Star Wars. The title alone brings forth a rush of memories and associations in cinema fans everywhere. Since the franchise first burst onto the scene in 1977 until this very day it has served as an iconic and separable piece of cinema history. A franchise so storied and so iconic obviously means a lot of things to a lot of people. It inspires deep feelings and emotional responses. This can be a magnificent thing. But when fandom becomes this fervent, bordering on worshipful, it can quickly turn quite ugly and foul things can begin to fester within. This brings us to where we are today, there’s something deeply rotten in the Star Wars fandom, and we cannot ignore it any longer.
There’s no clear starting point for where the ugliness within the fandom began, but it’s something that has been building and festering for quite some time now. Perhaps the first clear indicator that something was wrong might have been the way the so called “hardcore fans” reacted to the prequel trilogy. After obsessively watching and re-watching the original trilogy, attending revival screening after revival screening and begging for more Star Wars, they got it, and it disappointed. Let’s get this out of the way, the prequels aren’t great compared to the original trilogy. One could even easily see how you could argue that they were bad, but this didn’t merit the reaction the films received. What ranged from uninspired to sub-par films were treated as high crimes against cinema. Rather than simply chalk it up as a disappointment and move on, these so called fans became hostile. They screamed about “ruined childhoods” and used the rapidly growing internet to amplify their angry voices as they repeatedly screamed about how George Lucas had ruined the very franchise he created. Their obsession and fury was directed at characters, actors, and even Lucas himself. Jake Lloyd, the actor tasked with playing a young Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace was singled out by many. A child was repeatedly and viciously spoken of has having helped ruin a fabled franchise, and his young career and life frankly never recovered from the enormous backlash he received simply for agreeing to play a part. He retired from acting in 2001 just two years after The Phantom Menace was released, citing bullying in school as a primary reason and has since spent time in both jail and psychiatric institutions. Lloyd was not the only one affected as George Lucas himself never directed another film after the final prequel, Revenge of the Sith, and has made it clear in the past that the reactions to those films have pretty much insured he will never make another blockbuster. It’s safe to say that considering the prequels date back to the late 90s that the nastiness has been around for a while. That being said, things recently have clearly gotten worse.
Things truly may have become to come to a head with the 2012 purchase of Lucasfilm by Disney. The media giant announced their intention to revive the franchise and produce a new trilogy in addition to a series of anthology films set in the universe. The backlash to this news was fierce, and I myself must admit to having been at least briefly a part of it. Despite the fact that Disney were by then the stewards of the already wildly successful Marvel Cinematic Universe, there seemed to be a belief that they would over-commercialize (a truly laughable idea considering the franchise history) and sterilize the franchise. As many in the industry predicted however, when casting and other info on The Force Awakens began to come out excitement began to build. However, even amongst the anticipation for the return of the franchise, signs could be seen of things to come. It came in comments and reactions to the casting of actress Daisy Ridley and actor John Boyega. Remarks were made accusing the studio of pandering by casting women and persons of color. Outrage over the fact that a black man was playing a Storm Trooper. Complaints about SJW’s (social justice warrior, easily one of the weirdest insults on the internet) controlling the franchise. These moments were at this point however, seemingly isolated. Then the movie came out.
With the release of The Force Awakens we got perhaps our first true look at a new kind of ugliness from these Star Wars “fans.” While the marketing of the film did not make it readily apparent at the time, the centerpiece of this new Star Wars trilogy, the heir to Luke Skywalker, was a woman. Daisey Ridley’s Rey was the character that JJ Abrams and the people at Lucasfilm decided on as the torchbearer of this chapter in the franchise, with John Boyega’s Fin, and Oscar Isaacs’ Poe serving as the other heroes of this new resistance. It was the most diverse cast of any film in the history of the franchise, something that in theory should have been celebrated, and by many it was. A whole new generation of children were being given their own set of heroes. More importantly, for many children for the first time, these heroes looked like them, and at this point we have plenty of research that onscreen representation has a massive impact on children. Being able to see themselves in the media they consume drastically boost their self-esteem and confidence. The Star Wars universe as a result started to feel for many, a whole lot bigger. This led to massive box office and merchandizing success and opened the franchise up to new audiences. Parts of the old one however, were not happy about this. Complaints of white genocide and virtue signaling begin pouring in from the seedier portions of the web. Attempts to boycott the franchise were organized. The most ire however was aimed at the franchise’s new female lead. Daisy Ridley, after putting on a fantastic performance in The Force Awakens, quickly became the target of a campaign of harassment and slander online. Some of it was subtle. Complaints of her being a “Mary Sue,” an internet term used to describe a female character that is perfect and unreasonably good at everything, became very common. While on the surface this seems like no large thing, it is however when put into the context of the history of the franchise that the intent becomes clearer. You see, Star Wars is full of preternaturally talented characters that come from humble means but do amazing things with seemingly no formal training. It just so happens that prior to Rey, all of them were men. It’s the same throughout the sci-fi and fantasy genres: a male character with immense natural abilities is mythic and inspirational while a female with them is bad storytelling. There were other signs as well. Fans hopefully constructing fan theories about how the villain of the trilogy Kylo Ren would swap sides with Rey, thus becoming the hero of the story and making her the villain. Claims that Rey only existed so that the franchise and the people behind it could shove a liberal agenda down the throats of the audiences. Anything to detract from the idea that a good story, or at the very least a good Star Wars story, could be centered on a talented heroine. This was just the beginning though. Things truly came to a head with the release of the 8th film in the main saga, The Last Jedi.
The Last Jedi really seems to have been the breaking point for this specific breed of fan. What many in film circles saw as Rian Johnson elevating the franchise to heights it had not seen since the original trilogy, they saw as him ruining it. Rian Johnson made a complicated film that reframed a character in Luke Skywalker that fans saw as an unstoppable legendary warrior into a good but flawed man, who through a moment of weakness, the briefest lapse of control, saw everything he built torn down. Confronted with this reality, and thinking that he and the Jedi order were to blame for the ills of the galaxy, Luke did the only thing he could think to do, he tried to remove what he believed to be the source of the problem from the galaxy. You see Luke thought the legend of Luke Skywalker was the problem, and seeing only the harm it had done he lost hope. But his arc in the film is one of regaining that hope, and seeing that there is value to be had in his legend, in that it gives hope to others, but at the same time embracing that it was the new generation’s turn. In a glorious ending that has been dissected to death he reaffirms the legend one last time in an act of self-sacrifice aimed at giving the next generation a chance. These fans didn’t see that though. Or at the very least they did not want to see it. Instead they saw their favorite character ruined. Where they expected an unstoppable warrior monk, they received a heroic but tired man struggling with his legacy. And they failed to understand the meaning behind that. They decided that this movie was trying to tear down Star Wars, failing to realize that the lesson was not that the legend must be torn down, but that for it to grow and evolve the things that did not work had to be pruned away so that new heroes and new ideas could emerge. More concerningly, they saw a Star Wars more diverse than ever, one that reflects the world we live in, one that tells every child that they can be a hero, and they became angry.
The reaction was swift. Harassment of the director Rian Johnson online became the norm. Six months later, if you look at any single post that Johnson makes on social media, you will see at least ten pathetic angry individuals yelling about how he ruined Star Wars, about how they hope he dies, about how he doesn’t deserve to ever make another movie (the fact that he has signed on to direct an entire new trilogy of Star Wars movies has not put them in a better mood). They have organized bot nets to tweet about the movie constantly, have review bombed the film on both Rotten Tomatoes and Metacritic in an attempt to brand the film a failure. Most concerning though is the behavior they reserved for actress Kelly Marie Tran. Tran played a character by the name of Rose Tico in The Last Jedi, a character that in many ways is a Star Wars fan audience insert. She loves and worships the heroes of the resistance. She wants nothing more to be like them, to be heroic, and over the course of the film she does quite a few heroic things. She brings a message to the film that love is more powerful than hate, a quintessential Star Wars message if ever there was one. These fans however, well, they hated her. They couched it in many things, claimed she was a bad actress, that the character was awful, that they were poorly written, the list goes on. The reality however is more sinister and it goes back to incidents that occurred when The Force Awakens came out as well. These people active resented the fact that an Asian American woman had received a central role in a Star Wars film. The claims of “white genocide”, “forced diversity”, “identity politics” and more were common. It’s telling how identity politics is the term these people use when any identity other than their own is represented. Perhaps most disgusting of all was when these fans decided to vandalize the page about Rose on the go to Star Wars site for many fans Wookipedia. Shortly after the release of the film, somebody went onto the page for Rose and filled it with as many racist jokes about Asian people as they possibly could. They wanted to make it very clear that Kelly Marie Tran was not welcome in their Star Wars. The harassment of Tran sadly has never really come to an end and she has now resorted to deleting and purging all of her social media accounts in an attempt to get away from these fans. Their reaction? They celebrated. To them, Tran shutting herself off from the world, even a little bit, was a victory.
So how did we get here? Well the simple answer is that fandom is broken. Maybe it always has been. Maybe it took these things going mainstream for us to realize that. You see, for decades, these fans have built their identity on the things they watch, the things the read. Many of these things were niche and uncool so they built their own communities where encyclopedic knowledge of these things gave them status. Now, in the 21st century, a lot of the hallmarks of geekdom have moved into the mainstream. The things that these individuals built their identities around now have massive audiences, audiences that don’t necessarily look, talk, or act like they do and it infuriates them. They see this mainstream transition as a loss of status. Rather than welcoming new people into the fandom they try to push them away, because to them it is unfair that these things are now suddenly cool when they have spent so long being uncool for liking them. They do not want to share the things they love with the world because at some point they decided that they own them. Now their ownership is challenged and they’ve decided that what they cannot own they can destroy. That’s the ugly truth, that these so called Star Wars fans would rather Star Wars be ruined than have to share it with anyone else. So they have convinced themselves that it is ruined and are now trying their best to ruin it for everyone else. They demand that their franchise represent them and no one else. They are losing and they are angry.
That’s the dilemma facing Star Wars today. That in order for the franchise to grow and capture the imagination of a whole new generation, it must move in directions contrary to the direction of this angry hateful mob. It must allow new people to see themselves in these characters and it must do so by showing them that anyone regardless of how they look or talk, can be a hero. We’re seeing a fight for the very soul of Star Wars. We can help though. We have to counter their attempts to destroy what they hate by fighting to save what we love. We have to be more like Rose Tico.