Like an entire generation of Gen-X kids, Annalise Ophelian counts seeing the first Star Wars movie in theaters one of her earliest and most formative memories. She went back to see it nine more times during the summer of 1977, awed by what she saw each and every time. From there, she was hooked on sci-fi.
It's a common geek origin story — maybe the most common for fans of a certain age — but usually you hear it being told by a guy… mostly because guys are the only ones being asked. But Ophelian, a licensed psychotherapist, knew there were millions of women Star Wars fans just like her — anyone who needs proof should pop into a convention for a minute — and so she set out to capture their stories on film. After a successful Kickstarter campaign, the resulting documentary series, Looking for Leia, could not be more timely.
"When I started looking for Leia, we were still just getting around the fact that Rey was the protagonist. Every media question was 'Why do you think women are now into Star Wars?'" Ophelian remembers in a new episode of The Fandom Files. "And I would answer every question with this very mansplaining, 'Well, actually, women have always been a part of not just Star Wars fandom but in fact genre fandom.' And I was just kind of always doing this history lesson."
The idea that women — women! — could be Star Wars fans surprised casual observers and offended a certain subset of possessive male fan. When production began on Looking for Leia, Ophelian couldn't have known what was in store for her, that she would be thrust into a tumultuous internet dialogue that has veered toward the venomous and violent. Not that being a woman fan of genre hasn't always been a complicated existence, unwelcoming at so many original entry points that were not specifically forged by persistent women themselves.
When The Force Awakens was the only new movie in the main trilogy, it did inspire some coded sexist chatter about its female lead — it was somehow inconceivable that a young woman could be a natural with The Force, some (male) fans argued, ignoring the series' long tradition of Jedi prodigies. The back and forth continued on a low simmer, and the Twitter chatter now looks amiable and downright genteel compared to today's clash between a loud subset of male Star Wars fans and the rest of the massive fandom.
Anger over elements of Rian Johnson's The Last Jedi has united a reactionary mob, a relatively small but very vocal subset who despise the film's very existence. When we spoke to Ophelian, it was just days after a handful of aggrieved fans began a quixotic campaign to remake The Last Jedi on their own terms, with the full approval and assistance of Lucasfilm and its parent company, Disney. The rollout was greeted with the expected derision by the larger community of Star Wars fans and rational humans, which had the dual effect of discouraging them but giving their campaign more exposure than it would otherwise have received.
"A group of boys describing themselves as filmmakers doing the opposite of filmmaking and making a whole lot of kerfuffle about it is just delightful," Ophelian said. "It's amusing and it's super clickbaity, so of course everyone is going to talk about it. It was a glorious three hours. That was just the only thing on my Twitter feed. And we all had one of those good cry laughs. You're like, 'Oh God, I needed that.'"
Criticism of a film is natural and productive — Johnson would be the first to say so — but in many places the hatred of a fictional adventure has turned into real-world madness. Kelly Marie Tran, who plays Rose Tico in the film, was harassed off social media. Mission: Impossible — Fallout director Christopher McQuarrie, a man who has absolutely no connection to the franchise, was bombarded with messages after Johnson tagged him in a single friendly tweet, inundated to the point that he swore off ever working on the series.
Ophelian has been forced to deal with far worse, as have many of the women she plans to feature in the film.
"I've gotten my first death threats," she revealed. "I was interviewing my last round of pickups in Los Angeles a few weeks ago, and the conversation that was happening with most of the folks that were coming to be on camera was about their experience of being vigorously harassed and receiving death threats."
Why some male fans behave like this is not easy to deduce. There's no one reason. In the 2016 election, pundits suggested that "economic anxiety" prompted many white voters to embrace candidates who ran on overtly racist rhetoric and policy. And it's been said that perhaps white male fans, who were for decades the only group of people being catered to by genre creators and corporations, feel aggrieved that they have to share something they love. But even if that's the case — and there should be no tears cried on their behalf — Ophelian rejects the notion that their actions are in any way justified.
"If you take women and then intersect all of these groups, including queer folks, trans folks, non-binary folks, folks of color, disabled folks, and immigrant folks, and you put us all in a big group, we have all lived with an incredibly high degree of anxiety and fear," she said. "And yet we've managed to not seek to systemically lash out at and harm others. I think that humans are perfectly capable of experiencing anxiety and fear of loss without enacting hostility and violence."
Despite the fact that it has so dominated the last eight months of Star Wars discussion, Looking for Leia is not a docu-series about toxic fandom. Ophelian set out to document the love that women feel for the franchise, not just the hardships that they have incurred because of it. And when Looking for Leia premieres later this year, it will focus much of its time on celebrating the vibrant fan culture that will always overcome any hatred and harassment.
"I've seen fandom is being used in these incredibly creative, robust, and contributive ways in people's lives. Fandom serves a real curator role for social anxiety — and that can run the gamut from stuff that isn't like terribly impeding to the stuff that actually is really debilitating and really keeps you from being able to interact with and engage with the world," Ophelian said, looking at her film work as a clinical psychotherapist.
"I've talked with folks that have such kind of profound social phobia, social anxiety that it's difficult for them to be able to do anything around other folks, but they can go and stand in line for Star Wars films. They can go to cons, they can go and be enough in a crowded theater with other folks to watch these stories because the love of story is so unifying and it creates this kind of safe bubble."
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