Crowds Contra Creativity and the Re-Imagination of Media Franchises

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Credit to William Bruce/www.williambruce.wordpress.com

The schema for media franchising in America leaves a lot to be desired when observed closely. Derek Johnson, the author of Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries, extensively outlines the evolution of conglomeration and franchising in a Hollywood context. As a disclaimer, Johnson states that the variety of sources he interviewed and the companies they represent basically construct an image of an audience that is dominated by cis-gendered white males. He cites series like X-Men, He-Man and Star Trek as popular examples of successful franchises, all spanning across a variety of mediums and spawning several reboots and off-shoots.

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Starbuck as portrayed in Battlestar Galactica in 1976 and 2003

Something that has become more popular as our country progresses towards gender and racial equality is the idea of the re-imagination. The re-imagination of a series implies that fundamental aspects of a story will be swapped out in an effort to modernize and reach different demographics of readers or viewers. Re-imaginations might also involve a change of locale, character dynamics or even gender-swapping of main characters. In short, reboots can serve as simple updates, but a re-imagination will likely entail greater changes to a narrative. Johnson exemplifies this in speaking on Batllestar Galactica and one of its major characters, Starbuck. Having never watched the original series from the 70s, I was unaware that the brash, strong female lead featured in the 2003 re-imagined series didn’t actually exist in the original.

The role of Starbuck was created with an alpha male in mind and was thus portrayed by a man. While several critics and newer viewers praised actress Katie Sackoff’s depiction of the character, older audience members were quick to criticize this drastic change, calling it an affront on the story’s canon. A simple gender swap of a character stirred outrage from loyal audience members who suddenly felt ostracized. This is one of the many instances of cultural hegemony that media and media franchises commonly exert. Devoted and niche audiences are interested in these stories and become obsessed with the lore, characters and inner workings of these stories. However, once they’re established, these narratives are assumed to be immutable and concretely canon. The communities that are spawned become defensive towards change and criticism and this makes reboots and re-imaginings an economic risk for a company. These gambles can reap great monetary and critical reward as seen with Battlestar and the new Star Trek movies, but at the cost of ire from millions of older fans.

It is only as our society becomes more aware of its own abundant diversity that these media conglomerates decide to present newer stories with less white or masculine

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Spider-Men: Peter Parker and Miles Morales


faces. Once they become aware of the cash
cow buried within a neglected demographic, these re-imagined series begin to represent a more varied audience population. This shift towards inclusion scares the die-hard communities as they were once excluded and aren’t eager to let new people in. After all, the heroes and villains look like them, so why should a company decide to change a story or aesthetic that has worked for so long? The short answer is that there are untapped markets of oppressed or otherwise ignored groups. The side effect of these re-imagined
tales is that these demographics get a sense of empowerment and belonging which they were historically denied. The moments when companies decide to modernize are significant for the effects wrought on the status quo. There have been a growing number of these occurrences as we become more accepting and tolerant, but there are a few times which have stood out to me in particular. These moments include:

Thor becoming a woman.
Donald Glover’s rumored casting as Spider-Man.
Miles Morales as the newest Spider-Man.
Annie being played by Quvenzhané Wallis.
John Boyega being pictured as a Storm Trooper in the upcoming Star Wars film.

And, fortunately, the list goes on. As more and more voices are added into the conversation once unilaterally dominated by white men, these series will continue to be updated to ensure the longevity of a given franchise. The link between the oppressive culture force of westernized patriarchy and American white supremacy put further onus on these conglomerates as public perception of certain peoples actually coincides with these updated characters and plot lines. As the times change, the methods of making money must, too. Companies like Fox and Disney understand this, but fans and viewers aren’t obligated to recognize the potential socio-economic benefits which may follow the introduction of a re-imagined protagonist. In conclusion, perhaps better representation can equate to better business.

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Marvel's newest Thor

Sources:
Johnson, Derek. Media Franchising: Creative License and Collaboration in the Culture Industries. NYU Press, 2013. Print. Postmillennial Pop.

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