Review: Show Sold Separately by Jonathan Gray

The past decade has been a fascinating one for Star Wars. Quite a lot has happened, in both the franchise and the fandom, since FANgirl Blog was founded amid the decline of the late-stage Expanded Universe. Despite the opportunity provided by the 2014-15 relaunch for a clean slate with its stories and a fresh start with its fandom, Lucasfilm unfortunately has ended up repeating many of the same mistakes that plagued Star Wars in previous years. The reasons are complicated and interconnected. But it is possible to identify common issues or themes in some of those mistakes, too. The concept of “paratext” as an analytical tool can be found at the heart of several key problems Star Wars has encountered over the past five years.

In 2010, the same year FANgirl began, New York University Press published Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts by Jonathan Gray, currently a Professor of Media & Cultural Studies in the Department of Communication Arts at the University of Wisconsin. The book is a scholarly account of paratext from the perspective of that field of study; for example, a general reader unfamiliar with academic concepts of interpretation such as textuality, intertextuality, and phenomenology or actualization may find certain sections difficult to understand. (To be clear, this is not a criticism of the book, but it is worth mentioning that, as with many scholarly works, parts of it may not be particularly accessible to readers unfamiliar with the pertinent field.) Most of the book, though, does not delve into deep academic theory, but rather describes and evaluates a wide variety of examples from movies and television to illustrate the ideas about paratext that Gray develops in the book. And while most of these examples do not directly address Star Wars, Gray’s analysis of paratext has numerous parallels to the path – both highs and lows – of the Star Wars franchise since his book was published.

What is Paratext?

Gray devotes the entire first chapter to defining and explaining the concept, so a quick summary hardly does it justice. Nevertheless, the idea of “paratext” builds from the emphasis on “text” that is common within the field of media studies. For example, The Last Jedi as a movie is a text. (Thus, in that field “text” can refer to visual media like movies and television episodes or series, in addition to prose fiction or printed comics.) One could engage in a close reading of that movie’s text as such. Or one could perform intertextual analysis between the text of The Last Jedi and other filmic texts, such as the previous Star Wars movies as well as the classic works of cinema that Rian Johnson used as inspiration or homage in his work. Each of these forms of interpretation create various understandings of The Last Jedi’s textual meaning. But other extrinsic sources shape our interpretation of The Last Jedi, too: promotion and marketing for the movie, licensed merchandise with imagery from and emphases about the movie, licensed books or comics relating to the story and characters of the movie, interviews with creators and cast members, reviews from movie critics and Star Wars fans, and many other sources. These paratexts also influence our interpretation or understanding of a text – sometimes more than the text itself does. “A continuing question for this book,” Gray writes (p39), “will be the degree to which paratexts overtake and subsume their texts, and the conditions under which they do so.”

Within his field, a principal goal of Gray’s book was to call for increased study of paratexts, in their own right, as an important aspect of media studies. In the first chapter, Gray notes (p23) that the Big Three areas of media studies analysis are texts, audiences, and industry, as well as the relationships between them – and the book is structured to demonstrate that paratexts are significant in and across all three areas. Gray explains that traditionally the field has dismissed and discounted most industry-created paratexts, perceiving them as crass acts of advertising, branding, or hype that hold no meaningful value compared to the text itself. (The label “peripherals” reinforces such a connotation.) Similarly, audience-created paratexts were viewed as essentially independent of the text, whether professional critics and their reviews for the general audience or fan works and fan discussions found within a more discrete subset of engaged fandom. Gray rejects these perspectives. Instead, paratext can be inextricably connected with the process of determining the meaning of the associated text, with how (or whether) audiences interact with the text, and with the industry’s creation of meaning and its relationship with its audience. To take one early example (p45-46): if a thoughtful review of a movie can cause us to rethink how we interpreted the film by shifting our understanding of its meaning, then we should be open to considering how other forms of paratext also wield “considerable power to amplify, reduce, erase, or add meaning” to media texts.

In the course of his chapters considering the various examples, Gray differentiates between two major categories: entryway paratexts and in media res paratexts. As the label implies, entryway paratexts are those that precede our encounter with the text itself, such as trailers or commercials, advertisements, press coverage and reviews, and tie-in merchandise. In doing so, entryway paratexts can set expectations in the audience, ranging from genre or tone to plot or characterization. By contrast, we interact with in media res paratexts during or after our experience of interacting with the associated text. In that way, in media res paratexts can influence or guide the interpretation of the text – or even seek to police the “proper” interpretation of the text from the perspective of the paratext’s creator, which might be the same industry source as the text itself, such as DVD bonus features, or might be an audience source like a review or fan work.

Entryway Paratexts

Entryway paratexts are especially important in their implications for the general audience’s understanding of the associated text. While industry-created entryway paratexts usually are intended to entice the audience to consume the text, they also can have the opposite effect: discouraging people from even viewing the text at all, if they receive the message that the text is not something that will entertain them. Gray refers (p24) to the idea of “speculative consumption” as the process by which media consumers ingest information about movies or television shows in order to decide which ones they will spend time (and money) on; many such decisions are based principally on entryway paratexts. For non-viewers, that paratext becomes their only experience with the text, and the impressions left by the paratext will be how they perceive the text, too. Similarly, for casual viewers who choose not to think deeply about the text or who do not engage in fandom discussions of the text, the entryway paratext may have successfully directed the viewer to interpret the text in a particular way, one which is not subsequently altered. Thus, thanks to entryway paratexts, Gray notes (p26) that we know about many texts only at the paratextual level.

For one example of entryway paratext, Gray discusses (p131-135) how industry-created paratext prior to the release of Batman Begins sought deliberately to convey certain messages to the prospective audience. In a variety of ways, this paratext tried to distance the upcoming film from the most recent previous Batman movie, Batman and Robin, which was widely regarded as the worst entry in the franchise. Gray explains (p135), “Batman Begins was faced not only with the task of winning audiences, but winning them back, of calibrating its intertexts, and of reinvigorating Batman.” This began with the hiring of Christopher Nolan, a director perceived as having quite different storytelling sensibilities – and who publicly praised the darker and grittier comics, especially The Dark Knight Returns graphic novel by Frank Miller, as the source material he desired to emulate. The movie’s cast also set a different sort of expectation: Christian Bale, who most recently had played a serial killer in American Psycho, as well as Morgan Freeman and Michael Caine, renowned as serious actors. Combined with how the movie was marketed and promoted in the lead-up to release, the audience was told to expect a very different Batman movie than the last one they had seen.

In Media Res Paratexts

In media res paratexts, whether created by industry or audience, can have considerable influence on the way the audience members who do become viewers end up understanding and interpreting the text. With serial storytelling like television shows and movie series, paratexts play a major role in filling the gaps from one episode to the next. Paratext can create perceptions of value, either positive or negative; Gray discusses the way in which the Platinum edition DVD for Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers sought to add a sense of gravitas and mythic resonance to the movie-making process in synergy with the themes of the story. Licensed videogames immerse the player in the story world, which can alter how the world or the story is understood or interpreted compared to someone who only viewed the text but not the game.

Gray includes an extended discussion of licensed Star Wars toys, especially the Kenner action figures of the Original Trilogy era, as paratexts that influenced audience and cultural interpretations of Star Wars. Gray explains (p176) that, like advertising and hype, toys traditionally have been denigrated and viewed with suspicion by academic scholars of cultural criticism as just another instance of “cash-grab” profit-making – yet Gray is assuredly correct that Star Wars toys have been at the center of understandings of Star Wars by fans and non-fans alike for decades. Kenner action figures helped to accentuate the themes of the films, including coming-of-age and good-against-evil dynamics, and enabled young fans to revisit the story world in a period when the films were not yet available on home video. Gray emphasizes that Star Wars toys, as paratexts, helped to keep Star Wars in the public consciousness for years after the films left theaters, especially for children. This is also likely why toys are a significant locus of fan nostalgia about Star Wars: those children have grown up to become today’s adult Star Wars fans, who often are actively passing along their love of Star Wars to a younger generation of fans, including by gifting Star Wars toys. At the same time, Gray notes (p185-186) that Star Wars toys, including which toys are made as well as how they are marketed, have contributed to gendered perceptions of the toys and Star Wars as a whole – creating a paratext that turned away girls by sending a message that Star Wars was not for them. Thus, non-fans and anti-fans, as well as fans, had their interpretations of Star Wars shaped significantly by this paratext about the franchise.

Fan-Created Paratexts

Fan-created paratexts can be just as impactful as official paratexts, and Gray devotes considerable time to discussing a variety of instances. While early fan studies scholarship tended to emphasize the ways in which fan works can resist the meanings offered by the industry, such as fanfiction with transformative messages about gender or sexuality, Gray describes how fan paratexts are not necessarily oppositional in their relationship to understanding or interpreting the text. In one section, he recounts his study of message board postings by fans of Tolkein’s novels during the production of Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings films, identifying a range of emotions from excitement or cautious optimism to apprehension or expecting to be disappointed, each of which would create a different frame of reference when the time came to view the actual movie upon its release. In another chapter, Gray describes vidding as a form of fan work engaged in a style of close textual reading that can enable a deeper study of a character’s psyche by cutting together clips from across the text to make connections by direct juxtapositions not present in the original version. On the other hand, the fan work at Wookieepedia treats Star Wars as a source with a dense history and sociology to be archived in a wiki, essentially interacting with the story as a non-fiction text rather than a character-driven one. In addition, fans familiar with previous work by a media creator might engage in intertextual analysis, looking for insights about the current text in the previous texts. Gray mentions how fan discussions of Lost could be influenced by the input of fans familiar with J.J. Abrams’ previous series Alias and Felicity, ranging from remarking on Abram’s penchant for “daddy issues” in his stories to an apprehension (p139) that fans “may be problem-solving in vain, since ‘Abrams and Co.’ may not have answers to give.”

Interestingly, Gray addresses fan consumption of spoilers as a paratextual activity that likewise can affect the experience of viewing and interpreting the text. Describing the results of his study of fans of the television series Lost, conducted with Jason Mittell in 2006, Gray emphasizes that fans who seek out spoilers generally are doing so not to thwart the creators or undermine the impact of the text, but rather as a means to negotiate a particular way of experiencing the text. The fans surveyed rejected the notion that spoilers will “ruin” a well-told story, instead maintaining that knowing what will happen not only does not reduce enjoyment, but in fact enhances it – by allowing the spoiled viewer, who already knows the basic plot points, to direct their focus instead to the aspects of the show they prefer to focus on, such as themes, characterization, or the intricacies of the writing. Similarly, spoilers are particularly useful to fans interested in a puzzle-solving or otherwise trying to anticipate where the series’ writers are going; one fan remarked (p152), “Spoilers make the difference between informed speculation and crackpot theories.” Gray concludes the section by noting that spoilers give fans the ability to take control of their emotional responses to the text and to experience the pleasures of anticipation on the fan’s terms, rather than the creator’s.

Another important aspect of Gray’s discussion of fan-created paratexts involves the ways in which fan paratexts can come to dominate in the interpretation of the associated text. Much of the time this arises within fan interpretive communities, when notions arising as fanon become as pervasive, perhaps more so, in fan discussions than ideas from the canon. Gray remarks (p46) that the audience usually does not think in terms of distinctions like text and paratext, so that “frequently we may find that audience talk of and reaction to a text may have originated with the paratext, yet been integrated into the individual audience member’s conception of the text itself.” Fans also often spend more time engaged with the fan community than engaged with the text, and Gray notes (p46) that “some fans can recount the experience of falling more heavily for a text’s fan discussion site than for the text itself.” But even outsides fan communities, fan paratexts can be influential. Gray explains (p174) that some fan paratexts “will be louder and more readily accessible than others,” including those “emanating out to the public sphere more generally” that “may even in due course come to determine the public understanding of a text.”

The Importance of Paratext

In his final chapter, Gray returns to the topic of industry-created paratext to address a different dynamic: the industry’s lack of understanding of the interpretive power of paratext, and corresponding lack of serious attention given to how the official paratexts are created. Writing in 2010, Gray commented on the increasing interest in transmedia storytelling for media properties, moving from simple paratexts like advertising and trailers to more complex interrelated paratexts such as interactive websites, alternate-reality games, and multimedia ancillary stories. Yet only a few shows, such as NBC’s Heroes, had at that point employed creative team members specifically for the purpose of developing and synergizing the paratext. Gray notes that in the 2007-08 WGA writer’s strike, for example, one issue of dispute was compensation for working on paratexts, which previously had been categorized as promotional and therefore unpaid under a writer’s contract. Though some companies, including Disney, had begun to integrate paratext creators, such as those for tie-in videogames and behind-the-scenes home entertainment content, into the production process early on, change was slow. Without such early involvement, Gray explains (p215), videogame “developers were given too little time to produce spinoff games” such that “‘day and date’ productions – those intended for release on the same day as the film, for instance nearly always suffered.” In words that still too often seem true today, Gray emphasizes (p219) the “common complaint from transmedia creators – and one that is evident in many a paratext – is that the network or studio allowed little or no real collaboration or discussion between paratext creators and the film’s director or the television program’s writing staff.”

Ultimately, Gray’s analysis supports his conclusion (p45) that “there is never a point in time at which a text frees itself from the contextualizing powers of paratextuality.” Despite the desires of creators and industry to control how their media texts are understood and interpreted, the examples throughout Gray’s book amply support his declaration (p45) that, “Nevertheless, paratexts sometimes take over their texts.” Industry and creatives discount the significance of paratext at their peril, especially in today’s social media environment where sharing paratexts of all types is easier than ever.

As noted at the outset, most of Gray’s examples do not involve Star Wars or its paratexts. But when it comes to many of the problems Lucasfilm has encountered since its relaunch of the franchise, as well as previously, there is certainly much utility to be found in the concept of paratexts – and how effectively Gray’s book demonstrates the ways they function in shaping meaning of media texts within fandom and among the casual audience or general public. Lucasfilm’s emphasis on “practical effects” and the Original Trilogy in the lead-up to The Force Awakens caused fans of the Prequel Trilogy to view the franchise as dismissing their favorite films and catering to a certain demographic of Star Wars fan to the exclusion of others – a far riskier choice (if it was even intentionally understood as such) for the franchise than dismissing Batman and Robin ahead of Batman Begins. Fans who, based on their respective track records, expressed concerns about J.J. Abram’s ability to stick the landing for the Sequel Trilogy when he returned for The Rise of Skywalker, and Chris Terrio’s contributions to Star Wars in light of his prior work on Batman v Superman and Justice League, likely (regrettably) found those apprehensions confirmed by the movie. Similarly, the lack of coordination between filmmakers and paratext-creators has been readily apparent in Star Wars over the past five years, particularly with material released in conjunction with the films’ releases. For decades and across a variety of storytelling mediums, too, Lucasfilm has had a contentious relationship with the fan desire for Star Wars spoilers – often not understanding why fans seek them out or how they allow fans to manage their interaction with the franchise on different terms than some within the franchise might prefer. Likewise, Lucasfilm and its licensees have a long history of difficult relationships with various aspects of the fandom, ranging from privileging certain fan communities over others to obliviousness to the manner in which fan paratexts can shape or even dominate interpretations of the franchise’s texts, not only within fandom but in the public sphere, as well. Finally, if Gray is correct that in some instances paratext can supersede or overcome the text, then it is worth considering whether it was ever really conceivably possible, however much Lucasfilm might have desired it, to set aside twenty-plus years of a multitudinous Expanded Universe paratext and begin anew as though only six films and The Clone Wars comprised the source material for Star Wars. Fuller discussion of these ideas will have to wait for another day, of course, but Gray’s core thesis is surely right: there is much to be learned about the past, present, and future of Star Wars from studying its paratext as much as, if not more than, its onscreen texts.



B.J. Priester has been a Star Wars fan since he played with the original Kenner action figures as a young boy. His fandom passion returned after watching Attack of the Clones in 2002 and reading the entire New Jedi Order series in 2003. He voraciously caught up on the novels and comics in the Expanded Universe in addition to writing fanfiction, frequently co-authoring with Tricia. B.J. has served as editor of FANgirl Blog from its inception, as well as contributing reviews and posts on a range of topics. He edited Tricia’s novel Wynde, and is collaborating with her on several future projects set in that original universe. Currently a tenured law professor in Florida, B.J. has been a practicing lawyer in Washington, D.C., a law clerk to a federal appeals court judge, and a law journal editor-in-chief. He is also a proud geek dad whose son who is a big fan of Star Wars and The Clone Wars.