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!

 

Consuming Gender (CfP)

From the delightful 'women laughing alone with salad' meme
At least I’ve got my salad. (Image from the fabulous ‘women laughing alone with salad’ meme.)

Because I’m clearly not busy enough writing my thesis, or putting together two events (see BAVS 2016 and Fantasies of Contemporary Culture), I am excited to announce that I’ll also be co-editing a special issue of Cardiff University’s Assuming Gender journal. If you guessed that the issue title, ‘Consuming Gender’, was inspired by this year’s BAVS theme, ‘Consuming (the) Victorians’, congratulations! You are correct.

You can find the call for papers below:


Consuming Gender

This special issue of Assuming Gender – an online, peer-reviewed academic journal from Cardiff University – seeks to explore the way gender is both presented and consumed through popular media and advertising. As Ann Herrmann points out in the article ‘Shopping for Identities’, commodities ‘are characterised by their dual nature: material composition and symbolic meaning’ (Herrmann 2002: 539). Consumer culture plays a significant role in constructing valid (and normative) identity categories with which consumers are encouraged to identify.

From a Times Higher Education article suggesting that 'students with consumer mindset get lower grades'. Not just blonde, female students, hopefully.
From a Times Higher Education article suggesting that ‘students with consumer mindset get lower grades’. Not just the blonde, female ones, hopefully.

Scholars as diverse as Americus Reed, Laura C. Nelson, and Henry Jenkins have theorised the ways in which identity and consumer culture are intertwined. Reed, for example, claims in ‘Activating the Self-Importance of Consumer Selves’ that ‘[s]ocial identities are mental representations that can become a basic part of how consumers view themselves’ (Reed 2004: 286). In a later article on ‘Identity-Based Consumer Behaviour’, Reed and others use the example of athletics to illustrate their point: ‘if consumers view themselves as “athletes”, they are likely to behave in ways that are consistent with what it means to “be” an athlete’ (Reed, Forehand, Puntoni and Warlop 2002: 310). Consumption thus becomes defined by identity, and identity becomes defined by consumption.

From the mock article 'If Athlete Ads Were Honest', 2012.
From the mock article ‘If Athlete Ads Were Honest’, 2012.

While the construction of identities based on athleticism seems relatively benign, the case quickly becomes more complicated when consumer identities are racially, economically, or sexually coded. In addition to delineating the borders between various interest groups, consumer culture plays a significant role in establishing and maintaining binary identity distinctions (male/female, gay/straight, black/white), undermining the validity of those identifying across or in-between one or more categories, or who refuse categorisation at all. Those identities not classified as valid consumer groups are not seen as valid identities at all.

feminism-gender-stereotypes-900x542
No caption needed.

For this special issue of Assuming Gender, we invite articles that focus specifically on the idea of ‘Consuming Gender’. How has consumer culture constructed (and how has it been constructed by) gender through the ages?

Suggested topics include, but are not limited to:

·       Consuming gender/gendered consumption

·       Historical contexts of gendered consumption

·       Feminist/postfeminist approaches to consumption

·       Consumption and intersectionality

·       Queer consumption

·       Media constructions of (gendered) consumer identities

·       Post/colonialism and gendered consumption

Please send a proposal of roughly 500 words to Megen de Bruin-Molé, Akira Suwa and Daný van Dam at gender@cardiff.ac.uk under the subject line ‘CFP Consuming Gender’, including your name, e-mail institutional affiliation (if any), and a biographical note (100 words maximum). We welcome papers from scholars of all backgrounds, disciplines, and career stages. The deadline for proposals is 16 October, 2016, and completed papers of 5000 to 8000 words will be expected no later than 16 April, 2017.

Assuming Gender is an electronic journal dedicated to the timely analysis of constructions of gendered texts, practices, and subjectivities. This journal seeks to continue and shift debates on how gender is problematized in contemporary discourses as well as participate in the dialogue and tensions that maintain the urgency of such conversations. Prior issues can be viewed on www.assuminggender.com.


© Sharpe Suiting
Image © Sharpe Suiting

Need some help getting started on an abstract? Check out this 2013 article on how ‘women hold the key to the regeneration of the high street’This more recent piece introduces readers to Queer fashion designer Leon Wu, of Sharpe Suiting. A 2015 study argues that gender neutral toys empower children, and this CSNBC article includes a number gendered shopping generalisations, such as the gem: ‘Men like to read’. US retail giant Target’s move away from gender-based signs is also worth a look. And in the interests of intersectionality, this article argues that ‘advertising is a tax only poor people pay’, while this one discusses the portrayal of black people in a recent Gap ad.

Or you could just watch these YouTube clips:

10 Things I Hate About You – Prada Backpack

Burger King – The Twilight Saga: Eclipse Toys Commercial (2010)

Adam Ruins Everything – Why People Think Video Games are Just for Boys