To return to Will’s statement about the representation of fanboys, I think “extremely lazy and misguided” is an understatement. Naturally, the fannish need to protect a treasured fan-object shouldn’t surprise us in any way; but there is also this weird tendency for cultural commenters, be they professional critics or fan-bloggers, to actively refuse to accept that fans could have any real issue with the film beyond fitting into traditional stereotypes of the basement dwelling, lonely fanboy who has nothing better to do than spoil others’ enjoyment with weaponised nostalgia. Discursively, TLJ desires protection from critical assault, while the original trilogy – perhaps the ultimate “good” Star Wars object, at least for first generation fans – ends up being converted into a ‘bad’ object, which is suddenly the sole province of nasty, nostalgic fanboys.
I’d be interested to hear what others think of the way in which fanboys are attacked as “man-babies,” “crying male tears,” “butt hurt,” and other insults surrounding TLJ detractors and anti-fans (does “butt-hurt” mean male rape, for instance, and if so, why is that okay?). As scholars, I recognise that we should keep our moral judgements in check, but I fail to see how marshalling abusive comments towards an entire male contingent is not sexist as well, especially when a bevy of empirical evidence within fan studies/ audience studies literature undoubtedly shows that both fanboys and fangirls can behaviour appallingly at times (although it is undoubtedly asymmetrical and I wouldn’t cast aspersions in peer-reviewed work, obviously). I have been quite clear that I am not claiming that women and men now occupy the same ideological coordinates, but my own experience tells me that it has become so difficult to paint broader strokes, especially when substantiated empirically. I’ve just been chatting with Henry about this and we both feel that it’s difficult to chat about mistreatment of fanboys as it comes across as “a defence of men.” But I tread where the path takes me.
When a website such as The Mary Sue circles around Henry Walsh’s petition like vultures eyeing a corpse, and refuses to address his politically progressive praxis – or, worse still, didn’t conduct any research at all, which is more likely -- then I can’t help thinking that certain facts have been either distorted, or removed entirely, so as to squeeze the “fanboy-sexist-racist-rage narrative” into preordained and prescribed ideological limits. It seems that scholars are quite afraid of venturing into this territory. I don’t say this easily or without reflexivity, but, rather, to ask whether or not the political constituency of the academic left actively bars scholarship in these areas in case one runs the risk of being contaminated by those same slogans that permeate TLJ discourse. In order for the “transcendental” narrative to function, the only fangirls that are permitted to speak are those who claim TLJ is “feminist,” or to unquestionably – and unproblematically it seems – abuse an imaginary and imagined fanboy cluster. I’d appreciate any thoughts you may have on this as I think readers would too.
I wonder if we could view this kind of knee-jerk generalisation as a symptom of the current political environment? With the emergence of the radical right in the US and perhaps the UK (although contextually and qualitatively different): Brexit, immigration, Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, Trump, snap elections, #Gamergate, sad puppies, and so on and so forth. As the world of men (i’m being crude and general, apologies) is seen as chock-a-bloc with racist, misogynist, homophobic neo-nazis and white supremacists, then perhaps the levels of anti-fanboy rhetoric can be explained, if not condoned, as a kind of “push back” against those ideological currents. I’m shooting from the hip here folks, but I strongly believe that it’s time to stop tiptoeing around these issues (not to say that anyone here is, of course!).
Will, have we been unintentionally force facetiming again? It’s like you’re in my head! To second Mar, I would agree with all the decapitated muppets here (not a sentence I ever envisioned writing, but I digress…). I also really appreciate your perspective, Megen, and in particular we are in firm agreement that any move towards more complexity and/or less moral absolutism in the SW galaxy is a good thing! Perhaps, as you rightly note, asking the questions is enough, and the film certainly forces us (pun absolutely intended) to grapple with our own evolving relationship to the franchise as a whole, and the past more generally, in productive ways.
Your mention of bringing in Leia’s force sensitivity from the EU reminded me of something, though. I, perhaps like you (and probably like many SW fangirls and queer fans and fans of color) have historically looked to the EU as a space that afforded the dynamic and more diverse characterization that the cinematic franchise either economically or ideologically could not. In a project I’m currently working on, I’m exploring the concept of “transmedia erasure,” which might range from archival failure (e.g. failing to record emphera from an ARG) to industrial excision (e.g. ranging from attempts to erase The Star Wars Holiday Special from popular memory, to Disney’s corporate delegitimization of the EU and subsequent formation of the “new unified canon). But, importantly, I also think transmedia erasure conceptually encompasses many of the representational issues we have been addressing. There’s a long history of “outing” characters via transmedia extensions (e.g. Gaeta in Battlestar Galactica webisodes) and authorial paratexts (e.g. Rowling’s post-canonical outing of Dumbledore and the news this past week that there would be no “explicit” reference to his sexuality in the Fantastic Beasts sequel), or more generally relegating “diverse” characters quite literally to the narrative margins. Likewise, with TLJ, we are paratextually informed that Holdo is queer, but we have to buy the Leia: Princess of Alderaan tie-in novel to see that actualized in any explicit or meaningful way.
With all that said, I want to pick back up on Will’s closing comment here about the specter of the “butt-hurt fanboy” and how this might ultimately force choke critical conversations around the film, as well as Billy’s remarks. I would speculate that many who have kept their criticisms about the film to themselves precisely because they don’t want to be “on the wrong side of history” or even indirectly affiliated with critiques of the film that potentially are situated in deeper strains of misogyny, racism, and homophobia (much less the performative trollish embrace of these qualities). I agree that it’s a lazy characterization, but it’s also not an entirely incorrect one in some cases, and I think that needs to be acknowledged.
This is why, in spite of my own ambivalent response to the film, I don’t begrudge marginalized Star Wars fans for taking a memetic victory lap on social media. They have, for so long now, been either systematically and discursively erased from the fandom, even in this supposedly new era focused on representational diversity (I see you, J.J. and #wheresrey), or chided for “feeding the trolls” even as they are disproportionately targeted as “SJWs.” I think contextually it’s important to note that the sort of fanboy mockery you’re referencing, Billy, frequently only occured when said fanboys would insert themselves into celebratory threads about the film, not to engage in a fannish debate about the film’s relative strengths and weaknesses, but to spew vitriol and provoke precisely the kind of response you detail.
I can’t believe I’m about to reference this, but this conflict evokes the infamous “I have the high ground!” climax of Revenge of the Sith for me. Marginalized SW fans have for so long been expected to “go high” when it comes to a large chunk of the fan base treating them as inauthentic or unwelcome. And, for the most part, they have. In the case of TLJ, they finally had the actual high ground, and despite their warnings, certain disgruntled fans attacked anyways. And they (predictably) got cut down. Is intra-fannish pathologization an appropriate or particularly productive response? No. But it also speaks to the degree to which the fanboy has been, for better or for worse, incorporated into hegemonic masculinity over the past decade.
I also think Billy is spot on to tie this back to the broader political moment we find ourselves in. In my current book project, I draw parallels between the growing strains of misogyny, racism, and homophobia in geek culture and a “make fandom great again” ethos that is committed to re-entrenching an androcentric (if not openly white male supremacist) conception of fan identity.
I think there exists a widespread male discourse, online and offline that is based on privilege and expresses itself, whether naively or deliberately, in ignorant and offensive ways. So I think to a great extent, a ‘push-back’ against that kind of male discourse is justified and appropriate, whether on a purely personal or a broader political level. I can see, taking up Suzanne’s final comment above, how a more general sense of resistance against various forms of bigotry -- and phenomena like #metoo and #timesup -- give further relevant context to this push-back. Whether it is simply a woman countering another man patronising her on twitter, or a more widespread reaction against the Game of Thrones creators being given a Star Wars trilogy, these smaller acts of resistance often seem to fit into a bigger picture.
There are also, surely, examples of privileged, ignorant, naïve and offensive behaviour among male media fans, and specifically Star Wars fans. Social media and journalism have highlighted some particularly extreme cases, like the edit of The Last Jedi that attempted to cut all the female roles. It is hard to know whether these newsworthy cases of toxic masculinity among Star Wars fans are representative of a broader trend within that fandom, or whether they are about individuals and small, atypical groups, perhaps deliberately trying to provoke and troll for attention.
I think it’s an error, certainly, to assume that everyone who identifies as a Star Wars fan and has issues with The Last Jedi shares the views of people who object to the increased diversity of representation (however superficial and ‘plastic’) in the sequels. All the responses above have embraced and enjoyed that diversity, only wishing it went deeper, but we all shared misgivings about The Last Jedi on other grounds, such as storytelling, character, broader continuity and tone.
So I feel strongly that to group anyone who didn’t love The Last Jedi into a category that’s easy to dismiss as bigoted and conservative is patently inaccurate, arguably offensive, and unhelpful in terms of debate. I think it’s understandable from internet journalism but would be harder to excuse from academics.
However, I wouldn’t personally extend that to seeing male media fans as a victimised group. I don’t think it’s the case, in broader social terms, that male media fans are marginalised or lacking in privilege and power. There are some lazy and silly generalisations at work, as is often the case with social media and contemporary journalism, and there are shorthand, slang terms that I feel could be retired – I think the words ‘fanboy’ and ‘fangirl’ have unwelcome connotations of infantilization, and ‘butthurt’ does seem to have associations with rape. But mocking men who get upset online when a woman counters their arrogance is something that goes far beyond The Last Jedi fandom, and I think it’s an understandable response with a history of gender politics behind it and a context of contemporary misogyny surrounding it. I am against closing down all debate about this film to a binary opposition between ‘people who embrace diversity and loved the film’, against ‘people who didn’t love it and are therefore conservative bigots’. I am not personally in a position where I want to ask ‘what about the men’ and sympathise with male fans en masse, because I think they still have it pretty good.
I agree for the most part Will, but not entirely so allow me to explain. I am not claiming that we should ask “what about the men” or sympathise with male fans. I don’t see how I inferred that and, if I may be frank, saying so actively works to shutdown discourse too (mine), and that is precisely what I am critiquing. Nor am I talking about men who patronise and abuse women online, nor fangirls that “push back” against narratives of hate and misogyny. So to be clear: I am not claiming, nor have I ever claimed, that men need defending from “toxic women,” or that fanboys are under attack by “mean girls.” I am referring to critics, commentators, bloggers, etc., that position fanboys as ideologically complicit with right-wing ideas when empirical evidence clearly demonstrates that the majority are nothing of the sort. I am referring to the way in which the discourse surrounding The Last Jedi seems to have bunched fanboys into one ideological container, which is then adopted as a method to generally scathe fanboys in hostile ways, thus, defending both film and fan-object from negative criticism. More specifically, I am talking about the way in which Henry Walsh was discursively attacked by news outlets and, especially, fan sites, for protesting what he saw as an offence to his fandom. It must have felt like “discursive bullying to him,” and I can see why. He has been fighting off accusations of being a neo-nazi; a sexist; and general ugly human being when it actual fact, he is a committed progressive, anti-Trump protester with feminist values. And In order for the ‘bad’ fanboy narrative to function, female fan detractors of The Last Jedi have to be side-lined or ignored all together.
I am not saying, “men need to push back,” either, nor am I activating the “not all men” trope. In actual fact, those critics and commenters who work to demonise, infantilize and emasculate fanboys as monolithic hive-mind often evoke the “not all men” trope themselves, but with a qualitative distinction: “not all fanboys” are right-wing but…
As I said in my essay, the deck has been stacked in discursive terms and the more news articles and blog posts that join the indignant choir contributes to a “regime of truth,” as Foucault might put it, that makes it appear that way. I’m not saying this is orchestrated or a sustained campaign against fanboys-by-fangirls – if only things were so simple. But this is what I find most difficult of all when discussing fanboys, gender and masculinity: it is almost as if the topic is verboten unless one is joining in the fray. Although I fully accept that this is a provocation of sorts, my intent is to open up debate about how we, as researchers, address the return of “get a life” stereotyping associated with male Star Wars fans. For if fangirls have historically been mistreated and framed as infantile, sexually unruly and overly emotional, then how should scholars deal with discourses that frame fanboys in similar terms without being viewed as marshalling defences of men and masculinity? I strongly believe that this is a conversation that is urgently required in order to broaden the field of enquiry in fan studies and cogent disciplines, as Jenkins pointed towards in his “Fandom studies as I see it”:
“We need to develop a more complex picture of how gender operates within fandom, which will require us to be as reflective about masculinity as we are about femininity. Those identities being constructed for largely male fans through mainstream representations often rely on tropes of failed masculinity, depicting male fans as arrested adolescents who have not been able or willing to accept adult roles within society […] This approach would ultimately push us to deal with gender identities that do not fit simply in a ‘fan boy/fan girl’ dynamic.”
As for the Pirate Bay “de-feminized edit.” That is one of the issues that I touched upon in my essays: downloading a video from an illegal torrent site, then shining the media spotlight on it, actively legitimatizes it and, in turn, leads to a slew of news articles that ends up making spurious claims about the uploader being a “member” of the Men’s Right’s Activist “movement,” when the fact of the matter is that the person who created this edit remains anonymous (not to mention going against explicit instructions from journalist watchdogs). In so doing, news media and blogs have literally fallen into the trap of spreading noxious ideologies on behalf of the “manosphere,” despite a lack of evidence regarding the political constituency of the anonymous uploader or his intent. Indeed, this is how trolls operate: sowing discord for others to “cry havoc and let slip the dogs of war.” So, scholars would need to attend to a broader portrait of the way in which fan cultures operate as a “many splintered thing,” and not work to reaffirm and reinscribe traditional gender binaries themselves. My intervention is more about methodological insights and a gauntlet to scholars to check the validity of press discourses before leaping in with both feet.
The discursive shift around Disney’s Star Wars, especially since TFA, illustrates that fans are often demonised in some way or other regardless of gender, and that this represents the wholesale return of stereotypes that wouldn’t be out of place in Textual Poachers. Think about the way that Jonathan Gray et al claimed that the so-called mainstreaming of fandom has led to fans being “courted and woo’d”:
“None of the high-profile fan cultures in recent years – from X-Philes via Eminem fans to Sex and the City enthusiasts – had to endure the derogative treatment of Star Trek fans.”
Given that this was published a decade ago – and has since been superseded by a second edition – tells us that things have changed considerably, or, indeed, reverted back, at least in the case of Star Wars fandom.
I wanted to add something else on Billy’s suggestion of Disney’s rushed symbolic attempts to bury Lucas’ legacy by hiding the prequels under tons of that Tatooinian sand we all know Anakin loves so much. Oddly enough, amidst the TLJ controversy, the prequels have been pulled out of the hall of (fan) shame and somehow revalued by anti-TLJ fans who years later are experiencing some sort of closure with the very same films they despised back then. It only takes a glean over some popular online Star Wars venues like TheForce.net to witness fans coming to terms with the saga most recent troubled past, and all because a new source of antagonism has risen in the fashion of the ultimate Big Bad that threats the world they love. Whether that foe comes in the shape of Leia Poppins, sulky Luke, shirtless Kylo, Force facetiming, or it just simply has the face of Rian Johnson or Kathleen Kennedy, I’m not going to discuss it as I think it has been extensively reviewed so far into this conversation. But I think it is worth noting such a shift in these fans’ train of thought over the years, although it is by no means a new phenomenon.
In his essay about factions, institutions and hegemonies of fandom in Gray, Sandvoss and Harrington’s Fandom (2007), Derek Johnson argues that "fan interpretation is constantly shifting, never unified or maintaining the same valences over time. Despised eras may later become beloved if they retrospectively satisfy the meta-textual desires of dominant fan interests". If we look at the how positively the prequels are being interpreted by some former detractors in light of the sequels, it can be suggested that formerly confronted factions of anti-sequel fans and pro-sequel fans have found a common ground to unite and negotiate “the consensus of interpretation” that the sequels will be held against. Perhaps sequel haters will never get over midichlorians, yet they eventually agreed to them (or accepted them) based on Lucas’ dethronement by Disney’s suits and currents developments in the canon. In a way, this can be seen as a poetic victory on Lucas’ side as his authority has been restored in part by the same people who mocked him for it. However, as I said, such time-evolving ‘swings in the fandom’s mood’ are not a novelty. The Empire Strikes Back, most rated episode of the saga, anyone? Media outlets and fans on Twitter mentioning the fan backlash it provoked upon its theatrical release does raise some eyebrows because how would it be possible? There was no missa missa speaker to hate in Empire! Nonetheless, it would be sensible to extend the same rationale to the sequel trilogy in the future in spite of my own and others’ conflicted feelings as fans and, most importantly, because time is the best concealer. So new taste hierarchies will emerge and replace the old ones and so forth.
Right now, though, it seems that some fans form of resistance against Kennedy and co. is activated through reinvigorating the prequels as an argumentative weapon. Although the prequels are part of Disney’s new canon as they mark the current origin of the Star Wars universe (unmistakably, Anakin is wired as a Space Jesus), it’s rather apparent that they either have been put under Jabba the Hutt’s bottom or constructed as a staple of “what is bad in the Star Wars world” and symbolically used to delegitimise Lucas’ authorial figure and make him “The Other”. In turn, fans retaliate by shouting their very own version of the “The North remembers”, especially now that Game of Thrones’ showrunners Benioff and Weiss are being awarded with a galactic trilogy to develop.
Without leaving the fan-producer trench, I also wanted to address some of the comments made by Suzanne, Billy and Will regarding burgeoning debates over fan toxicity that speak of ugly places of fandom that need serious scholarly attention. Just because fandom has been normalised or incorporated into broader cultural conversations, it doesn’t mean that issues have gone away from both intra and extra fandom perspectives as our current topic of discussion illustrates. In this sense, and I do not mean it as a critique but rather as a suggestion, fan scholarship cannot rest on its laurels and forget about some of the structural tenets of the discipline which was born amid strong stereotyping and othering by cultural industries. In this sense, scholars cannot stop being aware. Nowadays, stereotyping is still kicking as seen in media outlets (even in supposedly fan-friendly ones like io9 and The Mary Sue) covering of the fan outcry about TLJ, but instead of presenting fans as a deranged cultural lumpens like in the 80’s, the focus in 2018 is presenting them still as deranged cultural lumpens but also homophobic, sexist and basically a proxy for Trump [insert your local right-winger here] . This is not to say that this type of fan identities don’t exist as if they were a taboo, or can’t be called out, in no way, but there have been too many broad brush strokes applied on fandom lately by mainstream media that have to be examined in detail in order to put order back into the galaxy help reorient such narratives circulating in the public sphere.
Having arrived at this point then I turn my attention to what happens intra fandom’s walls. While I do agree to an extent that fanboys can’t be seen as victims given their hegemonic position in the media landscape, putting a ‘white-male fanboy’ mask to toxicity, in other words, gendering toxic fan practices might be contributing to invisibilise toxic behavior by fangirls (which Zubernis & Larsen already highlighted in Fandom at the Crossroads) , even those parting from discriminated positions, be it because race or sexual orientation besides gender itself. For instance, you can take a look at the death threats targeted at Jason Rothenberg a couple of years ago after killing off a popular lesbian character in The 100. As myself, María-José Establés and Rafa Ventura show in a recent research on this case for Billy and Bridget Kies’ ‘Toxic Fan Practices” themed section of Participations, the Bury Your Gays trope is a plague that must be eradicated from queer media representation but this aim isn’t incompatible with abiding by the rules of respect to others’ physical and moral integrity (we also provide evidence of intra-fandom self-management against toxic fans which further demonstrate fandom’s heterogeneity). You can also encounter other examples of fan toxicity performed by fangirls in music fandom with Believers’ attacking Selena Gomez as shown by Jessica Austin in last year’s Fan Studies Network Conference where she argued for a reframing of fan studies to consider concepts of “toxic femininity,” or queer Swifties getting hate mail from straight Swifties on Tumblr because they dare to make queer readings on Taylor Swift’s celebrity persona and songwriting and so those readings shake the ground of straight Swifties’ ontological security.
Professor Will Brooker is Professor of Film and Cultural Studies at Kingston University, and author of Using the Force (20020 and the BFI volume on Star Wars (2009) among many other books.
Dr Mar Guerrero-Pico works as a research assistant at Universitat Pompeu Fabra (Spain). Her articles have been published in journals such as International Journal of Communication & Society, International Journal of TV Serial Narratives, Signo y Pensamiento, Comunicación and Sociedad (Mexico), Palabra Clave and Cuadernos.info. Her research interests include transmedia storytelling, fan cultures, narratology, television shows and media education.
Dr William Proctor is Senior Lecturer in Popular Culture at Bournemouth University, UK. He has published widely on numerous topics, including Batman, James Bond, One Direction, The Walking Dead, Stephen King, and Star Wars. William is a leading expert on reboots and is currently finishing up his debut monograph, Reboot Culture: Comics, Film, Transmedia, for Palgrave Macmillan. He is co-editor of Transmedia Earth: Global Convergence Cultures with Dr. Matthew Freeman (Routledge, 2018); co-editor of Disney's Star Wars: Forces of Promotion, Production and Reception with Dr. Richard McCulloch (University of Iowa, forthcoming); and co-editor, alongside Bridget Kies, of the themed-section of Participations: International Journal of Audience and Reception Studies on "Toxic Fan Practices" (May, 2018).
Dr Suzanne Scott is Assistant Professor of Media Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. Her current book project explores the gendered tensions underpinning the media industry’s embrace of fans as a tastemaker demographic within convergence culture. In addition to co-editing The Routledge Companion to Media Fandom, her work has been published in the journals Transformative Works and Cultures, New Media & Society, and Cinema Journal, as well as numerous anthologies including Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World (2nd Ed), How to Watch Television, and The Participatory Culture Handbook.