The wave of cultural criticism about how “Star Wars” changed American popular culture is now flowing at full tide, if not quite up to full tsunami intensity yet. There is not much new to say amid that flood.
There’s been tremendous attention to the changes in production models, the business of cultural production, visual aesthetics and so on. There’s also been a fair bit of writing about the underlying generational shift involved, but here I think there’s a bit more to be said. Along with a shift in the generational identity of the mass audience came a dramatic shift in overall assumptions about the nature and purposes of popular culture.
I’m really struck looking at American popular culture in the 1950s and 1960s, both films and television, at how much of it was quite programmatically doing some kind of “work”: the work of defining and reinforcing models of family and domesticity on one hand (sitcomes of various kinds in particular) and the work of defining national identity on the other (the Western, most acutely). It’s not that this work was being done in any simplistically instrumental or monolithic fashion. Westerns were a capacious genre, making all sorts of diverse statements, but even spaghetti Westerns or anti-Western Westerns were making statements about the nature of American identity and history. It seems to me that it was something of a given at that point that popular culture had a job to do, and even subversive work took that as its starting place, as the thing which it rebelled against.
“Jaws” and “Star Wars”, on the other hand, seemed to flatly lack that sense of carrying a burden besides entertaining their audiences. This is not to say that they are not both absolutely filled to the gills with potently meaningful social content: Jaws has a lot to say about suburban family life and masculinity; Star Wars has an iconography of heroism and villainy that can and has kept cultural critics humming ever since 1977. Neither film, nor much of the popular culture which has descended from them, carried a sense of being on a general, shared mission, a common understanding of the purpose of cultural work. Even when popular filmmakers or television producers have proclaimed a social agenda (say, the professed desire for a strong female protagonist that appeared in the making of Aliens) it generally seems a personal or individual aesthetic rather than a systemic imperative.
There’s a lot that lies behind that (the disintegration of the studio system, for one), but I think this is one of the things that sometimes befuddles Baby Boomer cultural critics about the post-1977 moment. Both left and right, they expect popular culture to be doing certain kinds of explicit work, to have a function which one might either defend or assault. When that functionalist sensibility is not there, many of them look for it all the same–hence the cultural right’s constant assertion of popular culture’s “liberal” agenda, and the cultural left’s perpetual assumption of a consciously instrumental and persistent use of representation in popular culture to do the work of political and social domination.
I think the cultural property which brings this out most clearly for me is not Star Wars but Lord of the Rings. Here’s a book which ascended to its popularity privately, through word-of-mouth and intimate discovery, mostly among audiences born after 1960. When it finally became a series of successful films (after various lesser animated versions), some observers were left puzzled, reading the tea leaves of the zeitgeist for an explanation. What “work” were the books and films doing? The work of supporting the “war on terror”? Identity work, in the casting of heroes as Nordic and pure and villains as dark, black, racially Other? The work of moral absolutism? Of aestheticizing violence?
What a lot of this sort of cultural criticism missed was that the main story of the ascendency of LOTR was rooted in a more interior kind of sociology. One of the major satisfactions of a great deal of fantasy literature since 1960 has been compensatory: a chance for readers carrying a sense of intimate persecution by or exclusion from the cultural mainstream as constructed in the 1950s and 1960s to embed themselves in narratives where true worth and value had social meaning. Medieval fantasies–and for that matter, fantastical science fiction like Star Wars–frequently trafficked (and still traffic) in imaginary worlds where hierarchy and inner merit have some correspondence. Fans are slans; much of the work we read avidly and dreamed constantly allowed us to imagine universes where our intelligence, our insight, our moral character, our will, our skill, made us knights or wizards, Jedi or Deryni, superheroes. If those worlds were worlds were our dopplegangers were persecuted or had to fight to redeem the true social order, so much the better: it made the correspondence deeper and richer still.
I think this aspect of the shift is also reasonably well understood, especially among critics who focus on science-fiction and fantasy. But I do feel somehow that at the general level of our society, the connection still has not been made, the shoe has still not dropped. We went from a Baby Boomer popular culture that shared a common sense of its function to a popular culture devoted to the interior identities of closet meritocrats, to a rising generation of men and women who were less interested in films, books and TV shows that did “nation-work”, “family-work” or “gender-work” and much more interested in popular culture that was about the cultivation and protection of the self, about what was perceived as highly personal “imagination-work”.
The curious and interesting part of this to me is that much of American popular culture today is still recognizably my culture, the culture I grew up with, cherished privately, was sometimes ashamed of (and still am sometimes ashamed of: I get very uneasy when my non-geek neighbors or colleagues happen to see my study full of action figures, comic books, SF and so on), but it is also now everyone’s popular culture, the whole world’s popular culture. The triumph of superheroes, fantasy, and so on, isn’t really the triumph of the private worlds of those of us who consumed all those things avidly. My mom has seen and liked Star Wars but there’s still a big gap between the ways in which she is entertained by the film and the epiphany I had in a theater in 1977, the intense shock at seeing my interior, private, vaguely shameful imaginary spaces suddenly realized on a movie screen, and the disorienting sense that those fantasies were well-liked by most everyone. Much of what has happened since still does various kinds of interior “work” for me, but I don’t think it’s doing that work for anyone but me and all the other people in my tribe. For everyone else, it’s just fun and entertaining and perhaps sometimes a little odd, and for those older Americans who expect their popular culture to be doing other kinds of heavy lifting, perhaps also perpetually disappointing and lightweight. They’re wrong, but I’m not surprised they feel that way: the heavy lifting being done is done on landscapes inaccessible to them.