How to Read Star Wars
By M. W. LipschutzDecember 22, 2017
— Walt Disney
“Dreams have started wars.”
— Walter Benjamin
“It is the manner in which the U.S. dreams and redeems itself, and then imposes that dream upon others for its own salvation”
— Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart
HOW TO READ Donald Duck: Imperialist Ideology in The Disney Comic landed in the United States in 1975. Printed in Hungary, the underground screed against Disney’s Donald Duck comics was immediately detained by the Imports Compliance Branch of the US Customs Department. Disney sued the book’s publisher for “piratical” use of characters.
Written by Chilean radicals Ariel Dorfman and Armand Mattelart in 1971, How to Read Donald Duck analyzed decades of postwar Disney comics designed to indoctrinate the children of Latin America with pro-capitalist propaganda. In 1973, after the bloodiest coup in the continent’s history — a coup that ended Salvador Allende’s Popular Unity government, his life, and the lives of thousands — General Augusto Pinochet’s junta had the book burned, along with many other books deemed subversive.
Sill penning sharp critiques, Ariel Dorfman sees Donald Trump as Donald Duck: “We are clearly in a moment,” he writes, “when a yearning to regress to the supposedly uncomplicated, spotless, and innocent America of those Disney cartoons, the sort of America that Walt once imagined as eternal, fills Trump and so many of his followers with an inchoate nostalgia.” Today, Donald Duck lags in its appeal to consumers. Star Wars is a more effective vehicle to influence the young, whose culture has already been colonized, with ideals of freedom as well as to capitalize on our collective distress. Like Donald Duck, Star Wars is an invisible disguise, in which, as Dorfman and Mattelart put it, “protest is converted into imposture” and radical energy is digested to eliminate its power. If that means riffing on revolution or including women and people of color in the plot, the underlying logic is the same.
More Americans will see Star Wars in 2020 than will vote. The Star Wars Universe is slated to include two more films between now and then, and its latest movie, The Last Jedi, premiered last week. What we need in response is an extensive analysis of how the Star Wars films, comics, and merchandise are distributed in other countries, as well as our own. Star Wars is sacred to millions, and millions are blind to Star Wars. Inspired by Dorfman and Mattelart, here are 13 ways to read it.
1. Disney, the Guardian of the Universe
It was a movie, then a franchise, and as it grew into a cinematic universe, a black hole opened up, sucking away the popcorn and leaving something ideologically opposed to cinema itself. The Star Wars Expanded Universe — what we now call its constellation of media satellites — is made up of screenplays, films, TV shows, novels, picture books, video games, board games, comics, and so much more. By 2000, Star Wars intellectual properties were so expansive that Lucas Licensing’s Publishing Department devised a “continuity database” to keep track of the gospel of Star Wars.
Twelve individuals oversee the archive as guardians of the Star Wars canon. It is known to them — and to Star Wars superfans — as the Holocron, a self-referenced story term for a fortified library of wisdom that “contain[s] the most closely guarded secrets of the Jedi Order.” Holo, meaning holographic; cronos, meaning a personification of time; or perhaps Cronus, the Greek god who castrated his father Uranus. Unlike the Jedi archive introduced in Attack of the Clones (2002), the Licensing Department’s Holocron exists on Planet Earth and contains the most lucrative story ever copywritten. It is made up of “55,000 entries for franchise characters, locations, species, and vehicles.” What it doesn’t include is the miniscule merchandise seeping into daily life — the key fobs, tote bags, gel pens, socks, and soda — branded in the name of the Holocron.
In 2012, when Walt Disney Company acquired the rights of the Star Wars Expanded Universe for $4.05 billion — including all of Lucasfilm’s lesser holdings like Indiana Jones — Hollywood was still reeling from Disney’s acquisition of the Marvel Cinematic Universe for $4 billion three years earlier. To single out Disney, however, is not the point. In the age of corporate consolidation, sucking up intellectual property weaponizes story. Disney is perhaps the most aggressive in this regard — vertically integrating production, distribution, and exhibition wherever it can — but they are in the middle of an arms race. In 2016, Dreamworks sold for $3.8 billion to NBCUniversal, a subsidiary of Comcast, which wrestled Harry Potter away from Disney. In the fog of The Last Jedi’s opening weekend, Team Disney has merged with rival 21st Century Fox, purchased for a whopping $52.4 billion from Rupert Murdoch. In this corporate cold war, the Disney Empire has retooled Star Wars into its own Death Star, capable of destroying other movie studios and their parent companies.
2. The Force
Back in 2015, opening weekend for The Force Awakens racked in $582 million worldwide. In the lead up to that opening, the cross-market saturation of Star Wars ads overlapped every medium. These ads didn’t have to advertise the movie; simply the scent of Star Wars was sufficient. Public service announcements exhorted listeners to “Avoid the Dark Side.” Tiny Star Wars–branded stickers appeared on tangerines. Facebook changed its status update prompt, which usually reads “What’s on your mind,” to “Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens today! Are you excited to see it? Let your friends know.” Hillary Clinton mentioned “the Force” in a presidential debate.
The Force is not, as Yoda would have you believe, “an energy field created by all living things.” The Force that Star Wars speaks for is capitalism. Disney roused this giant, conjured its spell, and put it to work. Money is the Force that balances good and evil. If used for good, money can save freedom and democracy. When properly invested, money moves us closer to class equality and racial harmony. If used for evil, fear and violence will reign. But money is rarely mentioned in Star Wars. The Universe is organized around a murky barter economy, where the cost of fuel or the construction of military-industrial starfleets is rarely discussed. Since the Empire would be an incorporated entity (granted a lax corporate charter from Wilmington, Delaware), why don’t its commanders talk like corporate leaders? Imperial commanders ought to discuss which old crony will get the bid to rebuild the planet they just destroyed. Or do these commanders represent a Cuban-style bureaucracy projected into outer space?
The Force Awakens was a game-changer, demonstrating how deeply a marketing campaign can penetrate society. Adweek has called this “relentless, but also masterful.” “Star Wars inspired product integration between brands and Hollywood at an unprecedented scale,” said the American Marketing Association. But Disney only amplified what Star Wars had already been doing. From the beginning in 1977, Burger King hawked Darth Vader special edition drinking glasses, and Kenner (a subsidiary of General Mills) manufactured Star Wars action figures. These relationships seem quaint because hundreds of other companies have since hitched themselves to Disney’s shining Star Wars and gladly pay for the host body’s advertising. Or perhaps Disney is the parasite with many host bodies. Disney’s allegiance to capitalism is a case study of the Force used for the Dark Side.
3. The Star Wars Liberation Movement
George Lucas says that he sold Lucasfilm to Disney in order to protect the mythology he created — to protect his creation from generational obscurity and to protect it from himself. Producer Kathleen Kennedy commands the liberation of Lucasfilm from Lucas. She marshaled the expanding revitalization of the Star Wars franchise with The Force Awakens (2015), Rogue One (2016), and now The Last Jedi (2017). These are the big floats in the parade that we will experience as massive cultural events — they are no longer cult events — for the rest of our lives.
Disney’s stewardship of Star Wars is seen, by some, as a decolonization of the franchise, or its liberation in the way the United States “liberated” Japan and Germany in 1945. But it’s more akin to the delusion known as “the liberation of Iraq” in 2003. In Iraq, the United States was determined to open untapped markets in the name of freedom. In Star Wars, Rian Johnson will direct a new trilogy with so-called “complete creative freedom” in the name of better movies. Supposedly, George Lucas wanted Disney to be the studio to produce the original Star Wars when the films were a twinkle in his eye. This is why Disney’s liberation of Star Wars also functions as a Bismarckian unification, a match made in the boardroom.
4. Memory in the US Star Wars Political Universe
Star Wars inverts historical context and political movements, minimizing the gravity of American aggression at home and abroad. In a 2016 New York Times op-ed, US Army Veteran Roy Scranton described the irony of watching Star Wars while deployed in Iraq: “I was the faceless stormtrooper, and the scrappy rebels were the Iraqis,” Scranton wrote. Ten years earlier, Italy’s RAI Television reported a completely brutal account of “experimental laser weapons being used against Iraqi civilians.” “Star Wars in Iraq,” headlines read. There’s continuity between historical events and the Star Wars Political Universe, but there’s also a mash-up, a reversal of meaning. “Ever since Star Wars, Americans love and consider themselves these great anti-authoritarians and we look to identify with the rebels across the globe,” punk essayist Ian F. Svenonius writes. The movies remake history and as history is told and retold, the movies must be remade. In this recurring remakequel, the audience has the privilege to cheerlead for whichever side they feel.
Back in 1977, Star Wars was already a simplification of the American military intervention in Vietnam. In Episode IV: A New Hope, only one side (the Empire) has the H-bomb, which in the movie is known as the Death Star, a spherical space station that can destroy an entire planet with its super laser. By 2017, the Rebels fighting the Empire have been re-labeled as the Resistance, evoking the French Resistance, not to be confused with Yemen’s Houthi rebels of 2017. The Empire has “means of mass destruction,” says some a rebel in Rogue One, a decade after American media convinced the United States that Iraq (the Rogue State) had weapons of mass destruction which began the “Forever War.” Precisely because Star Wars exists “A long time ago in a galaxy, far, far away,” it is free to mix and match political reality: to distort, confuse, and ultimately deny history.
Despite this scrambling of history, the truth is that the Empire and the Resistance are on the same side, battling on behalf of Disney in what is known as the Content Wars. In these wars, the Big Six Studios are each beating back the streaming rebellion of Netflix, Amazon Studios, and, in the case of Hulu, which was a 21st Century Fox asset, sucking it inside the Disney machine.
5. Star Wars and Trump’s War on Journalists
The Star Wars Cinematic Universe is a universe much like ours — life-sustaining and technologically advanced — but it’s a universe importantly without a public sphere. No news, journalism, entertainment media, or even advertising. Disney reportedly banned Los Angeles Times film critics from pre-screenings of The Last Jedi. It was retaliation for the newspaper’s two-part story exposing that the City of Anaheim rents a 10,241-space parking structure (that cost taxpayers $108 million) to Disney for one dollar a year. The story also revealed that Disney financially supported pro-Disney city council members during local elections. (Disney’s punitive action was probably further incited because of another review, “How to Read El Pato Pascual: Disney’s Latin America and Latin America’s Disney,” an art show currently open at the MAK Center for Art and Architecture inspired by Dorfman and Mattelart.) When the Trump White House bans certain members of the press corps from official briefings, Disney’s tendencies and actions are dismally familiar. On-screen and off, the Empire rejects the Fourth Estate.
A press corps, of course, isn’t the Universe’s only convenient omission. There are no tech giants or interplanetary corporations in its galaxy far, far away. Droids are open source, secure, and possibly encrypted. All techno-utopian potential with none of technology’s risks, droids are something a normal person can fix and trust. On Earth, where Star Wars is a multinational corporation, droids are still called robots and they are the horizon. They will be manufactured by Apple, Google, Amazon. It’s easy to imagine Star Wars licensing its brand to a company manufacturing consumer robots — or even acquiring a robotics startup to develop a consumer R2-D2. This is how R2-D2, a lovable droid, and its cousin the BB-8 unit will come to be. Bloomberg reported that when, in 2015, Sphero released the BB-8 droid toy — which can be controlled with a smart phone — it sold 22,000 units in 12 hours.
Drones are another market. The Star Wars brand will manufacture larger, more capable versions of the prophesied machines protected under proprietary intellectual property laws. Unlike in the films, the droid hardware will not be interchangeable, but rather soldered in place. The popular R2 unit will be a Trojan Horse. Around the house, the R2-shaped trash collector that supposedly serves you will also collect your family’s biometric data, record your conversations, and order toilet paper for you via your digital wallet. All the while, R2 will be profiling you on behalf of Disney, the Evil Empire. What a difference a universe can make.
Since becoming head of Lucasfilm, Kathleen Kennedy has kept her promises: she has released a film every year, pushing strong female leads and characters of color into a generally white, male Star Wars Universe. Many fans like the direction the new movies are taking. They don’t want their sense of wonder dashed. But what is the subtext of Kennedy’s new direction? Andre Seewood wrote a three-part essay in IndieWire about the “hyper-tokenism” of the new Star Wars, writing that Rogue One presented a “marked increase in screen time, dramatic involvement and promotional images of a Black character in a White film, while simultaneously reserving full dramatic agency as the providence of White characters by the end of the film.”
Meanwhile, the alt-right reacted to the newly inclusive Universe by staging a weak-sauce boycott of Rogue One. “By now, getting angry about stuff that's progressive and inclusive is kind of the alt-right's schtick,” Wired Magazine reported, presupposing that a multi-billion dollar movie could ever be progressive. Isn’t a movie that big, by its very nature, guilty of co-opting “inclusiveness” for financial gain?
8. Jedi as Lifestyle, Lifestyle as Copyright Infringement
To read Star Wars, you might follow the money. You might also follow the lawsuits. Disney’s battalion of lawyers, who doggedly protect Disney IP, have synchronized with Lucasfilm’s legal team. Get ready for an enlivened pace of copyright infringement suits to unfold on behalf of the Star Wars Universe, a place where there are no logos or brands. But for us, Star Wars is a brand. It does not have to be Star Wars Day, which is May 4, to don a Star Wars T-shirt because wearing a Star Wars shirt is as innocuous as wearing a Rolling Stones tee — both, by the way, are sold at Target.
The exploitation of the Jedi Knight “lifestyle,” however, goes deeper than T-shirts. If Star Wars helped to commodify a certain nerd culture as cool, Luke Skywalker embodies the nerd who became a Jedi. He’s the messianic front man of a pseudo-gypsy rock group with exotic, Orientalist undertones. He is at once Burning Man, hippy, wabi-sabi, and swordsmen. Americans consume this persona as people across the world who actually live in cultures on which the Jedi is loosely based are uprooted and saturated with Mickey Mouse tees, only to become collateral damage in the slipping grip of US global hegemony.
9. The Tea Party
In a 2006 sketch, British comedians Mitchell and Webb play two SS Officers, skull patches ironed onto their gray uniforms. They ask, “Are we are the Baddies?” Star Wars operates by a similar logic: a political system based on obvious good and obvious evil. Characters fight on the side they fight on based on psychology — often quite Freudian — inspired by a childhood trauma. By psychologizing the forces of good and evil, political debate is displaced and made apolitical in the Star Wars Universe. In our lived experience, wars are fought over access to capital, labor, over ethnic tensions and land disputes. If the Dark Side isn’t doing what they’re doing in order to advance resource extraction to secure energy for a “superior race,” what exactly are they doing?
If the United States is the Empire in the films, fans say, “So what, it’s just a movie.” George Lucas is a liberal who allegedly expressed his criticism of George Bush with a film whose budget rivaled the Battle of Fallujah. But in the homeland of the warmongers, audiences dressed in Darth Vader costumes root for the Rebels, the Terrorists. Gray-haired adults accept the franchise’s black-and-white message through the haze of nostalgia — demonstrating how one era’s defenders of freedom might allow the next era to be destroyed.
Disney’s latest purchase of 21st Century Fox further scrambles the political allegiances of the franchise. After all, Disney didn’t buy out the Rupert Murdoch–owned production company with cash; it was a quid pro quo merger. The $52.4 million is payment in Disney stock, elevating Murdoch to the second largest cardholder in Disney with a 4.4 percent stake in the company. Future Star Wars installments will therefore continue to enrich Rupert Murdoch — the man who owns the right-wing media outlet Fox News, the man who helped bring Donald Trump to power.
10. License the Myth
Will Star Wars supersede our own history? In the future, Star Wars will serve as our Greek epic. As The Economist put it, Star Wars has already “cemented its position as the market leader in the industrialization of mythology.” Disney understood the primal seduction of storytelling and based his business model on bottling fairy tales and folklore that once belonged to the commons. Walt Disney’s genius wasn’t creating Mickey Mouse; it was licensing the rights to Mickey Mouse. Not only is Mickey the most recognizable character in the world, but Mickey dictates copyright law in the United States of America. Mickey is the colonizer of storytelling. And the power in owning the fantasy and make-believe world of children’s imaginations only expands with new digital technologies.
The greatest betrayal Lucas lofted against his generation of filmmaking is his overuse of Joseph Campbell’s mono-myth theories and writings. The hero’s journey follows certain stages; the most important stage is monetizing the hero’s journey. The hero sucks away financing from different stories — stories of unsung heroes who speak up and defend the rights of people they may not even know. It blots out small stories, slow stories. Next time you imagine how a hereditary hero (somehow related to the last hero) is capable of saving whole planets from evil, think about why are we being told that there was always (even “long ago”) an evil lording over us. There always will be. Does that story give us hope to change this or reaffirm our place in the universe, conditioning us to accept such oppression?
11. George Lucas
Once a film nerd at the University of Southern California, George Lucas came of age in the 1960s, when a new wave of young white male film studs transformed the studio model of Hollywood. Suspicious of on-the-lot theatricality and big heroic budgets, these films experimented with cheaper, slower styles and morally ambiguous themes. A freaky underground film scene (16mm and 8mm) stewed in New York and San Francisco. Of this milieu, Lucas made THX 1138 (1971), a sci-fi yarn about freeing your mind and body, and American Graffiti (1973), the Sha Na Na of anti–Vietnam War messages. Francis Ford Coppola’s American Zoetrope umbrella produced both.
Coppola commented at the Marrakech International Film Festival in 2015, “I think Star Wars, it’s a pity, because George Lucas was a very experimental crazy guy and he got lost in this big production and never got out of it.” Lucas, his protégé, had sold him up the river. The young rebel George Lucas has turned himself (or we have turned him) into Darth Vader.
12. Darth Vader versus Mickey Mouse
Disney is the Empire. The Star Wars franchise is the Death Star. George Lucas is Vader. Who — or what — is Luke Skywalker in this allegorical Universe? Luke Skywalker, with his self-exiled father, is a human embodiment of Mickey Mouse.
In 1931, Walter Benjamin wrote, “All Mickey Mouse Films are founded on the motif of leaving home in order to learn what fear is,” a concept based on a story from the Grimm Brothers. Benjamin saw Mickey Mouse films as popular not because of the mass appeal inherent in the film medium, but because the public sees themselves in Mickey. Skywalker, too, leaves home to conquer that deep fear. In the marketing of Star Wars, Skywalker is deficient as an icon. But Darth Vader, who incarnates a genocidal maniac and fear itself, with his black-helmeted mask, becomes the Mickey Mouse of Star Wars. In a simple twist of brand awareness, fear now eats the soul.
13. Star Wars in the Public Domain
In a 2015 interview with Charlie Rose, George Lucas likened Disney to “white slavers” who took his intellectual property and mucked it up. But his official public apology assured us all that Disney folk were loyal “custodians of Star Wars.” Despite this apology, Lucas knows the mistakes he’s made. Wouldn’t it be nice if he could wrest back his franchise from the Empire, liberating his myth to be consumed by the people in the public domain? How far can a fair use legal defense get us? This remixed trailer imagines Star Wars as a grindhouse flick from the 1970s and gives us a glimmer of the popular mythologies and glorious camp that we’re missing. The people, free to make their own Star Wars episodes, web series, novels, and comics, may socialize the myth — or ratchet up the clichéd lines, talk over it, and piss on it. Wouldn’t it be great if Jean-Luc Godard was hired to direct the next Star Wars? Stormtroopers being interviewed in their masks about labor abuses and equal pay straight out of the factory-worker interviews of Tout va bien? If that doesn’t inspire you, imagine a Star Wars installment directed by Eric Andre, Dee Rees, or John Waters.
Featured image courtesy of Josh Hallett.
LARB Staff Recommendations
By connecting female representation to values that challenge toxic masculinity, "The Last Jedi" supplants the franchise’s hero worship with compassion...
Dan Hassler-Forest on the latest Star Wars film.
Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?
LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!