Continuing on from my previous research on Star Wars (and other related activities), I’ve had an article published in a special issue of the open access journal Film Criticism. I write about the Forces of Destiny Star Wars series on YouTube, addressing the tensions between Disney’s presentation of this girl-focused arm of the Star Wars universe and its reception by fans and consumers. In particular, I look at the ‘Adventure figure’ line of toys marketed with the series, tracing its ‘plastic representation’ within the broader contexts of Star Wars transmedia, commodity activism, and paratextual erasure.
The article is open access and free to read—you can find it at this link. You can also read a short excerpt from the article below:
Few films are more iconic and widely recognized than Star Wars (1977). Now an international franchise with a forty-year history and a multi-billion-dollar box office and merchandising legacy, Star Wars has become a global phenomenon. Amidst ever-intensifying waves of film and television content, transmedia tie-ins, and merchandising outreach, it has become common to speak of Star Wars as though it is a universal constant. Not only can it be found everywhere, the reasoning goes, it is also something that can be enjoyed together by people of diverse ages and backgrounds. As Rogue One (2016) reviewer Rohan Naahar writes for the Hindustan Times, “Star Wars is for everyone; every boy or girl who has ever looked up at the night sky and wondered if there are other worlds out there. It’s for every kid who has ever pretended to be a hero, saving the day, with his friends by his side. Star Wars belongs to us now.” But what parts of the franchise are we talking about when we speak of Star Wars? And is it the franchise’s omnipresence that allows it to appeal to the kid—or the boy, as Naahar’s use of personal pronouns suggests—in everyone?
Scholarly studies of political progressiveness in media industrial franchises, and particularly in Star Wars, tend to focus on issues of representation, and the power of “seeing a version of one’s self on screen” to form and influence fan communities. This is beginning to change, and Star Wars has been a popular case study in the process—particularly within the context of feminism. In her work on the #wheresrey Twitterstorm, in which fans protested the absence of merchandise featuring Rey, the female protagonist of 2016’s The Force Awakens, Suzanne Scott points out that although “historically paratexts have been theorized as being used by the audience to make sense of the text, franchise paratexts are equally used to make sense of the audience, and accordingly have the capacity to marginalize particular demographics in their address.” When Scott uses the term “paratext,” she is referring to Gérard Genette’s concept of the elements surrounding a text (in Genette’s case a novel), but not directly part of the narrative. These are the elements a reader must encounter in order to access the text: a cover, blurbs, title page, table of contents, and so forth. In this case, the absence of Rey from The Force Awakens’ merchandising was read as paratextual evidence that Star Wars was not really “for girls,” even though the film’s main character is a woman. Jeffrey A. Brown, also writing about #wheresrey, suggests that “social-media-based protests targeted at consumer culture may become one of the most productive strategies for promoting gender equality in modern culture.” As yet, however, the #wheresrey saga has only produced superficial gestures towards feminism from Disney, rather than radically changing the way the Star Wars universe is conceived and marketed. Even as the Star Wars franchise has made a more deliberate effort to target female audiences through its paratexts, it has done so in contradictory ways. Elizabeth Affuso uses the example of the Star Wars CoverGirl makeup line to argue that “as fan practices become more gender inclusive they often simultaneously reinforce gender divides.” In this case women were recognized as fans of Star Wars, but were offered merchandise that restricted their fandom to conservative, hyperfeminine modes of expression.
Into this postfeminist landscape, in April 2017 Disney announced the Forces of Destiny animated micro-series as part of a new initiative in transmedia storytelling. The Forces of Destiny initiative represents the Star Wars franchise’s most engaged response to the #wheresrey saga to date, actively framing itself within a discourse of commodity activism. The series aired on Disney YouTube, and featured the franchise’s most famous female characters: “Rey, Ahsoka Tano, Jyn Erso, Princess Leia, Sabine Wren, and other icons of a galaxy far, far away.” The new story initiative was also supplemented by books, apparel, and, most importantly, a line of “toys from Hasbro.” Mock-ups of the toys and books are included in the initial press release on StarWars.com (see Figure 1). The micro-series and merchandise lines both launched in July 2017, but in the three-month wait between the series announcement and release, it was Hasbro’s Forces of Destiny toys that generated the most discussion. Because of the way Forces of Destiny’s merchandising paratexts interacted with the ‘text’ or canonical narrative of the series, this had negative implications for the initiative as a whole.
Read more at the link!