Jan 04, 2016 | By George Gantz
May the Force be With You — and Disney!
Like millions of others this past holiday season, I thoroughly enjoyed the latest Star Wars movie, “The Force Awakens”. The movie brought back fond memories of the first wave of Star Wars movies in the late ‘70’s and ‘80’s (when my kids were young), and rekindled that sense of yearning and pride associated with the valiant underdog and the heartfelt joy in the triumph of good over the evil dark side. Yet, the Economist magazine also points out (Leader and Briefing December 19, 2015) that the movie is a financial tour de force for the Disney empire, which has become modern society’s master myth-maker and increasingly controls the stories told to our children. What if Disney turns to the dark side?
Myths and stories are perhaps the most powerful means by which cultural norms are passed from generation to generation in human society. For example, all religions are based on forms of revelation and storytelling that create a worldview and that both support and are reinforced by the traditions and rituals of the religion. Great myths have survived from ancient cultures and continue to have the power to enlighten, to entertain and to educate. We still enjoy, and tell our children, stories from the ancient Greeks, and there are messages in all of them. Many of us still refer to Sisyphian jobs, the haunting call of the Siren’s song, cleaning the Aegean Stables, or the difficulty of navigating between Scylla and Charybdis.
Many of us would argue that the stories we tell, particularly the stories of religious significance, are powerful moral and spiritual guidance. We want out children to grow up to be good, moral and virtuous adults, so we tell them the stories we believe will guide them to that result. For Christians, the big story of this holiday season is the birth of the baby Jesus, and the message is one of humble beginnings, the innocence of a newborn baby, and the peace and joy that the light of love can bring to the world. It makes me a bit uncomfortable to wonder which story was more culturally powerful this holiday season: the birth of Jesus; or the reawakening of the Force?
Significantly, the Star Wars mythology is a franchise whose purpose is to make money for Disney. The Economist recounts the great business turnaround Disney has made in the last decade, as it acquired the remarkable story telling talent of first Pixar, then Marvel and, finally, Star Wars (Lucasfilm). On the strength of these acquisitions and the strategic vision of Disney as purveyor of story content in film, TV, music and publications along with merchandising and destination resorts, Disney is, in the words of the Economist, well on the way to “buying childhood” and filling the void left “by the decline of religion.” This is indeed a force to be reckoned with.
If most of the stories and myths being told to the children in our society originate from a single institution dedicated to its own profit, how will this influence their ability to grow up as good, moral and virtuous adults? The cynics among us may say that the future will be increasingly one engineered by Disney – they can now call the shots, and we are likely to see an increasingly plasticized and homogenized culture inexorably drifting towards the lowest common denominators of insipid and vacuous PC moralism.
Yet some of us may yet believe in the ability of good to triumph over evil. Yes, the force is powerful with Disney, but that force depends on their ability to tell stories that enliven the human heart. The human heart is Disney’s master. If they fail to engage the aspirations, imagination and inmost desires of their audience, if they turn to the dark side of arrogance, greed, manipulation and dominion, they will fail. Good will triumph over evil. It is a simple matter of faith.