It's a beautiful day at Disney World's Hollywood Studios.
The Rock 'n' Roller Coaster is rocking, a sea of Mickey ears flows through the park,
and that Beauty and the Beast live show is mysteriously... still running...
And it is here at Disney World's Hollywood Studios, every hour on the hour,
a cavalcade of stormtroopers begins its march down the centrally-located Hollywood Boulevard,
led by Captain Phasma to the First Order march theme, while hundreds of onlookers take pictures
and admire what the Walt Disney World website describes as,
"a daunting demonstration of the First Order's obedience and strength."
But for realsies, the March of the First Order is quite literally framed as a recruitment seminar.
You know, for kids!
And it's moments like these, when you stop and notice the countless pieces of stormtrooper merchandise,
both for sale and being worn around the park, by adults and kids alike, and one has to wonder:
how is it that we've arrived at a point where one of the largest multimedia conglomerates in the world
can create a show at one of the world's most popular theme parks that is, in effect...
Because they are fascists, right? I mean, they look like fascists. They talk like fascists.
"...as the last day of the Republic!"
They have a fascist ideolo-
Wait, actually, on second thought, do they? Does the First Order have ANY ideology?
That's right. We're here to try to figure out the driving ideology of the First Order.
I mean, what did you expect?
I'm not saying putting space fascists on Rice Krispie Treats is like, bad or immoral.
I'm just saying it's interesting how Disney has pushed their marketing of the "dark side" to be as evocative of real-world fascist movements as possible,
while not SO evocative that people start casting a side-eye at putting stormtroopers on cuddly throws.
But despite being fiction, the First Order is based, more than anything, on history's most famous group of fascists.
And that kind of begs the question:
can you import the aesthetics of fascism, while kind of tabling fascist ideology so that you can sell Captain Phasma Christmas ornaments?
I mean, the answer is obviously yes, but we're gonna go ahead and make a thing out of it anyway.
It's common knowledge that the Star Wars universe was based heavily on drawing from a 30-year cycle of nostalgia,
and had two heavily aesthetic influences pulled from that particular past:
spacey fantasy serials like Flash Gordon, which George Lucas originally wanted to adapt for film but couldn't obtain the rights for,
and World War II imagery.
But there is a tendency in nerd critical spaces for people to get kind of defensive
when you start talking about the fact that Star Wars was a little extremely inspired by World War II
and this is known and has been known since it was incepted.
But I look forward to an interesting and robust conversation in the comments below.
Ring that bell, so it'll do whatever it is that it's supposed to do, like share and subscribe,
leave me a comment if you think that Kylo Ren is the sexiest space Nazi in the galaxy.
I'm just kidding, I don't read the comments.
if there is one aesthetic influence on the Empire, and by extension, their descendants the First Order,
it was the Third Reich.
This is a convenient visual shorthand, especially for audiences in the 70s,
for whom the horrors of Nazi Germany were close enough that this was simple and effective,
but not so recent that it's, you know, too real.
To quote the recently passed costume designer for the original Star Wars trilogy, John Malo,
But in general, the Nazi aesthetic from the uniform tailoring, to the color schemes, to the headgear, seems pretty obvious as a source of inspiration.
It's even there in the way the actors playing the Empire characters approached their roles.
To quote actor Kenneth Colley, who played Admiral Piett in the original trilogy,
And this doesn't even begin to dive into George Lucas's thoughts when it comes to the prequels,
where he describes the rise of the Emperor in Revenge of the Sith as:
So deliberate reference to fascist iconography is there in all Star Wars movies,
but if we're talking about the prevalence of Nazi imagery in popular culture,
Guess we need to talk about our girl!
♪ TURN DOWN FOR WHAT ♪
Wait, wait, no no no. No. You're a f***ing fascist. You don't deserve Turn Down for What.
♪ Look at this photograph ♪
[chuckles] Okay, that's better.
It's hard to talk about the history of film, let alone the Star Wars franchise, without eventually discussing the work of director Leni Riefenstahl,
whose most notable works were her propaganda films made in celebration of Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party, Triumph of the Will and Olympia.
Writer and activist Susan Sontag once wrote that,
And while the topic of Leni Riefenstahl and the impact of her work could easily fill a much longer video than this, we are keeping it simple.
For more on Reifenstahl's influence on Triumph of the Will, see Dan Olsen's video on the same subject.
Suffice to say that, aside from the whole Nazi propaganda thing, Leni Riefenstahl is notable for
pioneering filming techniques, editing, and striking sweeping shots, in particular for documentary film.
But more relevant here is the iconography she developed to show the power of the Reich,
that influences depictions of Nazis and fascists to this day.
The iconography that we associate with Nazis isn't from historical documents or from, you know, non-Nazi historians.
It's from Nazi propaganda.
Specifically, THIS Nazi propaganda. And that is Leni Riefenstahl's legacy.
So when we see the aesthetics of the Empire and the First Order, they aren't inspired by the Third Reich,
but by Nazi propaganda ABOUT the Third Reich.
So, it's the Cold War, Leni Riefenstahl has been acquitted of any war crimes,
despite her films' value to the Nazi Party and propaganda and her friendship with Hitler and Goebbels.
This narrative of Leni Riefenstahl as an AUTEUR, who just you know, HAPPENED to make films for a monstrous regime emerges,
and a renewed international interest in her work accompanies it, and reaches a whole new generation of film directors.
So you see these shots of marching soldiers,
the way villains are filmed from slightly below,
and this very direct call to a shot in Triumph of the Will,
and the influence is surprisingly overt.
So this isn't "oops, accidental Nazis;" the cult of fascist iconography is deliberate in all three trilogies.
But here's the thing about fascism.
It usually rises for a reason, you know, never a good reason, but there's always a call to arms, if you will,
If we're gonna try to discern the ideology of the First Order, it's only fair that we do the same for the Empire.
So what did the Empire actually stand for in the original trilogy, if anything?
Well, the original trilogy never dives too deeply into it,
and both the good guys and the bad guys play into larger nonspecific tropes in demonstrating their moral alignment,
i.e. the flippant genocide of all of Alderaan by the Death Star.
The Empire had no real conclusive ideology behind their regime in the original trilogy.
"Now, you see that evil will always triumph, because good is dumb!"
And part of this is because they don't need to. It has to do with where we enter the story.
And this is one strength the original trilogy has and yes, actually even the prequels.
"I'm a person and my name is Anakin!"
Bear with me. When we first meet Luke Skywalker and Princess Leia,
we are entering a universe where the Empire is not only in power,
it is the ONLY power.
They've been in power since before Luke was born, and this is the only power structure young Luke has ever known,
and therefore the only one we, the audience, know.
Moreover, the story starts on Tatooine, a s***hole of a planet that nobody cares about.
"I have no need for a protocol droid."
"Of course you haven't, sir! Not in an environment such as this."
Day-to-day life is kind of impacted, Luke understands that the Empire is unjust, but it's not the worst ever.
You know, the Empire more or less leaves people alone unless they rabble-rouse.
You know, like most totalitarian states in peacetime.
Luke isn't really even keen on joining the Rebellion until his family gets torched.
Meanwhile, with the prequels - again, hot mess though they are -
the power structure in place does make sense, kind of.
And though it requires an absurd level of 13 dimensional chess on the part of Palpatine,
it's clear what the power structure is, what it stands for,
and how the Senate is duped by fear into giving themselves over to fascism,
as evidenced by the one good line in all three movies.
"So this is how liberty dies... with thunderous applause."
Palpatine manufactured a crisis, exploited fear, somebody burned down the Reichstag, and wouldn't you know it...
♪ "...told me I was Fuhrer" ♪
But in the new trilogy, we have the First Order fighting against the Resistance,
who is being backed by the semi-neutral New Republic,
a confusing mess of a power structure that itself gets blown up halfway through The Force Awakens...
...before we even meet them or know who they are ANYWAY
A similar plot point to the destruction of the New Republic happens in A New Hope.
Grand Moff Tarkin orders the destruction of a planet that we've never seen or been to,
but it works more effectively in A New Hope for one simple reason:
it's Leia's home planet and she make a sad face.
Secondly, it's clear why the Empire destroys Alderaan.
Leia is becoming a figurehead in this nascent rebellion, and it's her home planet.
Moreover, this is a common tactic in totalitarian states: big displays of force to keep the folk in line.
The Republic in The Force Awakens...
yes, there was a deleted scene where they sent a character we know there, but it was deleted,
and either way, none of the main characters have any connection to the Hosnian system.
The point is, from a narrative standpoint, the ideology of the First Order and why they do what they do matters more in The Force Awakens,
because the First Order isn't really in power yet.
They're more of a rogue state, and therefore their task is to rally people to their side with rhetoric,
or invade Poland.
But they don't. Apparently, they just steal babies and raise them under totalitarianism.
But don't worry, these kidnapped babies shake their conditioning pretty quickly.
"FN, huh? Finn, I'm gonna call you Finn. Is that all right?"
"Finn, yeah! Finn! I like that!"
My point is the new trilogy incorporates a lot of stuff that is evocative of real-world atrocities...
...without really thinking through the implications of these inclusions or the real-world connotations.
They don't destroy the New Republic as a means of maintaining control.
It's more of a, "We demand to be taken seriously."
One that creates a power vacuum that they have ostensibly exploited and filmed by the time of The Last Jedi I guess?
It's not really clear who is driving.
Bear is driving.
And the destruction of the Hosnian system works from a dramatic standpoint, but it doesn't really work from a narrative standpoint.
It doesn't really make a whole lot of sense in The Force Awakens,
which itself has a bad habit of aping plot points from A New Hope without importing that all-important context.
The Empire was in total control and keeping the rabble-rousers in line.
The First Order is a rogue state who demands to be taken seriously.
But let's take for granted that this is all deliberate.
There are two things that The Last Jedi introduce which kind of begs one to consider the mechanics of the universe.
A: war profiteering.
"There's only one business in the galaxy that'll get you this rich."
"Selling weapons to the First Order."
B: an implied caste system with exploited labor, namely child labor, at the bottom.
So it's clear what our heroes are fighting for, but if the light rises, so too must the dark.
In other words, what is the First Order fighting for? You know, besides...
Fascism has always been difficult to define as an ideology,
compared to, say, Nazism, itself a form of fascism.
Ask the average person to define fascism and they probably will not do it accurately.
Yet we still love using "fascist" as an insult.
People don't really know what fascism is,
but they know what it looks like or is imagined to look like, thanks in part to movies like Star Wars.
Umberto Eco's 1995 essay "Ur-Fascism," which you should go read right now,
perhaps captures the elusive nature of fascism the most succinctly.
According to Eco:
Fascism does not belong to one nationality, nor religion, nor period of time.
However, Eco does outline fourteen bullet points in defining fascism.
I'm not going to list all of them, but stick to the ones which are relevant with regard to the First Order.
An emphasis on - read "cult of" - tradition.
Exploiting a natural fear of difference.
Disagreement is a sign of diversity, and diversity bad.
There is no struggle for life, but rather, life is lived for struggle.
And in such a perspective, everyone is educated to become a hero.
In every mythology, the hero is an exceptional being,
but in ur-fascist ideology, heroism is the norm.
This cult of heroism is strictly linked with the cult of death.
So on second thought, maybe this indefinable fluid ideology of the First Order speaks to it being fascist,
in spite of the fact that we literally know nothing about what it is the First Order actually wants.
You know, besides...
Oh, Kylo Ren.
You quilt of rage.
You amalgam of every bad-boy cliche, all wrapped in a selfish ideology and scaffolded by space fascists.
Save him Rey! You know you want to!
"It isn't too late."
So Kylo Ren is the epitome of everything that is fascist but fanficcy about the First Order.
Kylo does not have an ideology outside of the ideology of the self,
which puts him somewhat at odds with real world fascists.
You can't have a cult of heroism if you don't particularly care about being a hero.
If you've ever run into any...
...identitarians, you may note that when they do tend to fall to "the dark side,"
they also tend to adhere to a certain set of ideologies,
usually having to do with race, nationality, protecting the people from some amorphous foreign threat, and white women being obedient brood mares.
But all it really does is give a sense of purpose to this sort of amorphous rage felt by the ur-fascist,
which the fascist power structure can now exploit.
The relationship between Snoke and Kylo Ren actually illustrates this really well.
This is also why Kylo Ren disposes of Snoke so easily.
His ideology doesn't matter.
So obviously the First Order doesn't need to mirror real-world fascists in order to have their own brand of fictional fascism.
Maybe instead of the cultural Marxists masterminding multiculturalism,
they're scapegoating aliens or something.
Those goddamn Wookies are taking our jobs!
A scapegoat for some social problem, real or imagined, is integral for the rise of fascist power structures.
That undercurrent is there in some of the extended universe books, particularly the original Thrawn Trilogy.
But those books are no longer considered canon, and that still doesn't shed any light on what the First Order wants or believes.
The closest in this new canon we've seen to actually exploring the ideology of the First Order was the book Bloodline by Claudia Gray.
Wherein the divide in the new liberal Republic is between the populists and the centrists.
And in the Star Wars universe, those words do not mean at all what they mean in our universe.
So this gets really confusing.
The pre-First Order political divide in the Star Wars universe is more akin to the political divide between
Alexander Hamilton's Federalists and Thomas Jefferson's Democratic-Republicans,
with Princess Leia on the Jeffersonian side as a "populist."
Again, this term does not mean what it means in our political discourse and it's really confusing.
And with her on-again off-again rival Ransolm Casterfo on the Hamiltonian side as a
"centrist," he wants a stronger central government.
I wish they had chosen different names.
The populists are more like a states' rights crowd.
They want the planets to be more autonomous.
And the centrists favor a stronger central government.
And no one realizes that a fair chunk of the Hamiltonian centrists are actually closet fascists.
And like with the prequels, there is some mundane conflict that the fascists can exploit in order to consolidate power.
The point I'm making here is that it is actually kind of difficult to demonstrate how fascist ideologies gain traction in society and fiction.
But with all that said, we don't learn a whole lot about their ideology,
other than the typical Star Wars power for power's sake, and, you know, hate and dark side and all that.
In part because said ideology could be #tooreal and read as flippant or offensive,
but also because the underlying ideology is never logical.
Revenge of the Sith actually demonstrates that really well.
So if you're gonna try and make, like, pajamas and plush toys out of your space fascists,
it does make sense that you'd probably just want to...
skip all that and just get right to the totalitarianism part.
So let's go back to Kylo Ren.
What was it about the ideology of the First Order that appeals to him?
Was he worried about alien multiculturalism leading to the eventual demise of the human race?
No, he's disappointed in his father, and his father figure.
I guess Luke made a boo-boo and thought about killing him for a second.
But Kylo Ren didn't joined the fascists because he was seduced by fascist ideology.
Kylo Ren is a fascist figurehead out of spite.
"The Supreme Leader is dead."
"Long live the Supreme Leader."
The Last Jedi shows that Kylo Ren doesn't really care about enriching any side,
other than whatever side will best empower him.
Which goes to show that he has no ideology to defend, because he doesn't care,
and possibly because there IS no ideology to defend.
I think this also speaks to some of the disappointment with Snoke.
The Emperor was good at stoking fear and exploiting it - a common authoritarian tactic.
But Snoke... what does he even want?
"The Supreme Leader is wise."
"Snoke is using you for your power."
"The seed of the Jedi Order lives.
"As long as he does, hope lives!"
In the end, Kylo Ren is willing to dispatch with his old master basically on a whim,
because Snoke's ideology is not worth fighting for, because it doesn't exist.
Routing around back to Umberto Eco,
one concept of fascism is that it idealizes this concept of some savior,
or what Eco refers to as "the ur-fascist hero."
Says Eco: in non-fascist societies, the lay public is told that death is unpleasant, must be faced with dignity.
Believers are told that it is the painful way to reach a supernatural happiness.
By contrast, the ur-fascist hero craves heroic death,
advertised as the best reward for a heroic life.
The ur-fascist hero is impatient to die.
In his impatience, he more frequently sends other people to death.
Since permanent war and heroism are difficult games to play,
the ur-fascist transfer his will to power to sexual matters.
This is the origin of machismo, which implies both disdain for women
and intolerance and condemnation of non-standard sexual habits, from chastity to homosexuality.
Since even sex is a difficult game to play, the ur-fascist hero tends to play with weapons.
Doing so becomes an ersatz phallic exercise.
So before Luke's oopsy-daisy, Kylo Ren is essentially the proto-fascist clay,
the raw anger and resentment before it has been given target.
This is all part and parcel with the actual narrative trajectory of the trilogy,
where Ben is savable in part because he lacks ideology.
However, even in that, he still embodies Eco's description of ur-fascism as a non-ideology of action for action's sake.
So what DOES the First Order want?
It could be that the movies go out of their way not to say,
because then it would be #tooreal and we can't put Captain Phasma on t-shirts.
Or, and I'm about to give Disney way too much credit,
there could be a deeper understanding at play,
that the ideology doesn't actually matter, and that's kind of the point.
Perhaps the error isn't trying to apply logic to an inherently non-logical ideology.
Again, according to Eco, Nazism had a really clear-cut ideology.
But concurrent Italian fascism under Mussolini did not.
And the First Order also borrows heavily from those aesthetics.
In Eco's words:
So on the one hand, it's not unfair to point out that with fascism, ideology is only a means to an end.
And the end is the quashing of dissent, stamping out diversity, heroes and heroic death, and strict totalitarianism.
Star Wars has always understood that much:
bad guys employing horrible acts we see mirrored in the real world,
but shifting them just far enough from real-world atrocities that we can merchandise the villains
almost as much as we merchandise the heroes.
We see this in the likes of Thanos as well.
He's a genocidal monster, sure. But you know, at least he goes by random coin toss for who he kills...
some of the time...
See, he doesn't target specific ethnic groups like real genociders do.
He's an egalitarian genocidal monster. He's COMPLEX.
To quote Eco again:
So it could be that they're being lazy and playing it safe so they can sell more stuff.
But who knows? Maybe, deep down, Disney understands this.
And that's what makes this family-friendly type of fascism so easy to brand and to sell.
So... who cares?
Part of the problem with applying even a very modest set of academic theory to a pop culture thing
is then we get some hand wringing over the inevitable moralizing,
and it also begs the question: "Well, what do you want me to do about it?
"Not own Darth Vader pajamas?"
when that is not the point.
The point is to examine the context of the thing, not demand that Disney make their villains less faschy.
Fictional villains always draw inspiration from real world bad things and that's fine.
That said, I do think it's worth examining how the portrayal of the dark side has changed since Disney got ahold of it,
that the filmmakers decided to lean into the faschy imagery rather than away from it.
And yes, Star Wars merchandising has always, always, heavily relied on marketing "bad" characters
like Darth Vader and Boba Fett in order to help earn that sweet green.
But the significance of iconography can shift over time,
and I do think it's worth examining the difference of selling cute faschy bad guy characters in 1977,
and selling the same in 2018.