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Star Wars and Politicized Media: A New Hope or The Dark Side?

Star Wars is a simple story. Light Side vs Dark Side. Luke Skywalker vs the evil Empire. I mean, have you seen Darth Vader’s menacing look? 

However, while Star Wars seems superficially simple, there are complex political undercurrents. This politicization was not a major problem in 1977, but recent Star Wars projects face boycotts and online backlash. Why is it an issue now? What does this say about the current political landscape? 

Yes, Star Wars was Always Political

Those who have been paying close attention to the franchise have known this for a while. There’s anti-Vietnam War messaging in Return of the Jedi, where local tribal peoples fight an evil imperialist nation among the trees. Revenge of the Sith depicts democratic backsliding as the Republic falls to the warmongering Emperor Palpatine. More recently, The Force Awakens warns about the rise of neo-Nazis and neo-fascism. Watch this speech by villain General Hux and it couldn’t be more clear—he celebrates “the end of a regime that acquiesces to disorder.”

Star Wars creator George Lucas openly admits that politics plays an important role in his films. Look no further than the Prequel Trilogy, which bashed the Bush Administration in the early 2000s. Villains Nute Gunray and Lott Dod are carbon copies of former Speaker Newt Gingrich and former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott. Anakin Skywalker’s “either you’re with me, or you’re my enemy” is eerily reminiscent of Bush’s “either you’re with us or you’re with the enemy.” Lucas spells it out further: “George Bush is Darth Vader” and “Cheney is the emperor.” You couldn’t be more obvious if you tried—and Lucas really tried. 

The political messages in Star Wars were divisive, but they didn’t divide. Until now.

The Fanbase Strikes Back

Unlike the original six Star Wars films, there was enormous political backlash to Disney’s Sequel Trilogy and subsequent spin-offs. 

With the announcement of Episode VII’s diverse cast, #BoycottStarWarsVII went viral to protest its supposedly “anti-white propaganda.” Asian-American actress Kelly Marie Tran suffered online abuse from racist and sexist trolls for her role in The Last Jedi. Later spin-off Rogue One also endured the #DumpStarWars boycott after writer Chris Weitz made a series of anti-Trump tweets. For some fans, posting the Rebel symbol after Trump’s election victory was the final straw. 

The most striking statistic: 41% of fans who deem Star Wars to be political disagree with its politics. These political stances stop half of those fans from watching.

Admittedly, most of this backlash to Star Wars’ politics is confined to a small fraction of the fanbase. The boycotts of The Force Awakens and Rogue One didn’t stop them from making over $1 billion each. Only 7% of fans disagree with Star Wars’ politics, while a majority of fans deny that the movies are political at all. Social media platforms are likely to blame for amplifying dissenting voices. A 2018 study indicates that “more than half [of Star Wars haters] are bots, trolls/sock puppets or political activists using the debate to propagate political messages supporting extreme right-wing causes and the discrimination of gender, race or sexuality.”

Regardless, this backlash represents a monumental shift in the attitudes of Star Wars fans. Star Wars is not uniquely political but is rather emblematic of the larger culture war. The close link between online “trolls” and the recent films reflects how activists weaponize Star Wars in political discourse. 

Disney AND Rising Polarization? I Have a Bad Feeling About This…

So, why are some Star Wars fans so opposed to these new movies?

Well, Disney’s takeover of the franchise in 2012 certainly didn’t help. The corporation has always been a major fixture in the culture war. Traditionally, left-leaning critics decried its cultural imperialism. More recently, the corporation has been a target for conservatives, exemplified by the recent Ron DeSantis scandal. From recent diverse casting choices to WWII propaganda, the inextricable link between Disney and politics fans the flames of the Star Wars backlash.

There are bad optics here, too. A massive corporation takes ownership of a beloved franchise, and then support for multiculturalism and democracy feels like elitist liberalism rather than authentic political expression. Everyone loves an underdog, so it’s no surprise that fans are more skeptical of Disney’s politics. Especially since Disney’s executives have enormous creative control over its films and their messages, fans are unsure if the politics in new Star Wars movies are just an appeal to a mass audience. What was once genuine criticism of conservatives under Lucasfilm is now cynical corporatism from a multibillion-dollar company.

The current polarized environment exacerbates the situation. With heightened political awareness and increased access to information, consumers are now more cognizant of political messaging in the media they consume. Further, consumers are more likely to take serious action when confronted with political beliefs, notably with the numerous boycotts against McDonald’s and Starbucks for their pro-Israel stances. Political consumerism seems to be on the rise.

Despite this backlash to politics in the marketplace, consumers remain insistent that corporations take stances on social issues. In 2019, 70% of consumers wanted major brands to get involved in politics—up 4% from the previous year. Filmmakers and artists are stuck between a rock and a hard place: current consumers increasingly want politicized media but are more critical of politics they disagree with than ever before. 

It’s Over, Politicized Media: Fans Have the High Ground

Star Wars always set the precedent in modern storytelling. Its use of advanced CGI in 1999 was groundbreaking. It practically launched the science fiction genre in cinemas. The first film was one of the first summer blockbusters.

Today, the major backlash to its political messages marks a new trend: politicized media is surely bound to fail in the 21st century. 

In response to #DumpStarWars, former Disney CEO Bob Iger insisted that “there are no political statements” in Rogue One. These politically related headaches aren’t new for Disney: some fans also disavowed Rachel Zegler’s Snow White reboot for her criticisms of the original film’s lack of diversity, delaying the release until 2025. 

Ghostbusters, Captain Marvel, Little Mermaid—the list goes on. Some of these films flopped, others succeeded, but backlash to inclusive casting or liberal messages persisted. The overt politicization of beloved franchises alienates fanbases nostalgic for simple storytelling. 

Go woke, go broke. Right?

A New Hope

Politics is not the entire problem. Politicized media is necessary at times, and it can still be successful—even in Star Wars. 

One of the most recent Star Wars projects, Andor, is full of political themes. The show grittily depicts a fascist Empire, a metaphor for Trump’s government and supporters. Imperial officials forge bonds with a corporate apparatus, likely an outcry against capitalist authoritarianism. Even Fiona Shaw, an actress on the show, proclaims that Andor is “a great, scurrilous [take] on the Trumpian world.”

Furthermore, Star Wars’ politics don’t necessarily have to fall into the Republican-Democrat dichotomy. Even if the creators may lean left, the story of a rag-tag group rebelling against an empire for liberty and freedom is universal. Both sides claim this narrative as their own. Even some Republicans in the 2010s believed that the Rebellion was a metaphor for politicians who oppose Obamacare. Star Wars should be a universal story that appeals to both sides of the political spectrum.

Not to mention, high-quality storytelling always trumps divisive politics. The mixed critical reception of Disney’s Star Wars movies was due to inconsistent characterization, weak themes, and other problems. As a Star Wars nerd myself, I can confidently say that more fans were upset that “somehow, Palpatine returned” than “somehow, the main character of Star Wars is not a white male.”

Nevertheless, given the current polarized political environment, Star Wars’ creators may need to be more careful with their messaging. Blunt, soulless, corporatized politics is the common thread in failed politicized media. In short, artists should avoid bad politicization. Subtle, genuine themes—even on controversial topics in the culture wars—are successful for Disney projects like Coco or (ironically for the Star Wars Dumpers) Rogue One. After all, the highest-grossing film in 2023 was Barbie.

Artists shouldn’t have to shy away from their beliefs or separate themselves from the political context in which they create their art. Heavy-handed political endorsements can be frustrating for fans, many of whom just want to enjoy a simple good vs. evil story with friends and family. However, authentic political media that connects with audiences remains a recipe for success, even in a galaxy far, far away.

Featured Image: allriotoutlet’s Artist Shop

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