Star Wars fandom isn't worth defending
Enough is enough
Star Wars should stop celebrating its fans. They don't deserve it.
Consider the case of Kelly Marie Tran, who last week wiped her Instagram account. The Vietnamese-American actress, who played Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, has endured racist and sexist attacks online from the very moment the movie came out — attacks that haven't seemed to abate in the six months since The Last Jedi's premiere. Even if she hasn't said as much, everyone knows that it was sustained, targeted harassment from "fans" that caused her to effectively hide her online presence.
In the wake of Tran's departure from social media, there's been an effort to rehabilitate Star Wars fandom. Sincere and well-meaning fans launched support campaigns. Her Star Wars colleagues publicly praised her and shamed her harassers. And The Last Jedi director Rian Johnson tweeted about how a few bad apples misrepresent the vast majority of Star Wars fans, who are otherwise wonderful.
But is Star Wars fandom really an institution worth defending?
No. It isn't. Star Wars fandom is notoriously toxic, and you don't have to look very far to find evidence. Daisy Ridley, Tran's The Last Jedi costar, deleted her Instagram for the same reason. John Boyega, who is black, dealt with a wave of racist bile for his prominent role in the new trilogy that began with The Force Awakens. Go back further and it doesn't get much better: Jake Lloyd, who was 8 when he played Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace, blames the film and its fans for making his life "a living hell."
Now look: I'm sure millions of Star Wars fans are super people — but these good Star Wars fans aren't the problem. We don't point to all the people who are not horrible as a means of excusing people who are. Spend any amount of time writing on the internet and you'll know most readers are presumably great, because most readers don't say anything. But the ones that do? A lot of them really aren't great. And all the well-intentioned Star Wars lovers tweeting #NotAllFans aren't helping anyone, because they can't change the fact that fandom, as it exists in 2018, is fundamentally broken.
Star Wars is a good case study for this, because it's a science fiction fantasy franchise that began in 1977 that has been continuously celebrated into the present day — and, more importantly, across multiple entirely different eras of fandom. Star Wars fans of the first few decades practiced an analog fandom that grew out of comic books, fanzines, and hobby shops. This was the only way to be a "fan" of anything back then, and while it was absolutely still toxic — women were unwelcome, and death threats written in ink aren't any less troubling than tweets — it was isolated. That doesn't make this iteration of fandom better, it just helps explain the foundational mindset of Star Wars fandom: people (mostly men) taking ownership of a bit of pop culture in their own private spaces, and making them as open or as hostile as they wanted.
The early days of the internet didn't do much to shake up this order. Fragmented into message boards, Usenets, and IRC networks, the proto-internet almost encouraged niche groups to gather and replicate the mentality of analog fandom, making their "neighborhood" an order of magnitude larger. Lonely fans found friends. Friends found what felt like small-town hangouts. Small-town kids felt like they were finally in a city.
Then came social media. Small groups thrust into — or invading — larger ones and barriers between online communities eroding. While this has been a largely positive force — you can attribute much of our modern push for diversity in pop culture to this — it's also the means by which some fandoms become noxious on a grand scale. The possessive nature of fandom and the open nature of the internet have both reached their logical endpoints, and traditional fandom's reflex — at least, in the case of Star Wars — is to tighten its grip and become hostile towards any change in the franchise they felt slighted them. These toys belong to them, and no one else is allowed to play with them. The world has changed, but their fandom did not.
Couple this with the entertainment industry's late-aughts embrace of "Geek Culture" — a lifestyle defined by consumption and corporate boosterism that seeks to take advantage of and commercialize a newly widened fan culture while also validating older, possessive fans — and you have the perfect storm that results in Kelly Marie Tran closing herself off from fans entirely.
This is capital-F Fandom's endgame: a world in which a mob can terrorize the corporation that actually owns the franchise they built their identity on into doing their bidding.
Of course, corporations aren't the vulnerable ones here. People are. People like Tran, an actress with a relatively small profile before Star Wars thrust her into a world it never bothered to cultivate or police, because Star Wars has never seen a dollar it didn't like.