Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor
Over the last few weeks, battles large and small have been fought around the world. In Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, people are standing up to their governments and changing their leadership. Across the United States, protesters are standing up against laws that seek to undermine unions and take benefits and power away from workers. The story has to be told, and to explain these complex issues, people are turning to familiar stories. And many are turning to Star Wars. Why? Let’s face it: there are evil emperors. There are deserving rebels. And the scale of the battles is only rising.
There is so much changing that simply keeping up with the protests is a full-time job as social networks are being used more than ever to get the word out from individuals. Twitter, like protest signs themselves, lends itself to quick communication for immediate impact. It’s easy to get overwhelmed in the streams of tweets coming out of the last few weeks. 140 characters can go a lot further when they point at something larger. Some tweets point to pictures, others to videos of horrors, others to articles explaining the details and intricacies of the issues facing each population.
But others have turned to Star Wars–and Lord of the Rings, and Harry Potter. The revolutions have found the voices of popular culture and used them as metaphors for their own battles.
Jonathan Gray wrote a brilliant analysis of the importance of familiar stories and imperial walkers in the Wisconsin protest and observed that: “Many of the media signs involve considerable hyperbole (Walker as the ultimate evil), which is on one level another mainstay of many protest signs (witness the endless comparisons to Hitler that are all the rage in protest signmaking). But instead of simply scoffing at the hyperbole, we might realize that it represents an attempt to understand that which seems so non-understandable.”
Gray notes a number of other values of the metaphor, and of Star Wars in particular, in connecting people within the protest, easing tension, and drawing the rest of us in to the fight. The same can be said of these metaphors on the global stage, where the problem of alienation and distance poses a much more challenging divide to cross.
Here’s a popular tweet that draws in many of the movements in Tunisia, Egypt and Libya under one visual metaphor:
This is but one example on the theme, and it certainly simplifies the ongoing struggles into a process whose outcome seems clear. The status bars have changed as situations have moved forward, and for those following on Twitter it becomes a quick way to check in. At the same time, it’s an almost mechanical reduction of bloody and important battles into a metaphor of software removal.
For a more powerful summary of the same sentiment, take this repurposing of a quote from Lord of the Rings:
Even for those unfamiliar with the classic, there’s a thrilling shiver that accompanies those words. The hashtags that follow serve as a reminder that the quote is being put forth to contextualize a greater transformation that each revolution is part of, just as each battle in LotR was fought alone but united.
A similar sentiment echoes through the words of Albus Dumbledore, brought forth in the service of Libya as rumors circulate that the country is headed for government overthrow or civil war, depending on which news you read:
Yes, these words come from a children’s fantasy novel. That doesn’t make them any less powerful.
There’s a twitter account dedicated to documenting the Wisconsin Union protest posters: though it’s only started recently, it’s one of the many ways that the sayings on posters have made the quick hop into digital form. Poster-makers have turned to other powerful quotes, including Gandalf’s “You Shall Not Pass” (this bill) to make their points. Others discuss the struggle in terms of a LotR battle:
While Wisconsin is cast as “Helms Deep”, Libya is under the thrall of the emperor (or Sauron, depending upon your point of view).
In all of these cases, the metaphors to let us grasp at things that seem incomprehensibly large and “evil”–and yes, in some of these scenarios, the references to Sauron seem far from inappropriate. Tweets like these can be read as cultural insensitivity, but they also reflect the desire to understand. It’s also true that Star Wars can also be a reference for places unknown to the tweeter–but the very act of participation suggests an attempt to learn.
It’s easy to dismiss popular culture as a distraction from the world around us…and sometimes, it is:
But these tweets and Star Wars references are but one way in which the global village (to use a McLuhan term to describe a state of our world that is not a utopia, but in which those who live in the world can experience simultaneous happenings despite barriers of distance) can participate in the larger discourse. Support is moving in all directions–as with Wisconsin to Egypt and back again. Internationally, these conversations can move us to actions from the silly support of changing our avatar pics to the more urgent action of sending food to Wisconsin protesters. Through these small moves, we can feel like we are doing something about the dark side.
The rhetoric borrowed from pop culture connects events across the world as if all are but parts of the same struggle. And in the end, these metaphors offer another hope: the hope for a happy ending.