Star Wars Fever

Friday, December 9, 1983, was the day I first saw a Star Wars movie (Return of the Jedi, which had just opened in Germany, since Europe always got Star Wars around Christmas in the time of the original trilogy). And the fact that I can still remember not just the exact date, but even the weekday after thirty-two years, whereas I’d have to look up the exact dates my grandparents died, should tell you how very important this event was for me.

As anyone who doesn’t live under a rock or on an uncharted desert island or currently isn’t stuck on Mars with only potatoes to eat and a few disco records for entertaiment should know, a new Star Wars film – the seventh altogether (discounting the two Ewok movies) and the first since Revenge of the Sith back in 2005 – will arrive in theatres soon. Alas, it won’t open on December 9 – if it had, I would probably have gone to see it on opening day – but on December 17, but that’s still close enough.

One thing that strikes me about the upcoming premiere of The Force Awakens is that unlike in the days of the original trilogy or even when the prequels premiered in the late 1990s/early 2000s, Star Wars is truly ubiquitous these days.

Of course, Star Wars was already a massive phenemenon in the days of the original trilogy between 1977 and 1983. I was aware of Star Wars long before I actually got to see one of the movies, because there were posters plastered all over town, there were trailers and Star Wars related ads on TV, there were toys in every store and in the hands of other kids, there were comic books and newspaper strips, t-shirts, bedsheets, Halloween costumes and lots of other merchandise that I gazed at longingly. And if you were a kid or a teenager back when the original trilogy came out, you likely were aware of Star Wars on some level, whether you had seen the movies or not.

But if you were an adult at the same time, especially if you didn’t have kids, you could go through your day completely unaware that there was a thing called Star Wars. Because your adult newspapers would not review the film, cultural programs would not discuss it, your adult friends would not have seen it, unless they were serious geeks. And if you should happen to glimpse a trailer on TV or a poster in the streets or an action figure in the toy aisle, you’d probably shake your head, dismiss it as “violent American trash” and promptly forget its existence. Unless you were a pundit paid to be alarmed about this “violent American trash” contaminating the minds of our children, which meant you would expound at length about how awful things like Star Wars were for children, usually without even having seen the film.

This was the world I grew up in, a world in which I frequently caught glimpses of this thing called Star Wars and yet the adults around me had no idea that it existed. My Mom had never heard of this film I was so desperate to see – she was still trying to come to terms with the fact that I didn’t want to see only Disney movies anymore – though she did enjoy the film once we went to see it. In retrospect I can even imagine why it was a shock to her, since I was into both Star Wars and Strawberry Shortcake at the same time and with equal enthusiasm. I never got any of the Star Wars toys or t-shirts or bedsheets I craved so much, because no one noticed my longing looks and no one assumed I would even want them. I’d have to check old photos what I got for Christmas in 1983 – which I just did only to realise that no one thought to photograph the presents, just lots of boring photos of boring relatives. But it definitely was nothing Star Wars related.

By the time the prequels hit, it was a lot more difficult to ignore Star Wars, should you be so inclined. I remember Star Wars Happy Meals at McDonalds, Star Wars characters on Coke cans and more reporting in the media than during the original trilogy.

That’s nothing compared to today, however. Today Star Wars truly is inescapable, cause it’s everywhere. The supermarket chain REWE is offering Star Wars collectible stickers as premiums with every purchase*. A giant billboard featuring a Stormtrooper decorates the wall of my local REWE market and REWE’s Star Wars related spot is on TV all the time. I hate it that the mother is the only non-geeky person in that family BTW – why are the mothers always the boring killjoys in these spots?

Meanwhile, I recently was waiting at the information desk at REWE‘s rival Real and had a full view of the toy department which had been turned into the Star Wars department, while the The Force Awakens trailer was running in a continuous loop on a giant LED screen.

Even our notoriously snooty cultural press and media has taken notice. Der Spiegel is now seriously reporting on the “Han shot first” debate and offering its take on Disney banishing Slave Leia merchandise. The comments on the latter article are interesting BTW, since most commenters seem to view the debate in the context of American prudery with regards to sexuality.

Now I remember a time, when Der Spiegel would never have acknowledged Star Wars except to lament how horrible the movies were. Because Der Spiegel was a serious political magazine – the “assault gun of democracy” after all – and would no lower itself to discuss such trivialities. Even though you’d expect that the “assault gun of democracy” here in Germany would appreciate the assault guns of democracy in a galaxy far away, especially since Verner Panton’s interiors for the Spiegel headquarters might just as well have been the Death Star brothel**.

Then two weeks ago, the venerable cultural program aspekte not just had a report about Star Wars (and the words “violent American trash” weren’t used once), but also one about the Sonneberg toy museum, which prompted me to tweet, “Hey, you just made the dream aspekte episode of my fifteen-year-old self – and yes, I was watching at fifteen.” Especially since I suspect that my fifteen-year-old self would have been all over the report about the anti-PEGIDA activists of Dresden, too – I was a Star Wars fan after all and knew that you had to fight the dark side. You can see the episode in question here BTW.

titel, thesen, temperamente, another venerable cultural program on German TV also felt compelled to report about Star Wars (and coincidentally also after some reports of real life activists fighting against injustice and censorship), though the titel, thesen, temperamente report was a lot more condescending than the aspekte report and the derogatory remarks by host Evelyn Fischer (who was born and grew up in East Germany, which means that the Star Wars phenomenon may well have passed her by) didn’t help either. Still, even though titel, thesen, temperamente didn’t care about Star Wars, they could not ignore the phenomenon. In the days of the original trilogy, they could.

Hell, even the Louvre – about as venerable a cultural institution as you can find anywhere on the planet – has gotten into the act as this poster for a current exhibition shows.

I’ve been wondering about why Star Wars is suddenly so present in spaces like news magazines and cultural TV programs where it wouldn’t have been present in the 1970s and 1980s and then it occurred to me. Magazines like Der Spiegel and cultural programs like aspekte and titel, thesen, temperamente may have been around for decades now, but the people behind the scenes have changed since the 1970s. Today’s cultural journalists are people in their thirties, forties and fifties. Ditto for the marketing directors of the supermarket chain. They are all members of the Star Wars generation, they grew up with the films, so of course they are going to acknowledge the Star Wars phenomenon. Perhaps there’s even a hint of “I’ll show you that it’s not just violent American trash” in there, directed at some long ago teacher or parent or newspaper article who failed to get it.

Meanwhile, the people dominated the press and media back in the time of the original trilogy were born in the 1930s and 1940s, perhaps even the 1920s. I suspect they did care about pop culture, but the pop culture they cared about was the pop culture of their youth. Hence the media reaction when John Lennon was shot (on December 8, 1980, coincidentally) and suddenly every single radio station played his songs and every single news program could talk about nothing else – whereas seven-year-old me wondered just who this John Lennon guy was and why I should care that he was dead beyond the fact that any death is sad. I go a bit more into this in another post commemorating December 9. I suspect the reaction was similar when Elvis died, though I don’t remember since I was three at the time.

So what the current outbreak of extreme Star Wars fever proves is that we won. It’s our world now and all of the teachers and journalists and pundits who once dismissed Star Wars as “violent and fascistoid American trash” are sitting at home, shaking their heads and yelling at clouds.

*Whereas I had to painstakingly cut every tiny grainy Star Wars photo out of magazines and newspapers and had to paste them into a makeshift album of my own – I still have it somewhere, too.

**Come on, you know the Death Star has a brothel.

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