Understanding Disney’s Star Wars Crisis
Welcome to this Wisecrack Edition on the Understanding Disney’s Star Wars Crisis!
Written by: Rebekah Sinclair
Directed & Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
Produced by: Emily Dunbar
Understanding Disney’s Star Wars Crisis – Wisecrack Edition
Hey Wisecrack, Jared here. Unless you’re living in a galaxy far, far away, you’ve probably heard about the recent Stars Wars backlash. Some fans hated The Last Jedi so much, they’ve issued an anti-Disney manifesto, run an actress off instagram, are crowdfunding for a remake, and have claimed credit for Solo’s failure at the box office. There were even rumors that Kathleen Kennedy, the president of Lucasfilms, would retire early, possibly influenced by Twitter. This may seem like a bunch of fanboys throwing tantrums or Russian bots, and while both of those may be partly true, I can’t help but think there’s something way deeper going on, here. So, join us as we try to use philosophy to explain the current crisis in the Star Wars Universe. And some minor Last Jedi spoilers ahead.
But first, a quick recap of what people hate about the new Star Wars. While there’s some rather unpleasant threads of criticism on the internet, some people hate the new Star Wars for a reason that director Rian Johnson is pretty overt about: subverting the canon, or as he likes to call it – killing the past. “A lot of times, I would say to Rian, we gotta think about the fans, and he said, ‘No, we gotta think about the story, and we gotta think about our movie,’ which I, ya know uhh…”
Rey’s parents aren’t Skywalkers or Kenobis or some other great family, but nobodies, despite the constant mystery box teasing in The Force Awakens. We get no storied rise of Snoke, or reveal that he’s Mace Windu or something, just an unceremonious death. And then, there’s Luke. We’re supposed to believe this wholesome hero who once saw the light in the darkest of villains is now throwing lightsabers off cliffs and almost killing his child nephew? That just didn’t seem right. With Disney now putting all of their extended universe movies on hold, and new Star Wars spinoffs getting universally panned by fans, it seems like the world of Star Wars in in crisis.
What’s happening with Star Wars is not so different from a problem often faced by social systems or what political philosopher Jurgen Habermas calls a legitimation crisis, i.e. an existential crisis that threatens the foundation of a social system. Social systems are made up of three sub-parts: the governmental, the socio-cultural, and the economic. They all interact, and in some ways, these three systems map onto the system of Star Wars fandom. Let’s start with the government side. See, the system needs some kind of story or idea to give it legitimacy. Governments do this through different means: monarchies claim their legitimacy is derived from God, democracies through election by the people, constitutional governments through, well, constitutions.
Even dictators claim legitimacy in one way or another, some by claiming they represent the will of the people. Other things help too – making sure your citizens are warm and fed, or the economic, does wonders to make them ask fewer questions about how or why you’re allowed to be in power. So, what happens when this is called into question? What happens when the people no longer feel a system is upholding its values? Or that those values are antiquated and useless? What if people feel betrayed when a huge corporation takes over their beloved franchise only to birth what some consider to be an unholy abomination. When this happens, people stop obeying and start rebelling. Think about countries whose populations take to the streets when they suspect the new leaders rigged the election, and therefore aren’t legitimate. If we use this as a metaphor for Star Wars, a lot of things start to make sense.
Lucas was basically the divinely ordained monarch of the Star Wars universe, which consisted not just of the six films he made, but also a ton of spin offs in the form of video games, board games, cartoons, and tie-in novels that got the Royal seal of approval from Lucasfilm. So, maybe it’s more like a constitutional monarchy. But his legitimacy also came from the fact that he, you know, created it all. Together with Lucas, Star Wars fans helped create a fully functioning social system, with shared practices, beliefs, values, and agreed upon rules of operation – that’s what Habermas might call the socio-cultural side of this system. Habermas calls this kind of socially cohesive system lebenswelt, a lifeworld. And the Jedi could lebenswelt with the best of them: the general meaning of Star Wars, the values it represents, the characters it has developed, the stories it tells, and the themes that define it were originally laid out by Lucas and were more or less agreed upon within the community.
Okay, maybe you hated Jar Jar, but you got over it. Lucas’s word is still Star Wars law, even if you don’t exactly like it. “I need a midichlorian count.” Like all lifeworlds, this Star Wars universe also helped create a sense of individual identity when people used these values and beliefs to make meaning of their lives. That is, until 2012, when Disney bought Lucasfilms, and shit started to get crazy. I guess you could say there’s been a regime change, and suddenly, at least from the perspective of some fans, Lord Lucas was replaced by a money-hungry animated mouse. “Now, do we have a problem? Haha.” It’s the governmental equivalent of Queen Elizabeth relinquishing the throne and, after a nice bribe, handing the British Monarchy to Mary Berry. After Disney gained rights to all Star Wars intellectual property, and started making controversial decisions, they found themselves in a big ol’ legitimation crisis.
What the fanbase is going through can perhaps be best understood by looking at one of the biggest legitimation crises of the last millenia — one that changes the landscape of the entire world. You see, Disney is facing the same kind of legitimation crisis the Catholic Church did in the 1500s, when their congregations began to rebel. Up until the 16th century, the leadership of the Catholic Church had total control over the meaning of the Bible, since only priests, bishops, the pope — and maybe the occasional rich guy — had access to hard copies. Books, including the Bible, were so expensive that very few ever learned to read. This famously allowed the Church to get away with some seriously shady shit, like making people pay the church in the form of indulgences to get their loved ones out of purgatory. But all that changed when good ol’ Johnny Gutenberg invented the printing press in 1440, and enabled the rapid reproduction of texts. Suddenly, regular people could read the Bible, and what do you know, they had slightly different interpretations of some of those crucial texts. In this case, a crisis of legitimation happened because the masses were no longer merely consuming religious meaning, but also helping produce canonical interpretations.
The legitimacy and authority of the Catholic Church was seriously thrown into question by people like Martin Luther, who posted 95 reasons why the Catholic Church sucked right on their front door. This crisis of legitimation, and the proliferation of different kinds of christianity, really sucked for Europe, as competing factions really, really liked murdering each other. So, in this metaphor, the bible is the original Star Wars universe. And why did George Lucas get to interpret it however he wanted? Because he wrote it. Maybe he’s not Jesus in this analogy, but he’s at least an apostle or a prophet. But now the authority has moved from a single, divinely inspired leader to a larger and fallible organization, and people question why they wield authority in developing quasi-holy texts or its canon. In the recent films, but especially with the Last Jedi, they changed many of the agreed upon values, meanings, and truths of the Star Wars system. If there was just a change of hands from Lucas to Disney, with the “administration” of Star Wars remaining mostly the same, people may not have asked questions. But without the legitimacy of Lucas, people started asking more questions.
And Disney didn’t stop there. They also fucked with the very identity of the community when they took a superlaser to the cannon, decanonizing radio dramas, video games, comics, and hundreds of spin-off novels that Lucasfilm previously considered part of the gospel. Remember that a lifeworld is important because it defines a community by clarifying who’s in and out and who you can trust. You can’t just go around hacking and slashing what counts as Star Wars, because people’s identities are wrapped up in this sh*t! Star Wars enthusiasts aren’t just consumers of this cannon, they’ve helped make the meaning of the Star Wars universe. Like the Catholic Church, Disney now faces the wrath of the educated masses. Except now, the problem isn’t just that people can read: they blog, tweet, make video essays, produce their own cartoons, and stream content to millions of viewers. And for every Martin Luther, there are a million angry youtubers and vloggers, each posting their own 95 problems with Disney Star Wars.
We live in an age where people aren’t just consuming media, but are also producing it. We’re prosumers. And if protestantism emerged with the printing press and literacy took the interpretive power away from the dudes with the funny hats, it seems like the age of the prosumer empowers people to criticize the few anointed successors of Lucas. Now, prosumer: I know it sounds like we made that word up. But it’s actually a technical term coined in the 1980s by futurists Alvin and Heidi Toffler to describe how the role of the producer and consumer merge in the age of modern technology. Stars Wars fans are basically prosumers extraordinaire. Everyday fans have played a huge role in creating meaning of Star Wars by sharing YouTube videos, posting video essays or fan theories, subscribing to /r/empiredidnothingwrong, or retweeting LordPalpatine. In the age of prosumerism, every theory about where Luke was all this time, who Snoke is, which Jedi uses which lightsaber fighting styles, is one way of contributing to the Star Wars universe.
It’s a way for the community to “practice” Star Wars. Now imagine if you engage in your religious tradition in your community, and all the sudden the recently appointed church authority tells you “YOU’RE DOING IT ALL WRONG! THE WAFERS ARE A LIE!” And while Star Wars may be the latest, it isn’t the only franchise open to legitimation crises within their communities. Prosumerism is beginning to affect the relations between fans and producers, even scaring away James Mangold, director of Logan, who recently tweeted: “At the point when work writing & directing big franchises has become the emotionally loaded equivalent of writing a new chapter of The Bible (w/ the probable danger of being stoned & called a blasphemer), then a lot of bolder minds r gonna leave these films 2 hacks & corp boards.” So, is Star Wars system about to collapse under the weight of its crisis? Not necessarily. The Catholic Church obviously didn’t crumble under their legitimation hiccup, and maybe Star Wars won’t either. Because the thing is, systems learn.
After a few Vatican councils and papal deaths, the Catholic Church managed to revise some of the violent theology and resolidify the community under common goals and shared beliefs. Sure, there were protestants who totally peaced out and started their own thing, but in general, the system learned, adjusted, and stayed in tact. So, the question is, which direction will the Star Wars system take? Will Disney find a way to evolve in the time of prosumerism, respecting their fans and the universe they’ve helped create? Will fans choose to grow with the system, and find new ways of interacting with their beloved material? Or will there be a reckoning, where Disney and the fans part ways, like the Catholics and Protestants, each starting their own version of the religion and competing for the souls of viewers? Let us know what you guys think!