Star Wars, Spoiler Warnings, and the Social Contract of Nerds

Spoiler Warning: This post contains spoilers for the film Star Wars: The Force Awakens (but only spoilers about spoilers)

On Absolute Disruption: Theory After Postmodernism, a critical theory blog I follow closely, Jason Ānanda Josephson has a brilliant post “The Force of Secrecy: Spoilers, Neo-Liberalism, and “The Force Awakens””. I recommend you go read it for yourself on his blog by following the link embedded above. Drawing upon sociologist Georg Simmel’s writing on secrecy, Jason critique’s The Force Awakens‘ marketing strategy as a cynical distraction from the film’s lack of substance. Keeping true to the form of this critique, I will avoid discussion of particular spoilers for the film, except for the spoiler that the original Star Wars franchise is a spoiler for this film.

In his essay “The Sociology of Secrecy and Secret Societies” Simmel argues that secret societies construct their social cohesion around a mutually shared secret. The possession of secret information provides prestige for the society’s members and the society itself while the sharing of the secret creates a bond between initiated members. Simmel’s most interesting and controversial comment on the sociology of secrecy is that the content of the secret is itself largely irrelevant to its importance for the society; even trivial information, once made secret between members, elevates it above other mundane information into something approaching the sacred.

Because the existence of the society is dependent upon the secret being maintained, the insecurity produces an anxious excitement between members of the group who must constantly scrutinize one another’s communications with outsiders to ensure that the distinction of membership is maintained. This dynamic causes secret societies to frequently threatens punishment against those who disclose private information improperly to the uninitiated. The Church of Scientology is perhaps the best modern example of this social dynamic with the church threatening members who contradict or expose the organizations teachings to non-members. But one could also argue, as Jason does, that nerd pop-culture possesses a similar dynamic to the secret society cult in the form of spoilers.

Nerd consumers of books, games, television shows and films circulating in pop-culture frequently focus upon the need to issue spoiler warning disclaimers for any discussion of the material in question, lest essential and exciting information be exposed to the public without properly experiencing it for one’s self. Spoil the ending to a popular book and you with be shamed, publicly mourn the death of a beloved film character and you will be shouted down. Consider the case of Montana teenager Arthur Charles Roy, who allegedly threatened to shoot his Facebook friend for spoiling The Force Awakens, and the parallels between cultic violence for secrecy and pop-culture anger for spoilers becomes apparent. In either case, verbal or physical violence is invoked to protect secret information and  secure the identity of fan(atical) membership. 

But there is an important distinction between these two dynamics that Jason’s commentary overlooks as he proceeds in his critique of the film’s contradictory spoiler-free market campaign. Whereas cultic secret societies invoke threats to protect their members within the community, nerds make threats to protect their eligibility to enter the fan community. If the dynamic was the same, the person who leaves the theater after seeing The Force Awakens and gives away the ending would be assaulted by the people walking out with him because he has exposed their shared secret experience of seeing the film for the first time together. But this is not how these situations play out; instead said person would be assaulted by the people waiting in line to see the movie, which is completely contrary to the relationship between outsiders and insiders of occult communities.

The exposure of a secret society’s occult knowledge threatens the society itself because the unregulated release of its private information disintegrates the distinction between those inside of it and outside of it. Members artificially flood into the community without commitment to its identity and the community implodes upon itself. Fandom operates differently in that its membership is dependent upon enthusiasm for the personal (secret) experience with pop-culture commodities. Possessing knowledge of the commodity prior to one’s encounter with it diminishes one’s enthusiasm for it and thus compromises one’s fanatical identification with it. Thus spoilers prevent new fans from entering into the fan community and threatens its capacity to sustain itself. Secret societies fail when too many people are able to identify with its distinguishing feature while fan communities collapse when there are no longer enough fans enthusiastic about the pop-culture product.

Returning the discussion to The Force Awakens itself, as Jason phrases it: “The perverse thing about the marketing is that the only spoiler is that there are no spoilers.” Despite all the concern for spoilers of the film’s plot being made public prior to its commercial release, the only serious spoiler for the film, at least in my experience, was exposure to the original Star Wars trilogy itself. If you have already seen those films then you have already seen The Force Awakens. In some sense the film is impossible to spoil since it is devoid of content sufficiently distinct from the original trilogy for its exposure to undermine its enjoyment. But in another sense it is impossible not to spoil the film because of the cultural impact of the original films. Even those audience members who did not actually watch the original trilogy will likely be familiar enough with the narrative of that trilogy for some of The Force Awakens plot to be spoiled for them before it actually unfolds on the screen for them. The tragedy and the irony of this film is that those most familiar with the film franchise will be the one’s most devastated by its nostalgic-spoiler dynamic. The one spoiler for the film isn’t even a dramatic secret for the audience but is revealed in side commentary from characters and culminates in a nostalgic and predictable parody of the previous films’ most iconic moments.

Before walking into the film I had re-watched the original trilogy in order to reinvigorate my memory and fondness for the beginning of the franchise. But as I walked out of The Force Awakens I felt as though I should have never seen these films to begin with. Not only is The Force Awakens a remix of the original film trilogy, particularly A New Hope,  but it is admittedly a better film in many ways than these films. and because of the way it copies so much from them, this feels like a betrayal of my fandom. It isn’t enough that this film be better films than they are, that is what any sequel should aspire to, but it is also better version of them. It retroactively made me regret my devotion to these films by repeating them and doing it better than they did. Which is ironic and a little bit insulting considering that so much of the marketing for this film depended upon imagery appropriated from the original trilogy. The film re-imagined a better past for the series while ignoring consideration of the franchise’s future, opting instead to leave that for future films to possibly provide, and derive profit from.       

The Force Awakens is such a perfect recycling of narrative elements from the previous trilogy that its plot is telegraphed to the audience far before it actually occurs. One may not be able to predict exactly how events will unfold or characters will react, but when they do none of it will be particularly revelatory or riveting for the franchise. Even those moments that we should consider spoilers, are not really that; the characters may have changed from previous films but the same narrative arcs remain to be repeated. The secret of this movie is that it has no secret because we’ve all seen this movie before. To his credit Abrams has updated the casting and dialogue for contemporary appeal but that only makes it more obvious to the audience how much this movie stands upon and outside of the original trilogy of films; so much of the humor, drama and plotting can only be explained by references to prior films or prior-release Disney-marketed products that the movie would make as just as much sense if the new cast of characters were people from our own world transported in Narnia-esque fashion into the world of the Star Wars series. To say this makes no sense at all is an accurate assessment of this film’s intelligibility.

Simmel’s commentary on secrecy not only provides insight into fan fears over spoilers for The Force Awakens and other beloved forms of pop-culture entertainment but also exposes the strategy of the film’s marketing. The film’s marketing campaign invested so much focus on avoiding and preventing spoilers for the plot in order to create the illusion that there was a plot worth spoiling to begin with. By presenting the narrative of the film as a secret that needed to be protected, fans were sold that this film would not only have an original and exciting premise behind it. But it also suggested that the excitement itself of encountering the film for the first time was something sacred to studio and audience alike. But in the immortal words of Admiral Ackbar, its a trap! The only secret to the film was an empty one that the film was empty of originality and therefore had no secrets beyond this fact.  This is a cynically exploitative strategy but it seems to have succeeded for the film even if fans such as myself leave the theater ultimately disappointed (though admittedly entertained).

By avoiding an original narrative and in attempting to be impossibly apolitical, The Force Awakens exposes itself to being identified as nothing more than the latest capitalizing exercise in cynical cinematic amusement. Its open-ended and empty narrative only serves as an opportunity for further films and merchandise to retroactively fill in these plot holes for profit. Disney will repeat this process until fans lose their enthusiasm for having their enthusiasm from the previous film sold back to them in the most current form. If fan communities fall because spoilers compromise their enthusiasm for a product, then there is no wonder that Disney fought so hard to protect this film’s image from further scrutiny before it could begin making money. Its success depends upon exploiting such fan anxieties but such success is also threatened by this very dynamic it exploits; by inflating the potential of the film Disney has risked diminishing returns for the future of the franchise from its fan-base.

This puts Star Wars fans such as myself in a compromised position in regards to this film. By critiquing the film we expose its only original (albeit cynical) spoiler and harm the franchise’s fan-base but by being silent we perpetuate the secret that this film has no secrets worth sharing to begin with. It may seem like either option threatens the future integrity of the franchise and its fan-base and therefore no matter what the future of Star Wars appears hopeless. I have decided to refrain from discussing my criticisms with this film openly and have therefore provided a spoiler warning above despite the fact that the contents of this essay indicate that such a warning is not as applicable to this film as it would be elsewhere in the nerd community. And despite my criticisms, I would still recommend this film if only because for all its flaws it is still fun and because every Star Wars fan deserves to decide for themselves, rather than have it spoiled for them, whether this is the sort of Star Wars film they want to see again and again (as The Force Awakens appears to indicate that we have reached the end of history within the Star Wars universe).

But like the Force itself, perhaps with the Dark side comes the Light. Perhaps the future of the series is doomed to decline and extinction or an indulgent eternal recurrence of the same. But hopefully this is only inevitable insofar as it is reliant upon commercial profit empires like Disney. There is hope for it in tiny acts of rebellion from diverse and devoted fans voicing their dissent against such mass-market production. In the closing words of Jason’s original critique, “we could say its deepest secret is the secret that binds all capitalism together, that money is a fiction whose meaning vanishes the moment you stop believing in it.” The secret is out, Disney is the Empire and it has struck back at the Star Wars community. Only time will tell if they manage to form a successful Rebellion (or is it the Resistance?) against its capitalist hegemony over their favorite fictional universe.


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