There’s a great scene in the film Jay & Silent Bob Strike Back in which Ben Affleck’s character remarks that the internet has given people around the world the power to share information and ideas like never before and they’ve decided to use that power to bitch about movies. The Culture Tsar thinks about that comment every time some fan-driven controversy breaks out over (insert media franchise here) and overloads his Twitter feed for 12-24 hours.
As the saying goes, this is why we can’t have nice things.
Now, the Culture Tsar obviously has nothing against bitching about movies in principle. There’s a big difference, however, between debating the merits/flaws of a film as cultural products and debating them as extensions of someone’s personal identity. In the former, disagreements over the work in question are defensible positions easily set aside after the debate. Someone can like or dislike a film for various reasons, but that in no way affects anyone’s enjoyment of it. For instance, the Culture Tsar thinks the Transformers films are equal parts dumb, vapid, obnoxious, and tedious. Their continued existence and success, however, doesn’t affect him beyond forcing him to watch the trailer for the next one every time he attends a movie (honestly, The Last Knight feels like it’s been “Coming Soon” for five years now).
But when a work of popular culture becomes deeply entangled with a person’s identity, criticism ceases being criticism and instead turns into an existential threat. The most obvious and intense example of this phenomenon is Star Wars fandom. Seriously, there were Catholics executing Protestants during the Reformation who felt less strongly about the sanctity of the Holy Scriptures than some Star Wars fans feel about the franchise’s canon. Take a look on any Star Wars forum and you’ll find people decrying, well, just about anything that’s happened with the franchise since it was sold to Disney. From the decanonization of the “Expanded Universe” to the casting decisions behind each new film, there’s a rabid cult of fans out there who are on a crusade to defend the “true” Star Wars from “outside” meddling. Never mind that many of these people were not even born when most of the films came out or lived through the shock of the prequels upending longstanding assumptions about the original trilogy; they view the entire canon as an internally consistent scripture that must be adhered to down to the last detail lest the entire franchise be invalidated.
There’s a reason the Culture Tsar compared this situation to the Reformation: it’s because this intense form of fandom only makes sense through the lens of religious scripture. The Catholic Church persecuted Protestant Christians because it feared that if erroneous interpretations of Holy Scripture were allowed to take root in society, scores of unsuspecting Christians might be led into heresies that could endanger their eternal souls. Of course, there’s also the more cynical interpretation that Protestantism threatened the religious authority of the church (and the political power that came with it), which is equally viable here. While Protestantism wasn’t particularly democratic in form in those early days, it did represent a broader democratization of the faith by making it possible for Christians to worship in multiple ways.
The Reformation also swept away centuries of Church practices that had little, if any, basis in actual Scripture. In this sense, Protestantism literally changed what it meant to be a Christian. Methods of worship changed, sources of authority shifted, and expectations of behavior were redefined. For devout Catholics who remained invested in pre-Reformation practices, this change represented an existential threat. After all, if minor changes were permitted to gain strength, they could potentially lead to greater heresies down the line.
It might seem glib, if not sacrilegious, to compare Star Wars fandom to the Reformation, but the analogy fits quite well. Longtime Star Wars fans who resent Disney-era Star Wars are largely motivated by a sense that the franchise has been taken from them and redefined by people who lack their deep commitment to the rituals of fandom. Virtually every internal religious conflict in human history boils down to an argument over which sacred texts are considered legitimate. When Disney/Lucasfilm announced that the “Expanded Universe” would no longer be considered canon for the franchise moving forward, it was tantamount to Protestants declaring that numerous Catholic sacraments were no longer necessary elements of salvation.
This argument might seem ridiculous if Star Wars was just another media franchise, but it isn’t. There are people all over the world who have a massive personal investment in this fictional universe. For many people, being a “Star Wars fan” is a form of personal identity every bit as strong as a religious identity. It’s simply not acceptable for them to allow just anyone to experience Star Wars however they want because that would diminish the value of their fandom. They also want to be able to claim a form of scriptural authority. To have someone, especially someone who doesn’t conform to their image of a “true believer”, dictate what is legitimate canon and what is not is the ultimate offense. It’s as if instead of heresy festering at the margins of the Catholic world, it’s being handed down by the Holy See itself (perhaps the controversy over the Second Vatican Council of 1959 would have been a better analogy, but that’s a deeper cut that would take longer to explain and the Culture Tsar isn’t about to rewrite this entire damn post).
And for the true believer, there’s only one way of dealing with heresy…
Star Wars is the most obvious example of this phenomenon, but it’s by no means the only one. Perhaps this is an idea the Culture Tsar will explore in later posts, especially if this little thought experiment manages to generate some controversy. For now though, he’s happy to provide eager readers with an opportunity to make relevant use of all that history they had to learn in school about Martin Luther’s 99 Theses, John Calvin’s Geneva experiment, and the causes of the Thirty Years War.
And if those references mean nothing to you, well, maybe you should put down that dumb Expanded Universe book about the Yuuzhan Vong and catch up on some history…