Bifurcating Religions in Star Wars Fandom

Jar Jar Fish

I don’t know how many of you are reading the comments to this blog, but some of them are really spectacular, and I’ve been commenting upon them myself a number of times.

Faithful reader and Marketing Professor Jeff Podoshen, of Franklin & Marshall College (fandm.edu…is that a place to study fandom or what?) in Lancaster, Pennsylvania recently wrote a short confessional in response to one of my blog entries about fandom. I thought it was great. So great that I’m going to excerpt some of it here. He is referring to a Journal of Marketing article in which my co-authors and I analyzed Star Wars fans who wrote about Episode 1: The Phantom Menace and absolutely skewered its authenticity.

    I’m probably one of those fans who postings you read. Now, up until SW Ep 1 I probably spent about $10k on the SW brand lifetime prior to Ep 1 launch. Yeah, its a lot. (FYI – my kitchen to this day features SW curtains) I waited in line for hours to see Ep 1 the night it opened. I thought it sucked Bantha poodoo. I went again the next morning just to make sure… yeah it sucked. After SW Ep 1, I was extremely upset and felt like hitting Lucas over the head with a shovel. He ripped my still beating heart right out of me…. like in Indiana Jones. I remember going home, looking at all my SW collection and feeling like a total sucker. Total dejection. Ep 2 was slightly better, but not great. Ep 3 was slightly better than 2 and lots better than 1, but still generally sucky. After Ep 3 I realized that there were really TWO SW brands. The first was the authentic SW brand – which featured characters and concepts from the original trilogy and there was also the “new” brand.In order to make peace with myself and not have the “magic” of SW ruined I decided to pretend that SW Eps 1-3 just plain didn’t exist. I purged myself of all Ep 1-3 merchandise (which nobody will actually buy – I took it all to a shelter… I wonder if they just tossed it) and decided to pretend that after Jedi – that was it. Quite honestly, I feel much better about it now. I still do buy new SW merchandise, but ONLY if it has no references to Eps 1-3. Today, on the brand community that I am a part of – there are places for those who collect only Original (OT) stuff, those who collect only New (PT) stuff and those who collect both. There is little interaction between the groups of collectors in the one community. In fact, when a PT person jumps into a OT thread, they’re immediately flamed – and the mod has to step in. The opposite is also true. The lines are pretty clear. Hasbro, the license holder of SW created a huge issue when the re-issued the Stormtrooper action figure with removable helmet. The Stormtrooper of course is OT – but the head under the helmet in this new fig was a clone head – from Ep 2. We were all torn as to whether or not to purchase this figure – it was a great sculpt, but sacreligious. Most of us agreed we could buy the fig, but never ever take the helmet off.

To me, this just smacks of the religion analogy. Fandom and hermeneutics have some much in common. In some of my earlier writings about Star Trek fandom, I used a great quote by legendary SF writer Frederick Pohl (1984) who compared fan culture to the culture of “Cellar Christians”

    It is very difficult to explain science-fiction [fandom] to anyone who has never experienced it. The closest analogy, perhaps, might be to the “cellar Christians” of pagan Rome, small, furtive groups of believers, meeting in secret, shunned or even attacked by outsiders, or as fans came to call them, the “mundanes.”

But this isn’t an insider versus outsider division that Jeff is talking about. It is the far-more-interesting insider-versus-insider division, and it also has a generational element to it. To me, this is the Old Testament believers and the New Testament believers. The New Testament believers see the New Testament as fulfilling the prophesies and promise of the Old Testament. The Old Testament believers see the New Testament as a recent work not actually bearing the sacred qualities of being written by God. As Jeff puts it, there is the old, sacred, perfect “authentic” brand, and then there’s the new brand. And never the two shall meet. Unless them meet across a sea of “flames” (which I find very satisfyingly Biblical as well).

His posting is wonderfully rich with Jeff’s emotional relation with the Star Wars text—it doesn’t get much more emotional than having the alleged Dark Creator (now sort of like a Phildickian evil god toying with his creations and the pawns in his universe) rip a still beating heart from the fan’s chest, a Dark Mayan sacrifice if ever there was one.

Buying the beautiful new figure, but keeping its helmet always on is just such a perfect, wonderful ritual gesture. It’s like a form of sacrament, a practice that marks one group of believers from another.

Jeff, you should really write about this stuff. It’s so evocative and powerful coming from you. But I also have to say that I wonder what the future holds for fans. My kids see no differences between the old and new texts at all. To them, they are all Star Wars. And I sense that as this generation moves through, that’s the New Order that will prevail. Those who hang onto the sanctity of the original Star Wars texts (even, gasp, those texts as they originally appeared before Dark Sacrifice-Demanding Mayan gods tampered with their scenes, special effects, and titles) are, quite probably, a dying breed. Yet another old religion, slowly fading to black….

One Response

  1. Jeff Podoshen August 18, 2007

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