McGregor and Liam Neeson in The Phantom Menace, to the popular success of female characters like Ahsoka Tano in The Clone Wars and Rey in The Force Awakens, the first half of my chapter will provide a survey of the tactics used to quietly cater to an imagined female audience, from the earliest days of Star Wars’ transmedia empire. This is a complex subject, and I won’t be able to cover everything in the 5,000 words I’m allotted, but I’ll be doing my best to highlight key examples.

'Encounter on Dathomir' © wraithdt on DeviantArt
‘Encounter on Dathomir’ © wraithdt on DeviantArt

In the second part of the chapter, I plan to tie things together by using the matriarchal planet of Dathomir – first depicted in the bonkers (and bestselling) ‘Legends’ novel The Courtship of Princess Leia (1994) and later re-imagined for the canonical Clone Wars animated series (2008-2014) – as an illustration of the franchise’s own evolving relationship with feminist discourse.

How You Can Help

While I have the wealth of the internet and my own experiences to draw on, as well as the invaluable research of people like Michael Kaminski, J.W. Rinzler, and Will Brooker, ideally I want to take this research further. 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 buy up all the paper fanzines, adverts, articles, and reports I would like for this project on a PhD student’s salary.

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So. Here’s where you come in. Do you remember reading anything that described Star Wars as a boys’ club, or recall seeing an appeal to female audiences either in storytelling or in marketing? What kinds characters, stories, or merchandise has the franchise marketed with a clear idea of ‘men’ or ‘women’ in mind? What are some of the ways (good, bad, and hilarious) in which the Star Wars franchise has tried to appeal to women over the years? What kinds of things have been perceived by the media as gender-pandering?

screen-shot-2015-12-14-at-11-42-24-am

I’m particularly interested in concrete examples from before the prequels (so 1977-1999), and am prioritising officially sanctioned attempts to sell Star Wars to women over grassroots projects, but would welcome anything you can send my way.

Now obviously, on the surface this description seems to ignore all the queer Star Wars fans out there. Please don’t think you’re not also important! Your fandom is a vital part of this research, especially because you’ve long been ignored by marketers. As the previous paragraph states, what I’m looking at here is the perceived audiences for canonical Star Wars products, not the actual ones. I will be on the lookout for slippage between these two groups. I’m also interested in the way the franchise queers itself over time – allowing for multiple readings of the same characters and stories – in order to adjust to changing ideas about gender.

Welcome to the Asylum

On a beautiful long weekend at the end of August, I experienced my very first major steampunk event.

Image © Joe Slatter
Image © Joe Slatter

The Asylum Steampunk Festival – so-named because of the converted mental asylum that forms one of its key venues – takes place every year in Lincoln, and is the largest and longest-running event of its kind in the UK. I went to learn more about the musical acts performing there, and also to steep myself in the subculture, for context.

Image © Stitches of Time
Image © Stitches of Time

When I tell people about going to a steampunk festival, the first question from many people’s lips is ‘what did you wear’? Alas, I spent the Asylum as a civilian in jeans and t-shirts (and occasionally a flaming red rain parka, to combat the weekend showers). I wasn’t the only person underdressed for the occasion, but the extent of the costumes ranged from a simple pair of brass goggles to a dress inspired by Gothic cathedrals (pictured). No one’s attire really felt out of place, and no one was excluded from an event based on what they were wearing. Of course, those with especially fabulous costumes had a harder time than the rest getting from place to place, since everyone wanted to take their picture.

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Some scheduling decisions were tougher than others.

There was no shortage of things to do and see at the Asylum festival, and most of the daytime features were free to wristband holders. There were crafting workshops and live performances, galleries, exhibitions, and markets, competitions and roleplaying events. Many of these involved the participation of the attending steampunks, who had signed up for particular events in advance or been selected to participate because they had won an event at another convention. In one event, participants raced the wheeled contraptions they had built down the castle promenade.

Behold my giant slice of 'Steampunk Cake' (with absinthe-flavoured icing).
Behold my giant slice of ‘Steampunk Cake’ (with absinthe-flavoured icing).

In addition to the steampunk vendors who had come to Lincoln specially for the festival, the city’s regular shops had gone out of their way to appeal to the steampunk community. In some shops this meant a steampunk-themed window display. Others offered special discounts to wristband holders. Many food vendors had steampunk-themed cakes, drinks, and other treats. Favourite flavours were absinthe (aniseed), lemon, and gin.

The city itself was no slouch. Within a very small radius were a castle, a cathedral, a lovely old town and more modern shopping area (separated from each other by the mother of all hills), as well as a myriad other historical buildings and attractions.

I also very much enjoyed the evening concerts I attended at the Engine Shed – an appropriately named venue for the occasion. I got to experience the bands I had been researching for the past few months up close, and discover some new bands in the process. I will definitely be picking up albums by Frenchy and the Punk for my own collection, and Before Victoria is now at the top of my research list.

The Engine Shed – steampunks not pictured.
The Engine Shed – steampunks not pictured.

In addition to the research on steampunk music I originally went to Lincoln to conduct, I came back from the Asylum with a few things to mull over.

The first thing that struck me about the festival was the age of the attendees. Specifically, the steampunk community is older than I had expected. The vast majority of the steampunks at the Asylum seemed to be somewhere between 40 and 60, though there were also a good number of attendees outside of that age range as well. It was pretty spectacular to see a 60-year-old, moustachioed gentleman in a pith helmet walking around the same events as a 12-year-old steampunk Rey. Having been to very few events of this kind, I can’t comment on whether this age distribution is usual or not (let me know if you can!).

img_6403Other features and themes that stood out for me over the weekend had do with steampunk’s traditional bone of contention: its glorification of colonial and imperial imagery. One workshop I attended, given by crafter and copyright lawyer Peter Harrow, discussed the challenges inherent in adapting Star Wars characters to the steampunk aesthetic. This is something that happens quite frequently, as creative fans bring their love of one world into another. The sculptures Harrow displayed during the workshop, however, all shared a rather disturbing theme that was largely glossed over – a bell jar containing the shrunken head of Jar Jar Binks, an Ewok-skin rug, the mounted head of a Sand Person, wearing a Foreign Legion fez.

img_6405These sculptures attempt humour by tapping into the strong (and often negative) feelings Star Wars fans have for these characters, but in doing so they also strongly evoke tribal and colonial imagery. This representation of natives as trophies a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away has two effects. It glorifies the Imperial Army responsible for taking the trophies in the Star Wars universe, and associates it with the imperial British army responsible for oppressing native peoples in our own universe.

On several occasions present-day politics also came to the forefront at the Asylum. Many of the political opinions voiced at the festival came from left-leaning, anti-royalist, and anti-imperialist steampunks, particularly at the musical concerts. It was clear that not everyone shared these views, however. When Marc Burrows, frontman for Before Victoria, described Princess Charlotte as being ‘like Kate Middleton except she had a point’, boos could be heard throughout the audience. These quickly turned to laughter as Burrows added, ‘uh oh – if you’re booing that, you’re really not going to like this next song’.

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At the Queen’s Parade (an event where steampunk societies could march together and present themselves to a Queen Victoria impersonator at Lincoln Castle), the organisers stopped to offer a word on ‘all the people in uniform serving today’, which may well have rubbed some of the non-British participants the wrong way. These were all grouped under a banner naming them ‘The Most Honourable Legion of Extraordinary Foreigners’, with the tongue-in-cheek subtitle ‘We are not asylum seekers – we’ve already found The Asylum!’.

And, of course, it wouldn’t be a steampunk festival without copious amounts of tea (another colonial product). There was tea drinking, tea duelling, and even a tea referendum, to answer the burning question: ‘Milk: Before or After’? (‘Milk After’ was the eventual winner, to the dismay of many a ‘Milk Before’ steampunk).

The most civil of all referenda?
The most civil of all referenda?

For me, despite the many sights to see and issues to ponder, the real highlight of the festival was the warm, polite atmosphere that prevailed. Everyone seemed cheerful and enthusiastic, and genuinely accepting of the wide range of ‘doing’ steampunk practiced by those in attendance. Whatever the issues on the table, it always felt like there was space to discuss them civilly and honestly. I would certainly go again, and I may even get the chance: next year it will overlap with the British Association for Victorian Studies conference, ‘Victorians Unbound’.

I may have to pack my parasol and pith helmet this time.

Image © Chahinez Loup‎
Image © Chahinez Loup‎

Rogue One: A Fan Story?

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.

As Lucasfilm company president Kathleen Kennedy puts it, ‘In the case of Rogue One, we’re essentially making a period piece’, which is set both in a galaxy far, far away and in the retro-futuristic world of 1970s Hollywood cinema. Rather than marketing it as a dreaded ‘prequel’, however, Disney is instead approaching the film as a standalone Star Wars story with ‘a different sensibility’, and a new perspective.

How exactly? Well, unlike the previous seven films, Rogue One will 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.

The main cast of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.
The main cast of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story.

Jared Petty over at IGN prefaces his (very interesting, if brief) review of the trailer with the following words:

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.

After reading Kevin J. Anderson’s ‘A Boy and His Monster’, I could never look at this guy the same way again.

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.

Felicity Jones as Rogue One protagonist Jyn Erso
Felicity Jones as Rogue One protagonist Jyn Erso

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.

Edwards, himself a massive Star Wars fan, visited the Lars homestead in Tunisia for his 30th birthday (via the Nerdist).
Edwards, himself a massive Star Wars fan, visited the Lars homestead in Tunisia for his 30th birthday (image via the Nerdist).

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:

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.

Felicity Jones as Rogue One protagonist Jyn Erso
Felicity Jones as Rogue One protagonist Jyn Erso

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.

The line between ‘profic’ and fanfic is becoming increasingly blurred.

What do you think? Is this an accurate reading of Rogue One, or do you see something different going on? Let me know in the comments, or on Twitter.

Star Wars, Remix, and the Death of Originality (Part Two)

ghvfgaua5xsmsckl1nclWhat 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 originality even 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 has raised.

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.

J.J. Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy on the bridge of the Millennium Falcon.
J.J. Abrams and producer Kathleen Kennedy on the bridge of the Millennium Falcon.

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.

It’s true that fan communities – like all communities – have their issues. Hale Goetz has an especially enjoyable reading of The Force Awakens (with minor spoilers) that reads villain Kylo Ren as a manifestation of one of fandom’s more prominent problems. In her reading Ren is a gatekeeper, of the type that is very concerned ‘about the presence of fake nerds mucking up their beloved franchises’.

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Image © Eduardo Valdivieso

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.

These fan projects all display profound originality and creativity – they just happen to be inspired by a universe created by someone else. When we get down to it, isn’t that what all storytelling is, in one way or another?

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).

Django Unchained: part revenge fantasy, part historical revision.
Django Unchained: part revenge fantasy, part historical revision.

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.

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A Hispanic man, a black man, and a white woman in The Force Awakens’ three starring roles. Seems like a good start to me.

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 favourite Star Wars characters don’t (yet) exist.

Tenet Ka and Mara Jade. Apparently I have a thing for kickass redheads.
Tenel Ka and Mara Jade. Apparently I have a thing for kickass Jedi redheads.

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 sequelEpisode 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.