Star Wars, Kelly Marie Tran and the Dark Side of Fandom

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Online Film & TV Editor, James Turnbull, discusses the backlash against Kelly Marie Tran from Star Wars fans, and assesses the potential impact of this dark side of fandom.

A long time ago, Kelly Marie Tran was probably feeling pretty happy with how her life was going. And why not? After years plugging away in small television roles and short films, she was finally getting her big break as a film actress – in a bloody Star Wars film! A big-budget, world-conquering, new instalment in one of the biggest franchises on the planet.

And the success wasn’t just personal, either. Tran would become the first Asian-American woman with a leading role in said biggest franchise in film, breaking down another entertainment barrier and inspiring kids everywhere. The stars were aligning for Tran – what could possibly go wrong?

Soon the young actress was weathering horrific levels of racist and sexist harassment from all corners of the internet

A lot, it turns out. Despite the critical and commercial success of The Last Jedi, the reaction from many fans was less than stellar. Tran’s character, Rose Tico, was often singled out for ‘polite disagreement’, and soon the young actress was weathering horrific levels of racist and sexist harassment from all corners of the internet.

One particular group, ludicrously titled ‘Down With Disney’s Treatment of Franchises and its Fanboys’, took credit for Tran’s eventual decision to delete all of her Instagram posts and essentially flee her social media platforms. Their ringleader declared it ‘bloody glorious’ on Facebook. It’s official: we need to talk about toxic fans.

Now, you might have noticed I didn’t limit this little intervention to just Star Wars fans. If we really want to understand the toxicity at the core of the Star Wars fandom, we need to look beyond just this one franchise and consider what drives angry nerds to so violently lash out at the people who make the things they claim to love.

This sort of behaviour is hardly a new phenomenon: just look at GamerGate, a thinly veiled harassment campaign apparently concerned with the state of ‘ethics in gaming journalism’ which continues to ruin lives several years after its wretched birth. Give its Wikipedia article a read if you want to feel angry at something.

The fanboys who claim to be defending their passions from progressivism are making everything they love toxic for everyone who could ever love it.

See, after spending most of their lives as the apparent target audience for the geeky pastimes they enjoy – sci-fi, video games, etc. - things are changing, and so-called fanboys and nerds are rather upset. As the name of the group that harassed Tran off Instagram will tell you, companies like Disney are mistreating their real fans. Any progressive actions on the part of producers can be framed as some sort of attack on the so-called target audience of old, prompting toxic counter-attacks against any actors or creators caught in the crossfire.

The ‘Us vs Them’ dynamic that underpins this toxic nonsense shows a real lack of understanding on the part of the harassers. While they see themselves as the ‘real fans’ of whichever franchise they’re so passionately ‘defending’, they’re not – they’re merely the loudest. All sorts of people have been into the same things as these fanboys, and now that companies are waking up to this fact, their creations are changing to reflect this more diverse audience.

The fanboys could see this as legitimisation of the hobbies they used to have to enjoy in secret – confirmation that it’s actually popular to be geeky in this day and age. Instead, they react with vitriol, which speaks to their overwhelming feeling of entitlement. The fact that their targets have often been both female and non-white (see Leslie Jones’ experiences during the production of the reboot of Ghostbusters) should also tell you a lot about these people’s true feelings.

It may seem tempting to write this behaviour off as the pointless musings of an irate, but ultimately powerless, minority. But if we don’t confront this toxicity soon, it will grow and grow until eventually we’re forced to cede every corner of pop culture for people who want their favourite franchises to stand still. The fanboys who claim to be defending their passions from progressivism are making everything they love toxic for everyone who could ever love it.

Finally, spare a thought for Kelly Marie Tran. This should have been a dream job for an exciting, up-and-coming actress. Instead, she’s practically been forced into hiding. I don’t care what you think of her character in The Last Jedi – nothing makes this okay.

Featured Image: Instagram / @kellymarietran


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