14 December 2016

Star Wars, culture wars

Several times here I've discussed the role of pop-entertainment culture in mediating social change, something which I think the politics-centric sector of the blogosphere tends to overlook.  My favorite example is the film Frozen, which reached a vast audience globally and which perceptive viewers saw as an effective parable of LGBT alienation and ultimate acceptance, though I think its metaphor actually applies more broadlyThe enemy noticed too, and many a post in the wingnutosphere ranted against the film as subversive of Christian taboos.

Pop entertainment with positive messages is beneficial in two major ways:  (1) it can help shift attitudes in a more positive direction by presenting appealing images of traditionally-rejected groups or practices and repulsive images of taboos and bigotry, and (2) it can give encouragement and moral support to individuals who would otherwise feel isolated in the face of the onslaught of malignant traditional prejudice (I recently noted this example, which is far from unusual).  Again, the enemy is well aware of these things and rages against the "corrupting" effects of popular movies and TV, and occasionally a show from a more advanced culture is censored to avoid stirring up resistance in a more backward one.

The most recent wingnut eruption of this kind concerns the Star Wars franchise.  It seems to have begun with last year's movie, The Force Awakens, which offended certain elements by the presence of a woman and a black man in the leading heroic roles.  The freakout continues with the upcoming Rogue One, with the "alt-right" calling for a boycott, especially after the writers affirmed that the evil Galactic Empire is a metaphor for white supremacy.

I expect that the boycott will have no noticeable effect on the movie's success, even just in the US, especially since early reactions suggest it's the kind of thing the fans like.  Racism is much less mainstream and respectable in the US than homophobia still is.  However, the recent election of Trump has emboldened the alt-right and convinced them (and also a lot of us) that such bigotry is far more pervasive than we thought.  If the boycott flops, it will be evidence to the contrary, especially since this movie's use of racist and fascist ideas and imagery to represent evil is fairly explicit, not just metaphorical.

A more bizarre reaction to the movie is an effort to "rebrand" it by re-interpreting its story to make the villains into the good guys.  The concept has some precedent (an entire quasi-religion, Satanism, has arisen based on the premise that the "villain" of Christianity is actually the hero, properly considered), but in this case it's yet another example of the clumsy, tin-eared (in)sensibility that the right wing always seems to bring to the world of entertainment.  Satan is a complex and deep figure with endless philosophical implications, but a cartoonish villain like Emperor Palpatine will never be anything but a villain.  One can only hope that this "rebranding" of Star Wars becomes widely known; it will make the alt-right look silly and pathetic, which in some ways is even better than making them look evil.

Again, these kinds of things matter more than those among us who focus exclusively on politics realize.  As I argued here, pop entertainment reaches huge numbers of people who are uninterested in politics and turned off by political arguments; its influences are subtle and metaphorical, bypassing the resistance that explicit advocacy of a social or political cause would arouse.  Moreover, it's an arena in which we can operate almost unopposed, since the enemy's efforts (think of "Christian" films and the like) are almost always so preachy and heavy-handed that they have no appeal beyond those who are already true believers.  The enemy's only real weapon in this arena is censorship, which tends to backfire by stoking curiosity, and is increasingly easy to circumvent in the internet age.

It's all the more important in times when the enemy dominates the political scene and the institutional power of government is temporarily lost to us.  Note how much progress on gay marriage, not just in the courts but in the more important realm of popular opinion, took place during the Bush administration when our side held little or no political power.  The enemy constantly complained that movies, TV, and advertising were relentlessly subverting their taboos by "normalizing" homosexuality.  They weren't wrong.

Blogger Tengrain recently argued that the left needs to learn to tell stories, not just recite facts.  In mass culture, if not in the political realm, we do do that -- and it works.

[Image at top:  Rogue One villains and heroes, found via Crazy Eddie]


Anonymous NickM said...

I posted somewhere years back about the "normalisation of LGBTQ" by Dr Who by including LGBTQ characters without it being a significant plot issue. That and loads of folk thought the "omnisexual" Captain Jack was just cool. Apparently primary schoolkids in the UK were playing Dr Who and he was dead popular to impersonate. I dunno to what extent the Dr achieved this or simply reflected. That is always a hard call in a complex and changing culture.

But it is an interesting contrast with Star Trek which I don't think ever grasped the otherness of aliens. Up to and including never having gay characters (that I recall) but being more than OK with interspecies sex. That always struck me as very odd. Surely it is odder to fancy an alien than a fellow human of your own gender? It is very odd that progeny can result from such trans-species relationships. Having said that I'd sell Mum to the Ferengi for an hour on the holodeck with Deanna Troi. And my wife would more than happily join in.

14 December, 2016 10:00  
Blogger Shaw Kenawe said...

"...the wingnutosphere ranted against the film as subversive of Christian taboos."

Worthy of a gigantic GUFFAW! They see a film as subvesive of their Christian taboos, but not a man who bragged about breaking just about every one of their sacred 10 Commandments.

Spare me their fake outrage at a film while accepting a man who cheats old and young, who mocks disabled people, who bragged about being able to sexually assault women, and all the rest of his tawdry boasts that would have the religious right calling for Trump's head on a pike if he had a "D" and not an "R" after his name.

If they're looking for Christian taboos, all they need to do is look at the man who will, on January 20, swear an Oath of Office on a Bible he's never read. And they know that.

Movies as parables and as means to comfort and give courage to minorities are how art can be a force for change and goodness.

14 December, 2016 10:17  
Blogger Frank Wilhoit said...

It really is a question, not of who is better at storytelling, but of whether storytelling is a good thing to do. In principle, it is not. But it works.

It is like Gresham's Law: whoever starts first and keeps the lead while sliding down the slippery slope reaps substantial benefit, even though everyone eventually crashes at the bottom.

The power of storytelling is attested by the destruction of feudalism, one of the largest changes in human history and all done by stories: the "ogre" represents the landowner. I may have been guilty elsewhere of advocating that we try to use the same method. It is not so simple.

Today, the prevailing ignorance is so deep that the ability to distinguish between stories and lies has been lost (along with many other fundamental distinctions). Stories and lies are very different things; the distinction of genre and purpose far outweighs the superficial observation that few stories are "true". So even we, who are supposed to be the custodians of knowledge, begin to scream the our opponents are "lying", not only when they are lying (which is often enough), but also when they are actually doing something far more powerful and dangerous: telling stories.

The pat resolution is to point out that literature has its place; but that has little value in an environment in which nearly everything has gotten out of its place.

14 December, 2016 10:39  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Nick: I think it's both. Popular entertainment helps public opinion evolve, and as public opinion evolves, pop entertainment can push the envelope a little further.

As science fiction, the best of Star Trek was much superior to Star Wars (though that's a matter for another posting). But Star Trek was always weak on its aliens, most of which were just slightly-modified humans -- probably the result of TV budgets vs. the greater latitude a movie like Star Wars has. Real aliens would look nothing like Deanna Troi, unfortunately.

Shaw: These days it seems like the only Commandment they recognize is "God hates fags". And abortion too, of course. But consider the endless hypocrisy within the leadership of Christian fundamentalism and the Catholic Church. Endless adultery, exploitation, greed, child molesting, and so on, all covered up or explained away for the sake of maintaining the power of Christianity and the enforcement of its taboos on outsiders. Accepting a moral abomination like Trump, so long as he seems likely to hate the right people and things, is just an extension of the same principle.

Frank: I think the destruction of feudalism also had a lot to do with the invention of artillery, which ended the impregnability of feudal castles and thus made possible the supremacy of the nation-state with its centralized army (even though the Ottomans were the first to actually exploit it). More to the point, I see nothing wrong with good storytelling if it works. The Republicans may sling outright lies around, but at least no one is trying to claim Star Wars is literal fact.

14 December, 2016 17:02  
Anonymous Marc McKenzie said...

Infidel, I wish real aliens would look like Deanna Troi--or like Liara T'Soni from the MASS EFFECT games. :)

But in all seriousness, thank you for this post. It's actually been pretty funny to see a bunch of Right-wing fools lose their s**t over a film that shows a diverse, multi-racial (and multi-species, I guess) band of rebels stand up and fight back against an oppressive government run by elderly White males.

What's also funny is that it took them nearly forty years to notice this, since it's been evident since the very first Star Wars from 1977. Lucas based the Empire on the Nazis, and we did see how the Emperor seized power in the prequels. Yes, they were flawed, but in terms of the political aspects of the second and third films in the prequel trilogy, it's chilling to see how events played out in those films...and how they are playing out now in the real world.

Of course, Trump is no Palpatine, who was a smart and savvy but evil character. And granted, even though ROGUE ONE was conceived and filmed months ago, its release at this time is a good coincidence. The film's tagline is "A Rebellion Built On Hope"....maybe people will use this in the months ahead.

I plan to see the film tomorrow, so I'll give my thoughts afterwards.

15 December, 2016 16:28  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I frankly doubt there's any life out there above the level of slime mold, if that. But I'm fine with sticking to my own species. :-)

Most neo-Nazis don't seem to be very bright and I think the symbolism of things like Lucas's Galactic Empire go right over their heads. As long as the heroes are white guys, they're OK with it. They started freaking out over Star Wars when a black guy and a woman appeared in the lead roles. It has to be something that obvious for them to notice.

I'll be interested to see what you think of the movie. I won't be going anywhere today -- roads are still icy.

16 December, 2016 07:16  
Blogger Tommykey said...

What amazes me is that the Star Wars franchise continues to maintain its popularity and remain so lucrative when there hasn't been a decent Star Wars movie since The Empire Strikes Back in 1980. I would have thought that the prequels would have been enough to drive it permanently into a ditch.

It's as if people have been conditioned to think "Well, it's a Star Wars movie, so I'm supposed to spend money to see it in a theater" and they flock to see the next one like lemmings. And they tell themselves that The Force Awakens finally got the franchise on track again even though it's just a rehash of the first one. Yeah, let's build another planet killing weapon even though the first two didn't work out. Maybe they should build two at the same time and keep one secret so that when the Rebels attack one, the other one takes out the Rebel base.

While I applaud a greater diversity of casting in the new Star Wars movies, for me the problem has been lousy story writing since way back to Return of the Jedi. Granted, Rogue One might actually turn out to be a good movie, but I'm so jaded now that I likely won't see it until it comes on cable.

16 December, 2016 09:48  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

I haven't been too impressed with the Star Wars movies as anything other than eye candy. Strictly speaking I don't think it really qualifies as science fiction, and you're right, the scripts are pretty vapid. The first prequel was enough of a dud that I didn't even bother seeing the others. Still, Star Wars is a cultural phenomenon of some weight, so the wingnuts' campaign against it -- and probable impotence of same -- are of some interest.

16 December, 2016 13:49  
Blogger Tommykey said...

I remember trying to watch the second prequel on tv, and right off the bat when Amidala's decoy gets mortally wounded in a bomb explosion, and her last words to Amidala are "I've failed you." I was like "No you didn't! You got killed instead of Amidala! You succeeded! That was your job!"

16 December, 2016 15:56  
Blogger Tommykey said...

You're right, the Star Wars movies don't really qualify as science fiction. The Martian is an example of a real science fiction movie.

16 December, 2016 15:58  

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