In my last blog post I wrote about Mad Men, a pop cultural sensation that is now winding down. This time I want to reflect a bit on the Star Wars franchise, a pop culture phenomenon for which the word “sensation” is wholly inadequate, and which, far from winding down, is instead winding up in preparation for the release of its seventh installment (The Force Awakens), with at least two more “episodes” in the works.
The cultural significance of the Star Wars films cannot be overestimated. I say this not as a fan (in fact, I more or less share the opinion of Alex Guinness, who, interestingly enough, was no fan of the films that made him very rich for playing the original Obi-Wan Kenobi) but as a cultural semiotician. Because in the extraordinary success of 1977’s inaugural installment of the Star Wars saga we may find a precise marker of America’s turn to fantasy as its favorite cinematic form and all that that would portend.
Of course before Lucas, there was Tolkien and Roddenberry, whose Lord of the Rings and Star Trek paved the way for the transformation of fantasy from a children’s genre to a preferred form of entertainment for adults as well. But Star Wars went much further. A survey of top box office hits over the years will show that prior to 1977 fantasy filmmaking wasn’t even in the running. After 1977, between a host of sword-and-sorcery, tossed-in-space, superhero, and general sci-fi scenarios, the situation was reversed, such that the top ten films in any year since 2000 have been overwhelmingly in the fantasy sector (I’m using the term “fantasy” in the broadest sense).
So dominant is fantasy today that it is all too easy to take the matter for granted; but it is that crucial difference that a little research can reveal which points to the significance of the current paradigm. The question becomes, what does that difference signify?
Given the historical identification of fantasy with children’s storytelling, we can abductively suggest that the turn to fantasy is, at least in part, a signifier of a fully developed youth culture, one in which youth—rather than age, as in most traditional societies—is the most valued life stage. Beyond that, there are indications that the appeal of fantasy is especially strong in a drab postindustrial era wherein the realities of everyday life are so unsatisfying that the fantastic landscapes of Pandora, or even the dystopian labyrinths of the Matrix, are desirable distractions from the era of the Cubicle. And one can’t help but think of Neil Postman’s famous jeremiad Amusing Ourselves to Death in this context either—that is, in an entertainment culture, rational discourse doesn’t really have a chance.
These may be fighting words (Postman’s particularly) for some of your students, but rather than presenting the significance of the fantasy era as a given to them, you would do well to explore what they think its significance might be. (The 8th edition of Signs of Life in the USA provides a lot of material for this.) The first step is to point out the phenomenon to them, because it is one of those things that are hiding in plain sight even as they loom over us. After all, Buck Rogers was once kid’s stuff; thanks toStar Wars, fantasy is the dominant discourse of our time.