How the alt-right and nostalgic trolls hijacked geek pop culture

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In the days after the release of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Luke Skywalker found himself facing down adversaries here on Earth, wielding a rhetorical lightsaber against a group seen by many as this galaxy's new Dark Side.

On Twitter, Mark Hamill engaged in highly publicized battles with a who's who of the far-right wing of American politics. The actor clashed over net neutrality with conservative firebrand Texas Senator Ted Cruz, tangled with the NRA over his endorsement of stricter gun laws, squabbled with Donald Trump Jr., and consistently criticized President Trump's tax plan and attacks on the media.

The conversation about what happened in his movie may have been even more passionate and politically charged. Fueled by years of fan anticipation and mirroring the battle lines in a scorched-earth political arena, the dialogue around The Last Jedi has been uniquely divisive. While the Star Wars franchise is no stranger to critical anathema and fan vitriol — remember the prequels? — this is different. No longer are people simply crying foul about the nuances of Jedi teachings, an overabundance of cuddly creatures, or whether plot points properly follow the Hero's Journey. And even when those subjects are targeted with ire, it's sometimes as a delivery mechanism for a more insidious agenda.

It became clear for the world to see that something was seriously amiss when a huge discrepancy opened between the critical and audience scores for the movie on Rotten Tomatoes. Critics largely showered it with praise, while registered moviegoers gave it a failing grade; right now, it stands at 91 percent "fresh" from professional film critics, but has just a 50 percent audience score. The gulf is an anomaly, which we know both because moviegoers gave largely positive assessments of the film to the polling firm ComScore and because a member of an alt-right fan group proudly told HuffPost that dissatisfied fans sent bots to deliberately lower the Tomatometer.

Members of the alt-right's anger over The Last Jedi has been stoked by the leading voices of the reactionary nationalist movement. Rants about the movie from InfoWars broadcaster Alex Jones (who called it "a social justice warrior mess" and a "giant social engineering experiment") and white nationalist Stefan Molyneux have racked up hundreds of thousands of views and gone viral on Twitter. And though they represent extremist voices, their objections filter up to somewhat more mainstream outlets, purveyors of conservative opinion.

Daily Wire founder Ben Shapiro lamented director Rian Johnson's focus on a casino subplot with Finn (John Boyega) and Rose (Kelly Marie Tran), calling them "useless characters." He also called the subplot, which takes the characters through a Monte Carlo-style world of excess, "social justice warrior crap about income inequality and animal rights."

In doing so, he grafted right-wing talking points to what might otherwise be a valid criticism of a subplot that could have perhaps used a little bit more attention in the editing room, given the movie's length (152 minutes). In complaining that Rey was far too naturally skilled in the Force, Shapiro called the young Jedi protagonist a "Mary Sue," turning a theoretically valid objection into a sexist dig, one that indicated he was angry more with new trilogy's focus on a woman than any unrealistic Padawan learning curves.

It is even more extreme in the specialized, explicitly hateful sites and social network hives of where this loose amalgam of a movement dwells. Sites like the far-right, explicitly racist blog "Stuff Black People Don’t Like" allege that Star Wars has become "anti-white" (though the majority of its cast is still white), while parodies with expressly anti-semitic messages and creative titles like "The Last Snowflake" get passed around by self-professed sh**posters.

That isn't to say that all objections to The Last Jedi — or The Force Awakens, which introduced the new cast — are rooted in far-right ideology or hatred. For some, the story simply didn't conform to what they had imagined; fans have had over 30 years to dream up what Luke Skywalker did after Return of the Jedi, and there were plenty of now-discarded novels, comics, and video games that offered more rousing heroics than his self-imposed exile on a forgotten island. Those dissatisfied on this count are sometimes rigid nostalgists, and that doesn't connote hatred, even if it is yearning for a past that was less equal.

And yet it is not uncommon for there to be crossover between textual complaints and more vicious objections — "plot holes" is now mentioned in the same tweets as "SJW," and often seems like code for something more fundamental than sudden concern for the logic of space myths.

"If you made the entire movie white and male, like the late seventies Star Wars, I think 90 percent of the critical analysis from guys on Twitter without avatars just ceases to be a thing," says Jason Ward, editor of the site MakingStarWars.net and its sprawling podcast network.

Sexism and racism are systemic, and absolutely not limited to fringe right-wing groups. But their explicit expression has been enabled by both alternative platforms and a media that loves controversy. In the wake of GamerGate and then Trump's campaign, the alt-right has inserted itself into the dialogue over geek pop culture, altering the conversation around certain movies, TV shows, and comic books.

"They know how to use social media and how to push a message online that gives the perception a discourse is valid," Ward adds. "The difference between the email I get today versus the email I got five years ago is that certain keywords like 'feminazi,' 'snowflake,' 'libtard,' 'SJW,' and 'cuck' are in these messages often. When you see those things, you know they're consuming a certain type of media in conjunction with Star Wars media."

Right-wing antipathy for Hollywood is nothing new. During the Red Scare, McCarthyism painted Hollywood as an un-American rat's nest infested with communists, and turned the industry against itself. When the Vietnam War split the country, conservatives pilloried Jane Fonda and celebrity protesters. The New Hollywood cinema of the '70s, run by radical young filmmakers like Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese and Warren Beatty, made movies about the evils of war and the glory of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll.

Though Ronald Reagan, the patron saint of the modern conservative movement, spent decades as a movie star, conservative hatred for the industry and its perceived hedonistic agenda only blossomed in the '80s, '90s, and 2000s. Religious leaders and powerful radio talk show hosts like Rush Limbaugh stoked culture war by employing "Hollywood liberal" as a smear on both actors and the politicians they supported; Christian conservatives have built up their own alternative entertainment industry with far more tame and religious fare. Before he focused on politics, Andrew Breitbart's most influential site was called Big Hollywood, aimed at exposing the industry's evil liberal agenda, and that's still a frequent theme of drive-time radio and Fox News.

But this is different. Fringe right-wing activists love some of the same pop culture as the rest of the nation — they just don't want to see it begin to reflect the rest of the nation.

"My guess is that many followers of racist movements in the '70s, '80s, and '90s also enjoyed pop music, Star Wars, and other kinds of popular entertainment," says George Hawley, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Alabama and author of Making Sense of the Alt-Right. "One thing that has changed is that Hollywood seems to be trying harder to be more inclusive in their casting and messages, which is generating a new level of pushback."

Ward recalls the uproar when it was revealed that John Boyega would play a defecting stormtrooper in The Force Awakens. Internet protestors proclaimed — without ever studying a census or removing the helmets of any individual Empire soldiers — that "stormtroopers aren't black."

By extension, anyone celebrating that diversity — especially people of color — becomes a perceived rival.

"They immediately want to make me the enemy, or devalue my opinion especially when it comes to comics or movie adaptations," says Karama Horne, a writer and producer who runs TheBlerdGurl.com and produces videos for SYFY. "The cries against diversity are vehement and usually embellished with comments like 'It's not canon' or 'Stop pushing your SJW agenda.'"

This knee-jerk prejudice is deeply embedded in American culture, but over the last few years its most zealous adherents have developed platforms and strategies to propel it into the mainstream conversation. As Hawley notes, that’s coincided with the recent (modest) increase in diversity on screen, which has been propelled in part by a digital movement demanding far more accountability for Hollywood’s decision makers.

Activist geeks, empowered by Twitter and strength in numbers, have been increasingly loud in protesting problematic pop culture; in 2017 alone, effective protests were launched against whitewashing (see: Ghost in the Shell and Iron Fist), cultural insensitivity, depictions of violence against women, and mass gun violence unleashed by purported heroes.

The Punisher, a white vigilante with an itchy trigger finger, has become an avatar for cops, soldiers, and paramilitary groups, but Netflix's hotly anticipated adaptation of the revenge fantasy character hit speed bumps in the real world. The show, starring Jon Bernthal, had its New York Comic Con panel canceled and Netflix release allegedly pushed back a month after the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and both Bernthal and showrunner Steve Lightfoot were asked (including by SYFY WIRE) to address the real-world parallels throughout the show's abbreviated promotional schedule.

As Molly Fischer points out in a recent essay for New York magazine, 2017 was a year of mass sociopolitical analysis of pop culture. Movies and TV shows were viewed through a new prism, and either championed for their progressivism or denounced as problematic. And because fans identify so closely with their favorite properties, public criticisms of certain franchises have often been taken as a personal affront — especially by straight white male fans who never had to consider these issues before.

In response, defensive fans frequently raged against such criticisms, rejecting the complication of the brands that had become extensions of themselves. And they found allies in members of the alt-right, who seized on the new culture war.

The far-right activist Jack Posobiec caused a national stir when he filed a civil rights complaint over a women-only screening of Wonder Woman at the Alamo Drafthouse, earning weeks of headlines and occasional update stories beyond. It was an act that, with the help of media outlets hungry for controversy, stole a not insignificant chunk of attention from the explicit female empowerment message being put out by the team of director Patty Jenkins and star Gal Gadot. It likely didn't impact the box office, and maybe even stoked the excitement of some fans who were enraged by the stunt, but an alt-right troll had swiped some spotlight for his cause.

"Going on the offensive against a well-known movie or artist is a way to generate angry articles from the mainstream media," Hawley says. "And for small movements that thrive on negative coverage, getting mentioned at all counts as a win. It works even better for them in cases where a large number of people genuinely dislike a particular cultural product already for non-racist or misogynistic reasons — as was the case with the new Ghostbusters."

The blowback against the female-led Ghostbusters reboot lasted for years, from the movie’s inception to its summer 2016 release; sexist activists swarmed on YouTube to make its trailer the most downvoted in history. That digital vandalism made headlines, and the overall anger over its sheer existence became a huge part of the narrative, mentioned in just about every interview with the cast and filmmakers. That rallied female fans, feminist sites, and left-leaning news organizations to support and celebrate the cast, making an implicit mission of director Paul Feig's movie into the central focus.

In the case of Ghostbusters and then The Last Jedi, the most frequent objection — whether coded or earnest — was that updating (and thus diversifying) an old property was "ruining my childhood." In some cases, it was a matter of rewriting fictional narratives, both official and imagined; in others, it was simply an act of bursting a safe fantasy bubble by inserting women, people of color, and progressive ideals.

Ironically, the franchise that has most embodied those ideals has also been attacked by the alt-right and purported fans. Star Trek has always had a rainbow bridge on its ships, filled with people (and aliens) of all races and creeds. Evidently, CBS’s latest iteration of the space utopia series, Star Trek: Discovery, took it one step too far for reactionary fans by making a black woman (played by Sonequa Martin-Green) its central character. When the show's first trailer debuted, it also teased a focus on an Asian woman (played by Michelle Yeoh) as captain, and a one-two punch of women of color was more than its racist fans could handle.

Once again, the trailer was besieged by racist messages, so much so that the comments section furor reached the level deemed necessary for coverage in The New Yorker. Martin-Green's response to the haters a month later, issued to Entertainment Weekly, dominated a full news cycle, shifting the focus yet again to the alt-right.

Since the show begin airing (and then streaming) in September, the battle has continued, providing at minimum a dull, hateful background drone at all times.

"Even though Star Trek is a genre show and nowadays certain fanboys (usually those with alt-right or white supremacist leanings) want genre to mean white only, I always write from my point of view, calling out both the good and the negligent parts of the series," says Monique Jones, a blogger who recaps the show for the popular site /Film and has contributed to SYFY WIRE. "Sometimes, I'll even call out portions of the fandom community who believe certain fan theories just because it can invalidate what's happening in canon."

She's referring to ongoing doubts about the validity of a love story that involves Martin-Green's character, Lt. Michael Burnham. Some fans have refused to acknowledge that a black woman could be involved in a legitimate love affair, and have provided any manner of implausible alternate explanations.

A back and forth about the circumstances surrounding a space fantasy's romance may not seem particularly significant, but as one small part of a relentless campaign, it contributes to a hijacking of the public discourse and cultural conversation.

Racist cyber vandalism of Rose Tico's Wookieepedia page earned coverage from Newsweek; a delusional cut of The Last Jedi featuring only the male characters, made by men's rights activists, earned outsized attention over the weekend, including a tweet from director Rian Johnson. That he was mocking it was beside the point — the tweet increases the video's reach exponentially, created headlines the next day, and ensured that many more people saw the video. As Hawley might suggest, the creators of the video could declare an emphatic mission accomplished.

It should be noted that the alt-right is not the only entity, however amorphous, working to push the conversation.

"Late night comedy has seen some huge gains since President Trump was elected," said Sopan Deb, a culture reporter for the New York Times. "That's not something the so-called alt-right impacts. I'm sure it has had an effect with a certain portion of the population, but it's tough to quantify how much. We certainly see more acknowledgment of the 'alt-right movement' [in fiction] — see the most recent season of Homeland, for example."

Even a small number of voices, if loud enough, can make a big difference. The digital mob has also been relentless in doubting and attacking the abuse victims who have come forward as part of the #MeToo movement, another front in this culture war; it's ironic that they defend Hollywood executives in this scenario, but their principles overwhelm any alignment.

There’s no obvious solution — ignoring hate also enables it to fester. Jones fights on both because she loves Star Trek (and is paid to write about it) and because she sees utility in the discourse. That franchise was built on progressive ideals, and as culture has advanced, so has the show's vision for humanity. Science fiction, in its celebration of a better future or warning against the darker impulses of humanity, has always been political. The conversation and battle around it are catching up.

"There are folks out there who do actually want to hear what someone like me — a marginalized woman — has to say about their favorite films and TV shows," she says. "One of the ways to combat the alt-right and their fight for how we view content is to keep writing things that preach the antithesis of their message. If more people keep writing about the importance of inclusion, their message weakens."

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