When it was announced that George Lucas had sold Lucasfilm to Disney, and that the studio would be producing a new series of Star Wars films with their newly purchased rights to the franchise, I was somewhat taken aback by my reaction.
Fan reactions, as film scholar and Star Wars fan William Proctor argues, dominated news reports following the announcement. Media outlets, benefitting from the immediacy of the internet, drew on comments from social media, suggesting they “had been run amok with fan voices expressing discontent, indifference and, at times, downright indignation” to the news. The necessary pithiness inherent in Twitter’s character limit provided an ample sampling of sound-bite worthy reactions, from the simply declinatory – “so apparently disney is buying lucasfilms for 4billion USD and then going to make a star wars 7. JUST NO” – to the downrightly apocalyptic – “the world really is ending! Disney bought Star Wars for over 4.5 [b]illion dollars and making more. We’re doomed.” For Proctor, these media reports were overly reductive, focusing on negative reactions to the news that were “non-representative of the Star Wars community,” given the “more varied and complex” comments he had read from fans of the franchise, whose feelings ranged from excitement and optimism, to anxiety, anger, antagonism, a wait-and-see agnosticism, or some intricate combination of these and other emotions.
But I was taken aback, not by the extremity of my reaction toward one emotional pole or another, but by the nearly complete lack of reaction the news generated. I had a moment of corporate cynicism, succumbing to accusations that the move was designed purely to make large sums of money for all parties involved, but without the anger expressed by other fans, who felt that the production of the new films was motivated solely by economics, and that quality would suffer as a result. When the moment passed, I was left with little emotional residue at all. The news was just that, news, another piece of current events.
That the news didn’t move me to any reaction beyond factual acknowledgement that the new films were going to be made puzzled me, because Star Wars had once been a major part of my life. In addition to whatever Disney animated film happened to be my favourite at the time, the VHSs of the original trilogy got a lot of play when I was child. The films are some of the earliest I can remember seeing, to the point that the trilogy always seemed to have been there when I was young. I distinctly remember my father and sister surprising me with the Special Edition box set which they had searched all over town for, and which I promptly dropped on the floor in sheer joy after drawing it out of the groceries where they had hidden it.
The Phantom Menace was the first film that got me thinking about filmmaking as something real people actually did for a living. I saw the film multiple times in theatres, went to my local Blockbuster at midnight to purchase it the minute it was available on VHS, and poured over the making-of companion book that came with it. It was the major pop-culture touchstone for my small circle of friends in middle-school, with each of us adopting one of the characters as an alias to be used only with each other. My yearbook is inscribed “Hey Anny” in a couple of places as a result, accompanied by sketches of lightsabres made all the more convincing by the neon gel pens everyone simply had to have at the time. I was on theforce.net nearly every day, watching for news of the next films in the prequel trilogy. My fannish enthusiasm even led me to entertain the idea that I could tackle the entirety of the vast, and still growing, Expanded Universe, and though I didn’t come close to reading the hundreds of Star Wars novels available, I did devour as many as my local library system could supply.
But as the following two films in the prequel trilogy were released my enthusiasm gradually died down. I anticipated Send in… I mean Attack of the Clones with a fair amount of eagerness and went to see the film on opening weekend, sitting in a sold-out screening with a crowd that clearly shared at least some level of devotion to the franchise. I remember liking the film well enough, but it didn’t strike me with the same intense emotional significance that the other films in the franchise always seemed to possess. I only bought a used DVD copy at a tremendous discount some months after it was released. I saw Revenge of the Sith once in theatres, and once again when I realized I remembered very little of the film and wanted to revisit it to see if it was inherently lacking in its ability to make any real impact on me, or if my initial indifference to it was a product of some circumstance in my life when I first saw it. I reacted to it the second time with similar indifference, and other than occasionally cropping up in my undergraduate program, I had thought very little about the franchise until the Disney announcement in 2013.
I experienced small bouts of excitement in the ensuing two years as news began to trickle out about who was going to write and direct the new films (including the noted and welcome absence of Lucas himself) and who would be cast. But they were short-lived. When the photo of the first table-read was released showing the cast sitting in a circle surrounded by an Indiana Jones-style assortment of crates, including one containing a half-hidden R2-D2, I found my academic brain kicking in rather than my fan enthusiasm, as I began studying the image as a sort of para-text that could be used and interpreted in a number of different ways by different communities. The first trailer triggered a similar response, with my academic training narrowing in on the trailer’s formal strategies, its attempt to balance revelation with obscurity, to excite with familiarity and generate anticipation by offering images that were both familiar and unfamiliar. And yet I experienced little of those emotions myself.
I am often asked if the study of film has ruined my ability to enjoy the medium, and while the answer is always “no, it has simply given me better ways of understanding my enjoyment, giving me more to enjoy,” I still experience moments of doubt when something that I feel should move me doesn’t. So when, at that first shot of a downed X-Wing and Imperial Star Destroyer in the second trailer, I got a bit of a chill down my spine, the visceral reaction I normally associate with something that hits me in that corner of my mind and heart where fandoms are born and fed, I was relieved. But when the rest of the trailer failed to maintain that feeling I was left indifferent again when it ended, instead of excitedly analysing what each shot meant and anticipating the film’s release date, at which point those predictions would be confirmed or perhaps even exceeded.
Matt Hills argues that the nature of fans’ reactions to the initial announcement of the new films depended on a similar form of projection, on how each person predicted the films would turn out, so that “whether one feels excitement, indifference or optimism depends, in large part, on the version of Star Wars that’s been imagined and projected.” But I had imagined very little, if anything at all. I gave very little thought to the new trilogy, to when it would take place, to what characters would appear, to the thorny issues surrounding the ideas of canons and continuity. The prospect of a continuation of the Star Wars saga simply didn’t register emotionally with me, and, as is now typically the case after years of film studies, I started to look for ways to understand this drastic waning of affect.
How could something that once seemed so significant to me suddenly be worthy of little more than vague curiosity?
Existing approaches to fan cultures and theories of fandom circulating in fan studies have never been able to fully capture my own experience. Early studies of cult film audiences tended to understand cult fandom as inherently oppositional, as a declaration of some sort of sub-cultural position antithetical to mainstream cinema, expressed in the cultist’s devotion to films that would normally be dismissed as trash. While the adoption of “cult” as a marketing term has led many theorists, as Anne Jerslev suggests, to argue for the need to “revise or expand the use of the concept,” the inclusion of blockbuster cinema in a discussion of cult is still a point of contention, with some dismissing the notion of a “cult blockbuster” as inherently oxymoronic. Some theorists insist on maintaining a distinction between cult and wider modes of fandom, often by pointing to some measure of the intensity of the audience’s devotion. The resultant distinctions and taxonomies of different fan identities and experiences are not only arbitrary, and possess little explanatory power when it comes to my own experience, but they also tend to drift into the contentious issue of hierarchies of fandom, the notion that someone is only a “real” fan if they have engaged in some activity or another, and can make no claims to membership in a fan community if they have not.
My waning interest in Star Wars would probably slide me off the end of these critical spectrums, leaving me with few theoretical tools to describe my experience as a fan, and might even deny me that status among other fans. I haven’t engaged in any of the activities that are typically cited as constituent of fan identity for many years. Even at the height of my devotion to Star Wars I never participated in any online communities, wrote fan fiction, or attended conventions. My fan activities were all focused on story, watching and re-watching the films and reading through the Expanded Universe. If fandom is tied to active engagement, does that mean that those who never go on social media or produce fan texts (fan fic, fan art, etc.) don’t qualify as fans? Or if they stop doing those things, but still feel an attachment to their chosen text, that they are a different kind of fan than they were before?
Similar issues arise when fandom is conceived as what Hills describes as “performative,” a type of cultural “identity which is (dis-)claimed, and which performs cultural work” that differs according to the specific social and historical context in which a fan identity is claimed. To declare oneself a fan is not a neutral gesture, but one that makes claims to certain forms of identity that have specific meanings in different contexts, but which Hills suggests share a basic contestation of “cultural norms.” While the idea of fandom is in no way devoid of culturally specific connotations, and while each fandom carries slightly different articulations of those associations, that does not mean there is anything inherently oppositional in declaring oneself a fan.
Being a Star Wars fan was fairly common during the height of my fandom, and I didn’t feel like I was claiming anything in particular for myself (oppositional or otherwise) when I declared myself to be a fan of the franchise. It would probably be more of a contestation of “cultural norms” to say you haven’t seen any of the films at all than to claim devotion to them. I do not deny that declaring oneself to be a fan of something also entails making claims about one’s identity based on the cultural perceptions of the text in question, but that doesn’t necessarily explain why someone would form an attachment to a fan object in the first place, or why that attachment might be discarded. I didn’t become a fan of the franchise because I identified with the cultural associations that identity carries – associations that had long been established and were in cultural circulation for many years, so I was completely aware of them – nor does the fact that I drifted away from Star Wars mean that I no longer feel that I can still identify with those associations.
While I don’t contest the fact that “being a fan is an integral part of a project of self-formation” for some fans, that being a fan helps define or redefine who we are, fan studies tend to overstress the connection between fandom and identity formation and the cultural implications of that connection. If Star Wars was performative for me, that performance was not directed outward as a means of creating a particular cultural identity for myself, but inward, as a source of imaginative and affective play, either alone or among my friends, and the enduring significance of the films for me beyond that group of friends stemmed from their emotional resonance, how they made me feel.
While Hills emphasizes emotion as an important factor in theorising the fan experience, he ties affect back into identity construction, describing cult fandom as a “project of the self which is primarily and significantly emotional; cult fans create cultural identities out of the significance which certain texts assume for them.” Hills’s focus on emotion serves to counter the most commonplace approach to fandom, which stresses the cognitive dimensions of fan activities, emphasizing how fans interpret their significant texts. Jerslev argues, for example, that repeated viewings of the same story create an “emotional distance” between fans and film, as audiences, no longer following the unfolding narrative by anticipating or wondering what will happen next because they already know, become keenly aware of the fact that they are viewing a fiction. Hills is right to suggest that fandom arises out of the emotional significance a fan object holds for a fan, and not “rationalist or cognitive mechanisms of interpretation,” but that emotional significance cannot be encompassed by the concept of cultural identity because it fails to address how that significance is initially created or how it can be lost.
A little while after the release of Revenge of the Sith I remember trying to figure out why Star Wars didn’t hold that emotional significance for me anymore, why I had moved on to other films, TV shows, and books. Was I fickle? Was I misremembering how much I loved the franchise? Did I simply not really love it at all to begin with? “No,” I thought. “I did love it and still do. It was important to me, very important, but isn’t anymore.” How could that be though? It seemed so monumental at the time. “I guess I don’t need it anymore,” I concluded.
If fandom is primarily emotional, as Hills suggests, than that affective engagement may be better conceived as a matter of need. While it sounds slightly callous, and comes loaded with theoretical baggage, for me fandom is connected to a kind of emotional use value – the films, TV shows, or books we’re fans of offer something we feel we need, some sort of affective resonance that’s of use to us, whether consciously or not. And these uses can be incredibly diverse, inspiring the different levels of devotion and engagement in fan activities that theorists often use to reductively differentiate among types of fans. We outgrow fandoms when they’re no longer of use to us because we no longer feel we need the type of emotional engagement they offer. We are still able to engage with them emotionally and they may still affect us deeply, but not necessarily the way they once did.
Perhaps the new Star Wars films will emotionally resonate in the right way, and my fan enthusiasm will be rekindled. It’s impossible to tell, and, much to the chagrin of my academic inclinations, impossible to theorize.
But I’ll give it a shot.
Mat Hills, Fan Cultures (New York: Routledge 2002).
—. “Media Fandom, Neoreligiosity and Cult(ural) Studies,” in The Cult Film Reader, ed. Ernest Mathijs and Xavier Mendik (New York: Open University Press, 2008), 133-148.
Anne Jerslev, “Semiotics by Instinct: ‘Cult Film’ as a Signifying Practice between Film and Audience,” in The Cult Film Reader, 88-99.
William Proctor, “‘Holy crap, more Star Wars! More Star Wars? What if they’re crap?’: Disney, Lucasfilm and Star Wars online fandom in the 21st Century,” Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies 10, no. 1 (May 2013): 198-224.