How Do You Like It So Far? Podcast, Episode 2: Jeff Gomez on The Collective Journey of the Last Jedi

Today, we release the second episode of our podcast, How Do You Like It So Far?, with more responses to The Last Jedi. This time, we check in with Jeff Gomez from Starlight Runner, a leading figure in the world of transmedia storytelling. Gomez has been running a series of blog posts which explore the emergence of what he calls "The Collective Journey" as a new storytelling structure at work in contemporary popular media, a story structure which he sees exemplified by, for example, Game of Thrones.

The original Star Wars trilogy has been credited with inspiring Hollywood's fascination with Joseph Campbell's Monomyth (or The Hero's Journey cycle). George Lucas was strongly influenced by the work of the mythographer and his efforts to distill the basic building blocks of the epic hero cycle. Joseph Campbell in turn paid tribute to Lucas and Star Wars as a modern embodiment of his ideas. And the success of Star Wars led to the Hero's Journey to be seen as the core formula for subsequent Hollywood blockbusters. If contemporary action films are starting to seem tired, it is in part because this formula has been played out across too many stories, and audiences are looking for something different.

More than that, Gomez believes that this story model is badly suited to addressing the demands of a diverse audience, whether defined in relation to changing U.S. demographics or the global markets Hollywood actively courts. And there are negative consequences for the human race in reinforcing this good vs. evil scenario which includes little room for negotiation or even empathy with those who assume different perspectives. Gomez is using his influence within the industry to promote an alternative narrative modality, which we explore in depth in this episode. And he has written an extended discussion of The Last Jedi on his blog to supplement our exchange (https://blog.collectivejourney.com/the-self-disruption-of-star-wars-ae3311bedc08). 

As always, we'd love to hear from you -- How do you like it so far? Write me at hjenkins@usc.edu/

The Czech Zine Scene (Part 1): Setting the Stage

Several years ago, I hosted a series of articles on Participatory Poland, curated by Agata Zarzycka and Justyna Deszcz-Tryhubczak from University of Wroclaw. The series touched on the shifts occurring in a Post-Communist country as it embraced forms of consumer culture, developed strong traditions of popular and participatory culture, and reached out to larger transnational networks. I ended my introduction to this series with a call, " hope you will learn as much from the Participatory Poland series as I have, and I hope that it will inspire scholars in other countries to consider producing similar accounts of what participatory culture might mean in their national contexts. I would love to see proposals from elsewhere which might fill similar gaps in our understanding of traditional and contemporary cultural practices." Today, I renew this call, but with a second example of what such a discussion might look like.

I met Miloš Hroch and others in his circle when I was passing through Prague several summers ago and we have an passionate and engaged discussion about various forms of fan and participatory culture. When he released a book in the fall which brought together a range of experts on different subcultures in the Czech Republic, to document the history of zine production in that country, we hatched a plan to feature some of those essays here -- a sample of the greater range of material to be found in the book, I Shout, 'That's Me!": Stories of the Czech Fanzine From the 80s Till Now. Over the next few posts, we will drill deeper into what roles zines about games, science fiction, popular music, Feminism and other topics played in the cultural transitions that the Czech Republic has undergone over the past few decades. As Hiroch writes below, "Civic involvement lost all meaning in an atmosphere of incessant control; people could not express themselves freely at work, so they found an outlet in hobbies." So, these writings, often directed towards other, less political topics, can nevertheless tell us much about how people lived their lives, how they made meaning of their experience, in a world that once seemed so restricted and now seems in so much flux.

Once again, I hope that sharing these accounts here encourages other scholars to consider what participatory culture means in their local contexts. I would welcome proposals from other groups who wanted to use my blog as a platform for sharing their experiences and perspectives. I freely acknowledge that my own ideas about participatory culture have taken shape almost entirely within an American context, reflecting my own experiences as a fan, and growing out of my ethnographic work here. I want to see these ideas tested against political, cultural, economic, and legal contexts very different from those of the United States rather than having these ideas universalized and applied uncritically to these other contexts.

 

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Have You Ever Tried Putting a Mentos into Cola?

 By Miloš Hroch

The immune system of some individuals is resistant to it, other succumb to it without hope. Publishing fanzines is an illness, as will confirm anyone who's ever waited in long queues at the post office to send his fanzine to the other side of the country, or who nervously fidgeted at work, waiting to use the office copiers when the boss isn't looking. The symptoms are described in the handbook How to Publish a Fanzine: “You can tell by getting up at 6AM to write a few more lines before you go to work, and end up calling in sick because you can't stop.”

The fanzine fever started among a group of science fiction enthusiasts in the United States in the 1930s, and from where it spread to the rest of the world. In the Seventies, punks would get dizzy reading fanzines, the feeling often being similar to the effects of sniffing paint thinner; the most famous fanzine was incidentally called Sniffin' Glue, and was published by former bank clerk Mark Perry in his London flat. He was the first to let the world know about the Sex Pistols, long before established musical magazines. “Don't like Sniffin' Glue? Start your own!” was Perry's challenge - and a lot of people caught on.

Fascination and Frustration

The epidemic's spread was unstoppable; decades later, literally almost everyone in America published fanzines. Theorist Stephen Duncombe offered the simpliest definition of the medium in his book Notes from Underground, published in 1997: “Fanzines are nonofficial and noncommercial magazines published independently in compliance with the code of DIY ethics and are distributed through underground concerts or by hand-to-hand contact.” Fans of fringe or as of yet unknown music and literary genres or board games would publish them of their own initiative; there were fanzines about motherhood, feminist ones, queer magazines, and also anarchist ones for organising demonstrations.

Contrary to this trend, American Dough Holland's Pathetic Life fanzine was conceived more along the lines of a personal diary, where he would reminisce about his worst part-time jobs or contemplate his being overweight. The Kill Your Television fanzine published about the toxic influence of mass-media, Factsheet Five published reviews of other fanzines exclusively, and one of the most famous fanzines, Dishwasher Pete, was about washing dishes – that is, about a care-free ride through the kitchens of almost all of the United States and about rejecting the consumer dream. The fanzine created a forum for other kitchen helpers, who could connect with one another and share their experiences. The intention of the author, Pete Jordan, was to give a voice to people who would otherwise be overlooked or would not be listened to—and that's the essence of fanzines.

Where else would you want to learn about the Hardcore-Punk scene in Malaysia or in Slovenia than in the influential fanzine Maximum Rocknroll, which has been published for almost 40 years now thanks to an extensive network of volunteers, and where Matt Groening of The Simpsons fame began to draw in the eighties. Maximum Rocknroll sticks firmly to its guns: accepting no funds from corporations and publishing no reviews of big label records.

The drive is, as always, "fascination and frustration." Without the first, fanzine authors wouldn't be so devoted and ready to learn from mistakes; without the second, they wouldn't have the strength to fight for their self-determination and their own small utopias. That was reward enough for them. Amateur magazines were always published and disseminated by determined outsiders with grapho-maniac tendencies—even though some may have later on become members of famous bands, sci-fi writers, poets, music journalists and publicists, cartoon illustrators and photographers, or artists at the forefront of new artistic genres.

At times, the fever would subside or have a less obvious manifestation. Other times, it would break out even more intensively, or disappear completely—the infected would lose their ideals, shift their priorities to work and family; for others, fanzines would lose their meaning with the onset of the Internet. But the bug never disappeared completely, and neither did the symptoms: assorted breaking of grammar rules, ignoring of formal newspaper and magazine rules, crazy drawings and hallucination-inducing cartoons. Even though the letters on the page may begin to disappear due to a weak typewriter stroke or not enough paint in the printer cartridge, the mark of a contagious and obsessive undertaking remains on fanzine pages to this day.

According to Henry Jenkins, fanzine authors formed a digital community even before it was technologically possible—they were a sort of real-world Wikipedia. Based upon his knowledge of fanzines, Jenkins put forward a theory of participatory culture, which describes the behaviour of users in a Web 2.0 environment. The circle hasn't closed yet. The nostalgia that drives today's popular culture doesn't draw us back just to vinyl and cassette tapes, but also to paper. Despite ongoing talk of the extinction of printed media, the microcosm of independent printing is expanding.

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Make do without a bottle opener

The Czech fanzine fever that this book portrays through several examples also had (and has) other carriers of the bug. DIY publishing's origin isn't necessarily an expression of enthusiasm; it can also originate from oppression, fear and severe deprivation caused by the cultural and historical conditions that were present in former Czechoslovakia during communism. The hitherto untold stories of Czech fanzines are therefore immensely exciting and adventurous. They're driven by at times obsessive curiosity and quirky DIY approaches, and are also a testament to the prevalent atmosphere in society at the time, the essence of the past regime, and to the strategy of survival within it.

One only need to remember the Czech beer bottle opening trick: it always fascinates friends from the West, who are usually stuck without the appropriate instrument. A beer bottle can be opened using a table, a lighter, teeth, or even paper folded several times over. Domestic DIY zinesters didn't have access to Western music, books, comic books, movies or fanzines; they couldn't publish without censorship. They didn't have their bottle opener, but they managed. They also had something to follow, and sources to learn from.

Formerly communist Central European countries have a special word for self-publishing: “samizdat”, a term originated in the Soviet Union in the 1940s. It is a paraphrase of the word “Gosizdat,” a nickname for large, official state publishing house. Samizdat (“samo” meaning “self”, “izdat” meaning “to publish”) meant to be in opposition to that state publishing house. Before 1989, Czechoslovak dissidents used samizdat to distribute manifestos, foreign magazines, letters, literature of domestically-ostracized authors, and translations of banned books, which volunteers used to hand-type using typewriters and carbon paper and all under threat of interrogation or imprisonment. The more efficient means of printing were under strict control of the regime.

Samizdat didn't necessarily have political content, but it did have political significance simply by virtue of its existence within an oppressive regime. It originated in the fear-infused 1950s and became a tool of intellectuals, dissidents who criticised the regime, and also underground artists. This is the musical and artistic community which Ivan Martin Jirous, the main theoretician of the Czech underground, defined in his “Notice of the third Czech musical awakening.” He described it as a movement which creates its own distinct world aside from established society; a world with its own internal energy and a different aesthetics, and as a result, a different ethics.

In 1976 Vratislav Brabenec the member of the persecuted avant-garde band Plastic People of The Universe (the symbol of the Czech underground movement, their music was inspired by the Velvet Underground and by the artistic group Fluxus as well) was among others arrested and protests against this fact culminated in the formation of the Charter 77—an appeal by dissidents and intellectuals criticized the violation of human and civic rights that Czechoslovakia had sworn to uphold by signing the Helsinki Accords. The regime reacted by a propaganda campaign that depicted members of the underground culture as dangerous elements. Two years later fans of the Plastics began to publish Vokno magazine, a cultural underground bulletin. “The first series was thematic, each issue had a theme—music, literature, art, and others,” recalls František Stárek, its “publisher”.

Vokno was printed on an Ormig grain alcohol copier, which was assembled over a period of several months from parts stolen from an office machine factory. The magazine was the predecessor of domestic music fanzines. One could read about the Velvet Underground or about Czechoslovak experimental bands in it, but no names of authors were present, nor real names of villages where underground concerts took place, unless the concerts were broken up by police and subsequently written about in the official Rudé právo (Red Order) newspaper.

The cultural underground and the activities of samizdat journalists is well documented. This book is more aimed at fanzines, which can be considered as being in the shadows from a historical perspective. All of the underground authors however share a common zeal, even if the forerunners were more closely associated with political opposition and faced interrogations by the secret police or even imprisonment. The passion is evident in an excerpt from a poem from the Grey Dream anthology, written by Pavel Zajíček, a member of the underground band DG307, in a 1980 text: “I was transcribing some lyrics deep into the night; I could feel their birth, and their mirror in sounds. However I don't have strength to involve someone else—I think it's best to do EVERYTHING on my own”.

We'll leave you alone, you leave us alone

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Without anyone knowing that it was called DIY, that is, Do It Yourself, all around the world, local fanzine makers had one thing in common with their foreign counterparts: a stubborn conviction that they can do everything on their own, without the money or help of others. In contrast to the rest of the world however, there was one significant difference—desperate deprivation not only in cultural goods, which was reflected into both the content and the methods of fanzines.

All things Western had an aura of forbidden fruit around them—this was the reason why people from Czechoslovakia and other communist countries desired them. If they were to fulfill those desires and ambitions however, they had to be creative and manage on their own. When skateboards were the craze of the young generation in the West, the first such item in Prague was copied by the locals using any available materials: the wheels were made from garden hoses and the iron trucks were cast at home using homemade forms. Rare vinyl records obtained from friends traveling abroad or from street garage sales were used to learn not only English, but also whole musical genres. Foreign magazines were avidly read.

Teenagers imitated English words, Czechoslovak punks used wax to hold their mohawks up and bashed into their guitars. Not only that, but foreign fashion magazines found their way into the country through often complicated paths; those were used to inspire home-made copies of Western fashion styles. The clash of different ideas and desires was epitomised by the Berlin wall, dividing Eastern bloc and the Western one, the world of Marx and the world of Coca-Cola.

The Russian-American historian Alexei Yurchak describes the symbolic overcoming of boundaries in his book Everything was Forever, Until it was No More: The Last Soviet Generation using the term “Imaginary West”. People lived in an information vacuum, in both real and cultural isolation, and could not travel freely or dress according to trends or like their favorite bands. They couldn't do anything without state supervision—but they desired to so much that they created their own version of the West within limitations set by the state. All of these factors were behind the origin of the first true Czechoslovak fanzine, created at the beginning of the Eighties by a group of science fiction fans at the Mathematical-Physical Faculty in Prague: “We want to publish fanzines like in the West too!”

At this moment, the fanzine virus mutated from the Czechoslovak tradition of samizdat. There was also another agent of the mutation: an ingredient of Real Socialism, the Czech phenomenon of chatarstvi, or cottage-going. This was a phenomenon when whole families would leave large cities during the weekends and travel to the countryside, where they might own a small house or a cottage, and would spend the weekend there rather than in the city.

It was in effect a reaction to the complete control of the Communist regime, the limited options for traveling, and to the development of large prefabricated estate housings. The transformation of original urban housing began in the Fifties, and all across the country, standardized, uniform panel blocks sprang up. The greyness of the times and the cramped living conditions in the “rabbit-hutches” was depicted perfectly in Věra Chytilová's film Panelstory (1981). Cottage-going provided a care-free time in a grey zone that was of no interest to the governing regime – similar to publishing fanzines.

Civic involvement lost all meaning in an atmosphere of incessant control; people could not express themselves freely at work, so they found an outlet in hobbies. Cottage-goers worked on perking up their cottages, others would become members of fishing clubs or would collect stamps or make model airplanes or publish their own magazines and share their enthusiasm for what interested them but what couldn't be found in shops and what wasn't written about.

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Fanzines were an ever-changing zone with different ratios of the above-mentioned ingredients. Although something of a reduction, it's possible to separate Czechoslovak fanzine creators into two categories: dissidents and cottage-goers. The first were forced through the content, their stubbornness, and principles to come into conflict with the regime; the second accepted  the regime's terms so that they could “only” devote themselves to their hobbies. They had no need to resist. They even had de facto state approval, as the state encouraged and supported “spending quality free time.” It was an unspoken exchange: you leave us alone, and we'll leave you alone.

The stories of fanzines are therefore also stories of our past: in these past zines we read science fiction and metal fans obsessively making up music charts and takes us into the grey (cultural) zone; computer game enthusiasts documenting technology shows the at-the-time technological lag behind the West, and comics book fans show us the desire to create their own superheroes and to domesticate the originally American medium.

Total Ink Madness

The aim of this book isn't to map domestic fanzines in detail, but rather to introduce the topic to a wider audience and to tell the stories of some of those who gave us the fanzine bug. American and British fanzines are fairly well-mapped; the fanzine scene outside of these two countries is perhaps not so well documented, with information being available primarily within a closed circle of scholarly studies. The ever-expanding Archive of Czech and Slovak Subcultures which was established in 2014 is doing a good job and there one can find and browse through most of the fanzines mentioned here. The collection is however not nearly as extensive as the Prague-based samizdat archive Libri Prohibiti.

In documenting Czechoslovak and Czech fanzines within this the scope of this book, it is important to note one more thing. Domestic historians don't agree that even after the November 1989 events, there could be dissidents, people who would have a desire to resist and in a free society. In this book, the term “dissident” is used in a way that most scholars would not agree with: for us, the important factor is that of self-determination and resistance in the most general sense. It doesn't matter if it is resistance against a regime, stereotypes in society, the music industry, or the mechanisms of the art trade.

For the hardcore-punk community, loud guitars were a political statement about how the Velvet Revolution ideals of empathy and solidarity were fading away. Music once again became the language of resistance through which, people voiced their opinions on ecology, anti-racist, or animal rights issues and of course, anti-capitalist sentiments. Feminist fanzines on the other hand made significant contributions to the discussion and thoughts about the standing of women and gender roles in society.

The photographers of the latter years of the first decade of the millennium are dissidents of sorts, authors of one of the latest kind of fanzines. They transform their photos into zine notebooks printed on cheap copiers, and even though many consider this to be a mere fetish, a few authors see their prints as a protest against the superficiality of visual communication in a digital environment, a protest against an art world driven by ego and marketing theories.

Their notebooks, bordering on artist books, are published in minimal numbers and often disappear sooner than they can be taken notice of. You take a few photos, do some typesetting, print, copy, fold over, staple, bind together, crop, and annotate. “Have you ever tried putting a Mentos into Coke, or did you only watch it on Youtube? It's good to experience things for real once in a while”, says photographer Petr Hlaváček, a Czech pioneer of such photo zines. He subscribed to zines from abroad and followed the Tiny Vices photo blog that was active from 2005 until 2012, where one could primarily see snapshots taken from the hip, depicting both bizarre things and the banality of everyday life. This lead Hlaváček to making the collective zine Repetitive Beats around the year 2008. “Total ink madness”, reminisces this inconspicuous man in his thirties with a knit cap on his head.

Cottage-goers and Dissidents

In this respect, it is important to note in this context another specific dimension of Czech, or Eastern European fanzines in general. The inspiration isn't only one-way, from West to East. David Bowie fell in love with Warsaw during a train journey there and named a song after it on his album Low, the first of the Berlin trilogy. Warsaw was also the original name of a four-piece band from Manchester, now better known as Joy Division. The album The Dignity of Labour from Sheffield synth-pop band The Human League was inspired by the Soviet space program. Nick Cave wrote the song "The Thirsty Dog" in a bar of the same name in Prague, and Thom Yorke of Radiohead got the idea for the song "The Tourist" from the breakthrough album OK Computer while watching crowds of tourists in Prague; he went on to include sounds of the Prague underground in the Paranoid Android single. The British band Broadcast wrote a song inspired by the imaginary movie Valerie a Týden divů (Valerie and her Week of Wonders) from 1970 – and that's not the end of fascination by Czechoslovak New Wave in the West.

Polish cultural theoretician Agata Pyzik named her book Poor but Sexy after the slogan that was used after the fall of the Berlin wall to ostentatiously promote Berlin as a city with a rich cultural and historical capital, in spite of lacking the economic one. Pyzik in her book borrows the slogan for the analysis of Polish pre-revolution culture, which has a lot in common with ours.

We were poor and had limited means and resources, but in spite of this, the architecture, music, movies, books, illustrations, and not least fanzines carried a sense of something exotic for the West. Much was lost in the translation, but it was perhaps because of this that a very uncanny culture arose here. “We are still influenced by the geographic logic of East and West,” writes Pyzik with a critical undertone. The story of amateur magazines and their quirks didn't really end in 1989, as many would think. Fanzine makers, cottage-goers and dissidents alike, are still here. And they still carry the DIY spirit and curiosity, formed by cultural and historical context.

Fanzines are still incubators of new artistic directions, and are still detonating fuses of social revolutions. On the periphery of the mainstream media world, off the newsagent stands, lies an underground world of independent, DIY-created magazines. If we choose to disregard these publications that stem from folk creativity, we are losing out not only on adventurous stories about their origins; how media DIY-ers and poachers create in a landscape of popular culture. We not only lose out on knowledge about them, but also about us.

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Miloš Hroch (*1989) studied journalism and media studies at the Faculty of Social Sciences of the Charles University in Prague. He continues his doctorate studies there. His research interests are alternative media, fan studies, cultural studies, popular culture and subcultures. Since 2013, he has been a music editor at Radio Wave (Czech Radio). He publishes articles in Respekt weekly magazine, in the A2 cultural fortnightly magazine, in the Hospodářské noviny newspaper, in the Fotograf magazine or in the Živel magazine. He contributed to the Lidové noviny newspaper, Orientace LN, or His Voice magazine. He participated in the making of the book Prkýnka na maso jsme uřízli (We Saw Up a Cutting Board, 2013) about skateboarding before the 1989 revolution, the Kmeny 90 publication (about Czech 90´s subcultures), and the Oáza (Oasis, 2016) book in co-operation with the Text Forma Funkce (Text Form Function) graphic design department of the Art Faculty of the University of Ostrava, which documented the Silesian music scene. He co-founded the Křivák/Crook skateboarding fanzine.

 

What the Media Literacy Movement Can Learn from David Bordwell...

The following conversation with Tessa Jolls about the work of David Bordwell has been developed and cross-posted with CML Connections.

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David Bordwell (born July 23, 1947) is an American film theorist and film historian. Since receiving his PhD from the University of Iowa in 1974, he has written more than fifteen volumes on the subject of cinema including Narration in the Fiction Film (1985), Ozu and the Poetics of Cinema (1988), Making Meaning (1989), and On the History of Film Style (1997).

With his wife Kristin Thompson, Bordwell wrote the introductory textbooks Film Art (1979) and Film History (1994). With aesthetic philosopher Noël Carroll, Bordwell edited the anthology Post-Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies(1996), a polemic on the state of contemporary film theory. His largest work to date remains The Classical Hollywood Cinema: Film Style and Mode of Production to 1960 (1985), written in collaboration with Thompson and Janet Staiger. Several of his more influential articles on theory, narrative, and style were collected in Poetics of Cinema (2007), named in homage after the famous anthology of Russian formalist film theory Poetika Kino, edited by Boris Eikhenbaum in 1927.

Bordwell spent nearly the entirety of his career as a professor of film at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, where he is currently the Jacques Ledoux Professor of Film Studies, Emeritus in the Department of Communication Arts.                                                         *********** 

This series of exchanges is inspired by Henry Jenkins’ wish to acknowledge David Bordwell as a leading influence on his own career and thinking.  Tessa Jolls joined Henry in a dialogue to understand Bordwell’s impact and to make connections about his work to media literacy education.

Henry Jenkins

Renee Hobbs had asked me to contribute an essay for her recent anthology, Exploring the Roots of Digital and Media Literacy through Personal Narrative, where I wrote about my relationship with my mentor, John Fiske, and explained how his work had touched indirectly our project for the Digital Media and Learning initiative. Along the way, I ended up writing about Fiske’s mentor, Raymond Williams, as well as my own grandfather.

But the account felt incomplete to me because I did not write about my other key mentor in graduate scholar, David Bordwell. As I do media literacy work, or indeed, any scholarship, I find myself trying to reconcile the voice of these two intellectuals, who rarely got asked to serve on the same dissertation committees because their focuses were so different from each other. There are really two Bordwells, both of which have something to contribute to this field. The first is a formalist, someone who is interested in mapping how cinema works as a medium and the ways that films reflect the different aesthetic traditions from which they emerged.

This Bordwell co-authored Film Art, one of the most widely used textbooks for introductory film, with his wife and writing partner, Kristen Thompson, and they have continued to update the book, generating rich reflections on contemporary and historical film topics through their blog. The other David Bordwell is a cognitivist — that is, he has drawn insights from cognitive psychology to help us to better understand the mental processes by which we perceive and interpret cinematic images. The cognitive movement was a response to strands of media theory which saw spectators as in the thrawl of media texts, as susceptible to their ideological messages; this work was often informed by psychoanalysis, seeing cinema as reflecting the scopophilic desire (the desire to look and possess others with your eyes.) In some ways, a more grassroots version of these ideas helped to shape the more protectionist side of Media Literacy, and so, for those of us looking for a more empowered view of the spectator, Bordwell’s “A Case for Cognitivism” may be a good place to start.

Here’s a quote from A Case For Cognitivism:  “My concern is to show that the cognitivist approach, apart from its propensity for naturalistic explanation, shares with contemporary film theory a commitment to constructivist explanations, in terms of mental representations functioning in the context of social action.”  This statement certainly puts an explanation behind much of the work that we’re doing now, individually and collectively.

So, let’s break this down. In educational terms, constructivism is a pedagogical approach which stresses the ways people form mental models of the world through their experiences acting on the physical world. Bordwell is interested in how something similar occurs as we watch movies. We start with some basic mental template -- some model of the world, some understanding of genres as particular kinds of films, some grasp of the mode of production from which the film emerged, some sense of the social world around us and thus how the film fits into current political and social debates.

A cognitivist would call such templates schemata or above, mental representations. The more experienced we are at watching films of a certain kind, the more nuanced our schemata is. But the schemata becomes the starting point for making sense of what takes place on screen. We form speculations about what is going to take place, who the characters are, what motivates their actions, what their goals are, and what might constitute a satisfying resolution of this narrative. We are moving from sometimes limited information presented on the screen towards fuller understandings of the action as the film progresses. This requires a process of going beyond the information given, to use a term from Jerome Bruner, and thus, our suppositions can be frustrated or corrected by whatever passes on the screen next. Our schemata tell us what to pay attention to, but in turn, the film’s information gets added to our ongoing mental models. The key point here is that the process is active — one of hypothesis formation, testing, and refinement which does not stop when the film is over. We draw on these same schemata when we talk with our friends over sodas after the screening. Part of what media educators do is to help students develop more nuanced schemata to better understand and critically engage with the media they consume. In that sense, we might see Bordwell’s work as a formalist as mapping the norms and practices surrounding particular kinds of cinema and his work as a cognitivist in refining our understanding of the spectator’s processing of the cinematic experience.

Tessa Jolls

Thanks, Henry, for bringing David Bordwell’s insightful film theory to informing our media literacy work.  I can see where the links to media literacy are strong:  Bordwell's ideas about constructivism, about mental representations, and social action — which you explain in more detail — all inform an empowered approach to media literacy education.  As I was delving more into Bordwell’s writings, I came across one of his essays called “Studying Cinema” from 2009,  and he said,

“…I think that film studies is best defined as a process of posing and trying to answer questions (Bordwell’s emphasis). Most ordinary conversation about films serves other purposes — to share information, to have social exchanges with people, to learn more about others’ tastes.  Film studies certainly has these aims, too, but like other academic disciplines, it seeks to answer questions in a systematic way, one that is open to discussion and criticism. So film studies centers on certain sorts of questions: those that require explanations as answer.”

Certainly, this quote also relates to one of the central tenets of media literacy education:  that media literacy offers a systematic way of critically analyzing global media systems through a process of inquiry that is rooted in basic principles of how media operate as a system.  Using an open process of inquiry — asking questions — is the opposite of a protectionist approach that is directive and that is closed.  

You mentioned earlier that some interpretations of cognitive theory spawned some protectionist approaches to media literacy. Do you see protectionism as a continuing presence today, and how do you see that Bordwell has helped us move beyond the limiting nature of protectionism towards empowerment?

Henry Jenkins

In this passage, Bordwell is arguing for a middle ground perspective against two other common approaches to film analysis. The first would take a totalizing approach — for example, seeing all Hollywood films as the product of a capitalist mode of production where the demands of the marketplace over-ride any space for artistic expression or predetermine ideological message. The second would be a more interpretive approach which is interested in what the film means but not how the film works. Bordwell has criticized the limited range of meanings ascribed to films (in Making Meaning) and the tendency to read works as reflecting their zeitgeist rather than being shaped by larger genre traditions (see http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/2014/08/24/zip-zero-zeitgeist/).

Instead, he wants us to take a historical approach which asks questions that require us to move beyond the individual film to look at the system of norms, institutional practices, technological infrastructures, and cultural influences that shaped how movies get made at a particular moment in time. I agree that this approach is a particularly valuable one for media literacy educators. It helps young people acquire a vocabulary they can use to ask analytic questions about a much broader range of media texts without moving too quickly to dismiss them as the work of the culture industries or as attempts to manipulate our minds. So, for sure, I prefer Bordwell’s middle-level approach to the more totalizing view.

I am less certain  that I — and perhaps even Bordwell — would argue against the importance of interpretation within media literacy classrooms. We certainly do not want interpretation to be imposed on students by the teacher — although I think teachers can legitimately participate in the process — but we do want students to explore what media texts mean to them. We want them to be able to explain why certain texts are meaningful without being required to justify and defend their tastes in an adversarial context. And we want them to be attentive to the fact that the same work might generate different meanings for different viewers under different circumstances (a move which is very much prefigured by Bordwell’s turn towards a cognitive model of the film experience).

The debates Bordwell faced were between psychoanalytic approaches (which tend to see films as working upon our unconscious) and cognitive approaches (which focus on the conscious and preconscious levels of our engagement with media texts). Cognitive approaches proved particularly compatible with arguments for a more active audience where-as the psychoanalytic model, at least the one that Bordwell was pushing back against, tended to see media spectators as dupes. In both film studies and media literacy, the tide has turned decisively towards a more empowered perspective, but protectionist impulses linger not far beneath the surface.

If we do not keep consciously fighting for a more empowered conception, protectionism becomes the default. In the academic world, protectionism comes hand in hand with the eltism that is the negative undercurrent of intellectualism: a sense that our formal education allows us to see through things to which others are susceptible. In the world of secondary school education, a paternalism is often built into the power differential between adults and youth. For that reason, it remains vital that we keep sharpening our conceptual models to respect and value the cognitive work that goes into the processing of media texts.

Tessa Jolls

Henry, your point about how “if we do not keep consciously fighting for a more empowered conception, protectionism becomes the default" is a caution that we as educators need to constantly heed. Citizens need the skills, the vocabulary and the dispositions to explore and articulate their thinking as well as their feelings — and from my observations in the classrooms, students are often much more adept and practiced at expressing their feelings than their thinking.  To be empowered means to be intellectually curious and expressive as well as emotionally available, to be knowledgable yet humble, to be capable of challenging while being respectful, to be able to distinguish between fact and opinion, description and inference, and thinking and feelings. 

As we’ve been delving into Bordwell’s approach to film analysis, I’ve been seeing that he offers a deeply informed, empowered approach to understanding film.  His essay “Common Sense + Film Theory = Common Sense Film Theory?” is a case in point (see: http://www.davidbordwell.net/essays/commonsense.php).

He addresses an overview of film integrating many schools of thought: semiology, perceptive research, logical fallacies, heuristics and social intelligence.  Yet at the same time, he elucidates ways of teaching practical skills — “thinking skills” —  in an accessible way.  For example, there is a difference between saying that someone “looks angry” and “his eyebrows were furrowed,” “his gaze was intent,” or “he narrowed his eyes.”  In the first case, saying that someone “looks angry,” assumptions and inferences are being made.  But what is the evidence? What description can support such a conclusion? Bordwell addresses these distinctions in a direct way that enables a cognitive analysis. Bordwell says:

"Mind-reading requires us to detect, sometimes on very faint cues, what people are expressing or signaling through their behavior. Elsewhere I’ve talked about this in cases involving eye behavior—blinking and eyebrows, in particular. But there’s much more to be done with the ways in which cinema mobilizes our social intelligence in order to track a narrative. Sometimes the narrative eases our task by making things redundant and clear; sometimes the film throws up problems, making it hard to understand characters’ intentions or reactions, as in the enigmatic veteran played by Henry Fonda in Daisy Kenyon.”

One of the qualities I’m appreciating about David Bordwell is that he is both a highly respected theorist and a caring teacher who is committed to help people make meaning from their own lives, using film analysis as a pathway.  How do you see Bordwell's empowering approach to education contributing to positive action by individuals and in communities?

Henry Jenkins

This particular essay (above) reflects Bordwell’s ongoing interest in understanding the processes of perception and comprehension. What kinds of skill and knowledge do we need to comprehend a film narrative?  Here, his core question may be: “We speak of 'reading' an image, but do certain kinds of images—those that common sense declares 'realistic'—demand anything like the deciphering that printed language does? How much does grasping an image depend on learned conventions of representation?” For us, this might boil down to the question of whether “media literacy” is a “literacy” in the sense that it involves “deciphering” a coded text or whether it constitutes a social skill?

Thinking of media literacy as a social skill might allow us to move from our understanding of everyday communication situations — such as distinguishing between a blink and a wink (an issue the anthropologist Clifford Geertz wrote about in The Interpetation of Cultures) — to the more formalized communication that occurs through various kinds of mass media?  Bordwell clearly recognizes complex formal norms that shape the processes of representation (as in his example here of Daisy Kenyon, a Hollywood film which has notably unscrutable characters due to its performance style and visual strategies) but he also recognizes that we often read film characters through the same lens as we read people in our everyday life through bodily signs, gestures, etc. that suggest, but do not tell, what they are thinking. Some acting styles are more naturalistic than others, but all of them depend on certain kinds of social knowledge as a basis for our comprehension.

Bordwell is, for sure, asking “what is the evidence?” and as a teacher, let me tell you, he demands that his student anchor every claim with reference to specific moments in the text: he is a master of close reading. But, he also is pushing back against theories that would isolate cinematic experience from other kinds of real world experiences, which is why he is describing his approach in terms of “common sense.” I was very lucky to have him as my graduate school mentor. While my own work has generally pulled more in a cultural studies rather than a cinema studies direction, I still use the skills in critical analysis he taught me on a regular basis.

My own current book project, Comics and Stuff, takes seriously the idea that we draw on social knowledge to process media representations, looking at the relationships in contemporary graphic novels between characters and their possessions (the ways they make meaning of their lives by way of their stuff). I am interested in representational strategies but I am also interested in reading the background of panels the ways many of us read the objects on someone’s desk or the books on their shelves or the decorations of their living room.  This project represents an attempt to meld cultural studies of material culture with a visual studies approach to formal practices, one very much shaped by what I learned from Bordwell.

As for Bordwell’s approach being empowering, I think that is right.  I have certainly found it so.  By the way, I love your definition of “empowering” above! In Cinema Studies, which has a strong tradition of work critiquing ideology, Bordwell has often been viewed as “apolitical” or even “conservative” because he does not bring his personal political commitments into his work very much.

Yet, the focus here on the active process of comprehension stresses choices made by both filmmakers and filmgoers in ways that paves the way for a more empowered conception of our relationship to media. He does not accept the premise that we simply absorb uncritically what passes across the screen, that we are susceptible to ideological manipulations, but rather, he sees the spectator as always actively making sense of films and thus, potentially at least, critically engaging with the representations being constructed. What we do with those skills is up to us. He has no explicit social change agenda, but his models can be used by media literacy educators in ways that help us to take greater responsibility of the choices we make, what insights we take from media, what accountability we have over our own representational and curatorial choices, etc. And to me, those issues are at the heart of the contemporary media literacy movement.

Readings from David Bordwell’s work:

http://www.davidbordwell.net/essays/commonsense.php

http://www.davidbordwell.net/essays/classical.php

http://www.davidbordwell.net/essays/studying.php

http://www.davidbordwell.net/articles/Bordwell_Cinematic%20Text_no3_1989_369.pdf

http://www.davidbordwell.net/articles/Bordwell_Iris_no9_spring1989_11.pdf

 

Other resources:

Voices of Media Literacy

http://www.medialit.org/voices-media-literacy-international-pioneers-speak

Grandparents of Media Literacy

http://www.grandparentsofmedialiteracy.com

Launching New Podcast, "How Do You Like It So Far?" -- Race and Star Wars

For the past few years, I have been listening on the sidelines to the explosion of creativity and insights emerging from contemporary podcasts.  I am listening to dozens of different podcasts every week, constantly trying out anything recommended to me. Well, sooner or later, it was going to happen – I’ve been hit hard with the urge to develop my own podcasts, which will allow me to interview people in my network that would never have had the time to do the lengthy interviews we run here on the blog. 

I have been in conversation with Colin MacClay who currently runs the Annenberg Innovation Lab. Colin and I have a long history going back to when he was at the Berkman Center at Harvard and I was at MIT. And we share a suite in the old Annenberg building. 

Over the fall, conversation led to experimentation led to more actionable plans and now, to the launch of our podcast. Our vision is to tap people from our combined network of activists, policy makers, artists, technologists, fans, educators, journalists, and media industry insiders, all of whom have something interesting to say about the relationship between popular culture and politics. 

We are calling the podcast, for now, “How Do You Like It So Far,” a title intended to signal that we are still trying to figure out what we are doing and would appreciate your feedback.  Our approach – again, for now – is to focus onto some of the hot media properties and franchises of the moment as starting points for exploring the bigger picture developments which are reshaping the media landscape. Think of it as a return, for me, to the structure I used in Convergence Culture – the franchise is a point of entry but our explorations go broader and sometimes leave that starting point behind.

The podcast is going to dig deeper, ask more ambitious questions than most pop culture podcasts out there – we are not doing recaps or just remaining on the level of entertainment coverage. For us, popular culture offers resources for asking questions about who we are and where we are going, questions that can be political, legal, technological, economic, or social, but often cut across all of the above. 

So, in the first cluster of episodes, we are turning out attention onto The Last Jedi, which we are coming at from multiple angles. The first episode, which you can access here, is an interview with Ahmed Best, the actor who played the part of Jar Jar Binks in the Star Wars prequels, perhaps one of the most hated characters in the franchise. But Best could not be a nicer or more thoughtful guy, and he’s spent much of the past decade plus digging deeper into issues of inclusion and representation, so we focused our interview mostly around the racial politics of Star Wars, and in the process, learned more about representational politics in contemporary Hollywood. Check it out here. 

If you like what Best has to say, check out his Afrofuturist podcast here

Coming Up Next Week:  transmedia producer Jeff Gomez joins us to talk about how changing storytelling practices in contemporary Hollywood (which involve a rethinking of  Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey myth for a more diverse culture) may account for the fragmented audience response  to The Last Jedi

And from there, we will be digging into fan reception, taking soundings  into what the debate about Last Jedi looks like for both male and female fans, and beyond that, we will zoom out to think about the struggles over inclusion and representation in the entertainment industry more generally. 

Watch this space for more updates, while we work out arrangements with iTunes to set up a subscription for the podcast.

Given that this podcast is being hosted by two white dudes who used to work for elite east coast institutions and now work two doors apart at USC, we are committed to insuring a diversity of guests as defined in terms of race, gender, and national perspective. 

 We welcome your feedback on any aspect of the podcasts, including suggestions of potential guests or questions you would like for us to explore. We have lots to learn but that is going to be half the fun, and we hope you will join us along the way.

The Last Jedi: An Online Roundtable Part 5

jedi texts.jpg

WILLIAM PROCTOR

I’m truly sorry to hear that Becca. That’s horrible, to say the least, and it makes me so mad (although it’s not a new phenomenon, unfortunately, but that doesn’t excuse such behaviour).  

I don’t intend on challenging your lived experience and I think that would be a valuable contribution to scholarship on Star Wars, perhaps even at an auto-ethnographic level. I can certainly understand that women may “fight fire with fire” in such cases. But as an empirical researcher, I’m afraid there are many examples of critics, fan-bloggers and so on — female and male — attacking fans en masse. I’m not talking about racist, misogynists either; I’m talking about attacking men because they’re men, nothing else.  Also, as a researcher, it is not up to me to make moral judgements about the way in which people ‘do fandom.’ My provocation was epistemological, not moral. As Mar pointed out, and as Mel Standfill implies, there is a tendency to ignore the “dark side” of fandom, especially when women are involved as violent aggressors. So while I appreciate that women/ men are not ideological equals by any stretch, it is problematic to ignore toxic performances wherever they emanate from or to reframe them as understandable because of masculinity.

I certainly understand where you’re coming from Becca as a fan yourself, and it troubles me a great deal. It’s one of the reasons why my own fandom is kept indoors. I don’t participate in a fan “community,” for example.

However, female fans have also been toxic as Jessica Austin was analysing at the Fan Studies Network conference in 2016 (Mar and I were in the same room!) – and the majority of scholars agree that this needs to be addressed with some urgency. Austin had some powerful examples of fangirl toxicity; in one extreme case, a female fan contingent bullied a fan-artist so much that she tried to take her own life. Mar has already mentioned Swifties, but we could chuck in One Direction fans (“I will pour fucking bleach down your throat,” said one teen), or Supernatural fans, with evidence that a minority literally assaulted Jensen Ackles. That’s not something I think can be ignored by scholars, not least when there’s empirical evidence behind it, nor is it something that I think is worth “protecting” (not that you implied that Becca, I’m speaking more generally).

In addition, crossing over into other disciplines, the research on bullying is so much more frank and less fearful — one study of “mean girls in popular culture” is truly awful, not to mention the cyber-bullying research that claims that women – and girls – are particularly aggressive and hostile to other girls. So while I understand the reason why women may feel as if they need to lash out for the way they’ve been mistreated historically, perhaps in similar ways to your experience, Becca — that is, on the level of lived experience. I’m not interested in either defending or attacking fans — I’m interested in the broader picture. I recognise that I’m putting my head above the parapet, and, in many ways, that’s what I do — confront media “controversies,” and deconstruct myths via empirical methodologies. I’m sorry to say that in my research, some female fans have been quite hostile, venomous and nasty – and not always towards men, but towards women too. I strongly believe that the current state of fan studies, as well as media/ cultural studies, is not only blind to this, but actively works to construct women as victims only and reifies the very gender binaries that scholarship ostensibly aims to dismantle.

I am sure that however hurtful and alarming those comments are to you, Becca, that you did not respond in kind with slurs and insults of your own. So while it is at least understandable why some women also behaviour via the utilisation of toxic fan practices, it doesn’t mean it should be condoned as “fair game,” else we run the risk of infantilizing women all over again  (which many scholars do without realising it; same with constructing the gender binaries all over again).

So my intervention is about how to deal with this on an empirical and epistemological level as scholars without making moral judgements about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ ways of being a fan. And I understand why scholars would be anxious about wading in the toxic filth and sludge of many digital spaces and I feel very ambivalent about how to frame empirical evidence that points in this direction.

I would also cite the many feminists who argue that the concept of 'Patriarchy' as an umbrella concept no longer works. I prefer the concept of Kyriarchy as I feel it allows for more complexity and nuance, not to mention permitting my own ‘white masculine privilege’ to be re-framed in order to consider my working class heritage (I was born in the British council estate ‘projects’, and existed in abject poverty for most of my life) and non-neurotypicality (I am autistic).  Power is intersectional. I also think it’s interesting how concepts of ‘class’ has almost been removed from such analyses.

 

REBECCA HARRISON

I’m going to jump in here quickly to add that as I don’t participate in any organised fan communities I simply don’t see what is being described by Billy and Mar with regard to the toxicity of women fans, and I don’t know the scholarship on this as I’m a cultural/film historian. However, as fandom exists within patriarchy, I can’t agree that fan toxicity knows no gender. Even the way women fans are being described with regard to toxicity is in gendered language (for example, venomous and nasty are not words I typically hear used to describe men). Surely fan communities, whether positive or negative, are gendered, raced and classed just like the broader cultures from which they emerge?

Anyway, my response was not designed to vindicate bullying behaviour but rather an attempt to explain why women journalists and fans might make sweeping statements about toxic fan cultures being male, which I don’t think is unfair (based on my previous comment, and also Will’s pertinent analysis of gendered power structures), even if it is not always ‘right’. I’m going to leave this here rather than get into a long conversation about radical feminism and/or the design of online architectures that privilege maleness and whiteness, which would be interesting but (sadly) not relevant to the film. I think us responding to Megen’s thoughtful comments will be a much more productive way of developing the conversation.

WILLIAM PROCTOR

I think the point I have been trying to make all along has gotten lost and this is what I was afraid of. I completely agree with everything you say, Becca. Of course fan “communities” are gendered, classed, raced etc. I don’t know what gave you the idea that I thought differently. Indeed, fan cultures are splintered and fragmented across class, race and gender — and other axes too. To talk of a fan “community” is problematic, as we all know: there is no such thing as a homogenous and coherent fandom.

I am not talking about women journalists generalising about male fans — I am talking about specific instances whereby individual male fans are attacked without merit. I’m talking (again) about Henry Walsh being accused of being a neo-nazi, a misogynist, a member of the ‘alt right,’ etc., by both female and male journalists across the world – when in reality he is a disabled individual, an anti-Trump demonstrator with progressive, feminist outlook. I completely agree with you about the overarching discourse, Becca. I apologise if I haven’t made that clear in my essays and my comments earlier.

I’m also quite familiar with the history of radical feminism. I’m a comfortable Marxist and trade union activist, but I don’t agree that ideology works quite as bluntly as you suggest: the way you construct women as existing within the yolk of Patriarchy seems to rob them of agency and make victims out of them.

I’m sorry, but the words “venomous and nasty” are not gendered words at all, at least not in the way I use them (although I could be blind to this, naturally). I think it’s unfair to imply that I used sexist language.

I’m sorry you don’t think that part of the conversation isn’t productive, and I’m happy to stop and leave it be. My point way back at the beginning, and in my essays, is that academics tend not to be able to discuss these things frankly and in the spirit of open debate without relying on arguments that shut down discourse.

I’m truly sorry for your lived experience with male fans. It’s quite rife, to be honest. One of my students wanted to start reading comics and I offered advice on where to go, what to read. She told me that her experience of entering a comic shop for the first time was such a negative experience that she’d never return (I believe there’s work on comic stores as “toxic masculine spaces”).  I shall leave the topic be for now, unless anyone wants to continue. (I’ll get my coat.)

MEGEN DE-BRUIN MOLÈ

 A few points about authorship, textuality, and intertextuality have piqued my interest in the last few comments. Billy, you very usefully mention the issues that arise when too many people try to micromanage a story. Of course, most contemporary texts are engaged in ‘authorship by committee’ to varying degrees. No book, no comic, and certainly no film comes into circulation without the extensive input of many different people, and rather than disparaging Star Wars for foregrounding this process as a central part of their brand strategy, it might actually be to our advantage to consider the ways in which the franchise is just making an existing phenomenon more visible. It might be useful here to reference Jonathan Gray’s concept of 'clusters of authorship', of which Disney/Lucasfilm is a really great example. There are authors all along the Lucasfilm/Disney chain—Kathleen Kennedy, the Story Group, the directors of the films and writers (and translators and editors) of the novels, the advertising department, the makers of the toys, and so on. Of course, each of those authors has a different kind of power, and some of those authors have MORE power, or at least more visibility.

For this reason I also think it’s really interesting what Lincoln has said about the way key worldbuilding and characterisation elements are being shifted from what you consider the ‘main’ platform (the films) to the novels, the TV shows, the comics, etc. Just like we’ve developed clusters of authorship, transmedia storytelling seems to be giving us clusters of characterisation and clusters of worldbuilding—centralised nowhere. So much of these new films involves giving us just enough to go on in terms of characterisation and (more unfortunately) diversity, which are then expanded on in fandom or sub-canon (Stormpilot, for example, or the instance Suzanne mentioned earlier in this roundtable, about Holdo's queerness being relegated to a YA novel).

I’ll be interested to see how the hierarchies between the films and other media develop over the next few years, especially given that it seems like we’ll be inundated with new Star Wars films. This is probably giving Lucasfilm too much credit, but could the long-term strategy actually be what it seems at the moment—to make the films less of a ‘special’ event, and put more emphasis on other media platforms in the franchise? Wouldn’t it (at least on some occasions) be a good thing if fans could choose to skip a film now and then to delve into the universe at another point instead?  

A lot of the legwork TLJ does is indeed not in advancing the plot, but in raising questions for other instalments to answer. As one of the ‘core’ texts of the franchise, its job seems to be more in providing a platform where all of those disparate parts of the Star Wars universe can coexist. For example, I actually saw the Canto Bight sequence as quite a vital bit of world-building. Not just in terms of the story TLJ tells—it reminds us that there are billions of people in the universe who are outside the epic Resistance/First Order divide—but also in terms of creating a cohesive world for the franchise as a whole. TLJ even feels like a well-integrated part of ALL of Lucas’s Star Wars films, taking narrative and visual elements from the original trilogy but also from the prequels (and the special editions). We get weird new CGI animal species and our beloved animatronic puppets. Serious philosophical discussion and ridiculous racing sequences. TLJ is the #CantWeAllJustGetAlong of Star Wars movies. Canto Bight does feel tonally different to the rest of the film, but it also feels like a link to parts of the franchise I haven’t dared to venture for a while. It actually made me want to watch the prequels again.

WILLIAM PROCTOR

I think you raise a number of interesting points here, Megen. You are quite right that comics, films, TV series and so on have “clusters of authors” — clusters that, in Mark J.P Wolf’s terms, are also hierarchical “circles.” I’m not quite sure if Kathleen Kennedy is a traditional author, nor The Lucasfilm Story Group. To be sure, they’re all involved in decision-making and creative planning — Kennedy is the one who green-lights projects; the Lucasfilm Story Group are a canonical police-force, ensuring that transmedia elements align with the films. That said, despite the revised rules about canonicity, with all texts flattened as equal parts of the overarching hyperdiegesis, it remains evident that the films are “the immovable objects” of the Star Wars “world.” In actual fact, then, a hierarchy still exists between transmedia elements. The films still represent “the mothership,” with transmedia satellites orbiting and feeding off of the cinematic “master narrative.” But as Colin B Harvey explores in Fantastic Transmedia (2016), if we consider vast narrative worlds as having a kind of serial “memory,” then it’s interesting that memory often only goes one way: that is, transmedia texts draw from the mnemonic contents of the film series, but the obverse rarely happens. So while Marvel’s canonical comic series introduces new characters, such as Doctor Aphra — who apparently collaborated with Vader between ANH and ESB — or Wookie bounty hunter Black Krrsantan — it is rare to see new transmedia characters “remembered” in the film series. Rogue One took several steps in including references to the animated TV series, Rebels, so perhaps we’ll see more memory tissue between transmedia instantiations and the cinematic core of the franchise, but we shall have to see how that turns out.

In relation to “authorship-by-committee,” I agree in principle — but prior to the Disney acquisition, Lucas was the committee, or at least the “author-God” (thank the Maker!”). But naturally, this perspective only goes so far from ‘a certain point of view’: there have been literally hundreds, if not thousands, of creative agents working on Star Wars and the collaborative nature of film-making, comics, novels, video games, and so forth, demonstrate that unequivocally. Yet as far as the film series goes, Lucas was head-honcho and it was his “vision” that provided a solid footing, which, as Will points out in his BFI Star Wars book, was more detrimental to the creative process as Lucas gained ultimate control and became the very thing he originally fought against: a corporation with Lucas as Emperor. So if we are to include figures such as Kennedy, Hidalgo, Chee and other agents in the LSG as “authors,” then we would need to radically shift our understanding of what authorship is. That seems a valuable intervention, Megen.

One final point, if I may: in Jenkins’ seminal definition of transmedia storytelling, which has been examined, extended and expanded by other scholars since, the hyperdiegetic “mothership” shouldn’t ask viewers to head off elsewhere for canonical information. In many ways, we have seen how fan criticism can end up becoming narrative elements themselves: for instance, when Abrams’ Star Trek Into Darkness featured Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan, continuity fans exposed a major fault-line insofar as the parallel (Kelvin) timeline was introduced after Khan Noonen Singh was born. Thus, Caucasian Benedict Cumberbatch could not be Khan in continuity terms — Khan should be Richardo Montalbán, or, at least, a character of Latin descent. In order to address fan criticism, Paramount/ IDW rushed out a comic mini-series (‘Khan’) that rationalised the racial disjoint, aiming to police and contain criticisms centred on racial politics. In doing so, the comic book mini-series functions ostensibly as a palliative narrative. This reminds me of Suzanne’s chapter on BSG (“is fan production frakked?’), whereby the producers worked to plug gaps in hyperdiegetic continuity via various transmedia satellites and thus conducted textual operations that would most usually be a fannish play-park.

Although Snoke’s origins (we could also include the emergence and history of the Knights of Ren) have not yet been addressed transmedially, I agree with Lincoln that this is not only plausible but also inevitable. To return to Rian Johnson, the way he has marshalled a number of defences about The Last Jedi in interview paratexts and on social media perhaps points towards the emergence of explanations in Expanded Universe elements. Recently, news has emerged that Gary Whitta (Rogue One) is penning a comic book adaptation of TLJ but that this will include narrative threads not seen in the film itself. Naturally, we shall have to wait and see how that turns out, but it seems to me that fannish criticisms, especially those anchored onto canonical continuity, can be picked up and addressed elsewhere, “in-text.” That said, I personally think this is a “get-out-of-jail-free card” and signals towards the film’s story as deficient, at least across the axis of narrative.

 MAR GUERRERO-PICO

Seriously though, where are my Knights of Ren, Disney? I’ve been waiting for more than two years for that question to be answered. Why did Ben Solo become Kylo Ren and not Nick Vader? Is he one of those hip solo acts whose stage name looks like a band when they really are not a la Marina and the Diamonds? I’m in jest here, but these and other over-top questions piling up in my mind point me towards the ambitious yet flawed transmedia development of the franchise.

Megen’s suggestion of a de-centralised transmedia system is thought-provoking but I truly wonder if that would work in such a literal transmedia jungle like Star Wars. Retrieving my initial intervention citing Verón, the main problem lays on the reading contract that the franchise has been forging with its consumers (in general, not just fans) over the last 40-years which have created a sort of transmedia baggage in all of them, and consequently, in the producers, too. In the same vein as Billy, and from a financial and branding perspective, I doubt that the producers consider the films as anything but the core of the transmedia system in spite of their transmedia ventures. And, certainly, a great mass of consumers still deem the films as such and don’t dive into ancillary content unless they are truly interested (my young adult brother would fall into this category). This way the encyclopaedia of the Star Wars’ viewers stems from the films, so that the existence of hierarchies in the transmedia narrative universe is reinforced. Drawing again on Jenkins’ original concept of transmedia storytelling, each narrative unit of the system has to be self-contained so that it enables the set up of several entry points for different types of audiences. In a way, the narrative autonomy means that the key questions have to be addressed in the text while it can leave any secondary matters (or “absences” as Eco would put it) for the ancillary contents to answer them.  In her PhD dissertation, Christy Dena refers to this as “tiering” which could be applied to the current situation of the Star Wars universe as a contrast to other, perhaps smaller projects who were consciously conceived with a radical transmedia narrative deployment in mind.

In this sense, Carlos Scolari, Manel Jiménez and myself (in Communication and Society, 2012) call this “strategic transmedia” vs “tactic transmedia” which has been developed a posteriori, once the transmedia cat is out the bag, sort of speak.  This does not mean that is not planned but the narrative and textual development has its limitations because it was not transmedia in origin. Then, it can be argued that strategic transmedia is tighly connected with what Dena defines as “intracompositional transmedia phenomena”, in other words, a single story told all across different co-dependent  media (in principle, the opposite to Jenkin’s seminal concept) whereas tactic transmedia links back to Dena’s “intercompositional transmedia phenomena”: a variety of autonomous compositions (be it one-off works or little intracompositional phenomena) spread through different media and that belong to one narrative world. In sum, Star Wars appears as both tactic and intercompositional transmedia narrative universe. Gray’s concept “clusters of authorship “does speak to these tactic, intercompositional transmedia developments. In other words, every author figure in Star Wars has their little dukedom-inside-the-kingdom to play with. However, whether it is strategic or tactic, the transmedia development it seems recommendable to count on a sort of architect (as Jeff Gomez would defend) to put order in the kingdom which is exactly the function of the Lucas Film Story Group.

The problem comes, in line with what Suzanne has extensively studied before, and Billy now brings up, when the transmedia development is used by producers to keep control of the integrity of the transmedia text. Both concepts of transmedia erasure and transmedia (over)reliance mentioned in here can be understood within the general “trans-transmedia” introduced Matt Hills (2012): “Trans- transmedia is thus not simply about serving fans; it is also about seeking to manage and protect the brand value of a TV series, thus involving a form of discursive “fanagement”. Fan  expectations and dissatisfactions are problematically engaged with, and disciplined and contained, at the level of niche paratexts”. If transmedia erasure consists in cutting off the problematic branches in the jungle (as a fan, I still don’t get why they take out Tartakovsky’ Clone Wars supreme animated series out of the canon), (over)reliance provides new trees in the jungle to cover up narrative deficits in light of what I have argued about narrative autonomy within a transmedia narrative world. The amusing side of these narrative patching up takes place when the producers don’t try to fend off criticism by launching more transmedia units but when they resort to “Twitter-pedia” fans as commented by Billy, that’s certainly cheaper than produce a Marvel comic. Rian Johnson’s intervention was based on using now-outlawed Expanded Universe material which paradoxically keeps pervading canonical content as implied in the trailer for the forthcoming Solo film. There so much repackaging, as Suzanne would put it, that a fan can take. And yes, Lincoln, I so need a transmedia detox from Star Wars.

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Dr Megen de Bruin-Molé is a Teaching Fellow in Digital Media Practice with the University of Southampton. She holds a PhD in English Literature, and her research interests include popular culture, adaptation, and contemporary remix. Her article ‘Space Bitches, Witches, and Kick-Ass Princesses: Star Wars and Popular Feminism’, appeared in the 2017 collection Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling (eds. Sean Guynes and Dan Hassler-Forest). You can follow her (and her research) on Twitter: @MegenJM.

Dr Mar Guerrero-Pico works as a research assistant at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Spain). Her articles have been published in journals such as International Journal of Communication & Society, International Journal of TV Serial Narratives, Signo y Pensamiento, Comunicación and Sociedad (Mexico), Palabra Clave and Cuadernos.info. Her research interests include transmedia storytelling, fan cultures, narratology, television shows and media education.

Dr Rebecca Harrison is Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on media technologies and how gender, race and class affect people's experiences of visual culture. Her first book, From Steam to Screen: Cinema, the Railways and Modernity (I B Tauris, 2018) is forthcoming, and she is currently working on her second book, The Star Wars Code, which is due for publication in 2021. In the meantime, you can find information and links to her various Star Wars-related projects, including research, teaching materials, articles - and an accidental controversy about Dr Organa - on Twitter: @beccaeharrison. 

Dr William Proctor is Senior Lecturer in Popular Culture at Bournemouth University, UK. He has published widely on numerous topics, including Batman, James Bond, One Direction, The Walking Dead, Stephen King, and Star Wars. William is a leading expert on reboots and is currently finishing up his debut monograph, Reboot Culture: Comics, Film, Transmedia, for Palgrave Macmillan. He is co-editor of Transmedia Earth: Global Convergence Cultures with Dr. Matthew Freeman (Routledge, 2018); co-editor of Disney's Star Wars: Forces of Promotion, Production and Reception with Dr. Richard McCulloch (University of Iowa, forthcoming); and co-editor, alongside Bridget Kies, of the themed-section of Participations: International Journal of Audience and Reception Studies on "Toxic Fan Practices" (May, 2018). 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Jedi: An Online Roundtable Part 4

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WILLIAM PROCTOR

Talking about narrative and tonal consistency between TFA and TLJ has me thinking. Now I’m not about to claim that Lucas had the Original Trilogy all “in his head”  — as Lucas often revises his own history, it’s difficult to ascertain his authorial intent. His claims about using Campbell’s hero’s journey as a template from the off isn’t true; neither is this idea of him planning the saga as a series of two trilogies, three trilogies, four trilogies, then back to three etc. Lucas marshals different myths at different moments. However, Lucas was always the driving force behind his ‘vision,’ whether or not he hired writers and directors for ESB and RoTJ.

Who now is the main ‘author’ of Star Wars? Kathleen Kennedy seems to calling shots as producer. The Lucasfilm Story Group is there to ensure that stories don’t break the seal of continuity (although even Lucas’ prequels introduce a series of unstable elements for sure).  Not to get into the nitty-gritty of authorship as the centre of meaning or anything, but I was struck when I learned that J.J Abrams was pitching Episode IX to Disney on the day of TLJ’s release! Moreover, after TFA was written, Kathleen Kennedy said she turned to Rian Johnson and said: “what happens next?” This seems to be more ad hoc in a creative sense; without a singular author to guide the structure, consistency, tone and so forth, Disney’s “authorship by committee,” as Gerry Canavan has described it, is perhaps one of the reasons why I feel TLJ is so out-of-joint with TFA, which Mar remarked upon earlier.

LINCOLN GERAGHTY

Not wanting to come full circle but having read all of your comments and ideas to this point I am struck by something Mar wrote right at the beginning: “there is no coherence­– wasn’t Snoke supposed to be very powerful?” For me how they dealt with Snoke in TLJ sums up/characterises  how the franchise is now under Disney’s watchful eye. It is has become too focussed on the transmedia/world building aspects of a Hollywood franchise. In going to see the film I wanted to some more on how this Snoke was, what his motivations were and how his plans were to unfold. Yet, very quickly, the film basically emphasised to fans and casual audiences alike that who Snoke is didn’t matter a jot. If you want to know then you will have to go to all the paratextual material like the reference books, novels and wikis to find out. I consider myself a fan of Star Wars,I still have my toys in storage, I’ve got the LEGO, I watch the animated series and play the video games, but I did not want to put in the effort to go find out who Snoke is or his background. Even after watching the film for a second time I have not been convinced enough to go look into who he is and where he came from. I guess I should since the film may make more sense if I did… by I’m left feeling is it worth the effort? This is why I say there is too much reliance on transmedia storytelling in the franchise now. I want the film to tell me what is important and what should be noted, not some paratext that I haven’t read yet. So, I suppose, replying to Billy’s last point - I am fatigued!

Now, I enjoyed TLJ, don’t get me wrong. Although, like Will I did fall asleep briefly during my second viewing of it. A shock to me and something I’m not proud of… falling asleep in a Star Wars film - sacrilege! Yet I am justified I feel since I nodded off during the ridiculous casino sequence where some poor treated alien beast were set free, or something like that. Moments I did enjoy included the throne room fight, Kylo throwing his toys out of the pram when he could shoot Luke and every scene that Rey was in. The best scene for me and one I seem to think fans weren’t so keen on was Luke milking the thala-siren on Ahch-To. Having spent years on this tiny island with no one for company except for some aliens nuns why not try out the local brew?!? I did enjoy the stories put out after people moaned about, that the scene has some basis in scientific fact and was planned as an homage to drinking blue bantha milk back in  A New Hope. https://www.theverge.com/2017/12/19/16795346/green-blue-milk-scene-the-last-jedi-luke-skywalker-thala-siren-dairy-science

Again, I guess fans getting anxious about whether Luke would do this, questioning his Jedi ways, is another example of the type of criticism TLJ has attracted. But if this is the case then I guess Empire should be criticised just as much since this is where we first see Yoda as hermit completely lost in the madness of Dagobah - eating all sorts of weird stuff that Luke hated. Swings and roundabouts I suppose…

REBECCA HARRISON

I want to briefly tease out a thread of the conversation that has hinted at the Disneyfication of the Star Wars franchise. Billy has mentioned Disney-era authorship and dubbed the moment that Leia uses the Force (still to my mind the single worst moment of the film) as ‘Leia Poppins’, which presumably draws parallels between TLJ and the all-singing, all-flying Disney version of Mary Poppins. Some time ago on Twitter, I recall someone point to the aesthetic similarities between Broom Boy and The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, and the flash of the passing ship looking like the shooting star over the Magic Kingdom in the Disney logo. And I’ve already commented on the self-reflexive nature of the TLJ’s arms dealer narrative, which alludes to Disney’s power to perpetuate the onscreen war. As M W Lipschutz wrote in an essay on TLJ for the LA Review of Books (that I’m ambivalent about for a number of reasons, not least of all the unchecked privilege of the author – see https://lareviewofbooks.org/article/how-to-read-star-wars/#!), Disney is ‘weaponising’ the Star Wars franchise in a ‘content war’ with other content providers such as Netflix and Amazon.

However, there is, I think a more playful and reciprocal dynamic that we risk overlooking. For example, as Sean Guynes and Dan Hassler-Forest describe in the introduction to Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling, the finale of the 1980 Star Wars episode of The Muppet Show has Luke, Chewie, Kermit and co singing When You Wish Upon a Star—the theme from Disney’s Pinocchio—in front of a Magic Kingdom-esque castle complete with shooting stars.. On the one hand, it’s a humorous sending-up of the cutesy children’s storytelling that the rough-and-ready action of Star Wars, and the subversive comedy of The Muppet Show, tends to undermine. On the other, it’s a gesture that positions both Star Wars and the Muppets in the same category of family-friendly entertainment as Disney. Of course, there’s a certain irony to this as Disney bought the Muppets from the Jim Henson Company in 2004, and Star Wars from George Lucas in 2012. In case it wasn’t already clear… don’t mess with the Mouse.

I think there are also, potentially, fascinating visual continuities between the Star Wars women and contemporary Disney princesses. I was struck watching the live-action Beauty and the Beast in 2017 that Emma Watson’s Belle is, albeit briefly, styled like Daisy Ridley’s Rey in 2015’s The Force Awakens. In a chase sequence with the Beast and Gaston toward the end of the film, Belle wears an off-white outfit consisting of a kind of night-dress/pyjama hybrid that’s reminiscent of Rey’s sand-coloured tunic and leggings, and she also, like Rey, carries a staff. Possibly I’m pushing the theory too far but Moana might fit the pattern, too. It’s interesting that consolidating the Star Wars and Disney franchises might involve the StarWarsification of narratives and aesthetics more typically associated with the House of Mouse, and I wouldn’t be surprised if there are references to The Last Jedi in future Disney releases.

WILLIAM PROCTOR

I have read the LA Times article, Becca, and it’s little more than sophisticated nonsense, not to mention the author’s ‘un-dialectical’ approach — that is, not recognising the interplay between ‘exchange-value’ and ‘use-value.’ As a corollary, it is also based on How to Read Donald Duck, an academic work that Martin Barker, to put it frankly, decimates in Comics: Ideology. It is an example of what David Buckingham describes as “ideology-by-numbers,” an approach that constructs figures of the audience as victims of sledgehammer ideologies. That is not how cultural and ideological forces function, I’m afraid!)

WILL BROOKER

This is just a quick note, but surely the intersection between Star Wars and The Muppets has been in place, and in canon, since The Empire Strikes Back? I remember articles commenting at the time that Yoda had the voice of Grover and Fozzie Bear, which is of course technically true. That Muppet Show episode was first broadcast a few months before the release of Empire Strikes Back, so it makes the connection before a character who is, essentially, a realistic Muppet appears with Luke in the Star Wars universe, but I think the relationship between them is interesting.

I also wonder if the Holiday Special set up a precedent for the Muppet Show crossover, as it seems to share a similar loose, playful and intertextual approach. The Holiday Special is of course more of an in-universe story, but it and the Star Wars Muppet Show seem related somehow -- in-between official and unofficial, like lapses into carnival. Perhaps the cantina scenes, the Jabba’s Palace party and the celebration at the end of Return of the Jedi can be situated a little further along the same spectrum, as canonical variations on the same theme; sequences where the story briefly stops, and the characters enjoy an in-house band. At the end of Return of the Jedi, we should remember, fireworks burst over Endor and then, in the Special Edition, over every planet from the saga so far, much like a Disney parade.

REBECCA HARRISON

I think the Star Wars-Muppets crossover actually begins with The Muppet Show! The film’s production aside, the Muppets episode aired on February 23, 1980 and Empire Strikes Back was released on May 17. I do like the idea that the carnival scenes throughout the films situate it in a Muppet-like realm, although I wouldn’t suggest there’s crossover with Disney in that sense (not that you do, but it might be an extension of the argument). Disney musical sequences are too neat, too choreographed, to be comparable. But Star Wars and The Muppet Show do share a chaotic, riotous element of carnival.

To return to the discussion about fatigue… I’ve read some of the novels that fall between Return of the Jedi and The Force Awakens and so much of my understanding of the sequels is predicated on having knowledge of those books. Without having read about the collapse of the New Republic, the rise of the First Order (what a surprise that this is largely a woman-led enterprise that gets effaced onscreen – I want more Rae Sloane!) and Leia’s reputation across the galaxy, The Last Jedi just doesn’t make as much sense. I only bought the novels because I’m researching Star Wars; it’s asking too much of fans to keep up with so much paratextual worldbuilding. It’s exhausting.

It’s also exhausting, to return to an even earlier point about fandom, to keep rehashing debates about toxic masculinity within some elements of fan culture. Yes, I’m aware that women troll others online and participate in some unpleasant discourse (I think Mar used Taylor Swift fans as an example). I also appreciate that more work needs to be done to understand the nature of fan interactions and cultures in online spaces. However, there seems to be a suggestion that people outside Fan Studies should do that work or be attuned to any and all recent developments in the field, which I don’t think is fair. It’s not my area of scholarship and while I am a Star Wars fan, I don’t tend to write or think about fandom in an academic capacity.

Moreover, in the past year I have written three articles about Star Wars and been interviewed twice about my research and/or experience as a fan. I also discuss my engagement with the franchise on social media. Every single time I become visible as a woman talking about Star Wars I get negative responses from men. Always men. Today, even, just now, a man attempted to undermine me because I’m a woman and like the thing he likes. I have never, at any point in the last twelve months, had women diminish me, objectify me, or tell me I belong in a prison camp (yes, one male fan really did feel that strongly about my ideas). Don’t get me wrong, I know this is personal, and anecdotal, evidence. However, it can be incredibly challenging to be a woman, and also a Star Wars fan and scholar, in public space. We’re talking hundreds of negative, sometimes vaguely threatening comments, and I don’t get the worst of it. If women who write and talk about Star Wars (as journalists; as fans; as scholars) are not always nuanced in our discussions of ‘fanboys’ it’s because we don’t have the emotional or intellectual energy left to do that labour. If someone else wants to, I will eagerly read it! At any rate, I think it’s useful to balance an academic approach with empathy for people’s lived experiences.

WILL BROOKER

In response to Becca, I feel that the important thing in this respect is the way individual, lived experiences map onto and relate back to broader structures of power. Women can be individually mean, rude and hostile, of course. Women can also abuse power in situations where they have relative privilege over someone else, in relation to race or class for instance. But I don’t think this should be a distraction from what, to me, is the most fundamental structure of power in our society, whereby half of the population is treated as subordinate to the other half, on the basis of biological sex.

If a woman calls me a whining man-baby because I express negative opinions about The Last Jedi, I might well find that unfair and annoying. But it doesn’t relate to any broader structure of power. It doesn’t relate to any other oppression I experience in everyday life, in terms of how safe or unsafe I feel walking down the street, or how hard or easy I find it to get promoted or published. If a man online tells a woman her opinion doesn’t matter, I think that has much broader and more profound connotations. I can’t know what that feels like within Becca’s lived experience, of course, but I would guess that a man being rudely dismissive online is more than just an isolated incident of rudeness, as it would be for me if a woman called me a whining man-baby; but, rather, that it is just another instance within a series of similar experiences, which to some extent structure women’s lives. To a woman she belongs in a prison camp is particularly striking, as we could see patriarchy as a system that tries to do exactly that to women: contain and restrict them.

For that reason, I think we should treat the cases of women being hostile and rude online, especially when it’s towards men, very differently from what might, on the surface, seem to be the equivalent male behaviour. Because I don’t think it’s actually equivalent at all, beyond a surface similarity. And I don’t think we should let these superficially-similar forms of behaviour distract us from underlying power structures and hierarchies.

One thing I do agree with Billy about here is that to insult men by comparing their behaviour to stereotypical femininity is unfortunate and ultimately damaging to women as well as to men. If we are insulting men by saying they’re fragile and emotional in their response to a favourite film, we are surely saying that behaviour more usually associated with femininity is shameful, and that, in simple terms, for a boy to be ‘like a girl’ is embarrassing. I don’t think mocking men who protest about Star Wars with tropes about ‘male tears’ is progressive, not least because it seems to endorse more aggressive and traditionally macho forms of male behaviour as a more appropriate response.

MAR GUERRERO-PICO

I'm sorry to hear that, Becca. The fact that is always biting men is due to structural privilege and sexism which as we all know goes beyond fandom, and certainly beyond Star Wars. It's the same system that tells women that they can't be geeks or sporty to begin with, or tells men that they are above women, or tell women to compete against each other. However, I reckon that that structural privilege also works against those fanboys because, maybe they feel entitled to call a woman names, but then again, the system is also oppressing them in a way if they fail to meet normative expectations of masculinity. They aren't victims per se but if we look at the broader picture, and other instances of life, one can argue that the situation is more complicated than it seems. In this regard, I cannot agree that we should treat women attacking men differently under the justification that we (as well as racial and sexual minorities) are victims of the patriarchy especially if, like Billy and Will have pointed out, they are reproducing gender stereotypes which I am at fault of using sometimes in my daily life. Therefore, yes, I acknowledge there is a problem of toxic masculinity in fandom but at the same time we can’t turn a blind eye on toxic fangirls. Work must be conducted in parallel because, it is pointless to try to change attitudes in others while refusing to deal with the effects (here, I mean competitiveness and malice all around) of such a sexist and brutal system on ourselves, as women. So, the way I see it, fan toxicity knows no gender. To clarify, fan toxicity needs to be urgently examined regardless of the gender from which it emanates.

 MEGEN DE-BRUIN MOLÉ

Without rehashing what’s already been discussed, or diminishing what you are trying to say, I want to explain why I am personally uncomfortable getting into an 'open debate' about this here. For me at least, part of the issue is precisely in trying to make this an academic discussion. I'm not a fan studies scholar, so I don't have the tools or vocabulary to discuss this 'objectively' (a term loaded with gendered/patriarchal assumptions about the supremacy of logic and reason over emotion). This forces me to frame my academic debates from personal experience or qualitative data, which immediately places me at a disadvantage in this context.

It also creates a specific kind of power dynamic that (for me) is just too familiar from a fan perspective. The academic or 'logical' vocabulary is the one I've often seen invoked by (predominantly) male fans—not talking about you directly here, Billy or Will—to shut down female fans and their responses. Their response is somehow not rational, and therefore it must be invalid or less important. To the extent that the very use of this kind of language to talk about the 'irrational' pain, anger, and backlash of some female fans in itself shuts down debate on a basic level. This is precisely NOT a rational issue, in that it's an issue coloured by the whole debate about what is allowed to be called rational in the first place. This is also a huge discussion in feminism / feminist philosophy of science—see here, here, here, and here for similar versions of this argument in varying degrees of conceptual difficulty.

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Professor Will Brooker is Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Kingston University, and author of Using the Force (20020 and the BFI volume on Star Wars (2009) among many other books.

Dr Megen de Bruin-Molé is a Teaching Fellow in Digital Media Practice with the University of Southampton. She holds a PhD in English Literature, and her research interests include popular culture, adaptation, and contemporary remix. Her article ‘Space Bitches, Witches, and Kick-Ass Princesses: Star Wars and Popular Feminism’, appeared in the 2017 collection Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling (eds. Sean Guynes and Dan Hassler-Forest). You can follow her (and her research) on Twitter: @MegenJM.

Dr Lincoln Geraghty is Reader in Popular Media Cultures in the School of Media & Performing Arts at the University of Portsmouth.  He serves as editorial advisor for The Journal of Popular CultureTransformative Works and CultureJournal of Fandom Studies and Journal of Popular Television with interests in science fiction film and television, fandom, and collecting in popular culture. He is Senior Editor for the online open access journal from Taylor Francis, Cogent Arts and Humanities. Major publications include Living with Star Trek: American Culture and the Star Trek Universe (IB Tauris, 2007), American Science Fiction Film and Television (Berg, 2009) and Cult Collectors: Nostalgia, Fandom and Collecting Popular Culture (Routledge, 2014).

Dr Mar Guerrero-Pico works as a research assistant at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Spain). Her articles have been published in journals such as International Journal of Communication & Society, International Journal of TV Serial Narratives, Signo y Pensamiento, Comunicación and Sociedad (Mexico), Palabra Clave and Cuadernos.info. Her research interests include transmedia storytelling, fan cultures, narratology, television shows and media education.

Dr Rebecca Harrison is Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on media technologies and how gender, race and class affect people's experiences of visual culture. Her first book, From Steam to Screen: Cinema, the Railways and Modernity (I B Tauris, 2018) is forthcoming, and she is currently working on her second book, The Star Wars Code, which is due for publication in 2021. In the meantime, you can find information and links to her various Star Wars-related projects, including research, teaching materials, articles - and an accidental controversy about Dr Organa - on Twitter: @beccaeharrison. 

Dr William Proctor is Senior Lecturer in Popular Culture at Bournemouth University, UK. He has published widely on numerous topics, including Batman, James Bond, One Direction, The Walking Dead, Stephen King, and Star Wars. William is a leading expert on reboots and is currently finishing up his debut monograph, Reboot Culture: Comics, Film, Transmedia, for Palgrave Macmillan. He is co-editor of Transmedia Earth: Global Convergence Cultures with Dr. Matthew Freeman (Routledge, 2018); co-editor of Disney's Star Wars: Forces of Promotion, Production and Reception with Dr. Richard McCulloch (University of Iowa, forthcoming); and co-editor, alongside Bridget Kies, of the themed-section of Participations: International Journal of Audience and Reception Studies on "Toxic Fan Practices" (May, 2018). 

 

 

 

The Last Jedi: An Online Roundtable Part 3

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WILLIAM PROCTOR

To return to Will’s statement about the representation of fanboys, I think “extremely lazy and misguided” is an understatement. Naturally, the fannish need to protect a treasured fan-object shouldn’t surprise us in any way; but there is also this weird tendency for cultural commenters, be they professional critics or fan-bloggers, to actively refuse to accept that fans could have any real issue with the film beyond fitting into traditional stereotypes of the basement dwelling, lonely fanboy who has nothing better to do than spoil others’ enjoyment with weaponised nostalgia. Discursively, TLJ desires protection from critical assault, while the original trilogy – perhaps the ultimate “good” Star Wars object, at least for first generation fans – ends up being converted into a ‘bad’ object, which is suddenly the sole province of nasty, nostalgic fanboys.

I’d be interested to hear what others think of the way in which fanboys are attacked as “man-babies,” “crying male tears,” “butt hurt,” and other insults surrounding TLJ detractors and anti-fans (does “butt-hurt” mean male rape, for instance, and if so, why is that okay?). As scholars, I recognise that we should keep our moral judgements in check, but I fail to see how marshalling abusive comments towards an entire male contingent is not sexist as well, especially when a bevy of empirical evidence within fan studies/ audience studies literature undoubtedly shows that both fanboys and fangirls can behaviour appallingly at times (although it is undoubtedly asymmetrical and I wouldn’t cast aspersions in peer-reviewed work, obviously). I have been quite clear that I am not claiming that women and men now occupy the same ideological coordinates, but my own experience tells me that it has become so difficult to paint broader strokes, especially when substantiated empirically. I’ve just been chatting with Henry about this and we both feel that it’s difficult to chat about mistreatment of fanboys as it comes across as “a defence of men.”  But I tread where the path takes me.

When a website such as The Mary Sue circles around Henry Walsh’s petition like vultures eyeing a corpse, and refuses to address his politically progressive praxis – or, worse still, didn’t conduct any research at all, which is more likely -- then I can’t help thinking that certain facts have been either distorted, or removed entirely, so as to squeeze the “fanboy-sexist-racist-rage narrative” into preordained and prescribed ideological limits. It seems that scholars are quite afraid of venturing into this territory. I don’t say this easily or without reflexivity, but, rather, to ask whether or not the political constituency of the academic left actively bars scholarship in these areas in case one runs the risk of being contaminated by those same slogans that permeate TLJ discourse. In order for the “transcendental” narrative to function, the only fangirls that are permitted to speak are those who claim TLJ is “feminist,” or to unquestionably – and unproblematically it seems – abuse an imaginary and imagined fanboy cluster. I’d appreciate any thoughts you may have on this as I think readers would too.

I wonder if we could view this kind of knee-jerk generalisation as a symptom of the current political environment? With the emergence of the radical right in the US and perhaps the UK (although contextually and qualitatively different): Brexit, immigration, Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, Trump, snap elections, #Gamergate, sad puppies, and so on and so forth. As the world of men (i’m being crude and general, apologies) is seen as chock-a-bloc with racist, misogynist, homophobic neo-nazis and white supremacists, then perhaps the levels of anti-fanboy rhetoric can be explained, if not condoned, as a kind of “push back” against those ideological currents. I’m shooting from the hip here folks, but I strongly believe that it’s time to stop tiptoeing around these issues (not to say that anyone here is, of course!).

SUZANNE SCOTT

Will, have we been unintentionally force facetiming again?  It’s like you’re in my head! To second Mar, I would agree with all the decapitated muppets here (not a sentence I ever envisioned writing, but I digress…).  I also really appreciate your perspective, Megen, and in particular we are in firm agreement that any move towards more complexity and/or less moral absolutism in the SW galaxy is a good thing!  Perhaps, as you rightly note, asking the questions is enough, and the film certainly forces us (pun absolutely intended) to grapple with our own evolving relationship to the franchise as a whole, and the past more generally, in productive ways.

Your mention of bringing in Leia’s force sensitivity from the EU reminded me of something, though. I, perhaps like you (and probably like many SW fangirls and queer fans and fans of color) have historically looked to the EU as a space that afforded the dynamic and more diverse characterization that the cinematic franchise either economically or ideologically could not. In a project I’m currently working on, I’m exploring the concept of “transmedia erasure,” which might range from archival failure (e.g. failing to record emphera from an ARG) to industrial excision (e.g. ranging from attempts to erase The Star Wars Holiday Special from popular memory, to Disney’s corporate delegitimization of the EU and subsequent formation of the “new unified canon). But, importantly, I also think transmedia erasure conceptually encompasses many of the representational issues we have been addressing.  There’s a long history of “outing” characters via transmedia extensions (e.g. Gaeta in Battlestar Galactica webisodes) and authorial paratexts (e.g. Rowling’s post-canonical outing of Dumbledore and the news this past week that there would be no “explicit” reference to his sexuality in the Fantastic Beasts sequel), or more generally relegating “diverse” characters quite literally to the narrative margins.  Likewise, with TLJ, we are paratextually informed that Holdo is queer, but we have to buy the Leia: Princess of Alderaan tie-in novel to see that actualized in any explicit or meaningful way.

With all that said, I want to pick back up on Will’s closing comment here about the specter of the “butt-hurt fanboy” and how this might ultimately force choke critical conversations around the film, as well as Billy’s remarks. I would speculate that many who have kept their criticisms about the film to themselves precisely because they don’t want to be “on the wrong side of history” or even indirectly affiliated with critiques of the film that potentially are situated in deeper strains of misogyny, racism, and homophobia (much less the performative trollish embrace of these qualities). I agree that it’s a lazy characterization, but it’s also not an entirely incorrect one in some cases, and I think that needs to be acknowledged.

This is why, in spite of my own ambivalent response to the film, I don’t begrudge marginalized Star Wars fans for taking a memetic victory lap on social media. They have, for so long now, been either systematically and discursively erased from the fandom, even in this supposedly new era focused on representational diversity (I see you, J.J. and #wheresrey), or chided for “feeding the trolls” even as they are disproportionately targeted as “SJWs.” I think contextually it’s important to note that the sort of fanboy mockery you’re referencing, Billy, frequently only occured when said fanboys would insert themselves into celebratory threads about the film, not to engage in a fannish debate about the film’s relative strengths and weaknesses, but to spew vitriol and provoke precisely the kind of response you detail.

I can’t believe I’m about to reference this, but this conflict evokes the infamous “I have the high ground!” climax of Revenge of the Sith for me. Marginalized SW fans have for so long been expected to “go high” when it comes to a large chunk of the fan base treating them as inauthentic or unwelcome. And, for the most part, they have.  In the case of TLJ, they finally had the actual high ground, and despite their warnings, certain disgruntled fans attacked anyways.  And they (predictably) got cut down. Is intra-fannish pathologization an appropriate or particularly productive response? No. But it also speaks to the degree to which the fanboy has been, for better or for worse, incorporated into hegemonic masculinity over the past decade.

I also think Billy is spot on to tie this back to the broader political moment we find ourselves in. In my current book project, I draw parallels between the growing strains of misogyny, racism, and homophobia in geek culture and a “make fandom great again” ethos that is committed to re-entrenching an androcentric (if not openly white male supremacist) conception of fan identity.

WILL BROOKER

I think there exists a widespread male discourse, online and offline that is based on privilege and expresses itself, whether naively or deliberately, in ignorant and offensive ways. So I think to a great extent, a ‘push-back’ against that kind of male discourse is justified and appropriate, whether on a purely personal or a broader political level. I can see, taking up Suzanne’s final comment above, how a more general sense of resistance against various forms of bigotry -- and phenomena like #metoo and #timesup -- give further relevant context to this push-back. Whether it is simply a woman countering another man patronising her on twitter, or a more widespread reaction against the Game of Thrones creators being given a Star Wars trilogy, these smaller acts of resistance often seem to fit into a bigger picture.

There are also, surely, examples of privileged, ignorant, naïve and offensive behaviour among male media fans, and specifically Star Wars fans. Social media and journalism have highlighted some particularly extreme cases, like the edit of The Last Jedi that attempted to cut all the female roles. It is hard to know whether these newsworthy cases of toxic masculinity among Star Wars fans are representative of a broader trend within that fandom, or whether they are about individuals and small, atypical groups, perhaps deliberately trying to provoke and troll for attention.

I think it’s an error, certainly, to assume that everyone who identifies as a Star Wars fan and has issues with The Last Jedi shares the views of people who object to the increased diversity of representation (however superficial and ‘plastic’) in the sequels. All the responses above have embraced and enjoyed that diversity, only wishing it went deeper, but we all shared misgivings about The Last Jedi on other grounds, such as storytelling, character, broader continuity and tone.

So I feel strongly that to group anyone who didn’t love The Last Jedi into a category that’s easy to dismiss as bigoted and conservative is patently inaccurate, arguably offensive, and unhelpful in terms of debate. I think it’s understandable from internet journalism but would be harder to excuse from academics.

However, I wouldn’t personally extend that to seeing male media fans as a victimised group. I don’t think it’s the case, in broader social terms, that male media fans are marginalised or lacking in privilege and power. There are some lazy and silly generalisations at work, as is often the case with social media and contemporary journalism, and there are shorthand, slang terms that I feel could be retired – I think the words ‘fanboy’ and ‘fangirl’ have unwelcome connotations of infantilization, and ‘butthurt’ does seem to have associations with rape. But mocking men who get upset online when a woman counters their arrogance is something that goes far beyond The Last Jedi fandom, and I think it’s an understandable response with a history of gender politics behind it and a context of contemporary misogyny surrounding it. I am against closing down all debate about this film to a binary opposition between ‘people who embrace diversity and loved the film’, against ‘people who didn’t love it and are therefore conservative bigots’. I am not personally in a position where I want to ask ‘what about the men’ and sympathise with male fans en masse, because I think they still have it pretty good.



WILLIAM PROCTOR

I agree for the most part Will, but not entirely so allow me to explain. I am not claiming that we should ask “what about the men” or sympathise with male fans. I don’t see how I inferred that and, if I may be frank, saying so actively works to shutdown discourse too (mine), and that is precisely what I am critiquing. Nor am I talking about men who patronise and abuse women online, nor fangirls that “push back” against narratives of hate and misogyny. So to be clear: I am not claiming, nor have I ever claimed, that men need defending from “toxic women,” or that fanboys are under attack by “mean girls.” I am referring to critics, commentators, bloggers, etc., that position fanboys as ideologically complicit with right-wing ideas when empirical evidence clearly demonstrates that the majority are nothing of the sort. I am referring to the way in which the discourse surrounding The Last Jedi seems to have bunched fanboys into one ideological container, which is then adopted as a method to generally scathe fanboys in hostile ways, thus, defending both film and fan-object from negative criticism. More specifically, I am talking about the way in which Henry Walsh was discursively attacked by news outlets and, especially, fan sites, for protesting what he saw as an offence to his fandom. It must have felt like “discursive bullying to him,” and I can see why. He has been fighting off accusations of being a neo-nazi; a sexist; and general ugly human being when it actual fact, he is a committed progressive, anti-Trump protester with feminist values.  And In order for the ‘bad’ fanboy narrative to function, female fan detractors of The Last Jedi have to be side-lined or ignored all together.

I am not saying, “men need to push back,” either, nor am I activating the “not all men” trope. In actual fact, those critics and commenters who work to demonise, infantilize and emasculate fanboys as monolithic hive-mind often evoke the “not all men” trope themselves, but with a qualitative distinction: “not all fanboys” are right-wing but…

As I said in my essay, the deck has been stacked in discursive terms and the more news articles and blog posts that join the indignant choir contributes to a “regime of truth,” as Foucault might put it, that makes it appear that way. I’m not saying this is orchestrated or a sustained campaign against fanboys-by-fangirls – if only things were so simple. But this is what I find most difficult of all when discussing fanboys, gender and masculinity: it is almost as if the topic is verboten unless one is joining in the fray. Although I fully accept that this is a provocation of sorts, my intent is to open up debate about how we, as researchers, address the return of “get a life” stereotyping associated with male Star Wars fans. For if fangirls have historically been mistreated and framed as infantile, sexually unruly and overly emotional, then how should scholars deal with discourses that frame fanboys in similar terms without being viewed as marshalling defences of men and masculinity? I strongly believe that this is a conversation that is urgently required in order to broaden the field of enquiry in fan studies and cogent disciplines, as Jenkins pointed towards in his “Fandom studies as I see it”:

“We need to develop a more complex picture of how gender operates within fandom, which will require us to be as reflective about masculinity as we are about femininity. Those identities being constructed for largely male fans through mainstream representations often rely on tropes of failed masculinity, depicting male fans as arrested adolescents who have not been able or willing to accept adult roles within society […] This approach would ultimately push us to deal with gender identities that do not fit simply in a ‘fan boy/fan girl’ dynamic.

As for the Pirate Bay “de-feminized edit.” That is one of the issues that I touched upon in my essays: downloading a video from an illegal torrent site, then shining the media spotlight on it, actively legitimatizes it and, in turn, leads to a slew of news articles that ends up making spurious claims about the uploader being a “member” of the Men’s Right’s Activist “movement,” when the fact of the matter is that the person who created this edit remains anonymous (not to mention going against explicit instructions from journalist watchdogs). In so doing, news media and blogs have literally fallen into the trap of spreading noxious ideologies on behalf of the “manosphere,” despite a lack of evidence regarding the political constituency of the anonymous uploader or his intent. Indeed, this is how trolls operate: sowing discord for others to “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.”  So, scholars would need to attend to a broader portrait of the way in which fan cultures operate as a “many splintered thing,” and not work to reaffirm and reinscribe traditional gender binaries themselves. My intervention is more about methodological insights and a gauntlet to scholars to check the validity of press discourses before leaping in with both feet.  

The discursive shift around Disney’s Star Wars, especially since TFA, illustrates that fans are often demonised in some way or other regardless of gender, and that this represents the wholesale return of stereotypes that wouldn’t be out of place in Textual Poachers. Think about the way that Jonathan Gray et al claimed that the so-called mainstreaming of fandom has led to fans being “courted and woo’d”:

“None of the high-profile fan cultures in recent years – from X-Philes via Eminem fans to Sex and the City enthusiasts – had to endure the derogative treatment of Star Trek fans.”

Given that this was published a decade ago – and has since been superseded by a second edition – tells us that things have changed considerably, or, indeed, reverted back, at least in the case of Star Wars fandom.

MAR GUERREO-PICO

I wanted to add something else on Billy’s suggestion of Disney’s rushed symbolic attempts to bury Lucas’ legacy by hiding the prequels under tons of that Tatooinian sand we all know Anakin loves so much. Oddly enough, amidst the TLJ controversy, the prequels have been pulled out of the hall of (fan) shame and somehow revalued by anti-TLJ fans who years later are experiencing some sort of closure with the very same films they despised back then. It only takes a glean over some popular online Star Wars venues like TheForce.net to witness fans coming to terms with the saga most recent troubled past, and all because a new source of antagonism has risen in the fashion of the ultimate Big Bad that threats the world they love. Whether that foe comes in the shape of Leia Poppins, sulky Luke, shirtless Kylo, Force facetiming, or it just simply has the face of Rian Johnson or Kathleen Kennedy, I’m not going to discuss it as I think it has been extensively reviewed so far into this conversation. But I think it is worth noting such a shift in these fans’ train of thought over the years, although it is by no means a new phenomenon.

In his essay about factions, institutions and hegemonies of fandom in Gray, Sandvoss and Harrington’s Fandom (2007), Derek Johnson argues that "fan interpretation is constantly shifting, never unified or maintaining the same valences over time. Despised eras may later become beloved if they retrospectively satisfy the meta-textual desires of dominant fan interests". If we look at the how positively the prequels are being interpreted by some former detractors in light of the sequels, it can be suggested that formerly confronted factions of anti-sequel fans and pro-sequel fans have found a common ground to unite and negotiate “the consensus of interpretation” that the sequels will be held against. Perhaps sequel haters will never get over midichlorians, yet they eventually agreed to them (or accepted them) based on Lucas’ dethronement by Disney’s suits and currents developments in the canon. In a way, this can be seen as a poetic victory on Lucas’ side as his authority has been restored in part by the same people who mocked him for it. However, as I said, such time-evolving ‘swings in the fandom’s mood’ are not a novelty. The Empire Strikes Back, most rated episode of the saga, anyone? Media outlets and fans on Twitter mentioning  the fan backlash it provoked upon its theatrical release does raise some eyebrows because how would it be possible? There was no missa missa speaker to hate in Empire! Nonetheless, it would be sensible to extend the same rationale to the sequel trilogy in the future in spite of my own and others’ conflicted feelings as fans and, most importantly, because time is the best concealer. So new taste hierarchies will emerge and replace the old ones and so forth.

Right now, though, it seems that some fans form of resistance against Kennedy and co. is activated through reinvigorating the prequels as an argumentative weapon. Although the prequels are part of Disney’s new canon as they mark the current origin of the Star Wars universe (unmistakably, Anakin is wired as a Space Jesus), it’s rather apparent that they either have been put under Jabba the Hutt’s bottom or constructed as a staple of “what is bad in the Star Wars world” and symbolically used to delegitimise Lucas’ authorial figure and make him “The Other”. In turn, fans retaliate by shouting their very own version of the “The North remembers”, especially now that Game of Thrones’ showrunners Benioff and Weiss are being awarded with a galactic trilogy to develop.

Without leaving the fan-producer trench, I also wanted to address some of the comments made by Suzanne, Billy and Will regarding burgeoning debates over fan toxicity that speak of ugly places of fandom that need serious scholarly attention. Just because fandom has been normalised or incorporated into broader cultural conversations, it doesn’t mean that issues have gone away from both intra and extra fandom perspectives as our current topic of discussion illustrates. In this sense, and I do not mean it as a critique but rather as a suggestion, fan scholarship cannot rest on its laurels and forget about some of the structural tenets of the discipline which was born amid strong stereotyping and othering by cultural industries. In this sense, scholars cannot stop being aware. Nowadays, stereotyping is still kicking as seen in media outlets  (even in supposedly fan-friendly ones like io9 and The Mary Sue)  covering of the fan outcry about TLJ, but instead of presenting fans as a deranged cultural lumpens like in the 80’s, the focus in 2018 is presenting them still as deranged cultural lumpens but also homophobic, sexist and basically a proxy for Trump [insert your local right-winger here] . This is not to say that this type of fan identities don’t exist as if they were a taboo, or can’t be called out, in no way, but there have been too many broad brush strokes applied on fandom lately by mainstream media that have to be examined in detail in order to put order back into the galaxy help reorient such narratives circulating in the public sphere.

Having arrived at this point then I turn my attention to what happens intra fandom’s walls. While I do agree to an extent that fanboys can’t be seen as victims given their hegemonic position in the media landscape, putting a ‘white-male fanboy’ mask to toxicity, in other words, gendering toxic fan practices might be contributing to invisibilise toxic behavior by fangirls (which Zubernis & Larsen already highlighted in Fandom at the Crossroads) , even those parting from discriminated positions, be it because race or sexual orientation besides gender itself. For instance, you can take a look at the death threats targeted at Jason Rothenberg a couple of years ago after killing off a popular lesbian character in The 100. As myself, María-José Establés and Rafa Ventura show in a recent research on this case for Billy and Bridget Kies’ ‘Toxic Fan Practices” themed section of Participations, the Bury Your Gays trope is a plague that must be eradicated from queer media representation but this aim isn’t incompatible with abiding by the rules of respect to others’ physical and moral integrity (we also provide evidence of intra-fandom self-management against toxic fans which further demonstrate fandom’s heterogeneity). You can also encounter other examples of fan toxicity performed by fangirls in music fandom with Believers’ attacking Selena Gomez as shown by Jessica Austin in last year’s Fan Studies Network Conference where she argued for a reframing of fan studies to consider concepts of “toxic femininity,” or queer Swifties getting hate mail from straight Swifties on Tumblr because they dare to make  queer readings on Taylor Swift’s celebrity persona and songwriting and so those readings shake the ground of straight Swifties’ ontological security.

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Professor Will Brooker is Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Kingston University, and author of Using the Force (20020 and the BFI volume on Star Wars (2009) among many other books.

Dr Mar Guerrero-Pico works as a research assistant at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Spain). Her articles have been published in journals such as International Journal of Communication & Society, International Journal of TV Serial Narratives, Signo y Pensamiento, Comunicación and Sociedad (Mexico), Palabra Clave and Cuadernos.info. Her research interests include transmedia storytelling, fan cultures, narratology, television shows and media education.

Dr William Proctor is Senior Lecturer in Popular Culture at Bournemouth University, UK. He has published widely on numerous topics, including Batman, James Bond, One Direction, The Walking Dead, Stephen King, and Star Wars. William is a leading expert on reboots and is currently finishing up his debut monograph, Reboot Culture: Comics, Film, Transmedia, for Palgrave Macmillan. He is co-editor of Transmedia Earth: Global Convergence Cultures with Dr. Matthew Freeman (Routledge, 2018); co-editor of Disney's Star Wars: Forces of Promotion, Production and Reception with Dr. Richard McCulloch (University of Iowa, forthcoming); and co-editor, alongside Bridget Kies, of the themed-section of Participations: International Journal of Audience and Reception Studies on "Toxic Fan Practices" (May, 2018). 

Dr Suzanne Scott is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her current book project explores the gendered tensions underpinning the media industry’s embrace of fans as a tastemaker demographic within convergence culture. In addition to co-editing The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, her work has been published in the journals Transformative Works and CulturesNew Media & Society, and Cinema Journal, as well as numerous anthologies including Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World (2nd Ed), How to Watch Television, and The Participatory Culture Handbook.

 

 

 

 


 




 

 

 

 

 

 

The Last Jedi: An Online Roundtable Part Two

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WILLIAM PROCTOR

I agree that the Canto Bight sequence is the worst thread of the film; not only does the side-plot lead to nothing in narrative terms, the fact that Johnson chose to have Finn and Rose jolly off to ride sparkly space horses (which, as you rightly said, smacks of the prequel trilogy, despite Disney working hard to ignore or even disavow wholesale with their various promotional videos centred on ‘real effects' and paratextual connections with the Original Trilogy) is quite an ideologically problematic notion -- removing the characters from the film would not change an iota of story content and in ‘the diversity age’ that surely rankles. In Sean Guynes and Dan Hassler-Forest’s Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling (2016), Megean De Bruin-Molé states: “Star Wars offers a strong example of why increased visibility and accessibility in film do not, by themselves, translate to political change.” I agree that it’s important to fully examine the way in which representation operates beyond inclusion and ‘box ticking.’

I have seen a few news features and fan-blogs waxing egalitarian about TLJ, usually couched in claims about the film being “the most triumphantly feminist Star Wars yet.” Firstly, I don’t believe that feminism is something that can be read off of the ‘text,’ and certainly not by box-checking whether a female character speaks to another woman about something other than a man -- Fifty Shades of Gray passes the ‘test,’ as does the 1970s porn classic, Debbie Does Dallas; whereas a film such as Gravity does not, for instance (Sandra Bullock spends the majority of the film alone in space). So, applying the blunt instrument of the Bechdel Test tells us nothing about the way in which diversity and gender are actually represented. It’s a great conversation starter, to be sure, especially when used in teaching, but shouldn’t be used so liberally -- and reductively – by scholars so as to ‘test’ if popular culture artefacts fulfil arbitrary criterion. Moreover, the racial politics of TLJ have almost gone unremarked upon, except one article on Hypable titled: “How The Last Jedi Failed its Characters of Colour.” Although Warner applies her concept of ‘plastic representation’ to The Force Awakens, I think the same could apply to TLJ (perhaps even more so):

“[a]fter the release and inevitable success of Disney and Lucasfilm’s Star Wars: The Force Awakens (J.J. Abrams, 2015), viral Internet memes attributed a lion’s share of the film’s popularity to the fact that a black man and a white woman were cast as leads. While technically true, the claim obscures the larger fact that the actual star of this film—and a significant reason why the producers did not have to pay these largely “unknown” stars significant salaries—was Star Wars itself, and its status as Disney’s intellectual property. An expectation of massive return on investment, given the profitable track record of the Star Wars brand, is presumably the reason Disney bought it from George Lucas in the first place. Perhaps it is precisely because the risks were mitigated to such a manageable level that the producers could imagine diverse leads.”

Furthermore, I also think we need to keep in mind that equality and diversity in a representational sense has become an economic strategy, which Warner also points toward; that is, if diverse representation was not a commercially viable option, then we’d be right back in white-heterosexual-male waters. For example, when the Creative Artists Agency (CCA) conducted research into matters of representation and learned that “films with more diverse casts outperformed others at the box office,” then we certainly need to be vigilant and wary about broader claims regarding socio-cultural progress without addressing economic factors. In other words, if box-ticking race and gender equates to box-office receipts, then that is only the beginning of a more complicated and complex dialectic between commerce and consumption. On the other hand, if Disney continues releasing new Star Wars films on an annual basis, perhaps it would be best if the galaxy was not teeming with white men at the expense of diverse racial and gender representation. It’s a tricky balance to maintain and one that we shouldn’t embrace unquestionably.  As Warner says,

“Plastic representation operates as a system that reifies blackness into an empirical system of “box checking.” It is a mode of representation that offers the feel of progress but that actually cedes more ground than it gains for audiences of color.”

MAR GUERRERO-PICO

Shamelessly translating an old Spanish saying, it looks like Will didn’t leave any puppet with its head intact! That is, you touched upon all the problematic aspects of The Last Jedi.  I have to agree with the points aptly raised by both Suzanne, Billy and Will, especially on those dealing with representation and an overall sense of subversion interruptus, of yes but not really, that is plastered all over the film in spite of exaggerated claims by some media outlets of it being the ultimate post-modern tale for so-called millennials. The Last Jedi attempts to make the Star Wars universe turn on its head but things truly don’t pay off cinematically or they don’t reach the same level of the precedent they are trying to surpass. This particular past is 40-years old heavy so to candidly be making textual and paratextual claims that you are going to burn down the house seems odd. Amusingly, this reminds me of that time when you are in the early stages of your PhD and gloat about working on a new concept just to find out that there are already a gazillion works dealing with the same topic, and so you are forced to cool down your academic bravado and keep looking.  Unfortunately, it looks like media industries do not follow the same predicament, therefore audiences get all hyped up about newness and edginess when, in reality, it is the same ol’, good ol’ once you scratch the surface a little bit. Marketing logic applied to storytelling if you ask me, nothing that a nice algorithm can’t manage.

So, the first thing that came to my mind while reflecting on Warner’s concept of plastic representation is a similar idea of ‘revamped tokenism.’ In an era when discourses of representation are becoming part of the debate, and the entertainment media climate is increasingly supportive of inclusive narratives and characters, representation should go beyond exhibitions of tokenism such as the Canto Bight sequence. Regarding this one, I share Billy’s impression of cutting that part off and the film remaining just the same, which is precisely how tokenism work. And yet, the token is celebrated as something revolutionary when it isn’t really. Of course, having non-white characters like Finn and Rose playing a somewhat relevant part in a film franchise like Star Wars is a reason to celebrate but, at the same time, this is not an excuse for conformism as we are not living in the 1980 or 1990s when infamous ‘very special episodes’ used to be one of the very few windows to diversity. The representation of diversity has to be compelling in order to make a cultural impact in the targeted audience besides the mere fact that they are present in the media text. Perhaps, considering this astonishing celebration of tokenism, rather than the media, it would be interesting to ask the represented audience about their perceptions on how they are represented, how they envision those characters, or how aware they are about the issues surrounding the fictional treatment of their race, gender, sexual orientation and last but not least social class. Age demographics, I believe, might be determinant here as well as the specifics of the topic of discussion. Just throwing some thoughts out there.

MEGEN DE BRUIN-MOLÈ

So I'm a '90s kid: I only came across Star Wars the second time around, during the Special Edition re-releases in 1997. 

I’m going to dive right in and admit that I loved The Last Jedi. Don’t get me wrong, it had issues. But it spoke to me on many, many levels. It made me remember why I love Star Wars—a love the EU fostered, the prequels turned me off to, and TFA only tentatively rekindled my hope for (as Mar suggests, for me TFA felt like an update of the original trilogy, but one that was committed to some problematic, ‘familiar tropes and motives’ at its core).

I’ve really been struggling to verbalise what I liked so much about TLJ, despite my reservations, so I’m very grateful to (and a mite jealous of) the four of you for so succinctly describing your own disappointments. My experience of the acting, characterisation, and character agency was quite dramatically different, but instead of focusing on each of these individual points, which I don’t feel we need to agree on anyway, I wanted to touch on one key disagreement I had with your readings that might be useful in our discussion of the fan generational gap, the political potential of the franchise, and the inherent paradox in many of Star Wars’ central messages.

I agree wholeheartedly that gender and racial diversity are often still used superficially in the Star Wars franchise, as marketing tools or add-ons to a fundamentally white, Anglo-American narrative. I was not particularly impressed by TLJ’s display of on-screen diversity, though after TFW and Rogue One I didn’t have too many expectations to dash on that front (but damn did it make me happy to see Leia finally use the Force). It’s all a bit too little, too late for me—if any blockbuster could really shake the system, surely it’s Star Wars? The franchise has such a strong viewer base that they could basically have gotten away with anything, including (gasp) unreservedly progressive politics. Which I guess ironically proves the point Star Wars films are repeatedly trying to make: that power corrupts.

Here’s the bit where I get lost:

“The point of The Last Jedi is meant, if we read the defences for it, to be about throwing away our expectations and letting go of what we thought we knew.”

I’ve found it very puzzling that so many commentators (pro-TLJ and anti-TLJ) have taken the position, as Will describes, that The Last Jedi was meant to be about letting the past go (“kill it if you have to”), and throwing away our expectations. That’s not how I read it at all! After all, Luke and Kylo are clearly in the wrong here. Their rejection of the past is framed as selfish and destructive. Kylo wants to kill the past so that he can mould the future in his image. And Luke wants to let the past (and the Jedi) die so he doesn’t have to face up to the mistakes he made.

People who advocate forgetting the past are not generally the ones with a history of oppression. And TLJ seems to be resolutely against that message. If anything, we’re meant to side with Rose on this one: don’t kill what you hate, save what you love.

When Rey has her vision in the Force cave, she asks to see her parents, but the glass shows her own face instead. This could be a metaphor for how she’s on her own in all this, but from another perspective, it’s actually just giving her what she asked for. She is the product of her parents, and the actions of her forebears. Notably, every time Kylo or Luke suggests she forget the past, Rey (our protagonist and our emotional barometer through the film) chooses the other path. At the same time, the film doesn’t seem to advocate blind nostalgia. Rey’s past defines her, but does not immobilise her. Her unrealistic hope that her family will come back for her is ultimately the same hope that turns her into a hero of the Resistance, against all better judgement.

And despite throwing it away at the beginning of the film (cited by multiple critics as a sign of the film’s departure from tradition), Luke takes up Anakin’s lightsaber in TLJ’s epic showdown. This same lightsaber is broken when Rey and Kylo part ways, but Rey keeps the broken pieces, which become a symbol for the broken pieces of the Resistance that will rise again. I could give a hundred more examples of this message at work. This movie is ALL about the past: the value of its words, failures, symbols, and material traces in building something new.

I guess the real question is, is Star Wars even salvageable in the grand scheme of diverse and revolutionary storytelling, or are the things I love about the franchise—its global impact, its sense of “bold, maverick individualism against ridiculous odds”, and the way it inspires me to imagine other, better futures—the very things that are holding it back? I don’t really have an answer for this question, but TLJ actually renewed my interest in finding one.

I think Suzanne is absolutely right that TLJ essentially “zombifies” the Star Wars franchise. But I don’t necessarily see that as a bad thing. We can’t realistically destroy the past, whether that’s our own past or that of the Star Wars universe. We also can’t accept it without reservation. The zombie is a particularly effective metaphor in this kind of situation, which is perhaps why it’s evoked so often to talk about the global capitalism we can neither destroy nor escape (again, a topic very relevant to the Star Wars franchise). We have to live with the ruins of the past, and work through them, in order to build something new.

I don’t see the film as deconstructing Star Wars tropes at all: instead it builds on top of them, adding interpretive possibilities while also acknowledging (and adjusting) existing beliefs. For all the film could have done, I think this is a more subversive approach than we might give it credit for, especially if the Star Wars ‘canon’ is going to continue into another five (or ten or twenty…) films. It’s also a tactic I’m more commonly used to seeing in biblical commentary, historical fiction, or other genres (fan fiction?) that work with ‘sacred’ texts and devout audiences.

Rather than tearing Star Wars down, TLJ layers on new interpretive possibilities that compete with our previously certain readings. Is Luke a legend, or isn’t he? Can anyone access the Force, or does power belong to the elite? Is Star Wars an evil money-making empire, or does it have the power to change the world for the better? Yes and yes.

REBECCA HARRISON

Owing to enthusiasm, writing articles, and Star Wars cinema-going traditions, I saw the film three times in the first ten days of its release. I consistently enjoyed certain aesthetics and narratives, such as the Elite Praetorian Guard sequence and Rey’s story, which was far more engaging than in The Force Awakens, and yet found others dull and unsatisfying.

What struck me early on was how the film played to a particular kind of fandom. There were so many in-jokes and meta-commentaries that it felt like watching series three of the BBC show Sherlock, which explicitly referenced fan theories and online interactions with the texts. For example, in The Last Jedi, we first see Finn as he emerges from a bacta tank, dazed, half-asleep and half-naked, spurting liquid all over Poe. While the film shut down any suggestion of a relationship between the pair, this felt like a teasing, vaguely homoerotic wink to fans that ship the couple. And then, moments later, Finn interrupts Poe to ask the whereabouts of his friend: Where’s Rey? A millennial in our own galaxy might have hashtagged the phrase, which, as Suzanne has written about elsewhere (http://www-tandfonline-com.ezproxy.lib.gla.ac.uk/doi/full/10.1080/15295036.2017.1286023), was used as part of a Twitter campaign in 2015 to get Disney to produce Rey merchandise when the character was left out of toy sets and clothing lines.

Similarly, plots involving Luke and galactic arms dealers also felt like self-reflexive commentaries on the Star Wars franchise. Luke, for instance, insists that people invested too much hope in him and the Jedi to save and preserve the galaxy, and, in his speech, we can almost hear Rian Johnson reminding fans that leaders cannot please everyone all the time. More pointedly, the shadowy presence of arms dealers that fund both sides of the ongoing conflict seems to refer to the corporate entity that owns and monetises Star Wars… As a broader social commentary, and indeed within the film’s own narrative, having arms dealers supply both the First Order and Resistance doesn’t make much sense. Rose alludes to the First Order’s power when she reveals that the organisation has invaded her planet, enslaved its inhabitants, and extracted its raw materials. The Resistance, meanwhile, has only a handful of ships, no permanent base and little support. If we are to take the First Order seriously and recognise them as a real threat to the galaxy, are we really supposed to accept that it would allow arms manufacturers to sell to their enemies? I appreciate that Kylo and Hux are hardly the sharpest tools in the war room, but surely even they would realise they have the upper hand and use their vast armoury to enforce a monopoly over the production of weaponry. So, instead, I think we can read the arms dealers as analogous to Lucasfilm and Disney: organisations that fund both sides of the fight and rely on the perpetuation of the conflict for their own economic gain. Of course, Star Wars has always been self-aware, as evidenced through the callbacks and intertextual references that pervade the previous eight canon films. However, interestingly, The Last Jedi seems to pay more attention to the impact that the franchise has on us, its fans and viewers, in our own galaxy.

Picking up on debates about diversity and representation, I agree with everyone else here that film is not as progressive as many critics suggested. As Billy points out, it’s not feminist by any stretch of the imagination! I’d love for the film to foreground narratives about people of colour (particularly women) but the story arcs of Finn and Rose failed because they didn’t go far enough for me. I’d like to have seen them make a real difference to the plot, rather than embarking on a pointless quest that resulted in failure. I appreciate that failure was an underlying theme throughout the film, but having a black man and an Asian woman subvert that trend would have been refreshing. Instead, it’s Luke, the tried and tested white man, that saves the day by giving the Resistance time to escape. Even the white women are badly served. Leia is hospitalised throughout most of the film; Holdo gets limited screen time. And Rey, whose narrative is better served timewise, does not really develop as a character. She ostensibly finds Luke to have him train her as a Jedi. However, aside from a few cynical lines about his own failure to match her enthusiasm, he does very little to help her test her knowledge or skills. We see her training alone. She searches for answers to her questions alone. She finds that she already had everything she needed, alone. In fact, she must do all the work for both of them: while discovering her own strength, she also encourages him to reconnect with the Force and persuades him to fight for the Resistance. Without Rey, Luke would have remained a hermit on an isolated planet. No doubt this narrative will be familiar to many women. However, it hardly speaks of progression!

I also want to pick up on Will’s comment about the potential generational divide between fans. There are elements of The Last Jedi that appear to be aimed at a younger audience (including the use of Force projection, which makes scenes between Rey and Kylo analogous to Skyping or Snapchatting). However, youth has often been represented as detrimental to success throughout the Star Wars franchise. In the prequels, the elder Jedi warn against Anakin’s use of the Force, and his inexperience casts doubt on his suitability for joining the order. In the original trilogy, Luke undergoes training and takes advice from Yoda and Obi-Wan to guarantee his success. And in the sequels, Finn, Rey and Poe must learn from Leia, Holdo (‘I’ve dealt with plenty of trigger-happy fly-boys like you’), Luke and Han to ensure that they are equipped to continue the fight. As in the prequels and the original trilogy, the real menace that threatens the galaxy, more so than corruption or arms dealers, is untamed, youthful rage and a refusal to take advice from apparently wiser figures. Snoke tells Kylo: ‘You’re no Vader, you’re just a child in a mask.’ But thinking back to Anakin, that’s all Vader ever was, too; toxic masculinity wrapped in a cloak that barely contained the anger and entitlement of an adult who was always a teenage boy.

What’s fascinating about The Last Jedi, though, is that with the deaths of Snoke and Luke, the franchise has, I think for for the first time, pitted youth against youth in the fight to save the galaxy. It seems unlikely that Leia will appear in Episode IX. There will be no Chancellor, no Emperor, no Senator or General. So while Megen makes an excellent point about the film’s recognition of the past, I also think that Will is right, and I’d suggest the Disney-era films are on a trajectory that progressively centralises the younger generation. While Rogue One relied heavily on nostalgia for the original films, it featured a relatively young cast of inexperienced characters that defied their elders and successfully completed their self-appointed mission. The clunky, analogue tech and focus on a youthful Han in Solo looks set to do the same. And in The Last Jedi, Yoda tells Luke that the next generation will ‘grow beyond’ the previous one, acknowledging that perhaps it’s time to let go of the ‘sacred texts’ and step back because Rey has surpassed him. Thus, I think we can expect Episode IX—especially following the final cutaway in XIII to Broom Boy—to follow the same pattern. In terms of its characters and its audience, the franchise is ditching nostalgia and looking to the future.

The decreasing role of the droids in the film is also indicative of a generational shift. Typically, the droids are central to narrative development and feature as storytellers in all the canon films. Artoo mediates Leia’s message to Obi-Wan; Threepio recounts their adventures to the Ewoks in Return of the Jedi; Kaytoo rescues Jyn and helps her find the Death Star plans in Rogue One; BB-8 stores and saves information about Luke’s whereabouts in The Force Awakens. However, while droids are still present in The Last Jedi, they are less significant to the narrative. Artoo is reduced to replaying Leia’s ‘You’re our only hope’ message for Luke, like an old VHS player kept for sentimental value to play home videos. Threepio merely panics in the background of the Resistance. And the much-hyped ‘evil’ droid BB-9E barely gets any screen time. BB-8, of course, does see more action. He helps steal a ship for Rose and Finn’s escape from Canto Bight, and later saves them again by commandeering a First Order walker. But he could have done so much more! In the prequels and original trilogy Artoo has competently hacked Imperial systems to aid the Rebellion, and BB-8 demonstrates the same ability with the ship and walker, so it’s a major oversight on the part of the Resistance to use a human, rather than a droid, when trying to access the hyperspace tracker. To those of us that know what Artoo is capable of, and recognise that BB-8 has the same ability, it’s yet another instance of failure in the film based on younger characters Poe, Rose and Finn (and the more peripheral Maz) not knowing how vital droids were to the Rebellion’s success. Again, returning to Megen’s argument, I feel that while the characters venerate the past and fetishize artefacts--Vader’s mask, Han’s dice, Leia’s message--they do not fully understand their own history.

Furthermore, the older droids are denied any emotional story arc. Similar to BB-8 being overjoyed at reuniting with Poe on Crait, in The Force Awakens Artoo emerged from a deep depression when he learned of Luke’s whereabouts. We got that sense that the droid processed feelings and underwent emotional transformation. Yet in The Last Jedi, he and Threepio are side-lined in the final moments of the film when Leia and Rey discuss Luke’s death (just like Chewie was in The Force Awakens following Han’s death – a decision that J J Abrams later claimed to regret https://io9.gizmodo.com/48-things-we-learned-from-j-j-abrams-director-commentar-1788597881). I couldn’t help but feel this was an oversight on Rian Johnson’s part. I’d suggest it demonstrates the increasingly liminal status of non-human characters from the original trilogy, and, in particular, the irrelevance of Artoo and Threepio to a generation that has newer tech and less of a connection to the past.

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Professor Will Brooker is Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Kingston University, and author of Using the Force (20020 and the BFI volume on Star Wars (2009) among many other books.

Dr Megen de Bruin-Molé is a Teaching Fellow in Digital Media Practice with the University of Southampton. She holds a PhD in English Literature, and her research interests include popular culture, adaptation, and contemporary remix. Her article ‘Space Bitches, Witches, and Kick-Ass Princesses: Star Wars and Popular Feminism’, appeared in the 2017 collection Star Wars and the History of Transmedia Storytelling (eds. Sean Guynes and Dan Hassler-Forest). You can follow her (and her research) on Twitter: @MegenJM.

Dr Mar Guerrero-Pico works as a research assistant at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Spain). Her articles have been published in journals such as International Journal of Communication & Society, International Journal of TV Serial Narratives, Signo y Pensamiento, Comunicación and Sociedad (Mexico), Palabra Clave and Cuadernos.info. Her research interests include transmedia storytelling, fan cultures, narratology, television shows and media education.

Dr Rebecca Harrison is Lecturer in Film and Television Studies at the University of Glasgow. Her research focuses on media technologies and how gender, race and class affect people's experiences of visual culture. Her first book, From Steam to Screen: Cinema, the Railways and Modernity (I B Tauris, 2018) is forthcoming, and she is currently working on her second book, The Star Wars Code, which is due for publication in 2021. In the meantime, you can find information and links to her various Star Wars-related projects, including research, teaching materials, articles - and an accidental controversy about Dr Organa - on Twitter: @beccaeharrison. 

Dr William Proctor is Senior Lecturer in Popular Culture at Bournemouth University, UK. He has published widely on numerous topics, including Batman, James Bond, One Direction, The Walking Dead, Stephen King, and Star Wars. William is a leading expert on reboots and is currently finishing up his debut monograph, Reboot Culture: Comics, Film, Transmedia, for Palgrave Macmillan. He is co-editor of Transmedia Earth: Global Convergence Cultures with Dr. Matthew Freeman (Routledge, 2018); co-editor of Disney's Star Wars: Forces of Promotion, Production and Reception with Dr. Richard McCulloch (University of Iowa, forthcoming); and co-editor, alongside Bridget Kies, of the themed-section of Participations: International Journal of Audience and Reception Studies on "Toxic Fan Practices" (May, 2018). 

 

 

 

 


 




 

 




 


 

 

The Last Jedi: An Online Round Table — Part One

Over the weekend, Warwick Davis, noted for his performances in various Lucas-directed films, weighed in on current controversies around The Last Jedi: "It's a piece of entertainment, it's not about making political statements. It's just there for people to enjoy. You go in there and are supposed to lose yourself in the world the director has created. Star Wars has always been a great example of that - it's pure escapism and you can forget the 21st century for a couple of hours. That was George Lucas's philosophy with Star Wars - to make a fun adventure." This is characteristic of a Hollywood move which seeks to distance itself from politics and thus absolve itself from critical discussion: "Get a life! It's only a television series." The reality is that Star Wars has always been about politics — if nothing else, Lucas's choice to base the stormtroopers on, well, stormtroopers or to tap the aesthetics of Triumph of the Will for the final moments of A New Hope means that he was tapping certain political narratives to give the story much of its punch.

So, the question is not whether one group or another is "politicizing" Star Wars but whether what kind of politics seems "natural" within the context of a Hollywood blockbuster franchise and whose politics seems intrusive, whose politics gets read as, well, "political." The discussions around The Last Jedi allow us to take certain soundings about where our culture is at in terms of embracing an ethos of diversity and inclusion, in terms of rethinking old genre formulas to encompass people whose stories have not been told in that term before.

This is an important part of the story of The Last Jedi's reception, but it is ONLY one part of the story. There are also questions about how we define notions of quality in a transmedia era -- and what notions of quality are appropriate when factoring in somewhat different and still emerging narrative expectations, ie. what information needs to be contained in the film, what we may legitimately access from other sources, what expectations we have about closure or plot development as the unified Hero's Journey narrative which Star Wars helped to popularize in Hollywood gives way to what Jeff Gomez has called "the collective journey" structure.

And there are also issues around how fandom gets represented in the media, how we break through what is often a monolithic conception of Star Wars fans in the hand of journalists, and how we deal with a legacy of gender politics which still breaks fandom down into male and female binaries despite efforts towards greater fluidity.

William (Billy) Proctor's contributions last week raised many of these questions, including legitimate questions of "journalistic ethics" which seem important for us to address as the news media is still trying to figure out how to incorporate social media discourses into their expanded coverage of audience response to popular media. This week, he has organized a panel of aca-fan scholars to weigh in on these many issues and he has helped to prod the discussion along, constantly expanding its agenda. By the way, Proctor has nicely stepped up lately to help me with some of the behind the scenes work of proofing and uploading the blog installments. Thanks. This has been a solo job for more than a decade and it's great to have some extra hands here.

The resulting exchange is lively and thoughtful. I don't necessarily agree with every perspective represented -- I am personally pretty enthusiastic about The Last Jedi (not necessarily as the best of all possible Star War Movies but as a step forward for the franchise) -- but I have learned something from all of the participants here.

There are moments of tension in the discussion, but the participants are able to work through their disagreements with some degree of mutual respect and with some openness to each other's arguments. You will get four installments of this discussion. And the discussion will continue further as, coming soon, we launch a new podcast, How Do You Like It So Far?., which I am developing with Colin MacClay from the Annenberg Innovation Lab and which will take up The Last Jedi as our first extended case study. Watch for more soon.

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MAR GUERRERO-PICO:

For me, the main problem of The Last Jedi (TLJ) is that The Force Awakens (TFA) came first. Abrams’ set up some of the overarching plotlines, conflicts and themes that would develop in the subsequent instalments of Disney’s Sequel Trilogy. In other words, TFA established the “reading contract,” as renowned Argentinian semiotician Eliseo Verón may have put it (Scolari’s 2009 paper in the International Journal of Communication is a deft introduction to both Verón applied to transmedia storytelling).Metaphorically, this contract contains clauses directed both at old and new generations of fans who are the "implicit readers" (Umberto Eco says hi) of the new movies. For a good bunch of 1970 and 1980s kids that grew up dreaming with a galaxy far, far away like myself, TFA felt pretty much like an undercover remake of A New Hope with fresh faces. However, I still could recognise some familiar tropes and motives in the narrative universe unfolding in front of me and the warm feeling of seeing Harrison and Carrie back into their characters’ skins. The canon was steadily being transformed despite the film’s shortcomings in the form of ridiculous villains and questionable plot decisions. Not to mention, as a female fan, I was elated to finally, finally, get to see a female Jedi wielding a lightsaber as one of the protagonists of a saga film (but clearly not the first female Jedi as some commenters have suggested —Aayla Secura? Asoka Tano?). It was my childhood dream come true because I never really identified with  Princess Leia, and even less with Padmé Amidala. Blame Lucas for his lack of attention to female characters and for making me like Luke and Darth Vader more instead. So, why so serious and angry about TLJ? Because TLJ simply breaches the reader contract that TFA put into official record, and it even tears into pieces the constitution of the Star Wars narrative universe as a whole. Nothing in that film seems to make sense narrative-wise when confronted with its predecessor and the other two trilogies. There is no continuity to the mysteries seeded in TFA — I still want some receipts on the Knights of Ren; Rey’s parentage reveal is anticlimactic to say the least after one entire movie revolving around that. There is no coherence­ — wasn’t Snoke supposed to be very powerful? Those are major mishaps when it comes to storytelling at a great scale and also worldbuilding, especially in a saga that has always been a staple of that.

The breach of the contract does not just occur at the deep level of the film as a text, though. It also takes place at the superficial level with Yoda abjuring from the old Jedi ways. That scene can be symbolically interpreted as showcasing the films’ clear intention to cut loose from the canon it belongs to. Is the old Jedi code a proxy for veteran fans, or Lucas, or the galaxy altogether? Why the sudden need to destroy what was working in the name of an urge to subvert and modernise a saga that could have achieve that in more organic ways with a better script and a director in-tune with the canon (no matter how much research he now claims to have done)? Furthermore, not only has Rian Johnson wiped out the foundations of the Sequel Trilogy in a barren attempt to mend whatever mistakes Abrams’ vision had, but he even managed to hinder the development of the film’s feminist hero by demoting her to being the helper to the male characters, to Luke and Kylo Ren’s subplots. Where’s her agency in TLJ? I’d take that over 100 scenes of Laura Dern kamikazing, to be honest.

WILLIAM PROCTOR:

Why don’t you say what you really think, Mar?

In all seriousness, I had a similar reaction so, in the spirit of Mar, I won’t mince words: I hated The Last Jedi. But more than that, I was taken aback by how vehemently betrayed I felt as a first-generation fan. Being reflexive, my reaction certainly bowled me over — my academic identity was chucked aside, and my fan identity moved to the forefront, crying foul-play to anyone who would listen ("that's not how the force works!"). Obviously, I’ve had strong reactions to fan-objects in the past — during the screening of Star Trek Into Darkness, I actually shouted at the screen in the local cinema — but I wasn’t prepared for the affective tempest that brewed within after viewing The Last Jedi. I berated myself frequently (“it’s only a film”) and internalised fan stereotypes (“get a life,” “grow up”). I ended up embroiled in minor internet infractions, so I forced myself to withdraw from social media because I was so hopping mad!

Personally, I don’t mind shifts in canon and mythos as long as they’re deserved, foreshadowed, explained etc. It does show that Johnson listens to complaints closely as he has mounted a number of defences on social media and in press, as Mar points out — perhaps as damage control or at least to potentially resolve fan disputes. The last such defence, I believe, was centred on Luke’s fate and, more pointedly, his 'new' Force power (i.e, projecting a form across the galaxy). What happened to Kylo’s “raw, untamed power” there, then? How come he could deceive Snoke and slice him in two, but didn’t know that Luke was, for all intents and purposes, a hologram (albeit one which could be both corporeal and/ or “astral”)? Johnson’s cheeky tweet showing him reaching for The Jedi Path book to ‘prove’ that the power has precedent seemed destined to irritate detractors. First of all, the book only states that a Jedi has the power to construct a doppelganger to fool enemies, not that one could project across time-and-space. Second, for EU fans, that must have felt like a slap in the face: erasing hundreds of novels and comics from canonical status, and then marshalling evidence from an excommunicated text? Whether or not the novels and comics, etc., were ever really canon anyway is another thing entirely, but I certainly understand fan readers who have purchased EU materials in the past feeling wounded by Disney’s genocidal mandate. Incidentally, I learned from interviewing EU fans that it’s not about the canonical status at all — rather, it’s about the discontinuation of the ‘Legends’ timeline altogether. Many readers would be overjoyed if the series continued despite being non-canonical. Moreover, if a director has to defend a creative choice by showing 'evidence' from an external text, and one not connected to Disney’s now-canonical EU means, I would argue, that the film failed to provide a coherent narrative on its own terms. I’m all for 'subversion,' but I don’t quite see what’s subversive about The Last Jedi. The film seemingly deconstructs the binary between light and dark, only to reify the distinctions by the end; the whole 'burn it all down' sequence is rendered null and void when we see that Rey managed to save the Jedi texts from incineration. I also find it quite absurd that there were more Jedi left alive after Emperor Palpatine’s purge in Revenge of the Sith than at the end of The Last Jedi! In fact, in Disney’s version of Star Wars, there are no Jedi left at all, or as far as we know. Obviously, Rey will be the last Jedi in future, as signposted by Luke (“I won’t be the last Jedi”), so I don't expect that she’ll register as a PhD candidate to study the Jedi texts because, as Yoda explained to Luke, “she already knows everything in there.” What changed Luke’s mind so quickly after decades in hermit hibernation?  I could go on (and on and on).    

SUZANNE SCOTT:

At the risk of porg-piling on to what has already been said, I had many of the same gut fannish responses and narrative issues that Mar and Billy have detailed above. I loved TFA, not for its nostalgic interplay with the original trilogy (which, admittedly, I quite enjoyed), but rather because of its deft approach to characterization. Potentially controversial fan statement time: To my mind, Rey and Finn and Kylo are far more complex and compelling characters than any of their analogue A New Hope protagonists.  Diversity is certainly a part of this for me, but it is not the entire picture.  

Which brings me to this...In processing my own disappointment with The Last Jedi, I keep coming back to the interplay of two concepts: Jonathan Gray’s work on how promotional paratexts function as a form of “speculative consumption,” and Kristen Warner’s excellent recent piece on plastic representation. I was thrilled when I heard Rian Johnson would be taking over the helm, precisely because we were promised something different. The teaser trailer reiterated this, culminating in Luke Skywalker’s promise (or threat, depending on your perspective): “It’s time for the Jedi to end.” I was excited at the prospect of Johnson blowing up canonical conventions, which based on speculative consumption of the trailer might have ranged from Rey going dark to Luke nihilistically refusing to train her.  “Let the past die…kill it if you have to” thus became the lens through which the film was inevitably read.

My own speculative consumption of the various promotional paratexts leading up to the film built excitement around the introduction of Rose and Holdo, and the potential of them finally doing something vaguely interesting with Phasma.  After watching the film, I couldn’t help but share Warner’s complaint that in the “diversity matters” era, “the degree of diversity became synonymous with the quantity of difference rather than with the dimensionality of those performances.” To my extreme disappointment, characters like Rose and Holdo felt decidedly like an exercise in “plastic representation,” which Warner defines as “a combination of synthetic elements put together and shaped to look like meaningful imagery, but which can only approximate depth and substance because ultimately it is hollow and cannot survive close scrutiny.”

Sure, I have some general old/cranky fan gripes, particularly around the entire Canto Bight sequence, which visually and narratively took a particularly dumb page out of prequels playbook and utterly wasted an opportunity to develop the dynamic between Finn/Rose in any meaningful way, perfectly encapsulates the film’s facile attempts at political commentary. That said, my primary complaint is that the film so consistently pulls its punches both representationally and mythologically. It’s not trying to kill the past so much as zombify it...and on close scrutiny, it can’t “pass” as either a nostalgic throwback OR as something progressive.  In the process, it reveals its conservatism even as it is credited for its deconstruction, or even destruction, of the ultimate “sacred Jedi texts,” the original trilogy. Perhaps the best example is Kylo’s speech to Rey, which begins with an admittedly awesome and unprecedented pitch to abandon all of the institutions and binary logics that are central to the Star Wars universe (Sith/Jedi, Rebellion/Empire)…and ends with that age-old dark-to-light force wielder pick-up line: “we can rule the galaxy together.”

Rogue One suffers from the same set of issues, to my mind, and has similarly been given far too much credit for “radically reimagining” what a generic Star Wars franchise text might look like.  While it checks boxes for diverse representation, perhaps more so than any other film in the history of the franchise, it fails miserably in terms of fleshing out those characters with a sense of history and motivation (Chirrut Imwe being the exception).  The raw materials are there, but the execution is lacking. It speaks volumes that the film doesn’t end on the inevitable, poignant death of the film’s protagonists, but rather routes the viewer directly back to A New Hope’s uncanny valley holodeck.

To be crystal clear: I am thrilled that people love The Last Jedi, particularly if they genuinely feel as though the franchise is finally acknowledging them as a demographic.  I haven’t gotten into debates on Twitter, or even publically shared my own deep dissatisfaction with the film, for precisely these reasons. But I do think we need to take a step back and move beyond the #representationmatters positive gut response to the new film offerings and consider if the execution is effective, or even sufficient.  

WILL BROOKER   

I fell asleep during my second viewing of The Last Jedi. I have never fallen asleep during a Star Wars film before, and I think that’s an unfortunate reflection on this one – especially as I’ve seen people claim that the second viewing is where the film comes into its own, on its own terms. So on one level, I simply feel this movie is too long, and that its Canto Bight sequence in particular is desperately unengaging.

I enjoyed The Last Jedi more on my first viewing – parts of it, at least. I felt that the opening scene, with Poe’s X-Wing facing up against the dreadnought, captured brilliantly what Star Wars is classically about – bold, maverick individualism against ridiculous odds, the tiny rebel squaring up to the massive organisation – and that this was a neat way of giving us that visual dynamic at the very start of the film, rather than building up to another run against a super-sized big bad at the climax. I thought Poe was clearly an analogue of the Original Trilogy Han Solo, and that it was equally neat to have his flyboy cockiness quashed by Holdo – again, a classic routine with the new twist that he’s being put in his place by an older woman, rather than the younger Princess Leia of A New Hope. Equally, the combat in Snoke’s chamber was a visually-stunning revisiting and revisioning of the climactic duel at Return of the Jedi¸ signalled by a near-echo of the earlier film’s two-shot where Luke and Vader share a few brief words on their way to meet Palpatine. All of these sequences really hit the mark for me: not nostalgic replays of earlier scenes, but moments which nodded back to dynamics we’d seen before, while giving them a different context, situation, direction and outcome. ‘Everything is exactly the same, except for the fact that it's all totally different,’ as Alan Moore said of Frank Miller’s revisionist Batman.

As mentioned above, the whole Canto Bight section lost me. I felt it was ultimately pointless, a subplot or fetch quest with no real result, though I’ve read the arguments that claim its purpose is about failure and the fact that plans don’t work out. Aside from the fact that I found its characters and dialogue bland – with the exception of D.J. – its worldbuilding shallow, its CGI unconvincing, its child performances cheesy and its political aspect simplistic,  I think this excuse for the Canto Bight storyline gestures towards one of the fundamental issues I had with The Last Jedi. While there were many enjoyable, memorable moments, like the scenes I’ve mentioned above, and other spectacular visuals like the hyperspace kamikaze and the ships digging scarlet trails into Crait’s surface – it seemed to me as though The Last Jedi was keen to sabotage our expectations from earlier Star Wars, without leaving anything rewarding in their place. I watched A New Hope this week and I think it’s very hard to understand how Luke Skywalker could go from that character, or from his more serious and mature incarnations in Empire and Return of the Jedi, to the character we encounter in The Last Jedi. I find it almost impossible to reconcile this Luke Skywalker with the one we’ve seen before, in any of those three earlier films. On my first viewing, that dissonance was made up for by the fact that his cranky old man routine was surprising and funny. On the second viewing, I didn’t laugh at the jokes at all: they only seemed to work once, and of course the surprise was gone. We are left with long, tedious, visually-dull scenes of him and Rey on an island of over-exposed skies. The enthusiasm and energy of young Luke, and his controlled, balanced confidence in Return of the Jedi, are gone, and we have instead the kind of character Alec Guinness was afraid Obi-Wan would be – not a Gandalf figure, but a grumpy hermit, more Ben Gunn than Ben Kenobi.

The point of The Last Jedi is meant, if we read the defences for it, to be about throwing away our expectations and letting go of what we thought we knew. But as Suzanne suggests, any more radical possibilities are glimpsed, then withdrawn and replaced by half-hearted returns to the old system. Kylo seems to be suggesting a complete change to the Jedi/Sith binary, but then invites Rey to rule the galaxy with him: he’s smashed his Vader mask, but still uses his grandfather’s old lines. Luke argues that the Jedi must end, but by the end of the movie, Rey seems to be confirmed as a Jedi, much like he was. The old books should be burned, but then we see them kept safely in a drawer. Hotshot pilots are put in their place by older women, but those older women are then retired or killed, and the hotshot pilot gets his reward of becoming a ranking rebel leader – just as Han and Luke did, back in the early 80s. We’re introduced to Rose Tico, a plucky woman engineer played by an Asian-American actress, but she seemed more to embody a meta representation of Star Wars fandom, rather than a fully-fledged character in her own right – her short-lived sister Paige, it seemed to me, had more potential. Representation is, of course, incredibly important, but it should surely feel integral to the story and its world, rather than self-consciously inserted.  That said, I’m aware that some viewers genuinely embraced these new characters, which is why, like Suzanne, I’m cautious about criticising them even if they didn’t work for me.

There’s an intriguing hint that these Star Wars we’ve been watching for decades may be funded by wealthy arms dealers, who bid equally on either side when it suits them. This suggestion of a deep-seated deconstructive dynamic – of two seemingly-opposed sides caught in a process of mutual dependency and exchange – seemed to tap into exactly what I’ve theorised underpins the previous six films, where the Republic leads to the Empire, which leads to Leia’s Alliance to Restore the Republic, which has apparently forgotten that the Republic enabled the Empire in the first place. An open acknowledgement of that endless cycle would have been truly subversive, exposing the pointless nature of these wars as a process of interchange, a series of symbolic reversals. D.J’s dismissive assessment, ‘good guys, bad guys — made up words’ is the most interesting line in the film, and if developed, could have broken open the whole galactic conflict that’s been going on for generations. Luke’s observation that the Jedi allowed the rise of Darth Sidious is another welcome acknowledgement of this destructive, deconstructive, circular and cyclical process.

But this fascinating idea is abandoned almost as soon as it’s mentioned, in favour of a black-and-white fairy-tale binary about evil rich gamblers being mean to downtrodden kids and animals. The spiritual end of the redundant Jedi order is also quickly forgotten, in favour of Rey in the hero role, levitating rocks, and D.J.’s political assertion about cynical, independent dealers doesn’t seem so plausible when mapped out into the broader fictional universe: would a colonialist military power really work with suppliers who also arm their enemy? At the finale, we seem to be left exactly where we were in the original trilogy, with an overwhelmingly powerful galactic empire, a scrappy team of rebels, and a lone, last Jedi. The names may have changed, but the situation seems barely different, for all the claims of subversion. And in the name of that superficial, short-term subversion, I think important things have been sacrificed: narrative satisfaction, character consistency, the coherence of this universe and its internal rules.

And what have we gained? Cutely scruffy children – a Broom Boy and his Dickensian friends – who give worse performances in their brief moments on-screen than Jake Lloyd in 1999. The supposedly ground-breaking, democratic notion that anyone can be a Jedi, not just the Skywalkers? Surely we saw that plainly in the Prequel Trilogy, with its diverse, interspecies legions of Jedi warriors; surely this was implied way back in A New Hope, where Vader – with no knowledge that he even has children – comments mildly that ‘the Force is strong with this one’, sensing ability in the anonymous X-Wing pilot he’s about to blow out of the sky.

As noted, I know many millions of people thoroughly and sincerely enjoyed The Last Jedi, and while I also enjoyed several isolated scenes from the movie, I sometimes feel that like Han, Luke and Leia, in their own ways, it may be time for me to let a younger generation gain the joy from these new movies that I got from the old ones. But I believe it would have been possible to entrance that younger audience while still fully engaging older fans like me. I think that would have been preferable to this showy pretence of throwing out the old stuff, switching things up a little superficially, and claiming that a few crowd-pleasing additions count as radical change.

There seems a prominent discourse in journalism and social media that takes pleasure, even pride, in the fact that many viewers who grew up on the saga were dissatisfied with this most recent film. This discourse seems to assume that their objections are based in conservative attitudes --  even outright misogyny and racism -- and to dismiss them as (at worst) bigots, or at best, reactionaries who can’t let go of the past and accept new possibilities. As I’ve suggested, I don’t believe The Last Jedi is as radical as it pretends, and to assume that everyone who criticises it must fit a caricature of basement-dwelling, ‘butt-hurt’ fanboy is extremely lazy and misguided. It’s no doubt reassuring to feel that you are on the right side of history, embracing the future of the saga in all its democracy and diversity -- but to shut down discourse by stereotyping those who raise problems with the film is not an attitude I can admire.

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Professor Will Brooker is Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Kingston University, and author of Using the Force (20020 and the BFI volume on Star Wars (2009) among many other books.

Dr Mar Guerrero-Pico works as a research assistant at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Spain). Her articles have been published in journals such as International Journal of Communication & Society, International Journal of TV Serial Narratives, Signo y Pensamiento, Comunicación and Sociedad (Mexico), Palabra Clave and Cuadernos.info. Her research interests include transmedia storytelling, fan cultures, narratology, television shows and media education.

Dr William Proctor is Senior Lecturer in Popular Culture at Bournemouth University, UK. He has published widely on numerous topics, including Batman, James Bond, One Direction, The Walking Dead, Stephen King, and Star Wars. William is a leading expert on reboots and is currently finishing up his debut monograph, Reboot Culture: Comics, Film, Transmedia, for Palgrave Macmillan. He is co-editor of Transmedia Earth: Global Convergence Cultures with Dr. Matthew Freeman (Routledge, 2018); co-editor of Disney's Star Wars: Forces of Promotion, Production and Reception with Dr. Richard McCulloch (University of Iowa, forthcoming); and co-editor, alongside Bridget Kies, of the themed-section of Participations: International Journal of Audience and Reception Studies on "Toxic Fan Practices" (May, 2018). 

Dr Suzanne Scott is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her current book project explores the gendered tensions underpinning the media industry’s embrace of fans as a tastemaker demographic within convergence culture. In addition to co-editing The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, her work has been published in the journals Transformative Works and CulturesNew Media & Society, and Cinema Journal, as well as numerous anthologies including Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World (2nd Ed), How to Watch Television, and The Participatory Culture Handbook.

Disney's Star Wars: Episode III — Revenge of the Crit

By William Proctor

At this point in time, it certainly seems as if the release of a new Disney Star Wars film — from here to eternity, if Kathleen Kennedy has any say — comes with a tsunami of news reports, blog posts and fan articles criticising fanboys for behaving badly. I’m not talking about reactionary chatter either, but disappointment, disagreement, and discord. Most often, entertainment commentators view fandom as a homogenous, harmonious community that is periodically assaulted by the fan-boy contingent, who really should shut up, grow up and “get a life”:

“Older fans should stop whining about it on the Internet and let Lucas do his thing […] Hollywood is the opium of the internet masses and adults are supposed to have more grown-up things to be concerned about: mortgage payments, school fees, etc. etc. Read a book instead. Take the dog for a walk. Listen to some music. Remind yourself that this is after all just movies for kids.”

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Fans gush over The Force Awakens trailer on social media? “Get a grip,” instructs Martin Daubney for The Telegraph.

“Like Beliebers [Justin Bieber fans], Star Wars fans…took leave of their senses, gushed adoringly in quasi-orgasmic tones and posted wildly inappropriate tweets […] Am I the only man who finds this behavior all a bit odd? Shouldn’t grown men get over Star Wars already? […] You can forgive a small child getting overexcited about what is essentially a kids' movie franchise, but not adults. Of course, it’s a free world, I suppose, and Star Wars fans do not inflict any harm, especially if wielding a wobbly, defective light sabre. But like collecting action figures or skateboarding, shouldn't we leave Star Wars at puberty’s door?”

 In Daubney’s account, the “wildly inappropriate tweets” consisted not of animus and hostility, but, instead, heady displays of affect and emotion. What really grinds his gears is not the outpouring of feelings per se, but that such displays of emotion were emanating from men – and “grown men,” at that (the horror!). Constructing an equivalency between Justin Bieber fangirls and Star Wars fanboys as 'abnormally emotional' operates to gender the affective bandwidth as “too girly,” as Kristin Busse might put it.

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On the other hand, grown men ought to know better because (let’s call a Wookie a Wookie) #masculinity. We can “forgive a small child getting overexcited,” but once puberty is in the rearview mirror, fanboys – or, rather, fan-men – should put away childish things forevermore and focus on more important issues, such as raising a family and paying the mortgage (you know, like real men are supposed to do). Pulling comments from Twitter in order to satirize and deride male fans visibly demonstrates a deficit of understanding about the fannish experience while simultaneously constructing a stereotypical vision of men and masculinity. “I don’t think I’ve seen my wife this happy since our wedding day,” writes one fan, which Daubney knocks down unambiguously: “Seriously? Perhaps he needs to up his game between the sheets.”

Men that are caught red-handed showing feelings of an almost human nature, clearly will not do at all.   

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Over at pop culture website, Acculturated, R.J Moeller is “disturbed” by

“the infantilizing effect that even the mention of Star Wars still has on millions of American adult males. Clearly not all of us grew out of our youthful obsession with The Force. [Star Wars] continues to dominate—sometimes to an unhealthy degree—the imaginations of a generation of men […] there are an embarrassing number of men over the age of 30—and even 40—who treat Star Wars like a religion for which they are the ordained clergy. It’s one thing to nurture a fanatical devotion to a series when you are in grade school or junior high, but there comes a point in life when the Chewbacca T-shirt and metaphysical monologues about Midi-Chlorian levels goes from being slightly annoying to disconcerting. Star Wars won’t love you back. It won’t provide you with meaningful companionship or challenge you to better yourself. As a hobby, it’s not even the most rewarding way to spend your free time (or your money). It is a temporary escape, not a final destination. So to the aging male fanboys of the Star Wars franchise, I offer this advice for the New Year: Enjoy The Force Awakens, but when you’re done, go do some pushups, volunteer at a local charity, and call a girl.

In academic studies, the tendency to view the so-called ‘mainstreaming’ of fandom as a largely positive shift for the male population, while remaining overly negative for female fans, clearly needs redressing, as Mel Standfill has argued. Historically, fangirls have certainly been constructed as unruly harlots overtaken by the fan-object, swamped by an “excess of teenage hormones and the corruption of young girl’s sexuality,” as Bethan Jones writes. Fan-men may be seen as “embarrassing,” “unhealthy,” “annoying,” “childish,” “infantilized,” “fanatical,” “aging,” “wildly inappropriate,” “disconcerting,” and behaviorally “odd” – but the distinction set up here is not that fan-men are excessively hormonal or sexually corrupted, but, rather, that they’re emphatically asexual and ‘unmanly’: “go do some pushups,” “call a girl,” “up your game between the sheets,” or focus on family, “mortgage payments and school fees.” These “narratives of enfreakment” are also narratives of emasculation. The overriding message is that male fans of a certain age need to stop “whining” about childish things, grow up, and go do “manly things,” like raise a family, walk the dog, have sexual intercourse – or at least get better at it – and head to the gym, perhaps to sweat out the nuisance child lurking within (“let the past die; kill it if you have to”).

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By slaughtering history, then, a new man will hopefully emerge from the chrysalis: red-blooded, horny, mature, and resolutely heterosexual (“call a girl”). Busse’s argument about “geek hierarchies” and the way in which fangirls and fan-objects are “negatively feminized,” seems to have shifted recently (or shifted back) as male fans are often ridiculed based on similar reasoning (heightened emotion, unruly behavior, infantilized), but with an ideological distinction: they are negatively emasculated through framing concepts of infantilization and feminisation.  I would argue that such geek hierarchies between the ‘good’ fanboy and the ‘bad’ fangirl are not locked in place, but are constantly ‘on the move,’ re-arranged and re-organized at different moments for different purposes: “the media representation of fans and its slow redemption tends to be focused on fanboys rather than fangirls” might remain true, at least to some extent, but there’s been quite the shift towards the demonization of the former (as well as the latter, naturally). I am not suggesting that women and men are now ideological equals – far from it. Instead, I would argue that the cultural work of re-ascribing and re-affirming traditional gender binaries between fangirls and fanboys (and thus between men and women), is a much more complex situation than critics and fans currently recognize. 

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Flashback to Jenkins’ seminal Textual Poachers, which begins with a critique of William Shatner’s famous (and infamous) Saturday Night Live ‘Get a Life’ sketch, and you’ll understand what I’m talking about (if you don’t already): stereotypes of the overly, unruly obsessive fan, either sunk in mother’s basement or daring to venture into public spaces dressed in replica Starfleet uniform, complete with accessories (phaser, communicator, Vulcan ears). For Standfill, these stereotypes are so widely known that they permeate the cultural matrix and fans themselves internalize such behaviors as evidence of ‘bad’ fan practices. In so doing, some fans diligently police the “fan world,” setting up border patrols and checkpoints in order to protect “one’s own sense of fan community and ascribing positive values to it.” Fandom has quite simply “gone wrong.”

As discussed on my last essay, the ‘regime of truth’ built up around The Last Jedi is made possible by a morass of certain kinds of discourse, whereby counter-narratives are either missing or swallowed by the deluge of articles focused on, as The Mary Sue put it, “the sexist, whiny fanboy contingent of Star Wars fandom.” Fanboys are

“so sexist and whiny that they went to all the trouble of getting bots together to tank The Last Jedi’s Rotten Tomatoes audience score. (Yes, there are people who don’t like the movie, and that’s fine, but that’s not what we’re really seeing here.)”

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As discussed in my last essay, the so-called 'alt-right' news story is most often given weight and brought into the limelight without any attempt to probe further, dig down and test such claims. “That’s not what we’re really seeing here” is largely speculative, and works to confirm the writer’s world-view, I would argue, as well as working positively as promotion for The Last Jedi. Fans that praise The Last Jedi from online platforms are “engaging fannishly in ways preferred and controlled by the studios,” whereas detractors, or anti-fans, need to be silenced so as not to negatively affect the public persona of the film, of fan cultures, and the box office performance. Both the pro- and anti-contingent are working to fiercely protect the fan-object (and, again, these binaries are largely unhelpful or, at least, myopic); but they’re not the same object. For the former, The Last Jedi is a 'good' object, and any perceived attack, either from within or outside the fan world, is cause for confrontation and combat. For the latter, however, much of the discourse stems from the belief that a pejorative ‘Disneyfication’ has colonized and contaminated George Lucas’ authorial vision; whereby the ‘good’ object of the original trilogy is the yardstick with which to measure and construct The Last Jedi as ‘bad.’ Here, what is remarkable is that many commenters use concepts of nostalgia, canon, and mythos as ‘bad’ ways of doing fandom, items that arguably have been a major part of geek fan cultures for decades at this point. Added to this is the notion that fans do not ‘own’ Star Wars, not even as custodians and active participants:

he’s not YOUR Luke. He’s Star Wars‘ Luke

 “until you write a Star Wars movie or write one of the canon stories, none of it is yours”.

in the case of The Last Jedi, it comes down to fans feeling ownership of a franchise — ownership that they don’t have.

I am sure that readers don’t think for a second that racism, misogyny, homophobia, and other reactionary currents, are a major characteristic of the Star Wars fan world. But I would argue that the deck is inadvertently stacked to appear that way. Star Wars fanboys who dislike The Last Jedi are  “hilariously dumb,” “whiny entitled fanboys,” “cry-babies,” who “ought to get over themselves. It’s just a movie, after all.”

Granted, some articles include explanations about the way in which angry fanboys are but a vocal minority, yet by largely centering attention on the more controversial aspects -- of fanboy rage, of racism and misogyny, of fan entitlement -- the overarching meta-narrative becomes less complex and less heterogeneous. There certainly seems to be a requirement to demonstrate that the Star Wars fan world is a utopian continent, except for a few rebels engaged in a coup d’état.

“Thankfully, this is not most of Star Wars fandom. Whatever fans think of The Last Jedi, most fans don’t think of Rey as inherently awful because she’s a girl with girl-cooties, and don’t see the addition of nuanced men of color or an evolved legacy character as inherently bad things.”

Indeed. But one would be forgiven for thinking differently, I would say, given the discursive decibels ratcheted up to a Spinal-Tap-eleven on the amplifier dial.  

I want to finish this series of provocations by briefly exploring the ‘fan-bashing’ that occurred around the launch of a fan petition to strike The Last Jedi from official canon. As I have written elsewhere in relation to the Ghostbusters reboot, fans that complain about the ruination of an idealized childhood often marshal their dissatisfaction through metaphor, usually attached to self-narratives of nostalgia connected to a treasured fan-object. As a scholar, I think it’s more valuable to analyze what is being said and what this means to whomever is speaking, rather than summon moral judgments about fan behavior and practices.

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Shortly after the release of The Last Jedi, Star Wars fan Henry Walsh turned to the affordances of change.org to express his chagrin. Now, Walsh clearly understood that a massive media conglomerate like Disney would not actually consider removing the largest box office hit of 2017 from Star Wars canon and he said as much from the off: “now, I know Disney won't care, and this won't do much, but let’s show them our annoyance.” As with protestations about one’s childhood being ruined, such a petition operates as a symbolic act of resistance, and one of the ways that Walsh (and the 90,000-plus fans who signed the document in solidarity) aimed to address disappointment and dismay. Naturally, news media outlets and fan-blogs turned on Walsh for being “a hater,” and his petitioners are “butthurt,”  “irate and ludicrous,”ignorant man-babies,” “asshole, idiot cry-babies,” “a few nit-picking babies” and so on and so forth. “One thing that needs to stop,” writes Marykate Jasper for The Mary Sue: “fanboy rage” ('fangirl rage' about Game of Thrones is 'good' fan performance though).

For the petition to be a noxious act of toxic fan practice, any utterances from female fans need to be silenced or ignored altogether. Here are a few select comments from women who signed the petition — or, more accurately, digital avatars and user-names that appear female – which I include here to show that the inclusion of even a few female voices would significantly spoil the “fanboy rage” arc, which obviously doesn’t fit the popular narrative:

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At the time of writing (January 25th, 2017), people are still signing the petition. Many commenters mocked Walsh and his petitioners when it has between 2,000 and 7,000 signatures — figures that were viewed as negligible — but no one covered the story as it approached 100,000. That may be a minority of the audience, perhaps even the fan-base, but it’s an incredible figure, nonetheless.

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As the discourse surrounding the petition gathered apace and grew legs, galloping around news outlets and websites en masse, Walsh reportedly started receiving death threats on social media and, as a consequence, responded by asking participants to tap into their energetic abundance to donate funds to Force for Change instead. He explained his reasoning in detail, although never backing down on the reasons why he hates The Last Jedi, and this was taken as a positive step towards healing the public perception of fandom by fan-critics: “it's refreshing to see him turn something negative into something positive.”

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One thing is abundantly clear: protesting Disney is 'bad,' and doing so makes one a 'bad' fan. Corporate resistance is “hilariously dumb,” whereas cheerleading is what 'good' fans do, unintentionally and inadvertently employed as (free) labourers on Disney behalf (or perhaps on Star Wars' behalf). I had to gawp at one article that slammed Walsh in one paragraph, and then provided a hyperlink below to 'Star Wars Merch.'  Of course, we are all aware that fans are, in many ways, “ideal consumers,” as Matt Hills put it in Fan Cultures. But it is interesting that consumption and celebration is accepted so unequivocally as 'good' behavior while symbolically protesting a corporate leviathan like Disney is 'bad.' The situation becomes even more complicated should one consider what is thought to be ‘healthy’ protest, such as kicking up a stink about the lack of Rey or Black Widow merchandise as evidence of institutional sexism (which it is, of course). But that’s only the beginning of a more complex situation; asking for merchandise is also asking to purchase such merchandise, so there’s a kind of tug-of-war between “exchange-value” (economic/ profit) and “use-value” (pleasure/ affect). The notion that fandom being 'mainstreamed,' thus leading to a more democratic dialogue between audiences and producers, is only partially true. These days, fans may indeed be courted by producers, but only if certain criteria are met; that is, fans-as-champions-and-advocates. Kristina Busse argues that media professionals seek only certain kinds of ('good') fan practices and behaviors, usually “because of viewer loyalty, free advertisement, and increased purchase of connected products.” Hence, “affirmational fans” are what a 'good' fan looks like to industry and, more interestingly, to a lot of fans as well. I agree wholeheartedly with Mark Duffett who, in an interview conducted by our learned host on this very blog, explained it thus:

“because our academic traditions work to ignore or reject a focus on the enjoyment of commercial culture, we are in danger of forgetting that win-win situations are part of this spectrum of relationships. Rather than searching for the dramatic moments where fans contest media producers, to understand fandom it seemed a greater challenge to me to start providing non-generalizing, non-reductionist frameworks within which we might explain why fans are sometimes complicit in doing what they do.”

I will admit to feeling empathy for Walsh, not least because I was also disappointed with The Last Jedi, as well as being aggrieved at the way in which critics, and especially fans, worked so hard to police the petitioners as evincing toxic fan practice. But I believe there’s been a shift, or a misunderstanding, about what actually constitutes toxicity: racism, sexism, homophobia, bullying, ad hominem aggression, and so forth. Generally, fan cultures are often sites of quarrel and contestation (as well as solidarity and “community,” of course), and arguments about canon, continuity, representation, narrative, plot, etc., in no way should be viewed as toxicity, at least according to Bridget Kies and I. Yet Walsh’s petition was described in such terms:

“This is precisely the sort of nonsense that epitomizes toxic fandom. There are, obviously, plenty of legitimate criticisms and questions to lob at The Last Jedi, but this sort of overreaction and hyperbole, with its emphasis on the past and rage against change, isn’t the way to go.”

As well as gatekeeping (“nonsense,” “this isn’t the way to go”) and “Othering” what is viewed as 'bad' fandom (“overreaction and hyperbole”), the idea that Walsh’s petition “epitomizes toxic fandom” is worth exploring further, I think, as well as the evocation of traditional stereotypes of being overly emotional and highly invested but emanating from a feminist website. If argument, debate and protest (the 'normal' operations of contemporary fandom, I would say) are viewed as ‘toxic,’ then what becomes of the fan world? By working to disavow and discipline certain fan practices allows for an idealized vision of the fan world to be constructed, as it should really be: homogenous, harmonious, and cleansed of negative affect. It is “another example of fandom gone wrong” “when passion turns to possessiveness that fandom turns toxic,” a sentiment that symptomatically disciplines other fans simultaneously.

As for Walsh, even a cursory skim of his Twitter feed demonstrates not that “this petition reeks of cough*sexism*cough”, but quite the contrary: rather, Walsh is undoubtedly a politically-engaged progressive, an anti-Trump protestor, who has also kicked started petitions to “stop cultural genocide at Muscrat Falls, Laborador” (4141 signed) and another to help with his medical bills. Walsh was in a horrendous car accident last year and desperately needs a prosthetic brace for his leg although, alas, he was unable to raise the $50,000 needed for treatment (18 people contributed $486), which is all the more tragic given that the people who filled out his Star Wars petition could have raised double the amount with only a dollar contribution per petitioner. Perhaps readers would be willing to head across to donate a dollar and help give Henry Walsh some much-needed hope; maybe we can demonstrate fan power in productive ways and support a fellow geek. 

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Incidentally, a petition that petitions Walsh’s petition has managed to obtain 19 signatures, with the following advice attached: 

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Thanks to all readers who have taken the time to read my saga trilogy. The next instalment is a virtual round-table discussion with fellow scholars, Will Brooker, Megen de Bruin-Molé, Lincoln Geraghty, Mar Guerrero-Pico, Rebecca Harrison, William Proctor and Suzanne Scott. In the meantime, I leave you with a poem written by Henry Walsh and posted on Twitter:

Trump’s Twitter was down, it was such bliss,

No more of that clown, who we’d never miss,

Then it came back, once more online,

I wanted to scream, I wanted to whine,

Why can’t we get rid of the Cheeto-In-Chief,

Who seems to take joy in causing us grief,

Now don’t get me wrong, Clinton wasn’t much better,

They’re both corrupt as heck, just birds of a feather,

So in a few years, ignore anyone who panders,

Do the right thing, and vote Bernie Sanders.

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Dr William Proctor is Senior Lecturer in Popular Culture at Bournemouth University, UK. He has published widely on numerous topics, including Batman, James Bond, One Direction, The Walking Dead, Stephen King, and Star Wars. William is a leading expert on reboots and is currently finishing up his debut monograph, Reboot Culture: Comics, Film, Transmedia, for Palgrave Macmillan. He is co-editor of Transmedia Earth: Global Convergence Cultures with Dr. Matthew Freeman (Routledge, 2018); co-editor of Disney's Star Wars: Forces of Promotion, Production and Reception with Dr. Richard McCulloch (University of Iowa, forthcoming); and co-editor, alongside Bridget Kies, of the themed-section of Participations: International Journal of Audience and Reception Studies on "Toxic Fan Practices" (May, 2018). 

 

 

 

Disney's Star Wars: Episode II - Attack of the Groans

By William Proctor

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Following the world premiere of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi in December 2017 - and with a review embargo in place - social media carried the celebratory chorus of joy and jubilation, perhaps best exemplified by this tweet:

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A few days later, with the review embargo lifted, critics mostly joined in the chorus of celebrations: “an explosive rush of spectacle,” “fun and funny with emotional heft,” “quintessentially Star Wars and richer than anything else that has come before,” “will leave fans beaming with surprise.”  Some critics, however, were less than impressed, and swam against the tide: “a work that’s ironed out, flattened down, appallingly purified,” “a disappointment,” “an untidy, overlong story,”ranks closer to the Attack of the Clones gene pool” (ouch!). 

As news surfaced about the Rotten Tomatoes score — now a highly anticipated event itself, a sad indictment of our “culture of consensus” — commenters, bloggers and journalists rushed to the organs of social media to investigate the radical asymmetry between critical spheres and user-generated reviews. The audience score being so out-of-alignment with the rapturous critical reception was cause for alarm, because, heaven forbid, this simply can’t be accurate because, well, Star Wars (as if expecting that critics, audiences and fans would agree to an interpretative consensus in any case). Of course, one could feasibly ask: so what? It’s not the first time that the critic-audience ratio has been disjointed, nor the last (I am thinking here about Netflix’s Bright being slammed by critics, hailed by audiences, with hardly a spark of conflagration). I am sure that readers understand the issues with “meta-critic scores,” but it is remarkable, I think, how Rotten Tomatoes has grown into such a powerhouse of opinion regarding the judgement and evaluation of culture.

Then, it all became clear as kaiburr crystal: the Rotten Tomatoes score had been infiltrated by trolls and 'alt-fans,’ torpedoing The Last Jedi as protest against 'politically correct' equality and diversity. As with my last essay, I am not suggesting for a minute that there are no reactionary responses to The Last Jedi. They are relatively easy to find if one goes looking and I won’t participate in amplifying such rhetoric (a point I shall return to below). But as I continue analysis of dedicated hashtags, as well as other discursive arenas including customer reviews on Rotten Tomatoes, the vast amount of commenters decrying the film as a weak entry in the franchise are centring their criticisms on plot, narrative, character, and canon, or simply to slam the film in no uncertain terms – and overwhelmingly so. This is not to imply a harmonious digital environment, not by any means; commenters have often been vehemently hostile, as the battle-lines between ‘pro’ and ‘anti’ constituents are drawn with each side actively batting insults back-and-forth; either across social media, or via the dissemination of memes criticising the film’s various failings (a selection of which pepper this essay). Interestingly, the ‘pro’ lobby have been propping up their defences by invoking institutional authority – such as Rian Johnson citing (non-canonical) EU material as precedent for certain creative decisions  -- while the ‘anti’ lobby have re-activated George Lucas’ authorship, with some even go as far as to summon the prequel trilogy – at one time, the ultimate ‘bad’ object in Star Wars fandom – as a yardstick which to bash ‘Ruin’ Johnson, Disney, and The Last Jedi with: 

“Help us George Lucas you’re our only hope.” “You were supposed to save the saga, not leave it in darkness.” “Jar Jar Binks sleeps well tonight.”

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In the main, however, it seems that there is little space to dislike this film without being described as a racist, fascist, misogynist, hate-monger, or a ‘crybaby,’ and providing a counter-narrative that aims for a more accurate, nuanced portrait is lost in the fog of what amounts to little more than professional gossip at this point. Of course, nuanced counter-narratives don’t usually lead to an avalanche of clicks, "likes," tweets, re-tweets, posts and reposts, as questionable 'news' is launched out of the starting blocks and disseminated around our various social networks.

Statistically, hashtag publics, such as #notmystarwars and #notmyluke, certainly contain a minor selection of hateful comments, but, by my reckoning, these amount to less than 3%. After coding over 200 audience reviews from Rotten Tomatoes into discursive clusters — a small sample at this point admittedly, but one which I’ll continue to drill down over the coming weeks and months — over 96% critique creative decisions in the film whereas less than 3% mention people-of-colour, women, and the PC-inflected agenda of 'social justice' Disney.  If Rotten Tomatoes were the sole outlet carrying scathing reviews, then that would be another thing entirely and certainly worthy of keen investigation. However, the sheer wealth of negative utterances unfolding across digital spaces is, I believe, worth drilling into further rather than piggybacking on press discourse without testing claims.  

Nonetheless, numerous outlets claim that the most vocal fans on social media are right-wing tyrants out to sink Star Wars, if such a thing is even possible at this point (although a recent Wall Street Journal story claims that Disney aren't satisfied with the global haul of $1.3 billion as it failed to meet economic forecasts). Writing for The Huffington Post, Bill Bradley states unequivocally: “The Alt-Right takes credit for ‘Last Jedi’ backlash” (note the use of language normally reserved for terrorist attacks, as if one person on Facebook is akin to Al Qaeda with the Rotten Tomatoes score being “review-bombed” by terrorist groups). Tapping into this ‘source’ further to examine the claims made by this single, Facebook poster — who is clearly and unquestionably espousing right-wing politics, as well as being a notorious troll in the community having been ousted from various forums for his toxic behaviour — took a little more than twenty minutes to complicate, or even debunk outright, the anonymous poster’s claims. (Incidentally, it wasn't difficult to track the person's real identity, and his "proper" Facebook page includes no material of this kind.)

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First, at no point does the poster mention the term 'alt-right,' nor does he claim to be a part of a wider 'movement' despite Bradley writing that the person is a “self-identified member of the alt-right.” (I won’t go into the way this constructs an image of the so-called 'alt-right' as a unified group compromised of ‘members’). The ‘alt-right’ connection is entirely invented by The Huffington Post writer, although one could reasonably argue that online right-wing statements are automatically awarded ‘alt-right’ status in the current political climate). The post used as source material for Bradley’s article is grabbed from ‘Down with Disney’s Treatment of its Franchises and its Fanboys,’ an open Facebook group ran by one, anonymous individual. It is not the so-called ‘alt-right’ that are taking credit at all but one, single Facebook user, and not, as Variety claim, “an alt-right fanboy group,” or, as The Washington Post said, “a men’s right’s activist” (readers will no doubt see what's going on here as the news tumbles across cyberspace).

Second, the post has 260 comments, 99.8% of which mock the poster with colourful epithets and insults. But what is also interesting is that another Facebook group, ‘Star Wars Anti-Canon Pro-EU’ – EU referring to the Expanded Universe that Disney dumped in 2014 – attack ‘Down with Disney’ for his vaunted claims: 

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“We both did it,” replied ‘Down with Disney.’

Of course, including such responses in news stories would significantly shift the terms of discourse and, at the very least, raise important questions regarding these types of claims. Is it plausible that Star Wars fans, especially pissed off EU fans, would turn to Rotten Tomatoes to write negative reviews as a sign of protest? Undoubtedly. But all that really tells us is that Rotten Tomatoes is in no way an accurate barometer of public opinion, especially given the methodology employed to 'measure' critical perspectives via the construction of parochial binaries between ‘good’ and ‘bad,’ or, more accurately, between ‘fresh’ or ‘rotten.’ (How about moving to a spectrum of vegetable-based criteria, such as ‘fresh,’ ‘ripe,’ ‘edible,’ stale,’ and ‘rotten’?)  Is it at all likely that negative commenters could mask racism and misogyny with more text-based criticisms? Absoutely. Yet as Whitney Phillips and Ryan Milner point out on this very blog,  “not knowing who created what, what the(se) creator(s) meant to accomplish, or what a given text “really” means, forces one to stay empirical and focus on the things that can be known and confirmed.” However, the so-called 'alt-right' are not known for deliberately masking ideological scripts as a way to penetrate public discourse  — indeed, quite the opposite: provocation and VOLUME is the modus operandi of right-wing trolls, not surreptitious disguise and tip-toeing.   

Third, given the questionable status of the source drawn upon by Bradley, I have to admit to being quite troubled by the way in which 'news' is spread across cyberspace, regardless of the veracity of content. That said, it seems that the flashpoint for The Huffington Post’s article came from another website, Deadline, which was cited later by Polygon, who carried the story about ‘Down with Disney,’ except with a significant difference: there is no mention of the so-called ‘alt-right.’ Written by Julia Alexander, the Polygon article describes ‘Down with Disney’ as a “pro-DCEU [DC expanded universe] community, announced on Facebook that it had generated trolls to review-bomb The Last Jedi’s score on Rotten Tomatoes.” The article then moves to consider that 4Chan could be behind the “attacks,” despite the (again) lack of evidence or community-members who claim otherwise. At the end of the piece, an update is published: “After reports of the attack being organized by a right-wing group began to circulate, a Rotten Tomatoes representative told Polygon that its security team and database experts "haven’t determined there to be any problems.”

Of course, if true, that only means that bots were not used to bomb the site; it is entirely plausible that some fans did indeed converge on Rotten Tomatoes to express their chagrin about The Last Jedi (not that there’s anything wrong with that in principle). Though, if this is so easy to achieve, then it also provides the same affordances for the ‘pro’ lobby to rank the film more positively on the site too, and there is no evidence of that kind of activity hitherto (nor is there any evidence at this point that the Rotten Tomatoes score has been infiltrated by ‘alt-right’ insurgents). Writing for the website, Inverse, Corey Plante described the news as little more than “rumour,” and queried the claims by speaking to ‘Down with Disney,’ who, yet again, could not supply evidence of bot-attack except in the vaguest terms ("a friend helped me"). Said Plante: “online metrics and vocal Facebook pages claiming to have all-powerful hacking bots are no match for a little bit of perspective on your side.” 

So, in order for the “regime of truth” around The Last Jedi to continue, then certain counter-claims need to be disavowed or ignored entirely whereas any reasonable objections are buried amidst the online avalanche. In relation to ‘Down with Disney,’ a Rotten Tomatoes representative claimed that there is no indication that ‘bots’ have invaded the site so as to bring the audience score down. “The number of written reviews being posted by fans is comparable to TFA,” s/he said, although given that TFA was also criticised for being social justice propaganda by Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) site Return of Kings – as well as their outlandish claims that they successfully boycotted The Force Awakens and cost Disney a few million -- we can take this as an indication of precisely, well, nothing. The representative went on to say that, “the authenticity of our critic and user scores is very important to Rotten Tomatoes and as a course of regular business, we have a team of security, network, social and database experts who closely monitor our platforms.” (Naturally, we should believe the anonymous Facebook troller and completely disregard everything else that doesn't fit the narrative, it seems.)

Let me put it another way:

1.     A single individual claims that he sank the user-generated score on Rotten Tomatoes, which is, of course, unsubstantiated in any way.

2.     260 commented on the post, mocking him for espousing hateful rhetoric and extravagant claims, while often employing reactive aggression themselves (some of which could equally be described as hate speech).

3.     Bill Bradley ‘discovers’ the post, perhaps following both Inverse and Polygon articles, viewing it as clear evidence that the ‘alt-right’ is wholly responsible for the user rating on Rotten Tomatoes.

4.     Then conducts a brief conversation with ‘Down with Disney’ via Facebook messenger.

5.     This is then pulled out of the shadows and into the media spotlight.

6.     The article does not contextualise the comments below the post, which demonstrates that other Facebook-users are overwhelmingly critiquing ‘Down with Disney’s’ claims and ideological standpoint.

7.     Then, the article gathers steam and gains significant traction across a litany of news outlets, professional, amateur and pro-am (NME, Variety, Forbes, The Hollywood ReporterThe Washington Post, Slash Film, and many more).

8.     This is then disseminated, shared, tweeted, and re-circulated by readers, thus successfully participating in lifting marginal instantiations into mainstream prominence despite the lack of legitimacy, empirical merit or basic fact-checking.

9.     This spirals and cascades across cyberspace whereby it mushrooms into unequivocal 'fact,' as demonstrated by a video on MSN which creatively juxtaposes ‘Down with Disney’ with an image of white supremacists sporting ‘Make America Great Again’ caps (see image below), as well as leaving no room for manouvre: “the group played a significant role in giving The Last Jedi a 54% user-score from over 100,000 reviews.”

10.  Thus, a single individual has multiplied into a plural 'organisation' and managed to move from internet obscurity and into public discourse.  

That one anonymous person on Facebook managed to spark a discursive ruckus should, I think, be a cautionary tale. That is, if this is the only evidence that the so-called 'alt-right,' or anyone else, is behind the Rotten Tomatoes score, then I would argue that audiences themselves have certainly participated in building up the “regime of truth” around The Last Jedi, and awarded prime space and valuable oxygen to a single individual trolling on Facebook, playing right into his hands. The internet maxim, “don’t feed the trolls” becomes more like offering Mogwai a banquet during the post-midnight hours.

To be clear: I am not suggesting that news organisations, blogs and so on, shouldn't be reporting on the activities of the radical right; instead, I am saying that journalists and entertainment commenters, etc., need to do better and cease constructing narratives that feed the flames of indignation when the fuel source is running low. For if, at times, (cheerleading) fans unintentionally conduct free labour on behalf of corporate organisations, then it stands to reason that fans — and coalition audiences — that share trumped-up news stories (no pun intended) actively perform labour on behalf of the radical right, even as they hold up these examples to mock and rebuke. I'm sure that this will be read as a provocation and, in many ways, it is meant to be. Things are rarely so simple, after all

(As a comfortable Marxist and trade union activist, I am certainly one who believes in 'No Platform for Racists and Fascists.' Why award a democratic platform to those who want to attack democratic values and ideals in any case?)

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*NB: In early February 2017, 'Down with Disney' was removed from Facebook. This led to another discursive avalanche legitimising the earlier claims of "alt-right" status, while turning to protest Marvel's Black Panther by asking people to review-bombing Rotten Tomatoes (one may wonder where his bots have gone). There are now over fifty news articles and blog posts doing the rounds, all of which are centred on 'Down with Disney' as, by now, an authentic so-called 'alt-right' group. By tracking and mapping the discourse, then, one can see quite clearly how controversy is not only manufactured, but the way in which it can spread like wildfire, with journalists, bloggers, news anchors, social media users, fans and coalition audiences providing spark and kinder as well. To be clear again, this is not to say that right-wing activity should not be reported at all   — rather, that constructing anonymous user-generated material as evidence of right-wing activity, without doing adequate leg-work and research, is risible, to say the least. After close analysis of 'Down with Disney,' I reported the page to Facebook on 24th January 2017, citing hate speech as rationale. Whether or not that led to the page being shutdown is difficult to ascertain — I was informed that the page did not break any community standards, so it's more than likely that another reason presented itself.

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 Many critics are unable to accept the possibility that The Last Jedi could be loved and hated simultaneously by "the people":

It became clear for the world to see that something was seriously amiss when a huge discrepancy opened between the critical and audience scores for the movie on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics largely showered it with praise, while registered moviegoers gave it a failing grade; right now, it stands at 91 percent "fresh" from professional film critics, but has just a 50 percent audience score. The gulf is an anomaly, which we know both because moviegoers gave largely positive assessments of the film to the polling firm ComScore and because a member of an alt-right fan group proudly told HuffPost that dissatisfied fans sent bots to deliberately lower the Tomatometer.