Why The Mainstream Media Keeps Getting Toxic Fandom Wrong

"No, no! He was supposed to have attitude!"

- Roger Meyers, Producer/Creative Visionary

 "I guess people just weren't ready for Poochie. Maybe in a few years?"

"I guess people just weren't ready for Poochie. Maybe in a few years?"

When President George W. Bush reduced the complexities of global politics down to the simple proposition “Either you are with us, or you are with the terrorists” the mainstream media rightfully (and righteously) eviscerated him for it. When George Lucas somehow made that line even more infantile for Anakin Skywalker to repeat (“If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy”) in his laughable space opera allegory Revenge of the Sith, audiences collectively rolled their eyes. But when media critics draw the same easy, binary divide — us, and them — regarding the modern phenomenon of franchise fandoms turning sour, twitteristas, bloggers and commentators fall over each other to get to their keyboards and frantically hammer out their agreement. What’s going on?

Marc Bernardin’s piece for The Hollywood Reporter “Toxic Fandom Is Killing ‘Star Wars’” on the subject of the harassment suffered by Kelly Marie Tran by Star Wars trolls means well, but manages to get almost nothing right.

This is particularly disappointing because the usually reliable Mr Bernardin is himself a fan and a nerd: “The first thing I ever identified myself as was a nerd…I didn’t get to be black until we moved to the suburbs”, and I was hoping he would deconstruct this sorry tale in his usual, insightful fashion.

However, right in the first paragraph he sets out his stall:

"Racist harassment of ‘Last Jedi’ star Kelly Marie Tran and the ‘Solo’ backlash: Lucasfilm’s problem isn’t the movies, it’s trolls who want only the nostalgia of their youth […] Fandom has always been an us versus them proposition."

(emphasis mine)

So:

  • The harassment of Kelly Marie Tran was racist in nature, and entirely because she is Asian and female;
  • The trolls behind it are driven by fears of Star Wars suddenly becoming more diverse;
  • The movies themselves are not the cause of any backlash;
  • It’s us (the enlightened champions of The Last Jedi), verses them (everyone else)

It’s a damning indictment, but surely he doesn’t mean to cleave all fandom in two as neatly as George W. Bush once carved up the world? Helpfully, Marc goes on to clarify his position:

"Star Wars: The Last Jedi, which — despite making $1.3 billion worldwide — proved itself an incredibly divisive film. While critics loved it (judging by the 91 percent score on Rotten Tomatoes), fans were split.
Some loved the bold liberties of writer-director Rian Johnson. They understood that there was room under that big tent for characters like Vice Admiral Holdo (Laura Dern) and Rose Tico (Kelly Marie Tran), women placed alongside Carrie Fisher’s Leia and Ridley’s Rey at the center of the Star Warsdrama.
But others hated it. Hated everything it stood for. Hated what they saw as a social justice warrior remix of the Star Wars they grew up with. And they hated Tran’s Rose most of all because they decided that she was the avatar for all that was wrong with the franchise. Those fans — a minority but a loud one — found their “them” in the very thing they used to love."

(emphasis mine)

Not much wiggle room there. You’re either with us or against us. Either you love the film or you’re a racist. Either you loved the character of Admiral Holdo or you’re a sexist. No-one, it seems, had issues with the movie for other reasons, such as bad character development, bad writing, or Rian Johnson just plain not understanding Star Wars. Who would want to risk a critical opinion and end up being cast out onto the wrong side of that divide? Least of all Mark Hamill, who changed his deeply critical stance on The Last Jedi to one of unqualified praise just after the vitriolic fan reactions started to emerge. It was a 180 degree reverse fast enough to make a Jedi’s head spin.

And so, before I go any further I feel the need to make my own statement, lest my position be misconstrued (wilfully or otherwise). Racist, sexist or any other kind of abuse directed at any artist is appalling, unjustifiable and inexcusable. I’ll go further and say it’s particularly objectionable when actors are targeted, since they (usually) have nothing whatever to do with the script, character or story in question. All the evidence points to Kelly Marie Tran being shamefully forced off social media by Star Wars trolls.

Marc could’ve simply made this statement, and I’d have nodded in agreement and moved on. However, because he’s a critical thinker and a former journalist, he attempts to answer the not unreasonable question: Why? Why her? Why now?

"What is Star Wars fandom against? Turns out, the answer: itself. Or, rather, the realization that Star Wars is and always has been for children, and they aren’t children any more. Star Wars fans — I count myself among them — look to the original trilogy as an anchor of youth. They want anything Star Wars to make them feel the way they did when they saw “a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away …” roll across the screen 40 years ago."

This is certainly the easiest answer, and it must join all the dots together perfectly if you’ve already decided that all the fans — like Force users — can be seperated out into two distinct camps: the light side and the dark side. However, the real world is not as simple as Star Wars movies, which are, as Marc says, for children. As adults, we’re forced to accept that not everyone likes the same things we do, and if they don’t it’s not because they’re prejudiced or stupid. We are forced to contend with and consider a range of different views without resorting to name-calling and threats. It’s what ultimately separates politics in a democracy from the pronouncements of dictators.

Western democracies are good examples of this: in most countries the views of the electorate — and their representatives — cover a range of reasonable outlooks, also known as the political spectrum. Most people, whether they’re primarily Left, Right or Centrists are able to talk to everyone else reasonably, even if their views are diametrically opposed. Then you have the fringe groups — the hardcore few on the extremes— who can only plot, scheme and hurl abuse. It is my contention that Star Wars fandom is no different. There are clearly huge swathes of the fan community, from all genders, races and backgrounds who despised the abuse directed at Kelly Marie Tran, and who also deeply disliked The Last Jedi. Lumping all of them in with the trolls — not making that distinction — isn’t going to help Lucasfilm going forwards.

The Last Jedi and Diversity in Star Wars

I’ve written before about my own reservations over the supposed advancement in diversity in The Last Jedi, and how I don’t feel it actually stands much scrutiny, but Marc disagrees:

"(It shouldn’t go unnoticed that when this stripe of fan decides they don’t like a new take on an old favorite, they level their hate on the woman of color. Leslie Jones bore the brunt of the backlash to the 2016 reboot of Ghostbusters and the racist, sexually violent tweets she got also caused her to withdraw from social media to find her balance.)
[…]
No diehard fan wants to imagine himself as old Luke Skywalker, hiding on an island from everything new, anything that might shake his steadfast belief in how the world is supposed to be. But if you saw the original Star Wars in the theater, that’s who you are, unless you find a way to open yourself to heroes designed to hook a new generation while still resonating with yours."

Racist, sexist trolls made Kelly Marie Tran’s and Leslie Jones’ lives miserable because they are women of colour, this is clear. What’s not so clear is that this is directly connected to the wider fandom being uncomfortable with diversity on screen. Why did some fans (not trolls) dislike the character of Rose so much? If it’s just because she’s Asian, why was there no similar fan meltdown over the characters of Chirrut (Donnie Yen) and Baze Malbus (Jiang Wen) in 2016’s Rogue One? Or for that matter, why was there no backlash against the film itself, which easily bests The Last Jedi over the diversity of its cast?

The truth is that a complex spectrum of views exists inside any fandom, rather than just a good/bad binary divide

When the Red Letter Media crew disembowelled Rogue One over its shoddy storytelling, character-less characters and rampant fan-service, the reaction from diehard fans was swift, brutal and overwhelming. These fans didn’t seem to object to the diversity of the cast, the female lead, or lack of any white male heroes, in fact, they took such offence at any criticism of the film that Mr Plinkett posted a rare follow-up video commenting on the backlash — in his own distinctive style.

As Marc points out, Kelly Marie Tran is far from the first person involved in Star Wars to be the target for online abuse:

"All of this raises the question: What exactly do Star Wars fans want? For so long, all they were asking for was more. It was 16 years between Return of the Jedi and The Phantom Menace, and then 10 years between Revenge of the Sith and The Force Awakens. Just getting Star Wars on the big screen was enough … at first. But then fans wheeled on the prequels: too much Jar Jar, too convoluted. (The vitriol was strong enough to chase Lucas away from directing and perhaps from Star Wars altogether.)"

And not just George Lucas, no-one involved with the prequels escaped the pressure-hose of fan criticism, least of all both white, male leads Hayden Christensen and Jake Lloyd. Arguably the torrent of abuse levelled at Lloyd was even more inexcusable than that suffered by Tran, as he was only a child at the time he took on the role — a decision he now bitterly regrets. There was a time when Lloyd was the butt of every joke, and even Marc evidently couldn’t resist a bit of ribbing:

Or, shockingly, Mary Forrest, Marketing VP for Legendary, who states in her bio “I hate almost everything”. No shit:

Nor have white male actors in the sequel trilogy avoided social media bullying, with Adam Driver nastily — and relentlessly — mocked for his appearance:

Okay, need this for science. Is Adam Driver ugly?  — @isthatmattdoyle

And there are thousands more like that. Even our beloved Luke Skywalker, Mark Hamill can’t avoid the occasional mean-spirited personal comment:

Fandoms are many and varied, and all are complicated

"As expected, the movie opened well boxoffice-wise […] despite mostly terrible reviews on rottentomatoes.com […] Of those who did like it, many strike a tone similar to “Access Hollywood’s” Scott Mantz, basically acknowledging everything that’s wrong with the movie, and then urging people not to listen to the critics who panned it.
“Haters will continue to hate it, but it’s not for them anyway,” he writes — assuming that the negativity is entirely motivated by preconceived notions, not the movie itself.”

— From Brian Lowry’s Variety review of Sex and the City 2, but it could’ve just as easily been written about The Last Jedi.

Sex and the City is an interesting case in point, with the series having a devoted, mostly female fanbase. While it’s tempting to think of all ‘fandoms’ as male dominated (the term ‘fanboy’ seems to be even more synonymous with fandom than the word ‘fan’ itself), but of course this is not the case, and female fans can be just as protective of the thing they love as any other.

BBC critic Mark Kermode‘s Sex And The City 2 review culminates with him yelling that the characters are “imperialist American pig-dogs of the highest order”.

In Bidisha’s piece for The Guardian “Why the Sex and the City 2 reviews were misogynistic”, she wrote:

“Sukhdev Sandhu in the Telegraph sneered at the women for “all getting older” adding that Sarah Jessica Parker “looks like a cross between Wurzel Gummidge and Bride of Chucky”, while Miranda “looks badly embalmed”. In the Observer, Philip French ridiculed the “bitchy heroines” who enjoy “an orgy of self-pity” and described Carrie as “equine” (horse-like, people).
[…]
So, the critics didn’t like it. Neither did I. But they went one further. They used the opportunity to open their mouths and spew out a sexist torrent completely out of proportion to what they were reviewing.”

Trek Wars

On the other hand, one group of fans reacted badly when they felt their franchise was being turned into a bland corporate product and was no longer progressive enough. In 2009 J.J. Abrams was pilloried by Star Trek fans because his soft reboot wasn’t ‘real Star Trek’, because even though it spun classic Trek canon off in a new direction, it was populated with all familiar (mostly white male) characters. However, the same fans fully embraced 2017's Star Trek: Discovery, which had a black female lead and returned the franchise to its episodic roots of examining moral dilemmas while exploring space.

Abrams must've felt like he couldn't win, because he would next be criticised for making his 2015 Star Wars "requel" ‘too familiar’ and 'unoriginal', despite it having an all-new cast. The lesson: fans are hard — but not impossible — to please.

I’m not trying to make a false equivalency here; quite the opposite. Trolls abusing actors for just doing their jobs is not on, regardless of the circumstances, and that is clearly a very different thing to fans being upset at the depiction of characters, or at the quality of a film’s script or storytelling. I just wish media commentators would remember this.


And I while I thought Kelly Marie Tran gave a memorable performance in the role, and did a fine job with the material she was given, I still hope that in Episode IX Rose dies on her way back to her home planet.