Star Wars and the legitimisation of fans in fandom-sceptical South East Asia

Episode 12: The Force has Awoken: Star Wars Special Edition

star-wars-changi-airport-e1447451256688

Bertha Chin

master-yoda-travels-business-classIn the months leading up to the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens in December 2015, Changi International Airport in Singapore ran a plush toy promotion. Visitors to the airport and travellers would be able to purchase a toy featuring some of the franchise’s most beloved characters such as BB-8 and Chewbacca for a small fee if they spend over the amount of US$50 in stores located in the airport. Similarly, major shopping malls across Malaysia set up special booths selling Star Wars merchandise in the lead up to the release of the film in December 2015, with most of these events sponsored by local cinema franchises[1]. One large, central shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur, the capital city of Malaysia even installed a replica of an X-Wing Fighter, where fans are then encouraged to queue up to get to a designated area for the best photo opportunity of the replica. After the photo opportunity, these fans are led to a sales area where they can then purchase more merchandise from the film franchise.

Our Western conceptualisation of fandom, especially within academia has always focused more on the notion of fan production. From Henry Jenkins’s early work on Textual Poachers (1992), media fans are positioned as active producers resistant towards readings imposed on them by official culture (or the media industry at large). It also empowered fans – traditionally assumed to be indiscriminate and excessive consumers – as active audiences, thus making “the study of fandom…a worthy cause, one that represented and championed those disadvantaged within society” (Gray, Sandvoss and Harrington 2007, p. 2). Consequent works following Jenkins’s, such as Matt Hills’s (2002) and Paul Booth’s (2010) works offered more complicated considerations of fan culture; as a progression from what Gray, Sandvoss and Harrington referred to as the initial, “Fandom is Beautiful” (2007, p. 3) stage of fan studies.

In recent years, fan studies have turned its attention to material fandom, as scholars like Bob Rehak (2014) and Lincoln Geraghty (2014) argue for a more critical engagement and intricate connection between fans and material culture. Most scholars, however, still prefer to focus on fan transformative production like fan fiction. As Lincoln Geraghty argued, practices such as collecting “items of popular media culture…are devalued… because of its basis in consumption rather than production” (2014, p. 2).

However, as Lori Morimoto and myself have argued elsewhere, these conceptualisations of fandom cannot – and should not – be considered as blanket representations of fandom at large. This is especially prudent when media texts are becoming increasingly global, and fans are encountering fellow fans on mutually shared fan spaces, who have different norms and practices for appreciating the shared text. Fandom “of shared affinities and even aspirations is, in its intrinsic transculturality, always already a site of difference” (Morimoto and Chin, forthcoming).

This is exemplified here through ways in which fandom is conceptualised in the Asian context. Globally popular texts like Star Wars are difficult to ignore, especially with the revenue the franchise generates and the growing importance of the Chinese market. However, fandom in Asia is still perceived within very specific boundaries, and it is usually defined within the confines of Japanese anime or K-pop, with both either drastically dividing between infantilisation or sexualisation of predominantly female fans through the practice of cosplay and the South Korean practice of sasaeng, where fans’ devotion to and interest in K-pop stars “involves serial stalking, technical surveillance and snooping, and attendance at all public events” (Redmond 2016, p. 242). Indeed, most representations of fandom in Asian culture focused on the extremes, further emphasising the Orientalist perception of Asian culture but also presenting an oppositional view to the more conservative conceptions of the region. Furthermore, as Chin and Morimoto also argue, “consideration of East Asian fan phenomena from a fan cultural perspective sullies the seriousness of East Asian critical cultural studies, depoliticising it to an unacceptable degree” (2013, p. 96).

star-wars-changi-airport-e1447451256688Representations of the largely female fandoms of cosplay and sasaeng aside, films like Star Wars, I would argue, has been legitimising a specific version of fandom, and to a certain extent, normalising fan practices through the consumption of official merchandise. The booths that are set up selling various merchandise and collectibles from the films, special gifts given away for those who book their cinema tickets early or win competitions all form part of promotional strategies to promote big franchise films. For Star Wars, these promotional strategies usually start about a month before the film’s release date, with more special edition collectibles or merchandise added the closer it gets to the release. Some of these merchandise, such as the plush toys mentioned in the introduction are only available to those travelling through Singapore airport in December 2015.

As such, it can be surmised that it is considered more acceptable for fans to collect merchandise – easily purchased in retail areas – than it is for fans to be writing fan fiction, creating art or costumes: in short, producing transformative works. In this context, the fan as consumer is normalised. For example, the Official Star Wars Malaysia Fan Club’s[2] public group on Facebook has nearly 11,000 members but members’ posts mostly consist of fans sharing their collectibles and information about where merchandise can be purchased. Occasionally, posts on members’ cosplay are shared but it is noticeably a practice – or a group – that leans towards male rather than female fans.

As films like Star Wars become more prominent, and with the growing importance of Chinese audiences, these kinds of marketing strategies that capitalises on the official and special edition merchandise will become more common. Fans as consumers will be normalised, as rather than participating in practices that often challenge the readings of the text or (Asian) societal norms, consumption advances the capitalist sensibilities of Hollywood studios that produce franchises like Star Wars.

Bio: Dr. Bertha Chin is Lecturer of Communication, Swinburne University of Technology (Sarawak campus), Malaysia:  bchin@swinburne.edu.my 

Bibliography:

Booth, P. 2010. Digital fandom: new media studies. New York: Peter Lang.

Chin, B. and Morimoto, L. 2013. Towards a theory of transcultural fandom. Participations: Journal of Audience & Reception Studies 10(1), pp. 92–108.

Coppa, F. 2014. Fuck yeah, Fandom is Beautiful. Journal of Fandom Studies 2(1), pp. 73–82.

Geraghty, L. 2014. Cult collectors: Nostalgia, fandom and collecting popular culture. New York: Routledge.

Gray, J. et al. 2007. Introduction: Why Study Fans? In: Gray, J. et al. eds. Fandom: identities and communities in a mediated world. New York: New York University Press, pp. 1–18.

Hills, M. 2002. Fan Cultures. London: Routledge.

Jenkins, H. 1992. Textual poachers: television fans & participatory culture. New York: Routledge.

Morimoto, L. and Chin, B. Forthcoming. Reimagining the Imagined Community: Online Media Fandoms in the Age of Global Convergence. In: Gray, J. et al. eds. Fandom 2. NYU Press.

Redmond, S. 2016. The passion plays of celebrity culture. European Journal of Cultural Studies 19(3), pp. 234–249.

Rehak, B. 2014. Materiality and object-oriented fandom. Transformative Works and Cultures 16. Available at: http://journal.transformativeworks.org/index.php/twc/article/view/622/450.

 

 

 

[1] Similar promotional strategies are also practiced currently in the lead up to the December 2016 release of Rogue One, as malls and supermarkets set aside a special section selling merchandise and everyday items (e.g. umbrellas and tumblers) branded with Star Wars and Rogue One logos.

[2] No information is available, however, on whether – or how – the group is affiliated to LucasFilm or other Star Wars fan clubs around the world.