by Alex Valente
Star Wars. One of the biggest franchises not only in its field, but spanning a multimedia galaxy, has now become even larger after being acquired by Disney. Ranging from books to comics, toys to videogames, music to clothing, costumes, and theme parks. Drawing in accolades, from die-hard fans to casual viewers, from across the world. Star Wars. One of the most impactful, politically muddled, and bizarrely misguided products – and symbols – of Western media.
It was inevitable. As a self-professed nerd, casual toy collector, avid comics-reader, in the presence of one of the biggest releases in cinematographic history about to hit screens worldwide, I could not not dedicate an article to Star Wars. As a Norwich Radical writer, on the other, I also cannot not recognise the immense (infinite?) power and sway the franchise holds, in popular and consumer culture. Just how much of it is really looking forward, and how much is stuck in A Long Time Ago..?
When a young George Lucas set out to create his space-opera take on the ‘epic’, blending Japanese action drama and US and European incarnations of the Western, with science-fiction, ‘space fantasy’, and adventure comics, the studios and corporations, and their possible interference, were never welcome to his project. Rejected multiple times by multiple companies (including Disney), once he settled with 20th Century Fox, he kept all of the creative power – along with the rights to any unused story material and all merchandise.
The story itself is nothing entirely new, not for the original trilogy, in any case. Take Joseph Campbell’s ‘monomyth’ or hero’s journey, look at some Vladimir Propp on folktales, retread some of the latter in the Grimms, Aesop or Perrault, and you have the basic backbone: good versus evil; Rebellion versus Empire; small, intrepid freedom fighters versus overwhelming galaxy-spanning fascists. With the prequels, the added layer, supposedly and thinly so, is that of the rise and fall of Anakin Skywalker/Darth Vader after classical tragedy models. And, if you believe Lucas, family soap-opera dynamics too. The critical interpretations have been unsurprisingly varied, and from all possible angles.
I am concerned with the aftermath of Star Wars as a franchise, as a brand, as the apex of consumerist and cultural imperialism.
The story, however, is not what I’m primarily interested in here. I am concerned with the aftermath of Star Wars as a franchise, as a brand, as the apex of consumerist and cultural imperialism. As Mark Fisher argued in 2012, at the dawn of The Mouse buying the rights, Star Wars was always a business:
What Star Wars did invent was a new kind of commodity. What was being sold was not a particular film, but a whole world, a fictional system which could be added to forever (via sequels, prequels, novels, and any number of other tie-ins).
The conceptual and narrative levels are not where it stops, either. Even with the ‘erasure’ of the Expanded Universe, even without the constant stream of videogames, board games, card games, and mind games, that add to the ‘continuity’, even without LEGO becoming its new incarnation by acquiring the Star Wars license – Lucas was at the head of a billion dollar consumerist empire: Lucas Licensing, now proudly part of the Disney family.
This article’s featured image, taken from the spotlight on one of the world’s largest collection of Star Wars merchandise, shows the extent of the real Empire created by Lucas. Luxury items, memorabilia, plastic-based collectables and toys, high-end and mass retail. The industry it is part of finances some of the major offenders for worker exploitation, environmental harm, and – just to throw some more fuel on the pyre – perpetuation of gender roles in child development and entertainment.
There are some significant, and troubling, lapses scattered throughout the series as it currently exists, of course. The concept of the Force, while intriguing even after the introduction of midichlorians – an empirical reason for its existence – reeks of multiple degrees of appropriation. George Lucas states, openly, the following:
I began to distill the essence of all religions into what I thought was a basic idea common to all religions and common to primitive thinking. I wanted to develop something that was nondenominational but still had a kind of religious reality.
A form of syncretism? Perhaps, though one still feeding on the tried model of orientalist fetishes, so common in the West. The series’ history and relationship with diversity, both in terms of ethnicities and of genders, is lacklustre. Not only do we have borderline racist depictions of stock characters (e.g. Watto, the Gungan, Ewoks), examples of tokenism (e.g. Mace Windu, Lando Calrissian), markers of othering (e.g. Tusken Raiders), and all the other joys of mainstream media, the non-male presence is reduced to a handful of characters with very little impact on the series. Even Leia, Carrie Fisher’s well-rounded and agent character in A New Hope, goes through a series of devolutions by the time we reach Return of the Jedi.
These issues have started to be addressed, in the two animated series Rebels and The Clone Wars, with characters such as Ahsoka Tano, Asajj Ventress, the Night Sisters, Sabine Wren, Hera Syndulla, and to a small extent, part-Maori Temuera Morrison for Jango Fett and the Clones in Episode II (albeit replaced by a white voice actor in the animated series). With The Force Awakens about to enter the Star Wars universe, even more progress is being made in terms of representation and positive attitude towards current concerns, even from the director himself, JJ Abrams (again, not someone with an unblemished track record) – to a point.
Don’t get me wrong: I love Star Wars. Two of my tattoos are taken from its Expanded Universe. I have a couple of action figures and books from the series, and used to own a few themed LEGO sets. None of that precludes me from being aware of its flaws, those of the entire system that has been built up around the story, and of those who buy into it, myself included. The media industry and the longevity of its output relies on the existence of an audience that will receive them, be it as entertainment or as commentary. Nothing is created in a vacuum, especially not a story, and especially not one that claims to be so universal. The recent shifts in this camp are encouraging, but still feel like a drop in the ocean of the mass-produced irony of media manipulation and discarded toy packaging.