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Tuesday, May 23, 2017

May 23, 2017: Star Wars Studying: The Force Awakens and Marketing

[May 25th will mark the 40th anniversary of the release of the first Star Wars film (it wasn’t titled A New Hope at that point!). So this week I’ll offer a few ways to AmericanStudy the iconic series and its contexts and connections. Share your own different points of view for a force-full crowd-sourced weekend post, my fellow padawan learners!]
Two of the things this AmericanStudier loves most about the first film in the new Star Wars trilogy, and one that worries me a bit.
I initially wrote about the “transnational force” at the heart of the Star Wars saga more than five years ago in this space, long before John Boyega and Daisy Ridley had been cast as the leads in a new trilogy (and Lupita Nyongo’o had been cast in a role that, without spoiling too much, could be called the Yoda of that new series). I stand by my argument that the films have always been cross-cultural in important ways; but at the same time, there’s no disputing that the world of the original trilogy was extremely white (smooth-talking space pirate Lando Calrissian notwithstanding). Moreover, while Carrie Fisher’s Leia was certainly an impressive heroine in many ways, she was also, quite literally, the clichéd princess in need of rescue whose plea for help set the entire first film and trilogy in motion. So to sit next to my 10 and 8 year old sons in December 2015 while they watched a Star Wars movie in which Boyega and Ridley were the unquestionable, kickass, and entirely equal leads was, to put it mildly, a wonderful experience for this AmericanStudier. Take that, haters!
I watched The Force Awakens that first time with not only my sons, but also my Mom and Dad, and that multi-generational viewing experience was just as inspiring. While once again trying to avoid spoilers (for the three people who haven’t yet seen Force Awakens—get on it before December, folks!), I’ll note that the new film is deeply and powerfully focused on the relationships between the past and the future, including an emphasis on family bonds but also and most centrally through its pitch-perfect balance (in casting and character arcs, script and storytelling, plot and action, and much else) of the familiar and the new, of callbacks to the original films and fresh directions for the saga. In a world where my boys’ favorite toys (the Skylanders) were both created within the last ten years and utilize an innovative gaming technology I could never have imagined as a kid (and which has spun off into app games that they play on an iPad, about every detail of which ditto), to have a cultural text that can so fully and successfully unite 1977 and 2017 is nothing short of incredible. To paraphrase E.B. White’s great “Once More to the Lake,” I wasn’t entirely sure, sitting in that theater, whether I was myself, my sons, or my parents—and that’s a feeling we should all get to experience!
My only problem with that Force Awakens theatrical experience had nothing to do with the film itself, and yet represents the one thing about it and Star Wars in 2017 that worries me. Before the movie began, there was the usual 10 minutes of commercials (before the usual 15 minutes of trailers), and I would say that about 9 of those advertising minutes featured Star Wars tie-ins. It felt at the time (and again this past December when Rogue One was released) like a roughly similar percentage of the TV and radio ads I encountered were part of the film’s merchandising empire. Star Wars has always had its share of associated products (writes the AmericanStudier who literally had a deal with a local store’s toy department to get a call every time a new Ewok figure was released), but it feels to me that Lucasfilm’s purchase by Disney has amplified those commercial and marketing campaigns many times over. I want to be clear that I’m extremely grateful that the company has made this new series of films (and all those aforementioned positive effects) possible. But I do worry that this all-out marketing blitz has the potential to make Star Wars into just another product, rather than the cross-cultural, multi-generational story that has endured so potently for nearly half a century.
Next StarWarsStudying tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Star Wars contexts you’d highlight?

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