Why Is Star Wars’ Inclusiveness Getting So Much Hate Now, When It Was Celebrated in the Past?
Last week, Professor Bethany Lacina published research revealing some important—if unsurprising—data about Star Wars fans. Using algorithms to analyse tweets about Star Wars: The Last Jedi, Lacina found that while only 6% of all tweets contained offensive language, and just 1.1% evidenced hate speech (including ‘ethnic, misogynistic, and homophobic slurs’), the results were worse when the gender and race of their targets came into play.
In tweets about Asian-American actress Kelly Marie Tran or her character Rose Tico, offensive language doubled to 12%, and hate speech rose to 1.8%. Similarly, whereas one in 450 tweets directed at male podcasters contained hate speech, the figure was one in 280 for women.
As Star Wars fans’ online bullying of Tran, fellow actress Daisy Ridley, and co-star John Boyega suggests, the fandom has a serious problem with racism and sexism. According to Lacina’s data, the culprits are proportionally few in number. However, their impact—driving Tran and Ridley off social media, and reportedly leaving Jar Jar Binks actor Ahmed Best suicidal following a backlash against his character in The Phantom Menace—is enormous. So who is sending the abuse, and why are they so angry?
It’s tempting to paint a picture of online Star Wars trolls as middle-aged men fighting against the unfamiliar change that is the franchise’s necessary, if slow, realization that heroes aren’t all white men with floppy hair. The trolls, we tell ourselves, are just guys who watched Star Wars as kids and are now hacked off that women and people of color get to save the Galaxy. They are a “minority group who hate change.” Cue temper tantrums and hate speech.
But as my own research into the fandom’s past suggests, this isn’t necessarily the case. Don’t get me wrong—it may still be white men who hate change who are lashing out with hate, but the change itself isn’t what’s new; the level of hate that it’s attracting, on the other hand, is.
In film criticism and fanzines between 1977 and 1983 (covering the release of A New Hope, The Empire Strikes Back, and Return of the Jedi), people saw Leia (Carrie Fisher) as a leader and role model, and were positive about Lando Calrissian (Billy Dee Williams), the franchise’s first black lead. Indeed, writing in Film Journal, Candace Burke-Block enthused that “Billy Dee Williams is hip and funny as Calrissian, a felicitous addition to the otherwise familiar cast of characters. Carrie Fisher is marvellous as Leia, pretty, self-contained, proud, vulnerable and a superb commander.”
Similarly, fanzines seemed largely celebratory and provided space for people to focus on the characters they loved—rather (to paraphrase Rose Tico) than acting as platforms for bigots to fight what they hated. Fanzines included the Leia-oriented Jedi Princess, Heroine’s Showcase, and Organia, which included contributions on Star Wars and feminism. There was also a planned Lando zine, featuring the story “Understanding.” Star Wars fandom always included women and people of color, so it’s hard to read hate speech in today’s culture as responding to change.
Exploring fan reactions in more depth, A Critical Hit!’s Kate Willaert turned to the 1980s fan magazine Starlog. Her findings are also inconsistent with the racism and sexism so prevalent in today’s fandom. Fans reacted enthusiastically to Lando (“Billy Dee Williams was very good playing the part”). One male fan was excited by the idea that Leia, rather than Luke, might destroy the Emperor in the third film, and another called out George Lucas for making a movie “even more racist and sexist than the first. I would think that Billy Dee Williams would resent being the token black in the film. Also, there was only one other woman, apart from Carrie Fisher, in the movie.”
Fans used to ask for more if anything, but now, there’s suddenly backlash. I’m not suggesting that there was no racism or sexism in ’80s Star Wars fandom, which has historically been organized by white men. From 1979, Lucasfilm’s director of fan relations, Craig Miller, was tasked with reporting the films’ progress and, importantly, feeding back fan responses to the studio. He tested footage of The Empire Strikes Back at San Diego Comic Con and made fans feel they had a stake in the story’s development.
He stated that sci-fi fandoms are ‘“much larger, much more active, more volatile”’ than other genres. For certain volatile fans, the franchise’s move to Disney in 2012 may have felt like a loss of control. However, the largely positive fan responses to Leia and Lando in The Empire Strikes Back, and the presence of ’80s feminist fanzines, undermines theories that angry white men are reacting to only now having to relinquish “their” space in the franchise.
Instead, the release of The Last Jedi following the rise of the alt-right movement and normalization of hate speech in mainstream media should give us pause. As the backlash grows against movements such as Black Lives Matter and MeToo, attempts to make society more equal, no matter how long they’ve been in the works, are meeting renewed resistance and being shouted down by increasingly emboldened and outspoken critics. And presidents elected because of their racist and sexist behavior set the tone. If it’s OK for politicians to dehumanize people of color and women, ordinary people are not going to hold back online.
In many ways, it doesn’t matter whether Kelly Marie Tran’s trolls watched Star Wars as kids and thought it should always be a story about young white men. It’s not Star Wars that’s changing—at least, any more than usual. What matters is that, in Trump’s America and Brexit Britain, people of all generations are being taught—encouraged, even—to hate.
Perhaps what matters even more is that films like Star Wars continue to improve their race and gender representation, and offer hope to all the fans who support a more equal and hopeful future.
Rebecca Harrison is a feminist film academic, curator and critic. She’s currently writing a book about gender and race in the Star Wars franchise. You can follow her on twitter at @beccaeharrison.
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