In the majority of cases, fandoms are a humbling and heartwarming display of community. They are usually a hub of support and positivity, full of gratitude towards the creators, actors, and every other person involved in bringing a story fans love so dearly into existence. Fandoms have always existed in one shape or form, but thanks to social media, the subculture has exploded with Tumblr communities, ‘stan’ Twitters and constant Reddit threads. Whereas before people had to labour over handwritten letters to the official fan inbox, now every fleeting irritation or complaint can be immortalised on Twitter. But is this a good thing?
Although I can’t speak for or generalise every single fandom on every single platform, in recent years it has become clear that the Star Wars fan community has become so twisted and distorted that they barely deserve the accolade of being called a ‘community’. Instead, what we have now is a group of vicious, hostile individuals that cast a dark shadow over the rest of the fanbase. This is a shadow that makes myself and others ashamed to call ourselves Star Wars fans out of fear of association with these people.
What started off as valid complaints and fair criticisms has developed into targeted campaigns of abuse, a lack of regard for the work put into the movies and a complete and utter inability to be satisfied. Sure, nobody was best pleased when it was announced that Disney was taking over Star Wars, and yeah, The Force Awakens wasn’t their best work… but all those excuses began to run dry when angsty fans reared their ugly heads following the release of The Last Jedi.
Fans went rampant on the Twittersphere, shocked and appalled that Luke Skywalker in 2017 was maybe a little different to Luke Skywalker in 1977. How dare a character change over 40 years? There were the edited videos implying that Hamill himself was unhappy with the film, outraged rants at everyone involved and, most insultingly, a petition demanding that the Hollywood blockbuster – one that cost hundreds of millions of dollars and was years in the making – should be remade because Brian from Minnesota didn’t like it. The petition didn’t even scratch the surface of childish – it went beyond that and was frankly insulting. Even if you have disagreements over ways certain plot points were handled, trying to completely invalidate the work, time and resources that so many people have put in is not the actions of fans. It’s the actions of bullies.
The reactions to The Last Jedi are also ludicrous when we look at them in conjunction to The Force Awakens. One of the biggest, most universal criticisms of the third trilogy’s first outing was that, plot-wise, it was too similar to the originals. But, when Johnson seemingly took that criticism on board and deviated from tropes and conventions in The Last Jedi, fans were equally as whiny, saying that it was now too dissimilar to the originals. It leads us to question whether fans are perpetually unsatisfied or, rather, just want an excuse to complain due to something lacking in their own lives.
Either way, if you want any proof that the fandom has gone too far, look no further than the treatment of actress Kelly Marie Tran. Tran played divisive new character Rose in The Last Jedi, and sure, maybe she wasn’t the most interesting or inspiring character. That’s the thing, though. She’s playing a character. You’d think that with most of the fandom being grown adults, they’d be able to distinguish between fictional characters and the real people who played them. And yet, Tran experienced such incessant online abuse and death threats that she felt as if she had no other choice but to leave social media for her own safety and peace of mind.
It is evident that the abuse she faced had a severe impact on her mental health, and the saddest part is that her own plight led to other actors coming out to talk about the online abuse they have faced. Amhed Best, known for playing Jar Jar Binks in the critically-panned prequel trilogy, revealed publicly that he became suicidal following the intense public backlash. With the prequels being released in the late nineties/early noughties, it has become increasingly clear that the toxicity surrounding Star Wars fans has been almost twenty years in the making.
The way I see it, as we approach the release date for another new film, we have a very important choice to make. We can either separate the art from the artist and balance criticism with respect, or risk driving more creators and actors to alienation or even suicide. Either way, we need to change. We all know fully well the impact cyberbullying can have, so in a society that is supposedly more attuned to mental health than ever, we need to be better. Star Wars might be a children’s’ franchise, but that doesn’t mean you have to act like a child.