“This is an extension of what mythology is, which is you’re telling stories to the generation that’s coming of age, to teach them the lessons of life through entertainment. In our culture it’s through movies, you do it through movies.
At first you say it because that’s what the filmmakers you look up to say, but then the more you learn about it, the more you realize it’s actually really powerful. Story is still important. And story with progression, and the idea of sacrifice and perseverance and evolution through challenge and all of the little specificities that come along with it”-Jon Favreau, Executive Producer/Creator of The Mandalorian (Baruh, 2020)
Written by reysspeeder with contributions from conn8d
Before formally concluding this Sabotaging Storytelling series, it was brought to light by the sudden effects of the Coronavirus pandemic that a key assumption underlying the series had been left unacknowledged. That assumption being the belief that storytelling in and of itself is valuable, and that this value can be gained or lost depending on what one does with it. That there is something to be lost in subversion when the thing being subverted has an important purpose. This addendum to the series states explicitly what has been implicit throughout: that stories are not empty, frivolous, and superficial. Stories are the basis of which people create meaning.
People have told stories, both fictional and non, since they could utilize symbols and language. In fact, theorists suggest that what makes humans unique in the world is precisely their capacity to tell stories–something no other species really does. The ability to tell stories is regarded as an exclusive feature of human nature, and that all humans across time and culture are all bound by their ability to engage in storytelling (Fisher, 1984, p. 7). Narratives are the basis through which people understand their own experiences and the experiences of others. They even tell stories while sleeping in their dreams. Walter Fisher (1984), an influential academic scholar, regarded people’s capacity for storytelling as so important that he developed the narrative paradigm, which posits that people, as essentially storytellers, can only comprehend the meaning and significance of life, whether ethical, social, political, or legal, through representations of narrative (p. 2-3). Fisher (1984) states,
“The idea of human beings as storytellers indicates … that symbols are created and communicated ultimately as stories meant to give order to human experience and to induce others to dwell in them to establish ways of living in common, in communities in which there is sanction for the story that constitutes one’s life. And one’s life is … a story that participates in the stories of those who have lived, who live now, and who will live in the future” (p. 6).
Fisher’s words are not limited to nonfictional recountings–fantasy is equally as important, albeit in different ways. He explains, “The character of narrator(s), the conflicts, the resolutions, and the style will vary, but each mode of recounting and accounting for is but a way of relating a ‘truth’ about the human condition” (p. 6). This is the case even when the characters or setting in a story are fictional. Moral philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre (1981) explains, “the difference between imaginary characters and real ones is not in the narrative form of what they do; it is in the degree of their authorship of that form and of their own deeds” (p. 200). By this he means that behind the fantastical settings and magical abilities, what makes fictional characters truly distinct from nonfictional ones is that their actions are written and determined by someone else, the author. It is this distinction, most of all, that divides the two genres since the morals, values, and goals represented within both remain firmly anchored to our lived reality. Therefore, even if a story takes place a long time ago and in a galaxy far, far away, that doesn’t mean it is completely irrelevant to the people consuming that story; they can still relate and share similar values and goals.
In 2016, following the release of The Force Awakens, an online hashtag campaign was started aimed at raising awareness about one of the protagonists, Rey, and her unexplained absence from Star Wars toys. About the movement, Time author Darlena Cunha (2016) wrote,
“Little girls need to see themselves as heroes. Little girls need to see that they can grow up to be powerful and good. Little girls deserve a chance to imagine strength and perseverance in their own gender. They deserve someone to look up to.”
Even though Star Wars is a completely fictional story, with imagined characters, galaxies, and adventures, the morals and values are shared with real audiences. If it were not for this link between fantasy and reality, there would be little for people to engage with when experiencing a story. Values such as power, goodness, and strength are all values that were ascribed to and shared with Rey. Her story represented something that people–particularly children–could look up to and emulate in their own lives. So, while kids may pretend to wield lightsabers and fly the Millenium Falcon they also practice bravery while repeating Rey and Finn’s words, “I can do this,” despite their fears. They will watch how to work as a team when Rey and Finn work together to fly the Millenium Falcon for the first time to escape the First Order. Even when stories are fictional, there are still important mechanisms at work that make storytelling meaningful.
For this reason, there is precedent to revisit the integral role entertainment plays in everyday life, and why feeling uplifted, inspired, or challenged by a story is different from feeling betrayed by it. And there is reason to interrogate why that is, why it’s worthwhile to pursue the former while avoiding the latter. One possible explanation for why storytelling structure is so crucial to human experience could be because it creates the ability to transcend, as best as possible, the limitations afforded by mortality-that we ourselves won’t be able to live long enough to experience everything that the galaxy has to offer. There’s too much out there-too many perspectives, viewpoints, specialties, skills-to be able to know them, let alone master them, all in one lifetime.
For this reason, people developed a method to accommodate those limitations afforded by mortality through the practice of storytelling. Narratives allow people to travel back thousands of years in time and fast forward though entire lifetimes within a fraction of our own. It even allows traveling to the future, in a way, through experimentation and imagination of how things could be. Given this ability, individual people may not be able to live forever, but humans, as a species, have established an ingenious capacity of grasping onto experiences that stretch far beyond the limits imposed by inevitable mortality. So when the conventions of storytelling are discussed, when the implications of the setup and payoff are brought up, this is fundamentally the point that all those conclusions lead back to.
Some stories, like Star Wars, uniquely capture that ability of narrative to connect people across generations. What was unique about the theatrical release of the sequel trilogy films in 2015 was that it presented an opportunity for fans from three separate generations, those of the original trilogy in the 1970’s, the prequels in the early 2000’s, and then again with the sequel trilogy, to view the same Star Wars film for the first time together. Children, their parents, and their grandparents could not only share the Star Wars legacy, but they could do it together in real time. In entertainment media, opportunities like that don’t come around every day, and are more common among sports fans than fans of theatrical films. The energy generated among audience members was electric: of one theater experience, SWSC Editor Sprinx wrote,
“Sitting in that theater in December of 2015, surrounded by people of all backgrounds, all ages, all genders, every one of us cheering at the same things up on the same screen, made me realize that the Star Wars saga, like other myths, really is more than just a popular story. It’s a common language. True, some of that is just from its popularity and the resulting cultural osmosis it entails, but I can’t help but feel like that audience’s reaction spoke to a deeply-rooted desire for those familiar patterns, for recognizable iconography, for stories that feel like home. Those with any passing knowledge of the franchise knew what it meant for Han Solo to board the Falcon. We all knew to celebrate when Princess Leia walked down that gangplank. We all knew to cheer when Luke Skywalker revealed his face for the first time in 40 years. And if that says anything about human nature, the franchise’s popularity may be rooted in that very same desire for homecoming to begin with”Sprinx, SWSC (2019)
The experience that Sprinx writes about brings into focus a central argument of this series. It highlights the inextricable role narrative plays in the pursuit to find meaning in life. Narrative has always existed as a transcendence of the difficulty of reality. Where real life is frightening and directionless, narrative has purpose, structure, and most of all, narrative creates meaning. To describe a story as satisfying is not to say it must always be a happy ending, but instead that it fulfills needs that people experience as mortal beings. Satisfying narratives are told using familiar conventions in creative and thoughtful ways to discover new ideas, characters, places, conflicts, and morals. While the conventions are old and familiar, the way they are utilized need not be. Like culinary arts, in many ways people are still using the same ingredients that their ancestors did centuries ago. What has changed are the ways those ingredients are prepared, combined, and served that continue to excite those who eat them today.
Some argue that the unexpected twists provided in big-budget productions like The Last Jedi, Game of Thrones, and The Rise of Skywalker are valuable because they don’t buy into the rose-colored lens of fairy tales and instead challenge audiences by portraying the gritty reality of real life. Such an argument, however, fails to acknowledge the purposeful relationship between humanity and storytelling by regarding both only as deep as commodification has rendered them. Such a premise is false because it assumes that consumers have no tolerance for the difficulty of real life, when in actuality there is no escape from it. No remedy on earth yet exists to rid the burden of mortality. Family members, friends, loved ones pass away seemingly without reason, explanation, purpose, or justice. And they certainly pass away without a roll-credits scene and enough time for reflection. When audiences are regarded as individuals, rather than commodities, the justification for subverting storytelling principles simply doesn’t hold up.
As Twitter user @lingerie_addict points out, during the worldwide lock-down while everyone is social distancing in their homes, with a seemingly limitless access to entertainment media, few are watching Game of Thrones. There isn’t much talk of the Star Wars sequel trilogy either. But there is talk of stories like those in The Mandalorian, and the latest season of The Clone Wars. One episode in particular featured in the final season, “Phantom Apprentice,” was ranked by IMDB as the fourth most popular television episode ever (Commander Bly, 2020).
What people are watching instead are stories that are satisfying, that challenge them, that allow them to think about the future with hope, to take their mind off the frightening unknowns of the future. And while this has always been true, it is especially relevant now when most of the world is functioning under lockdowns and social distancing protocols due to the current threat from the COVID-19 pandemic. Ordinary people not only fear contracting the virus themselves and fear for the health and safety of their loved ones, they also face an uncertain future compounded by financial, occupational, and residential threats. Entertainment media–films, shows, streaming concerts—are some of the last defenses keeping people from complete despair.
Star Wars, and all the stories within, represent a part of that narrative arsenal that we collectively have as a society, as a culture, as people, to serve as reminders that hope can never be taken for granted. It must be created and recreated again and again, repeatedly throughout our own and others lifetimes. George Lucas, the creator of Star Wars, and Dave Filoni, director of The Clone Wars, understand the relationship stories have with hope. In the documentary series, Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian, Filoni says of the saga,
“That’s the story of Star Wars. It’s all part of why it works and why we care. It’s not about X-Wings, it’s not about all these things we decorate Star Wars in – it’s important and it’s part of the genius of it. But we soulfully react, like, we don’t just want an action movie, we want to feel uplifted and Star Wars is an adventure that makes you feel good. You know, it makes me feel like ‘Wow, I want to be a part of that’.
“So George has this hopeful story and it’s something that he’s reiterated most times I’ve seen him, you know, after we’ve been making things without him is, “remember to make these stories hopeful. Remember to give that to kids because they really need it”. And so that’s just something to keep in mind.”-Dave Filoni, Disney Gallery Episode 2: Legacy (Baruh, 2020)
This series concludes on a hopeful note during a dark time. Throughout periods of trauma, loss, heartache, and fear, there is one thing that has granted validity to that suffering and imagined brighter futures to come: narrative and storytelling. This series, Subverting Storytelling, has been a journey through the costs, causes, and problems that arise when storytelling is treated as nothing more than a commodity that can be subverted for quick profit. This final and additional chapter may hopefully serve as a leap into hope that stories are important, even when they are fictional and feature space wizards. Especially now, our stories need to be cherished, protected, and celebrated. May the force of storytelling always be with us.
Baruh, B. (Director). (2020, May 8). Disney Gallery: The Mandalorian; Episode 2 Legacy [Television broadcast]. Disney+.
Commander Bly. (2020, April 24). The Phantom Apprentice is the fourth best television episode of all time. In u/The-Jedi-Apprentice [SubReddit]. Retrieved from https://www.reddit.com/r/TheCloneWars/comments/g7iq4g/the_phantom_apprentice_is_the_fourth_best/
Cunha, D. (2016, January 7). ‘Where’s Rey’ Proves Kid s Are Light Years Ahead of Toy Companies. In Time. Retrieved from https://time.com/4170424/star-wars-wheres-rey/
Fisher, W. R. (1985). The narrative paradigm: An elaboration. Communications Monographs, 52(4), 347-367.
McCarthy-Miller, B. (Director). (2017). Existential Crisis [The Good Place]. Season 2 Episode 4. NBC.
Sprinx. (2019, December 12). One Last Look: A Reflection On The Force Awakens . In The SWSC. Retrieved from https://the-swsc.com/2019/12/12/one-last-look-a-reflection-on-the-force-awakens/
Swartz, J. (2020, April 21). Netflix may have edge on competition as coronavirus keeps people looking for new shows . In MarketWatch. Retrieved from https://www.marketwatch.com/story/netflix-in-the-age-of-covid-19-streaming-pioneer-may-have-new-edge-on-competition-2020-04-07