Think about what you "know" about white male fan response to the recent Star War films. The outrage over black stormtroopers. The alt-right plot to "bomb" Rotten Tomatoes. The petitions to dump Last Jedi from the official canon. The re-edits that cut out all of the women and characters of color. All of this adds up to a portrait of a fan backlash against diversity and inclusion on the same order as the #gamergate and Sad Puppies backlashes. This framing so perfectly fits the current moment, allowing us to recognize the politics of inclusion within contemporary genre entertainment, and our sense that such changes are not going to occur without a fight.
But what if all or most of what we think we know is wrong and what if the story is more complicated than the media representations we are feeding on at the moment. William Proctor heads the World Star Wars Project, which is seeking to track audience response to the transitions represented by the new Star Wars films (as well as production contexts). Through the years, I have come to appreciate his nuanced understanding of contemporary trends in genre entertainment. He is attentive to the details; he tries to play fair with all of the parties involved. He has progressive political commitments that are deep rooted but he has an even deeper commitment to speaking the truth as he understands it. Over the past few months, he has been corresponding with me about the news coverage surrounding fan response to The Last Jedi and what he has to say has an urgency about it -- he is reframing the current conversation and raising important challenges to the way news travels through the current media environment. I wanted to bring this important perspective to the attention of my readers.
Over the next three installments, he is going to map the current state of the debate from three different vantage points and then next week, he has invited people with diverse perspectives within fandom studies to respond to his provocation. The results should matter not only to fans and aca-fans alike but also to journalists and journalists in training as you think about the ethics and consequences of current entertainment journalism practices.
I offer this as one more chapter in this blog's year long exploration of the current state of fandom studies.
Disney's Star Wars: Episode I - The Fantom Menace
By William Proctor
Since Disney purchased Lucasfilm in 2012, the Star Wars brand has been besieged by creative chaos, canonical upheaval, and impassioned fan revolt. Consider the following: the sacking of directors, Phil Lord and Chris Miller from anthology film, Solo, making way for Ron Howard (not forgetting the trailer that dropped less than four months before the film's premiere, surely a record); the removal of Colin Treverrow from the final instalment of the sequel trilogy, enticing The Force Awakens director, J.J Abrams, back into the director’s chair; the introduction of a unified transmedia storytelling canon which spelled the end of the vast expanded universe (EU) of comics and novels, re-branding them as ‘Legends’ and halting the production of material set in what now amounts to an apocryphal, alternative universe; and, of course, a barrage of online fan criticisms centred on various issues and controversies, highly visible, often baleful and eminently public.
Across four decades, the Star Wars film series has often been charged with racism, misogyny and fascism, as a container for reactionary ideologies. Indeed, following the debut of the first Star Wars film (re-christened Episode IV: A New Hope in 1981), The Los Angeles Times, ran an article by black actor, critic and activist, Raymond St. Jacques, which went as far as to unapologetically label George Lucas himself as an out-and-out racist. Conversely, Disney’s Star Wars films thus far – The Force Awakens (2015), Rogue One (2016) and The Last Jedi (2017) – have all been championed by various commentators, critics and scholars as feminist, multicultural, and progressive. To be sure, Lucasfilm’s strategy of appealing to a wider spread of audience demographics, with female characters arguably obtaining protagonist status in the three films released during the Disney-era, seems to have paid off handsomely, not least for the cash nexus, the yolk of box office capitalism. Following the release of The Force Awakens (TFA) in December 2015, a swathe of critics saw the film as nothing less than the “feminist re-interpretation of the original Star Wars movie,’ “awakening the force of feminism in little girls everywhere,” most often centred on Daisy Ridley’s Rey, “a character for a time that is coming to a new peace with feminism,” as The Atlantic’s Megan Garber argues.
Some people, however, don’t seem to have received that particular memo. In various digital spaces, especially the “toxic technocultures” of Reddit, 4Chan and 8Chan, as well as YouTube, disgruntled conservative commenters have been hard at work critiquing Disney’s Star Wars as nothing but a PC vehicle for "Social Justice Warrior propaganda," often in ways that can only be described as "hate speech." Given news media’s penchant for transposing these marginal, toxic voices into mainstream consciousness, I won’t award valuable oxygen to these views here, which would only facilitate the spread of invidious ideological currents in any case. (Incidentally, as I continue to review user-generated videos uploaded to YouTube, I have flagged content that I believe is legitimate "hate speech," only for YouTube to state that community standards have not been breached.)
I am not claiming that some fans are not reactionary – YouTube pays host to some truly hateful reviews of Disney’s Star Wars films, and this seems to have, unfortunately, accelerated after the release of The Last Jedi in December 2017. The issue here is not that some fans are racist, sexist and so forth. As I have argued elsewhere, if “we’re all fans” of something or other, then it stands to reason that the “fan world,” as Matt Hills describes it in a recent article for Palabra Clave, will surely be populated by a broad range of ideological actants and “cannot be viewed as a coherent culture or community.” What I am claiming, however, is that scholars should conduct robust analysis of the Star Wars fan world, warts and all – or any fan world, for that matter -- using adequate research protocols and methodologies that move beyond "cherry picking" — that is, selecting comments that construct a certain kind of narrative while ignoring those that would, at the very least, complicate the popular idea that fan cultures are monolithic and coherent. I say this for a number of reasons.
First, so-called controversies, such as Twitter hashtag “movements” like #blackstormtrooper or #boycottstarwars, have since been overturned as the work of internet trolls, with the hashtags in question amassing a significant number of progressive comments, some of them vehemently hostile themselves, that far outweigh the voices of reactionary actors by a significant margin. According to social media analytics firm, ‘Fizziology,’ for instance, 94% of tweeters in #boycottstarwars “were merely expressing outrage over its existence,” with the other 6% being “racist trolls trying to get people mad.” The same can be said of #blackstormtrooper, which I discuss below.
Second, this is complicated even further by the political composition of certain social media platforms, with many from the 'hate brigade' protesting Disney’s PC-inflected Star Wars from within those toxic technocultures mentioned above, whereas progressive agents, or at least critics of right wing ideologies, are more likely to turn to Twitter (although not exclusively). The internet may have provided fans with the affordances necessary to criticise or celebrate the fan-object, whatever that may be, and it has undoubtedly shifted the relationship between producers and audiences, as many scholars have noted. The internet has certainly pushed marginal, hidden fan cultures, practices and behaviours into the mainstream spotlight, becoming more visible, “noisy and public,” as Henry Jenkins has argued. I have seen, however, a number of instances whereby academics embrace press discourse without empirically testing certain claims, claims which later prove to be quite problematic, if not outright false. I don’t intend to single out individual scholars here, nor do I want to erect a protective force field around the figure of 'the fan,' as perhaps the first wave of fan studies necessarily did. Next, I want to share some of my own research before moving onto the recent conflagration surrounding the release of Rian Johnson’s The Last Jedi in the second episode.
The World Star Wars Project
In 2012, I conducted a small-scale research project that aimed to capture a snapshot of fan reactions to Disney’s acquisition of Lucasfilm, as well as the news that the Star Wars film series was to emerge from cultural hibernation. Through the use of a structured questionnaire, which combined qualitative/ quantitative methods, and a request for volunteers posted on theforce.net, the central hub of Star Wars fan activity online, I analysed the responses from 100 fans (although I had to request that my invitation be removed from the site as my inbox was pinging incessantly, which echoes Will Brooker’s experience over a decade earlier, documented in Using the Force: Creativity, Community and Star Wars Fans). In many ways, the project was galvanised by a bevvy of press articles that reported on the sale, and drew upon a range of social media utterances that ‘proved’ unequivocally that fans were in dire straits, up in arms, barely consolable. Following news of the sale, as one critic put it,
"the internet seemed to shake to its very foundations with the out-of-nowhere news that Disney was to acquire Lucasfilm...One part of the announcement was the confirmation that Star Wars Episode 7 was being readied for 2015. This has met with, it’s fair to say, less than upbeat reactions."
Writing for the free daily UK newspaper, Metro, Ross McGuiness, claimed that
"the prospect of fusing traditional fairytales with those set in space has many Star Wars fans feeling a disturbance in the force...a million voices cried out in terror. On Twitter […] Many Star Wars fans believe the move to make more films is as clumsy as it is stupid, saying the saga was permanently damaged by the prequels."
As these news stories gathered apace, I felt that something was missing, not least of all because of the jubilant chorus I witnessed among my own (fan) crowd. When I turned to Twitter to examine the welter of press stories focusing on the dismayed and the discordant, I found out first hand what cherry-picking quotes and comments really means. Not that the hashtags in question didn’t contain such tweets – they did, and many more besides – but the discourse was so much more ambivalent and complex than contemporary journalism seemed equipped to handle (or ignored entirely in favour of sensation and spectacle). By and large, nuance seems almost entirely absent from press stories about fans, and that, unfortunately, has picked up steam over the past five years or so, with the vast majority of texts within press discourse falling hard into the trap of viewing fandom as a singular, monolithic entity and, perhaps more egregiously, returning to tired stereotypes centred on obsession, pathology and infantile behaviour.
In a sense, these stories provided a spark, and the research I conducted clearly demonstrated a wide spectrum of emotions, thoughts and ambivalences -- “a range of colourations,” one might say -- centred on the Lucasfilm purchase, rather than the blanket homogeneity claimed by journalists and bloggers (although I certainly make no ‘representative’ claims). Consider the following quote from one of my respondents:
"My initial reaction was shock and disappointment, because I couldn’t believe that Lucasfilm wasn’t independent anymore and that Lucas had just given away his life’s work. I was nervous that Disney could turn Star Wars into just any other franchise, but Star Wars is special...At the present, I am more focused on the excitement of more Star Wars movies and less worrying about Disney owning Lucasfilm."
Note the multiple affective moves from “shock and disappointment” based on Lucas’ authorship and independence; “nervous” about Disney turning Star Wars into another entertainment franchise like any other, therefore losing its “special” status; then ending with “excitement” that more Star Wars movies will be produced, while dampening down anxieties about “Disney owning Lucasfilm.” Of course, I would not expect journalists to drill down in such a manner — not least because we could all be out of a job — but I continue to feel particularly aggrieved each time I read press stories cherry-picking a certain brand of social media utterance as fodder for clicks and ‘likes.’ By parochially selecting comments that encourage spin and hyperbole, while rejecting those that would no doubt complicate monolithic depictions, actively engages in promoting narratives of "Othering" and “enfreakment”.
Following publication of the research in the Fan Studies Network themed-section of Participations: The Journal of Audience and Reception Studies, I started tracking the Disney/ Star Wars discourse closely, which led to a paper at the FSN in 2014 examining fan reactions to the next cataclysm — that is, the dissolution of the EU megatext comprising hundreds of novels and comics. During questions, someone noted that there is so much more research to be done on the transition from Lucasfilm to the Mouse House, and an opportunity to explore several discourses holistically, including production, promotion, participation and reception. A pre-conference dinner in Newcastle with Professors Martin Barker and Clarissa Smith opened up a vista of opportunities, and led to the launch of The World Star Wars Project at the FSN in 2015.
I have made no secret of the fact that I have been directly inspired by Barker’s massive The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit audience projects. To be able to attract such large numbers – just shy of 25,000 and 36,109 respectively – is no mean feat, and I was especially taken by Barker’s own methodology, “a combination of quantitative and qualitative questions [which] allowed the project to disclose what the film meant, and how it mattered to audiences in new and distinctive ways.” To this end, I handpicked a primary research team to collaborate on, first, designing an online questionnaire that, like Barker, could reach multiple nationalities in multiple languages. At the time of writing, we are planning to release the World Star Wars questionnaire online after the completion of the sequel trilogy, probably sometime in 2020 – 21, and are currently seeking international scholars to collaborate on translating the questionnaire into as many languages as possible.
But then the idea began to mushroom (as ideas often do, sprouting limbs and running off on their own). As The Force Awakens (TFA) marched towards its December 2015 theatrical release, project co-director, Richard McCulloch (Huddersfield University) and I discussed an opportunity, one we felt could not be missed. Given that TFA was the first Star Wars film in a decade, and the first Star Wars film beneath the Disney umbrella, we decided to work on an online questionnaire drawing upon Barker’s methodology, with the aim being to capture audiences’ ‘horizons of expectation.’ As the film moved closer to becoming a reality, and with media hype and fan discourses reaching fever pitch, we released ‘The Force Re-Awakens’ questionnaire a mere three weeks before release, but would take it down the day before the film hit cinemas. The idea here is to be able to explore and examine the way in which audiences, not only fans, anticipated – or not – the Disney-era of Star Wars. In less than three weeks, we amassed close to 2000 responses. (At the time of writing, we are continuing to analyse the data set, with a view to publishing our findings sometime in 2019.)
The second phase focuses upon an anthology of essays from scholars: Disney’s Star Wars: Forces of Promotion, Production and Reception (eds. Proctor and McCulloch) will be published in early 2019. My own contribution to the collection examines the discourse that surrounded the first teaser trailer for TFA and the ‘controversy’ attached to John Boyega’s appearance in Stormtrooper uniform. In the hours and days following the release of the teaser, various news outlets reported on "the dark side of fandom." Many journalists cited #blackstormtrooper as their primary source; so I delved into the Twitter feed expecting to be alarmed at the level of hate speech and racist banter therein. However, by scraping data from the entire hashtag (as opposed to sampling) and carrying out a discourse analysis (coding tweets according to various discursive clusters), I was taken aback by the results. First, I found no evidence of racism, a point picked up by other commenters within the thread itself, but a litany of criticisms centred on Star Wars canon or, in other words, that which is considered 'factual' within the imaginary world. Many fans cited Episode II: Attack of the Clones as supplying evidence that Imperial Stormtroopers are, in fact, genetic clones of Jango Fett (played by Polynesian actor, Temura Morrison). At various points, fans engaged in an exchange of textual evidence gleaned from multiple sources, which ended up with one commenter demonstrating that the clones from Episode II are not the same as Imperial Stormtroopers; rather, that the latter were selected from other populations after the clones were phased out. This is not racism, however; conflicts of this kind are based in arguments about ‘canonical fidelity,’ which is often a key engine fuelling fan debates and discussions (although it is possible that canonical arguments can mask racism, although trolls are usually fuelled by decibels, not silence). Like #boycottstarwars discussed earlier, the vast majority of commenters in the hashtag were progressive voices, many of whom were viperous themselves (although they were speaking to an imputed, imagined racist contingent).
Perhaps more importantly, the idea that #blackstormtrooper was created by racists is quite simply false, despite the claims of journalists. In actual fact, the hashtag was launched in 2010, four years before the release of the teaser and two years before Disney purchased Lucasfilm, in order to discuss and promote Donald Faison’s series of Lego "brick" films titled (you guessed it!), ‘Black Stormtrooper.’ If nothing else, the experience has led me to explore various claims in press discourse before leaping in with both feet (as I did here with the Ghostbusters reboot firestorm).
Perhaps it is conceivable, if not condonable, that highly publicised backlashes and quarrels — from #GamerGate and #SadPuppies to the emergence of the online radical right and the election triumph of Donald Trump (in the real world no less!) — have many people on their guard, including fans, journalists, critics and general audiences. However, as I shall discuss in the next instalment, the way in which right wing trolling operations become sources of outrage, with news outlets, blogs, and user-generated activity actively "normalising" and "legitimising" hateful ideological currents — thus pushing the reactionary agenda into public discourse on behalf of a few online rabble rousers and rapscallions — should be most concerning of all (not to mention going against stern guidance from professional journalistic bodies) . In so doing, rather than acting as political disinfectant, news stories (professional, amateur and pro-am) have actively carried the infection beyond the quarantine zone of right wing media, such as Andrew Anglin of neo-nazi website, The Daily Stormer who embraces "the 'non-stop' media coverage of the alt-right" as it has "actually accomplished a “normalization” of his ideas." He said "the media’s constant churn of outrage and spectacle was extremely beneficial to him, especially since his goal is changing the political orientation of very young Americans, particularly teenage boys." Moreover, I think it is quite worrying that #blackstormtrooper was trending more than #blacklivesmatter during the period.
The social, political and cultural impact of the ‘net has undoubtedly provided “an embarrassment of riches” for researchers, as Jenkins pointed out sometime ago, but this has also opened up a can of worms, not least of all for researchers. Sometimes, "an embarrassment of riches," can also be "richly embarrassing."
In the next episode, I will share some of the research I have been conducting around The Last Jedi.
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). He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.