Star Wars and the Battle of the Ever-More-Toxic Fan Culture
Three Tenets of Nerd:
1. A nerd must not harm another nerd, or through inaction allow a nerd to come to harm.
2. Nerds must cooperate with other nerds, except where such cooperation would violate the previous tenet.
3. Nerds must protect the existence of nerddom, except where such protection violates the first two tenets.
So, I was at Comic-Con International in San Diego in 2008, the year of Twilight and True Blood. I’d never heard of either then—a blind spot, I admit—but that year something changed. Women have always attended SDCC, of course, but this year the lines switchbacking outside Hall H, the high altar of the annual nerd pilgrimage, were majority female for the first time I'd ever seen. The difference at the con was palpable, and the young men who at the time were the visible bulk of the con were audibly grumbling.
Then Kevin Smith took the lectern in Hall H, after the Twilight fest, and spoke truth to powerlessness. What is the matter with you nerds? he said (I’m paraphrasing here). Where else are you going to meet a bunch of girls who also like vampires? You like vampires! Go talk to them!
This wasn't about dating. Well, OK, it was a little about dating, but Smith also knew that the nerd world was broader than SDCC's stereotypical attendees would have you believe. There have always been every-type-of-human nerds, and in hopes of defusing their territoriality, Smith was telling the white boys it was time to acknowledge that. I thought it was going to work. I thought I was seeing the beginning of a profusion of nerddom—of both the canon and the people who could love it together, across spectra of gender and ethnicity. I thought: We are not alone. We are legion—united by honest love into an economic bloc that gets as much Wars, Trek, Who, Avengers, Halo, vampires, Ponies, or whatever else as we could ever have possibly hoped.
Today, when I look at the cast of the various Star Wars movies, at the fact that the new Doctor Who is a woman, at the every-kind-of-rainbow crew on the new Star Trek show, I think, yup, there it is. We did it.
But then, in the latest example of how wrong I am, Kelly Marie Tran got hounded off Instagram.
The WIRED Guide to Star Wars
Tran is the actress who plays Rose in Star Wars: The Last Jedi. She’s a mechanic who, with John Boyega’s Finn, embarks on a B-plot side adventure to a casino planet that teaches Finn that he’s not just along for the Resistance ride, but is in fact a real Rebel—just like Rose. (We also get to see some of the class disparities in the Star Wars universe that fuel two-bit fascists like General Hux.)
A lot of people did not like that B-plot. A lot of people did not like the character of Rose. A lot of people did not like The Last Jedi. All of which is fine. People disagree about things!
Unfortunately people—mostly men, though not only—also sling misogynistic, racist slop on the internet. Tran apparently got so much of it on her Instagram feed that she quit. (Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey, quit last year for the same reason.) Now neither of them gets to have that presence, and their fans don’t get to interact with them. When Tran left, Last Jedi director Rian Johnson—himself a target of quite a lot of online rage—tried to push back against the harassment and distinguish it from critiques of the movie, to little avail.
Every longstanding universe in which I’m invested has had its ups and downs. I’m an avid Doctor Who fan. The Matt Smith era? Maybe you loved it; wasn't my favorite. I’m an avid Star Trek fan. Enterprise? Well, I’m on to Discovery. Want to talk about why? Love to. That's part of what's great about being a nerd.
Somehow, though, the reasonable and just expansion of these universes to include the kinds of people who never used get past the turbolift doors has made a vocal slice of fandom lose its mind. You can find examples from videogames to comic books to every other medium imaginable.
In their minds, critiques of monochrome casting become criticism of people who liked those prior versions—critiques of them—landing at the exact moment they lose perceived centrality in a story they thought they owned.
How does the love at the heart of fandom curdle into something so caustic? These anti-fans see, in new casts and storylines, the agendas of blinkered Social Justice Warriors more interested in diversity quotas and Signaling Virtue than making good movies. The new versions come to seem like aggressive critiques of the older work and by extension an existential attack on people who love it. In their minds, critiques of monochrome casting become criticism of people who liked those prior versions—critiques of them—landing at the exact moment they lose perceived centrality in a story they thought they owned.
Those critiques are hard to untangle. If you think that Rey’s facility with a lightsaber and Jedi mind tricks happened too fast, does that make her a poorly developed character, or a Mary Sue? Or does it make you sexist, if, after all, you didn’t complain about how fast Luke Skywalker spun up his powers, too?
One way to answer that question is this: If your opinion makes you say body-shaming things to Kelly Marie Tran on the internet, it's the bad thing.
Johnson’s Last Jedi was explicitly about not being beholden to the rules of the past. It’s possible to enjoy new things while continuing to love flawed old things, not just despite those flaws but because of them. Acknowledging weaknesses and re-critiquing older work helps sustain it as art. That’s as true of a Da Vinci sketch as it is of Return of the Jedi.
Even if New Star Wars is somehow corrupted by politics—which I don’t think it is—Old Star Wars still exists. Nobody’s lovingly plastic-sleeved laserdiscs of the pre-special edition trilogy melted when The Last Jedi came out. When Donald Glover said that Lando Calrissian’s pansexuality included droids, nobody’s Thrawn books spontaneously erupted in flames.
Everyone has a right to opinions about movies. Everyone has a right, I guess, to throw those opinions in the face of the people who make those movies, though it does seem at minimum impolite. Everyone has the right to ask transnational entertainment companies to make the movies they want, and if those companies don’t respond, to stop giving the companies money. But harassment, threats, jokes about someone’s race or gender? A Jedi would fight someone who did that stuff. The Force binds us all together. Hatred and anger are the ways of the Dark Side; they may bring power, but at a cost. It harms individuals, debases the people who do it, and it breaks the Fellowship. In the end, the cost of that power will be powerlessness.
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