For many, the return of Star Wars (and a good one at that) to the big screen could be likened to the second coming of Christ. The franchise is a cultural phenomenon celebrated around the world, and the media has taken advantage of its popularity with ludicrous, if expected, amounts of coverage. On the day of the film’s public premiere, news outlets took to the lines around the U.S, interviewing people dressed up as Stormtroopers, Princess Leia, Jedi, etc. Everyone, and I mean everyone, has been attracted to the hype, feeling proud of being a fan of a nearly 40 year old franchise and one of the most, if not the most, successful merchandising empires in history. One of the bigger televised news outlets interviewed some kind of supermodel or big star, who proceeded to display her Millennium Falcon ring and other Star Wars branded items, stated that, “it’s okay to be a nerd.”
The geek/nerd (the differences between the two have been minimized to the point of being indistinguishable) phenomenon is an oddity, not because of the people themselves, but rather how such a niche group became accepted by the mainstream and is now seen as the norm. Anyone can be a geek now, just because they are really into something. Being a geek is popular, or at least our modern society’s interpretation of a geek is. Unsurprisingly, that interpretation is based on capitalist values pushed forward by powerful corporate interests.
What started as a derogatory label meant to marginalize nonconformity has pretty much transformed into a label for franchises in popular culture that had been historically affiliated with geeks (and loved by children as well). “Historically” is the key word here, as nostalgia has become one tactic commonly used by marketing departments in the entertainment business. As Simon Pegg mentioned in his blog, today’s geek culture could be likened to French Philosopher Jean Baudrillard’s theory regarding the infantilization of society, in which “dominant forces” make society “passionate about the things that occupied us as children as a means of drawing our attentions away from the things we really should be invested in.” While it is extreme to assume that Hollywood is working with the government to distract the masses, corporations have certainly exploited our childhoods for their own benefit (and the incessant discussions of pop culture rather than real world issues in public media have undoubtedly benefited governments around the world). The current, most popular movies and TV shows are based on franchises that people watched or read when they were much younger, and the majority of new films are either not successful enough for film company shareholders, or so successful that the film’s world is expanded with sequels until it becomes nostalgic for today’s kids, thus continuing the endless cycle. In essence, the geek is publicly celebrated as a means to returning to childhood; a utopia from the unwanted complexities of life.
One pillar of childhood in capitalist society, toys, has greatly benefited from that mindset. The entertainment industry has pushed forward the notion that buying merchandise (toys, figurines, etc) shows how much you love a franchise. Naturally, society has taken this message and molded a social hierarchy around it, with levels for how geeky someone is, and the negative stigma from the past comes into play when someone passes a certain level of geekiness. Levels are distinguished primarily by how much merchandise one buys, and the more popular a franchise is, the more merchandise an individual is able to buy before passing the threshold from “passionate” geek to “man-child.” Passing the threshold takes the collection-based obsession and amplifies it considerably. When the only way to differentiate oneself is through the ownership of merchandise, than the “true fan” mentality is pushed to the extreme. Loyalty to a product pushes people to beat the crap out of each other for Star Wars toys and the perceived value of “exclusive” merchandise makes Comic Conventions increasingly insufferable.
One of the biggest comic conventions in America, San Diego Comic-Con (SDCC), is now a staple of geek consumerism, with Hollywood dominating the show floor with their extravagant booths and limited amounts of merchandise. These venues are a haven for scalpers looking to buy as many of the Comic-Con exclusives as they can get, often walking away from the lines carrying Hasbro toys by the armloads. Rather than explore the convention halls freely, the majority of badge-holders will wait in line for hours to either pick up a ticket that allows them to wait in another hours-long line to receive a small Lego superhero figure, or just wait in line to obtain the free merchandise handed out. What started as a meeting place for fans in celebration of a severely underrated medium has turned into a scavenger hunt for precious pieces of plastic which somehow indicate how much of a fan you are of a franchise. What should be a place to share your enjoyment and passion instead splits up groups of friends and/or family to increase the chances of obtaining exclusive toys. These entertainment companies have manipulated fans so much, that Comic-Con attendees participate in shameful displays of violence over a six-inch Star Wars Stormtrooper figure. Apparently aggressiveness is a legitimate demonstration of geek passion now. The anarchical mobs are a far cry from the more welcoming atmosphere of past conventions, and the humble origins of SDCC make today’s version look like a dystopian capitalist environment.
At this point, geek culture might as well be a synonym for consumerist culture, and that kind of scares me, because it makes me question my own identity. I am a video game fanatic, I indulge in some anime from time-to-time, whenever I try to think of story ideas, I usually make them Sci-Fi in nature, I collect art books, t-shirts, posters, etc related to my favorite TV shows/movies (no toys), I love going to Comic-Con and talking with those around me in line about comics and related topics. Being born in 1995, I have grown up with society’s fascination with geeks, and the cultural trends I was raised with has defined the value I place on material goods (read: a pretty large value). This consumerist attitude has made me who I am and honestly, as cynical as I may be, that culture isn’t something I can escape from. Am I an individual who is able to think independently, or are my passions and opinions merely a byproduct of marketing trends?
My concern incites an even bigger question: how much of our identity has been defined by the successful marketing strategies of corporations? Why do we like the things we like? Why do we dislike the things we dislike? Are today’s cultural trends purely social constructs built by decades of corporate advertising? Should we care? These are difficult questions that may not have a definitive answer, either because it requires us to face realities that we don’t want to know or because we can’t pinpoint the exact reasons why we see the world the way we do: we just do.
As the Star Wars hype train continues to build momentum for future movies and products, it is abundantly clear that the franchise is here to stay. Disney has marketed it perfectly, appeasing more and more fans who will proceed to spread the word of Star Wars as gospel for generations to come. Popularity and the feeling of belonging will drive the love for Star Wars, as it has already done for the current population. In this era where pop culture trends dictate public discussion, all I can say is perhaps we need to reevaluate ourselves, not to question our morality, but rather to explore our lifestyles and determine whether our passions for entertainment and the ways we express those passions are truly our own.