Carnivore Culture, not Cancel Culture: The Mandalorian Season 2
Sunday, 07 March 2021 09:27

Carnivore Culture, not Cancel Culture: The Mandalorian Season 2

Dennis Broe continues his series of reviews, discussing The Mandalorian Season 2 and the growing limits on creativity in streaming services

One of the surprise hits of the contemporary streaming era is the first original series on Disney+, The Mandalorian. A surprise not because it was a hit – any Star Wars spinoff is guaranteed to have a wide audience – but because of the magnitude of its popularity and the way it has penetrated the culture.

Baby

Baby Yoda 

This space Western features a lone gunslinger and bounty hunter who befriends a timeless and seemingly helpless kid, a baby Yoda called The Child and now named Grogu. The series was twenty times more popular than any other original series on Disney+, the third most popular series (with 1,032 billion minutes viewed) in one of the Nielsen streaming ratings which highly underestimate number of viewers, and crucial in Disney+ surpassing 74 million subscribers worldwide in 2020, far beyond its initial goal of 60 million by 2024.

At Christmas, an American workforce seeing its economy evaporate and stuck at home still spent heavily on toys. One of the crown jewels of the toy world was a giggling, babbling Baby Yoda, for $60 no less. In this year where whole cinema chains closed, the animatronic wonder was the only significant seller in film and TV merchandise. This Green Goblin, now a mascot for Disney+, threatened even to replace the angel announcing the birth of Jesus at the top of the Christmas tree.

Part of the furore and adoration is warranted. The first season of The Mandalorian breathed new life into an atrophied franchise. The tale is set after the end of the first Star Wars trilogy where the empire has collapsed but the budding Republic is weak and unable to pull together an unruly universe. Mando, in his quest to preserve and protect this powerful baby visits a different planet each week, most with broken-down governments and infrastructures.

The collapse of the Americam empire

Season one was a fit metaphor for the imminent collapse of the U.S. empire as its currency faltered and economy plummeted, in a downturn accelerated but not caused by Covid. The individual planets with their barely surviving frontier systems of government looked a lot like failing American states in the aftermath of the Reagan-Bush-Clinton neoliberal onslaught, finally done in by Trump.

The worlds of The Mandalorian also echoed failed states around the world, as parts of the U.S. global empire collapsed with protests in Lebanon, Chile, and Algeria, to say nothing of recent people’s movements closer to home in the Gilets Jaune in France, the Indignados in Spain and the mass movement that led to the momentary success of Syriza in Greece.

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Gina Carano’s Cara Dune

This degradation can be seen also in a comparison of the leading females of the original trilogy and this new iteration. Carrie Fisher’s Princess Leia battled and was a rallying figure around opposition to the fascist Darth Vader and the Death Star. The leading female figure in The Mandalorian was the now-fired Gina Carano’s Cara Dune, a gun-toting warrior on screen, and off-screen a Trump supporter and former wrestler known for her viciousness in the ring.

Carano, now one of the world’s most popular celebrities and a tweeter of racist, anti-democratic and a pro-Covid positions, was the Princess Leia of a broken- down generation buffeted about by the neglect of an ever-greedier capitalism and hardened not so much to resist that neglect but to survive it in whatever way possible and not excluding the embracing of fascism.

The trimmings of The Mandalorian though couldn’t have been cleverer, with the musical theme a combination of both John Willams’ Star Wars majesty intermingled with the ominously tense strands of Ennio Morricone’s themes for the Sergio Leone-Clint Eastwood spaghetti Westerns. The weekly trip to another planet was borrowed from the original Star Trek as were the end-credit freeze-frames of action in the episode.

Season two began as more of the same, but as the quest to find Baby Yoda’s home took centre stage, the show slowly and then more frenetically drew in components and characters from the extended Star Wars world, or as it’s called using the Marvel example, the Star Wars universe. These included the bounty hunter Boba Fett from the original trilogy but also from the second, mostly unsuccessful, prequel trilogy and Rosario Dawson’s female Jedi Ashoka, a voice-over in the last episode of the most current trilogy and one of the stars of the animated series Star Wars: The Clone Wars, a character fleshed out in that series by Dave Filoni, co-creator of The Mandalorian.

The ultimate inclusion though was the surprise at the end of the series with the reappearance of the first trilogy’s key character Luke Skywalker, played by a reanimated and youthful Mark Hamill, arranged by both the digital reverse aging technique used by Scorsese for DeNiro, Pacino, and Pesci in The Irishman and a mounting of Hamill’s face on a contemporary body.

The move was heralded by Star Wars fans as a crowning touch in the acceptance of the series into the extended universe, with its creator George Lucas now being whispered as himself part of season three.

Nothing new to say

Of course, it was something else too, and that was a gigantic lure for the Disney+ streaming service, which has produced little original content and which has now used this hit as a launching pad for nine new Star Wars series. The company has had to move more actively and rapidly into streaming as other parts of the empire, specifically its theatrical films, amusement parks and cruise ships, falter due to the virus.

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Rosario Dawson's Ashoka

Disney is all about synergy, that is, with one part of the company interacting and promoting another. Thus, having bought the Star Wars franchise, not only did the film beget the series but Disney is also borrowing the concept of the “universe” from Marvel, as well as crossing personnel from the two universes. Thus, the upcoming series The Book of Baba Fett will co-star as the outlaw’s sidekick Fennec Shand, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.’s Ming-Na Wen.

Elsewhere, Marvel guru, studio chief and keeper of the universe flame Kevin Feige is developing a new Star Wars movie which will supposedly extend this new universe into infinity. Each of these series and films of course will also be designed to generate cuddly figurines as both toys and collectibles so that the commercial reach of these shows and films extends beyond the screen.

There is something else going on here besides mass merchandising though. The limiting of creativity even in this overly commercialized product so that the show in season two begins to fold into itself and collapse into an already established pattern and constellation is an indication of a culture that is eating itself. More than carnivore, the show is now emblematic of an autophagic, or self-consuming, culture that quickly extinguishes any spark of the new by folding it back into the tried, tested and comfortable – and in that way annihilating it.

As such, the journey of The Mandalorian is not so different from that of the country itself. A once powerful manufacturing juggernaut, the U.S. has now been utterly hollowed out so that manufacturing, or making stuff, accounts for only one in 20 businesses and one-ninth of the workforce compared to after World War II, where one-third of the workforce was employed in factories. The art of producing material goods has been replaced by the symbolic economies of finance, entertainment, and the digital, with the only real manufacturing being done in weapons construction, in the sale of which the U.S. leads the world.

Instead, manufacturing has fled to China and other parts of Asia so that by December of last year China, back at nearly full capacity after recovering from the coronavirus, had a record trade surplus of $75 billion. Over $50 billion of that figure consisted of exports to the U.S., where stay-at-home consumers were eagerly buying up Chinese made home fixtures and toys for Christmas, including the aforementioned Hasbro Baby Yoda doll, manufactured in a Chinese factory.

Remake and redo - This is not the way!

This hollowness or emptiness at the core of the society, reflected in the entertainment complex as lack of innovation, so that any spark of creativity must quickly fold back into preestablished patterns, is at play also in the finance industry in the form of stock buybacks. After the 2008 financial collapse and continuing with the Covid aid to American banks, insurance agencies and investment firms, instead of investing in the society as a whole or in innovating in their firm, the financial sector bolstered their position by using the money to repurchase shares in their own, often faltering, companies, resulting in zero gain for our society as a whole but enormous profits for their own shareholders since the stock value was now, artificially, increased. The rationale for propping up this zombie culture was, “We don’t see any better investment than in ourselves,” a phrase which reaffirms their greed and lack of interest in the society as a whole.

This is where much of the money from Trump’s tax cuts for the wealthiest, supposedly designed to “trickle down” to the rest of the society, went, with over $806 billion in buybacks in 2018 after the 2017 tax cut. In that year, only 43 percent of the 500 wealthiest companies spent any money, even a penny, on research and development, while spending $4.3 trillion on propping themselves up in the market and enriching themselves.

When these companies were recently challenged on the market by the Reddit traders, using a failed brick and mortar company GameStop to wage war on the established hedge funds, this popular mass of traders, separate from the established Wall Street cronies, ended their communiques with The Mandalorian phrase, “This is the way.”

SATC

Rerunning Sex and the City 

And indeed, it was the way for a season, that is before the show finally folded in on itself and became part of the same carnivore culture so rampant in the industrial and financial worlds. As the stakes increase for the streaming services they move as well to squelch innovation. Witness HBO Max’s return of Sex and the City as well as a redo of Gossip Girl and a Friends reunion special to announce the return of that series to the AT&T fold, where it is designed to bolster fading HBO Max subscriptions.

While the right worries about cancel culture – and the left ought to also because the great unwashed neoliberal middle will be coming for progressives next – the bland corporate elite produces a carnivore culture by feasting on what is left of the carcass of a once thriving entertainment and economic complex. In this new chasing after the last vestige of abundance in a fading financial structure, the promise of plenitude that begat the streaming era has ceded to the kind of remake and redo policy that has driven the Hollywood film industry. If the monoliths of HBO/AT&T and Disney prevail, this lack of innovation in a culture feeding on itself will become the dominant. With American corporate and conglomerate capital unfortunately, “This is the way.”

It isn't!

Culture Punch: The Many Horrors of the Disney Corporation
Sunday, 07 March 2021 09:27

Culture Punch: The Many Horrors of the Disney Corporation

Published in Films

There is a certain self-satisfaction to our popular culture which I find nauseating. TV and film are used to tell more styles and types of stories than ever before. At any given moment I can boot up Netflix or Amazon Prime and find a hundred sci-fi series, horror flicks, romances or documentaries. On any given day, I can walk into a cinema and satisfy my craving for any genre I choose.

And yet, I find myself discontented. For all the superficial variety of modern cinema and television, almost everything on offer suffers from the same vague, ideological squalidness. The underlying ideas and concerns of most of the stories in our visual medium are as tawdry as they are homogeneous. And just to be clear: they’re very homogeneous.

This problem finds its purest and most troubling expression in one company: the Disney corporation. I despise Disney. Don’t get me wrong: like everyone else in the universe, I like some of the films they’ve bankrolled. They own Marvel Studios, and a surprising number of that studio’s films are very, very good. My issue with Disney has nothing to do with their ability to produce entertaining content: my problem is that they own just about everything. Well, that and the use of child slave labour to make their merchandise. We’ll come back to that.

It’s Disney’s money behind the Star Wars franchise (and every other LucasFilms franchise), the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the animated films of Pixar, Touchstones Pictures, the ABC (aka the American Broadcasting Company), A&E and Lifetime (two lesser-known US cable channels), and, for some mad reason, the Muppets. And that’s not even a comprehensive list! Disney owns shares in various news and music distributors as well (including Vice, believe it or not).

The point is that this one corporation owns most of the film studios generating our most influential cultural myths, along with a vast network of lesser studios and TV channels. Its ideas, values and ideologies therefore dominate the cultural landscape. Yes, it’s true that most of their interests are in America, but we still consume the same content here in Britain. If you regularly watch movies of any description, your mental landscape is being shaped by Disney. If you have kids who watch films or TV, their value systems are being moulded by a company that got caught using sweatshop labour as recently as 2012. And no – I don’t think they’ve stopped just because they haven’t been caught again since.

You can find a complete history of their malpractice and abuse at the Corporate Research Project. Disney is a company that’s happy to subject its workers to slave-like conditions whenever it thinks it can get away with it. It also grossly underpays its western-based workers outside of sweatshops. You can find an interesting summary of just how wealthy Disney is and how little it pays its workforce in the essay Disney Corporation Through the Eyes of a Marxist. The essay also discusses Disney’s function as an ‘opiate of the masses’, which makes it a perfect companion to this article.

This single, exploitative company is in charge of the most influential cultural franchises on the planet. Yet despite the evil of the company itself, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with the values and ideas that Disney-backed films promote… at least on the surface. Those films seem pretty big on friendship, diversity, self-sacrifice, etc. – all the usual positive values that help our society function. But dig a little deeper and you’ll see that there’s quite a lot of weaselly and self-serving messages hidden in Disney’s output.

Consider, for instance, the villains of the Marvel studios films. If you’re familiar with those films, you may have noticed that a surprising number of the villains are motivated by outrage over injustices they have suffered at the hands of America in general, or its fictional superhero community in particular. My favourite example is probably the terrorist from Captain America: Civil War, who turned ‘evil’ in response to the fact that American superheroes and villains nearly destroyed his eastern-European home city.

Villains

Meanwhile, there’s The Vulture, from Spiderman: Homecoming, who’s actually just a working-class dude who loses his job to a company owned by Tony Stark (aka Iron Man), and is driven to a life of crime as a result. Hmm. I wonder why a company like Disney that routinely exploits the impoverished and people from less affluent nations might be keen to portray them as unhinged psychopaths-in-waiting. Maybe I’m paranoid, or maybe Disney has a vested interest in limiting our sympathies with the people and demographics it regularly screws over.

Of course, not all Disney’s Marvel films are propaganda for capitalism and western colonialism. It’d be hard to argue that there’s anything ideologically suspect about the Guardians of the Galaxy films for example. But then again, those were directed by James Gunn, who was fired by Disney at the first opportunity, so I’m not sure if that counts for anything.

Lest you think the disturbing propagandist trend is confined to just one of the studios that Disney owns, let’s examine another one. LucasFilms is the Disney-owned studio that makes Star Wars. Now, who can tell me what’s wrong with Star Wars? That was a rhetorical question – put your hand down.

Part of the problem is the simple lack of depth. To say that the modern Star Wars films are about as deep as puddles would be an insult to puddles. I once stepped into a puddle in Wales and sunk up to my waist. I wish Disney’s Star Wars had that kind of surprising depth (and that I’d been wearing waterproof clothes, but that’s off-topic).

The Empire’s holdouts in the new trilogy are clearly meant to be an allegory for the rise of the far Right, but they seem less villainous than the real thing because they’ve been airbrushed into a saleable form. They’re a stylised form of evil designed to shift themed merchandise, and they make that type of evil look almost appealing, which is kind of irresponsible when its real-life counterpart is on the ascendant across Europe and America.

Also – and I admit this is a comparatively minor gripe – the new films actually endorse the mindless following of orders, even if they don’t make sense. In The Last Jedi, there’s a military General on the good guys’ side who keeps giving really, really stupid orders that keep putting people in danger and nearly getting them killed. Some of the other characters nearly mutiny… but it turns out the General had a super-secret plan all along and should have just been trusted!

The moral of the story seems to be to trust high-ranking military officials, even when they’re clearly nuts. I think the film’s writers and producers expected to get away with this little subplot because the General is a purple-haired woman who looks like a Liberal Arts major rather than a moustache-twirling Kitchener type. Newsflash, Disney: smuggling a message of militarist conformity in under the guise of diversity and progressivism makes it worse, not better.

Disney also has a… complicated relationship with sexism and racism. In fairness to the corporation, there’s actually very little direct sexism or racism in their recent films. Their classic output, on the other hand, is rife with it. Remember that, until recently, Disney was primarily known for its animations based on fairy tales and the ‘Disney Princesses’ contained therein. Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, Snow White – that whole fictitious milieu. None of these characters had any real agency.

racism 2

Of course, in the modern age, Disney has made a show of subverting and even mocking this trope from its earlier films. Films of that era also contain quite a few racist stereotypes (Dumbo, one of their non-fairytale films from that era of animation, contains a racist caricature in the form of a crow named Jim Crow, after the segregation laws that America used to discriminate against people of colour). There is a discussion of Disney’s sexist and racist messages here.

The problem isn’t that the Disney company made sexist and racist movies years ago. I can’t legitimately attack the modern incarnation of a company for things it did before most of its current executives and employees were even born. The problem is that Disney continues to profit from these movies. It regularly releases and re-releases DVDs and Blu-rays of them. It continues to sell them to uncritical children and nostalgia-blinded adults.

I’m not saying these movies should become inaccessible. I don’t think any cultural artefact should be put beyond reach, no matter how repellent it might be. However, there’s something sleazy and toxic about the way Disney continues to peddle them (and therefore the ideas they contain) for profit. Really, they should be in a public archive, instead, with annotations explaining their historical context. But they’re not. They’re in supermarkets, utterly devoid of context.

By now, you should have a sense of how huge Disney is and how comprehensive its impact on our culture truly is. The point is that one of the largest media companies in the world – a company whose content almost all of us consume – is perfectly comfortable with skewing the underlying ideology of its current output to the right while selling even more retrograde content from its past. And that’s a problem, because the messages are ubiquitous and therefore play a gigantic role in shaping the thought processes of anyone imbibing them. Worse, they’re also subtle. They enter the brain as background information and aren’t subjected to the critical and analytical processes that would greet explicit ideological message-mongering.

Any cultural and ideological monopoly is bad, because it means a single source is distorting and mutating the mindscapes of entire populations. A cultural and ideological monopoly that happens to be in the hands of a right-wing, morally-bankrupt mega-corp is so, so much worse.

Disney is engaged in a constant project of acquiring more studios and controlling more and more of the cinematic and cultural landscape, which should worry anyone who values the polyphony of ideas and viewpoint that exist in a real cultural democracy. And they have a history of using sweatshop labour.

In their article Culture for the Many, Not the Few, Mike Quille and Chris Guiton state that “Fundamentally, cultural activities are social, unifying and egalitarian. They assert our common humanity against divisions of class, gender, race and other divisions caused by capitalism”. The Disney corporation controls an enormous swathe of our media culture, and the ideologies that it pushes are antithetical to those cultural ideals. It enshrines division, particularly between different nationalities and classes of humanity. As such, it is as an enemy of cultural democracy.

Do I think a company like Disney can be reformed? Frankly, no. I think the culture of exploitation and right-wing bias is so deeply ingrained in Disney’s corporate DNA that its incapable of meaningful, lasting reform. However, that doesn’t mean that the individual writers, animators and artists trapped within the company are beyond redemption. In an ideal world, I’d like to see the talented people working for Disney break away and set up their own small, independent studios, which would be owned by their workers, not external shareholders. Smaller studios that aren’t answerable to profit-motivated capitalists can put out content with a healthy range of ideas and viewpoints.

Believe it or not, you can encourage individual creators to break away from their masters and Disney in this fashion. All you have to do is find out the names of individuals who have worked on films that you’ve enjoyed, and support their independent projects. You can also be open in your criticism of Disney in order to make creators and film-goers aware of the depravities of the organisation.

However, individual action is never enough on its own. It’s also worth considering what governmental and legislative steps can be taken to break the cultural dominance of the Disney corporation and improve conditions for its workers. As you probably guessed, I have a few ideas.

Crucially, I think we need to see a new kind of anti-monopoly law aimed specifically at media corporations. This law would limit the number of studios and creative teams that any one company could have under its corporate umbrella. A key part of the problem with the Disney corporation is that it owns too many studios and creative teams and therefore dominates our cultural landscape. Any law that prevents it from acquiring new studios would be a positive first step. If the law could also force Disney (and companies like it) to sell off some of their studios to the people who already work there, that would be even better. It would create a polyphony of worker-owned, independent studios practically overnight.

Theoretically, an incoming Labour government could introduce such a law in the UK, but Disney is an international company primarily based in the USA. In other words, other countries (particularly America) would have to adopt versions of the law for it to have a serious effect. However, the UK has an opportunity to lead the way by being the first company to apply anti-monopoly laws to the cultural landscape itself, and thereby encourage cultural democracy.

An incoming Labour government could also do something about the way Disney treats its workers in this country by raising the UK minimum wage for individuals employed by corporations above a certain size. It could also help combat Disney’s use of sweatshops by requiring that all companies have documented proof that their goods are not being manufactured in sweatshops.

None of this would result in the destruction of the Disney corporation. However, they are practical steps that can be implemented within our lifetime and – hopefully – within the lifetime of the next Labour government.

I’m not saying you should never consume media put out by Disney. Aside from anything else, that would be almost impossible, particularly if you’re into genre films. However, Disney has been given a free pass for far too long. Large swathes of the population laud the company for the creative risks that it supposedly takes with its movies and for its superficial (and entirely false) progressiveness. It’s important to bring its faults, failings and evils to light. Discuss them with other people who watch the movies. Make people aware that they’re putting monsters on a pedestal. Heck, talk about it on the Internet if you’ve got the stomach for the inevitable backlash, courtesy of emotionally fragile fans.

Above all, when you consume their content, don’t do so uncritically – be aware of general and current issues.

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