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Star Wars has a white male fandom problem

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Jun 6, 2018, 1:01 PM EDT

Kelly Marie Tran, who plays Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, has deleted all of the images from her Instagram account. This presumably came after an extended period of harassment and abuse the actress received from so-called Star Wars fans, particularly those who hated The Last Jedi and her character. Two years prior, Daisy Ridley also deleted her Instagram page following harassment she received after expressing sentiments in favor of gun control. One angry commenter replied with “Just shut up, Ridley, and make another Star Wars movie.” For the past six months or so, the director of The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson, has faced near endless abuse on Twitter by those who can’t get over their dislike of the film. Even the most benign tweet from the intensely patient and graceful Johnson will result in mentions full of harassment and abuse. As of the writing of this post, author Chuck Wendig, who has written several Star Wars novels, is facing a barrage of hate from supposed fans who claim he is part of the "ruining" of the franchise. A "satirical" fan, @FakingStarWars, went so far as to make a T-shirt with the slogan "Blocked by Chuck Wendig," which uses his likeness. Wendig has said he will "lawyer up."

All of this happens in the shadow of one of the biggest franchises in pop culture hitting its first financial stumbling block with the under-performing nature of Solo: A Star Wars Story. Some of those fans are quick to take the credit for the film’s slump by claiming it’s a sign that their anti-Last Jedi boycott has worked. In between such proclamations, this subset return to their favorite debates, like whether Rey and Jyn Erso are Mary Sues, and how much The Last Jedi and the prequels “raped their childhoods.”

It would be unfair and too general to say that Star Wars has a fandom problem. What it has is a white male fandom problem.

Fan entitlement is not unique to white men, nor is it exclusively a Star Wars problem, but the way it has manifested in this particular community is deeply revealing of such a mindset. Star Wars has made great leaps and bounds in terms of diversity, but as Dr. Becca Harrison’s recent study revealed, none of the movies have managed to have complete gender parity in terms of speaking roles. Even The Force Awakens, the film that seemed to kick-start this notion of the death of the white man in Star Wars, only managed 37%. Yet this is enough of a majority for these toxic fans to cry propaganda and claim “their Star Wars” is over. The mere inclusion of women and people of color is enough for them to cry foul and claim they’re “taking over” the franchise.

Being a fan can be a wonderful experience, one that unites you with similarly passionate people and nurtures your creativity. It can introduce you to lifelong friends and spark ambitions beyond our wildest dreams. It can also harbor the worst of us, coddling us at our most reactionary and telling us we’re always right and nobody else can appreciate that story or music or art as well as you can. It can breed a unique kind of paranoia, one that insidiously whispers to us about how nobody gets it quite like you do. It, and the like-minded people around you, encourage you to protect the thing you love because its purity will be diluted if it’s forced to change or welcome in people who just don’t get it. Eventually, it coaxes you into viewing fandom as a competitive sport, and if you lose, your identity will turn to dust.

So, Star Wars stops being special once everyone loves it, and once it stops exclusively centering white men as its heroes, because Rey doesn’t look like a “real” hero, and neither does Finn or Rose. These characters and ideas weren’t around when the films were in their infancy, so obviously they don’t truly belong there. Suddenly, the fandom is bigger than ever and full of people who care about things like representation, but they weren’t there when those “true” fans were, which means they don’t belong. They have to be “shown their place” in the pecking order, be they naïve young fans or the actresses getting the attention on screen.  

Nothing good comes from defining oneself exclusively by our pop culture preferences and hobbies. There is nothing to gain or learn from when we see ourselves only as receptacles for consumerist goods, regardless of how artistically worthy they are. The toxicity of white maleness in fandom spaces forces such figures to pretend they're the true victims. While the internet was in an uproar over the treatment of Tran, the podcast Rebel Force Radio, long criticized for its misogyny, tweeted that they had contacted Lucasfilm for a statement on Star Wars creators "attacking fans and inciting the fanbase." It takes a serious level of arrogance to play that card while a young Asian woman has been run off the internet by that attitude of self-victimization from fans.

The Rick and Morty fandom has been knee-deep in similar problems for a while now, coming to a very public nadir during the McDonald's Szechuan sauce fiasco. The creators of that show, Dan Harmon and Justin Roiland, took the unique step of directly calling out their toxic fandom. They didn't downplay this embarrassing behavior, nor did they try to excuse it as passion gone wrong. After a group of the show's fans started harassing the series' female writers, Harmon succinctly summed up the heart of the problem:

“These knobs want to protect the content they think they own, and somehow combine that with their need to be proud of something they have, which is often only their race or gender. I loathe these people."

Behavior like this has been excused for too long in fandom. It gets written off as “passion” or is indulged by corporations who desperately want to hold onto these ostensibly profitable demographics. When those Rick and Morty fans rioted in McDonald's over tubs of sauce, the company responded by calling them "the best fans in the multiverse" and said McDonald's was "humbled by the amazing curiosity, passion, and energy" of people who verbally abused staff over a condiment. The more this attitude is fostered, the more it is allowed to grow and become irrevocably empowered, particularly in online communities where harassment and abuse is euphemised as “trolling.” We’re now at the stage where fans sending vile abuse via social media is not only expected but quietly excused as “just what happens.” The more this behavior is normalized, the harder it becomes to tackle. The Last Jedi haters position what they do as “critique,” but there’s a world of difference between reviewing a film and running an actress off Instagram because you didn’t like her character. Anyone who can’t or won’t tell the difference is part of the problem.

Stuff like this needs to be called out repeatedly and with great force. We are long past the point where “ignoring the trolls” was effective, and to pretend to do so merely empowers the bullies. We have seen what happens when these supposed minorities of the fan communities, ones dominated by angry white men, decide to launch concerted harassment campaigns against those with apparent “political agendas” that they accuse of “ruining their childhood.” We saw what happened when the extended public humiliation of a woman by her ex-boyfriend became a platform to attack women and minorities in the video game industry under the façade of “ethics in game journalism.” We saw the aftermath of the racists and misogynists who hijacked the Hugo Awards in “protest” against the increasing diversification of the genre. We saw how Leslie Jones was treated when she did nothing more than join a female-led reboot of Ghostbusters. The pattern of behavior is near identical every single time this happens, and yet we all act surprised when it does.

This entitlement seeps through the pores of our culture and is repeatedly legitimized as being “just how fans behave.” This is not normal. This is not what fans do. To lump in the young women who found a new hero in Rey with the grown men who are cheering Tran’s exit from Instagram does a major disservice to what fandom can achieve at its finest. There is no way that abuse like Tran’s Wookieepedia page being edited to change her name to "Ching Chong Wing Tong" and describing her as "stupid, autistic and retarded" is rooted in anything other than racism and misogyny. This has nothing to do with being a fan. This is the obsessive screed of toxic white masculinity under the guise of a hobby.

Star Wars is not what it used to be, and that’s a good thing. In the 21st century, under new management and appealing to wider and more diverse audiences, the franchise has to evolve. Its casting and creative ensembles must reflect our world, not just because it’s the right thing to do but because it’s good for art and business alike. A whole new generation of fans will get to experience these stories for the first time, to find heroes they never thought they could have before. The rest of us will get to see those heroes of our youth in new ways that may not always delight us. Han Solo gets old. General Leia will leave us soon. Luke Skywalker became proud and scared, and his actions were not those of the heroic. A large chunk of The Last Jedi is about calling out the hot-headed wannabe heroics of Poe and condemning how he assumes he knows more about the situation than two more qualified women. It’s perfectly fine and understandable to not like those creative choices made, but it must be understood that the franchise is not the enshrined property of a minority group who hate change.

The qualities that used to define the outcasts – geekiness, a love of sci-fi, a love of trivia – are now what bind the majority of movie-going audiences. Everyone is a geek now, whether you’re queuing up to see The Last Jedi or buying a Poe Dameron T-shirt or playing a Star Wars game on your phone. That seems to scare this toxic subset of fandom the most: the idea that the thing they ardently believe makes them special is actually something everyone possesses, including young women, people of color, LGBTQ+ fans, and so on. In reality, Star Wars was always for everyone, but now online fandom and wider media coverage means those poisonous fans can’t ignore that, even before the films stopped exclusively positioning white men as heroes. Rather than share it, these fans seem dead set on destroying the thing they claim to love so much. That’s not the mindset of a fan. That’s just garden-variety bullying.

Star Wars fandom can be a truly beautiful thing, but the rot that has festered at its heart thanks to white male entitlement and gatekeeping is ruining it for everyone. The sad thing is that seems to be what these “fans” want. We can’t let that happen. To quote Rose Tico, “That's how we're gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.”

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