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In a year of spectacularly horrible hot takes, the CBC managed to produce the most cringeworthy, nonsensical think piece yet—“The phantom menace: When Baby Yoda memes go bad.” This isn’t their original title. They originally went with “It’s time to cancel Baby Yoda.” No. We’re not kidding. And no. It’s not satire. This is an actual article by an actual person. It will make your eyes bleed.
Veronica Sheppard argues that Baby Yoda is problematic because the memes that have sprung up featuring his likeness do not necessarily reflect Disney’s intentions for the character. She claims there are “unmeasurable risks companies are taking by handing over their brands to unknown creators.” Basically, she’s calling for Disney to grab hold of the social media verse and shut down the memes because the memes are both annoying to her personally and don’t honour the integrity of the brand. Memes like this:
The idea is that the memes should be regulated and intellectual property use restrictions enforced. This “we must regulate the memes” kind of thinking is everywhere these days. The fact that in this case, it’s the beloved, ubiquitous, Baby Yoda, may actually help to expose how silly and censorious this perspective is. We’ve seen this rhetorical gambit deployed in the realms of music, movies, video games, and of course, politics—“we can’t control what’s being said; therefore it must be stopped.” But Sheppard is not the only one demanding meme control, as if such a thing is even really possible.
During the recent Canadian election, Melanie Green wrote a similar article called “Why political memes—which are virtually unregulated—matter to this federal election” in which she complained that viral political memes are not regulated by the government. Green cites a communications professor who created a “meme encyclopedia” and a data researcher in an attempt to paint regular people sharing jokes and opinions in meme form in a bad light. As though it is even relevant whether these memes are viewed positively or negatively with regard to free speech considerations.
It was authoritarian drivel, a missive in favour of shutting down views she didn’t agree with, or found annoying, or thought would unduly influence people—despite her inability to be unduly influenced by the pervasive memes. Now the target isn’t political in nature, but cultural. Apparently seeing Baby Yoda outside of a carefully choreographed, scripted CGI sequence is just beyond the pale. Sheppard wants fans to have less control over their preferred story verse, while fans are continually clamouring for more.
The gist of Sheppard’s argument is that Disney, who owns the Baby Yoda copyright; should be more protective of the character and punish those who use its image as a delivery method for edgy jokes. She writes: “Meme marketing means relinquishing control of a brand. And given how it can alienate the very audience meant to be reached in the first place, I’d say it’s rarely worth it. It’s time to cancel the Baby Yoda memes.” But fans like being part of the creation, and using the elements of the story—character, plot, setting, all the elements of the imaginary universe—to fuel their own imagination. That fans can imagine themselves within the fictional fantasy multiverses is why science fiction and fantasy series are so popular. New writers and creators come from this fan base. Their minds do not need to be tamped down just because Green and Sheppard find it annoying or disruptive.
Once an image is released by brands, companies, political campaigns, or anyone else, it cannot be strictly controlled, no matter what the trademark or copyright protections say. Such is the case with not only Baby Yoda’s image in meme form, but for his merch. As the breakout favourite from the new and much anticipated The Mandalorian on Disney+, consumers wanted toys and products featuring the character. But there weren’t any readily available. Disney just hadn’t made any yet. Enter industrious entrepreneurs on Etsy, who turned out loveable Baby Yoda dolls for fans to buy. These independent makers basically saved the day for Disney, who needs fans to want the products, and can’t afford the lag that they erroneously ended up with.
These independent makers were filling a gap, and in some regards, Disney should have been grateful. But instead, intellectual property law being what it is, Disney cracked down on the merchandise and the makers. Disney protects its ability to earn revenue from its products, and it has to, what with the shareholders and everything, but it’s way easier to find independent toymakers than meme makers. Plus memes like these for Baby Yoda are not moneymakers. Though Etsy shopkeepers were served with cease and desist notices, Baby Yoda products are still available all over the site. Many consumers prefer these items to the slapdash ones that Disney put together at the last minute, just to have something on store shelves in time for Christmas. Fans often have a better idea of the narrative and the story product than marketers do, because fans don’t tune in for a living, they tune in to live. And there’s nothing wrong with that, take solace where you can find it. Star Wars never would have lasted this long, across the century divide, appealing to multiple generations, if it weren’t for fans keeping the love alive.
Defending her belief that Disney should more tightly control its brand, Sheppard writes: “Handing over the reins of a valuable pop-culture asset to a community of random creators is a double-edged sword. It endangers loyalty with existing fans by potentially cheapening the Star Wars name, and begins to turn off people who feel oversaturated by the character.” What she’s missing is that the only ones who have cheapened the Star Wars name are creator George Lucas, when in the remastered version of the original he denied Han Solo the first shot, and Disney, by saturating the market. And still, fans show up, because the Star Wars universe is fire for the imagination, offers an endless escape from our own reality, and reimagines earthly struggles in the far off reaches of space. Sheppard has a level of disdain for fans and independent creators embedded in her critique. Fans, trolls, and commentators add to the discourse of a cultural phenomenon. They expand the story verse. For scolds like Shepard and Green, this is a bad thing—the common people must not get involved.
Try as people like Sheppard might, you can’t stop people from being creative and using the cultural tools at their disposal. The common people will not stay in their lane— nor should they. Independent creators and makers don’t need to wait for corporate middlemen or distributors to give them the go-ahead to let their imaginations, pixels, 3D printers, or crochet needles run wild. It’s notable that one of the most in-demand Baby Yoda creators is in Russia, beyond Disney’s reach, with a waiting list for her dolls over a year long. Creators can do all this before the copyright attorneys have their first lattes in the morning.
In the end, the memes, at least, are an issue of free speech. We must stand up for those who push the edges of our cultural discourse with pranks, jokes and, yes, memes. Companies and cultural critics may crackdown, either with legal means of simply through shaming consumers as well as creators, but the more people are shut out, the more they will grab hold of the reigns and do what they please with the currency of creation. The drive to silence satirical and dissenting voices is a wholly authoritarian one, and that’s the only thing that should not be tolerated.