When Disney purchased Lucasfilm back in 2012, it didn’t realize exactly what it was getting in terms of fandom. In Disney’s eyes, it was simply reviving a known and beloved property at the perfect time. With some updated storytelling and a newly diverse cast of characters, the mass-market potential was endless. Having made back its $4 billion dollar investment by the end of 2017, it's clear Disney was correct about the franchise’s money-making potential. But on the subject of diversity, Disney did not take into account the whims of a toxic and abusive fan community.
This week, it was reported that “The Last Jedi” star Kelly Marie Tran deleted her Instagram account after months of abusive comments. Though it remains unclear exactly what drove Tran’s decision to leave the platform, she did delete every last picture. Meanwhile, the response by some white male fans so far suggests she was indeed the target of sustained harassment.
The same year Lucasfilm was purchased, men like Milo Yiannopoulos were already leading online mobs of white men against women in gaming. But very few outside of the video game world were yet aware of this noxious brew, which had been frothing about since the mid aughts. Several years later, a loud if small group of outraged white male fans continues to make its presence felt across the internet. The revival of the "Star Wars" fandom that followed Disney’s reboot efforts is no exception.
Under Kathleen Kennedy’s guidance, Lucasfilm has started to reflect on screen the diversity and equality the original films preached in abstract. "Star Wars" is a franchise rooted in a noble set of values, so it made sense that its fans would believe in those values too — and appreciate decisions that reflected them. With both “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi” surpassing the $1 billion mark at the worldwide box office, this initiative has paid off handsomely.
But from the beginning, rumblings from a bigoted, enraged subsection of the "Star Wars" community have threatened to spoil Disney's feel-good storyline. White nationalist fans called for a boycott of “The Force Awakens” because of star John Boyega’s prominence in the trailers. They were later joined by men’s rights activists upset by the realization that Daisy Ridley was the real star of the film. At the time, most fans just laughed off this trolling. (A boycott of a film that made $2.068 billion cannot be considered a success.)
Critically, Lucasfilm did not publicly and loudly denounce these fans. It just ignored them, perhaps hoping that by refusing to acknowledge their nonsense, they would go away.
Three years later, that strategy hasn’t worked. And “Solo,” whose script catered directly to white male fans yet became Lucasfilm’s first real flop, seems to have sent some fans into a tailspin. White males fans have tripled down, demanding Kennedy be fired for “Solo’s” failure, and declaring that “forcing Social Justice values” on the films have ruined them. (Meanwhile, other fans complain that her diversity initiatives have not extended behind the camera enough and that the endless parade of white British brunette women desperately needs to be broken up already.)
From the beginning, rumblings from a bigoted, enraged subsection of the Star Wars community have threatened to spoil Disney's feel-good storyline.
This is an issue the fan community itself cannot police. The majority of the fans may be horrified by things like the attempted “review bombings” of “The Last Jedi” or the infamous 46-minute cut that takes out “everything objectionable” from the film for the “true fans.” But the reward for speaking up can be making yourself a target.
Interestingly, much of this trolling is now taking place away from Twitter, where #Gamergate first attracted attention (and later, censure.) Some have taken to sending Facebook messages, which are more private. More critically, they’ve also turned to Instagram comments. Distracted by other fires, Facebook has not devoted enough time to weeding out abusers and protecting users on its photo-sharing platform. Today, the interface is not at all equipped to handle a targeted harassment campaign.
Obviously, the vast majority of "Star Wars" fans are not abusive trolls. But it only takes a vocal minority to ruin the brand. To prevent this, Disney and Lucasfilm need to step up and loudly quash this nonsense. They have to issue press releases stating what should be obvious: that "Star Wars" is not here to cater to the whims of the white male fan, and thus anyone who feels differently is not a true fan of the franchise. They have to state, upfront, that any harassment of cast members will not be tolerated. They have to stop worrying about “alienating older fans” of the franchise. And they have to do it soon.
As it turns out, the old adage “don’t feed the trolls” is simply not appropriate in the digital age.
Because the harassment is getting worse, even as Lucasfilm pushes forward with plans for a film starring the ultimate white-boy Mary Sue character Boba Fett, which some fans hope will star an indigenous actor, honoring the casting of Temuera Morrison, an actor of Māori descent, as Boba’s father Jango. But more concerning is the immediate problem of the 18-month gap now between “Solo” and Episode IX’s release, more than enough time for this subsection of the fandom to work itself up into a frenzy.
As it turns out, the old adage “don’t feed the trolls” is simply not appropriate in the digital age. This advice, while well-intentioned, can allow abuse to fester and spread until it explodes. Disney needs to do something now, before it finds itself dealing with a Gamergate scandal of its own.
Ani Bundel has been blogging professionally since 2010. Regular bylines can be found at Elite Daily, WETA's TellyVisions, and Ani-Izzy.com.