After years of stewing, “Star Wars” fandom goes to the dark side

The beauty of franchise fandoms is that they open doors for strangers to empathize with each other, to share a world in a way that goes beyond cultural differences. It can be magical, and that’s how pop culture behemoths — like the Marvel Cinematic Universe or “Harry Potter,” for instance — slither into casual conversations and even become part of our own identities.

Star Wars is no different, though its fandom is one of the oldest: the first movie came out in 1977. Generations of kids grew up watching Luke Skywalker confront Darth Vader and imagined they, too, could wield a lightsaber. Many adults retain their feelings towards the fandom that they developed as children.

Yet there is a dark side to this fandom, exemplified in recent displays of extreme possessiveness: blatant sexist and racist remarks from fans that coalesce with conservative grievance culture. Said remarks culminated with actor Kelly Marie Tran, who played Rose in “The Last Jedi,” deleting her Instagram account after suffering a constant torrent of online bullying.

So how did a franchise of adventure movies for children create this noxious tribe of entitled haters? The short answer is that it was a long time coming.

The first hints of this seismic shift in the Star Wars fandom occurred when the prequel trilogy came out, in the late 1990s and early 2000s. There had been decades of novels and fanfiction speculating how little Anakin Skywalker became evil Darth Vader; the new addition to the canon didn’t sit well with some. Tin ear dialogue, Jar Jar Binks’ perceived minstrelsy, and mediocre acting led to fan furor. Feverous claims of director George Lucas “raping” childhoods were common in pop culture reflections on the prequel trilogy. Both of the actors who played Anakin Skywalker — Hayden Christensen and, at the time, 10-year-old Jake Lloyd who played young Anakin — were more or less harassed out of the spotlight. Lloyd retired from acting two years later after “The Phantom Menace” premiered, after winning Razzie Awards and being relentlessly bullied by classmates and fans alike. Lucas, after “Revenge of the Sith” premiered, swore off making Star Wars movies forever.

It could be argued that these fans were misguided; that they didn’t really understand the gravity of their comments; that they just didn’t know how to relinquish control of a film series they truly loved and passionately identified with. The critiques — of bad acting, bad dialogue, and bad characters — were not steeped in misogyny or racism.

But then, Disney bought Lucasfilm in 2012 and ushered in a new era of Star Wars content. And then the fandom took a new lurch to the right.

When Disney announced John Boyega, a black man, was cast as a lead, certain pockets of the fandom went absolutely nuts. Those who were more right-leaning attempted to boycott “The Force Awakens” and circulated petitions and manifesti on sites like Reddit and Tumblr, arguing that the diverse casting meant that the movie was catering to an imagined “social justice warrior” agenda. The New York Daily News quoted aggrieved fans who said Boyega’s character was like having a DeRay McKesson in space and were uncomfortable by the supposed lack of white people. “#BoycottStarWarsVII If white people aren’t wanted in Star Wars, then our money must not be either,” tweeted @OfficialCritDis (a now-suspended Twitter account).

Unlike the prequel films, however, “The Force Awakens” was well-received by critics and most fans. Yet toxic fandom behavior only escalated when the movie actually came out. Actress Daisy Ridley, who plays protagonist Rey, deleted her social media accounts after trolls consistently left negative comments, with the most salient ones center around her character being a “Mary Sue.”

But last year’s release of “The Last Jedi” set this marginal yet extremely vocal subgroup of Star Wars fans ablaze, as the film committed two egregious sins: subverting common beliefs about certain characters and casting women and people of color.

Both grievances are rooted in nostalgia. Incredibly, there were petitions to strike “The Last Jedi” from the canon because the film had “tarnished” the good moral character of Luke. Angry fans flooded director Rian Johnson’s Twitter mentions, calling him “Ruin Johnson.” They’re still trolling him.

Johnson’s mentions weren’t the only ones drowning in negative comments, but his were about the quality of his work and how people related to it. For Kelly Marie Tran, the first Asian actress in any of the Star Wars films, negative fan Instagram comments centered on her race and gender. Tran — who enthusiastically sobbed on the red carpet premiere, honored to be included in such an important franchise — officially deleted her Instagram this week. News outlets wrote about how problematic the fandom has been lately and cast members came to her defense on social media.

 

It would be an injustice to frame this kind of fan behavior as a new thing. Using nostalgia and a film’s divisiveness to justify harassing people is an old tactic, and should be retired. Star Wars is a hard fandom to be part of because of the public displays of this kind of behavior, in addition to the pre-existing gatekeeping from straight white males that dominates most nerd circles. The bullying of Tran and other Star Wars actors and creators casts a bad light for the fandom and ruins the magic of being in a community that loves the same thing you do.

Perhaps this toxicity stems from the nature of fandom itself. By attaching and affixing our identities to fictional characters, it becomes increasingly difficult to separate these characters from our own perspective. (Naturally, this can go very wrong when the same fans lash out in racist or sexist ways as a result.) But just because we love something and see it in a certain way, it doesn’t mean that we should idealize it to a point where our opinions are above the health of others, especially those who work diligently to expand the fictional world you’re immersed in.