The Last Jedi/Star Wars

The toxic fan entitlement and sexist harassment are out of control.

The Last Jedi backlash has evolved from a fandom argument into something approaching Gamergate. Fuelled by a combination of fan entitlement and good old-fashioned bigotry, Star Wars is embroiled in the same culture war as the games industry, sci-fi publishing, and superhero comics. This week, we reached a sadly predictable stage of this process: harassing a female Lucasfilm employee.

Andi Gutierrez is a familiar face to anyone who watches the Star Wars YouTube channel, co-hosting The Star Wars Show and Rebels Recon. In other words, she’s a public-facing Star Wars employee with no creative role in the movies. Fan podcast Rebel Force Radio singled her out on Monday for posting a selfie with a “Fanboy Tears” mug, prompting a wave of criticism from their followers—and a deluge of support from other Star Wars fans and creators.

Rebel Force Radio is one of the biggest names in Star Wars podcasting, and also one of the most controversial. Past episodes include rants about why there shouldn’t be so many female-led comics and assertations that Star Wars’ supposed target audience of white men will be “wiped out” by Disney’s drive for diversity. (Incidentally, there’s only one female-led Star Wars comic at the moment: Doctor Aphra, which outsold Lando and Poe Dameron last month.)

One of the hosts previously suggested that Kelly Marie Tran being harassed off social media might be a conspiracy to make Star Wars fans look bad. Last month they contacted Lucasfilm to complain about “creators attacking fans and inciting the fanbase,” apparently referring to author Chuck Wendig, who has progressive political views and likes to mock The Last Jedi backlash. So while the podcast hosts say they don’t support harassment and claim they were just trying to illustrate Lucasfilm’s disrespect toward fans, their overall stance is clear. It didn’t help that they cropped Gutierrez’s photo to remove its pre-The Force Awakens post date, creating the implication that she was responding to recent events.

How The Last Jedi backlash resembles Gamergate

Gamergate, Comicsgate, and other online reactionary movements all follow a similar formula. It always involves harassing women and minorities, usually while railing against “diversity” or “SJWs.” This goes hand-in-hand with astroturfing campaigns, attempting to exert influence over an industry or community. In the case of Gamergate, the games industry wasn’t prepared. Gamergate framed itself as a movement of disgruntled customers, persuading Intel to pull its advertising from the gaming site Gamasutra, and helping to get someone fired from Nintendo. Several companies capitulated to Gamergate demands, and industry leaders failed to support the lesser-known victims of harassment. Reluctant to take sides, many people accepted Gamergate at face value as a campaign for “ethics in games journalism.” In reality, its lasting legacy is one of bigotry and harassment, sparked by a guy lashing out over a messy breakup.

Something similar is now unfolding in Star Wars fandom. Back in 2015, The Force Awakens inspired a fake racist boycott from 4chan trolls, which led to a real (if ineffective) boycott against Rogue One. Rey attracted sexist criticism from the start, which escalated with the addition of Vice Admiral Holdo and Rose Tico in The Last Jedi. There’s also a growing belief among this subset of fandom that producer Kathleen Kennedy is the root of all evil in the new Star Wars movies. It’s obvious that Star Wars fandom has a sexism and racism problem, in the same way that society, in general, has a sexism and racism problem. And thanks to the toxic reaction to The Last Jedi, it’s metastasizing into a full-blown movement.

Of course, The Last Jedi backlash isn’t all about identity politics. Some old-school fans are just angry about unexpected creative choices like Luke Skywalker’s downbeat storyline. They hate that Rian Johnson reintroduced Luke as a grumpy old man instead of a badass Jedi master and that he dumped J.J. Abrams’ hints about Rey’s parents and Snoke. But there’s a stark difference between criticizing a movie you don’t like, and the persistent rage against The Last Jedi, Kathleen Kennedy, and Johnson.

Why there’s still hope for Star Wars fandom

The phrase “fan entitlement” gets thrown around a lot, and in this case, it’s accurate. When people complain about “diversity” ruining Star Wars or bombard Johnson with angry messages, they do so because they feel a sense of ownership over the franchise. The Last Jedi didn’t go the way they wanted, and therefore its creators must be punished. Never mind the fact that it earned glowing reviews and an overwhelmingly positive response from wider audiences. The conservative purists are the only audience that really matters.

Seven months after the film’s release, that sense of entitlement is only getting worse. That’s because Lucasfilm and the Star Wars creative team are refusing to back down. It’s a markedly different attitude from Gamergate and Comicsgate, where there was a lack of cohesion among prominent figures in the community. Admittedly, we don’t see the Disney taking an explicit stance against the anti-Last Jedi movement. However, the franchise’s creative choices speak for themselves. More importantly, the cast and creators make their voices heard. As per this tweet from Johnson—shared by Gamergate patient zero Zoe Quinn—they know exactly what’s going down.

Even as StarWarsGate tries to make fandom inhospitable for everyone else, these fans receive constant pushback from people like Mark Hamill and Johnson. And because these public figures speak out, the message spreads to others in the industry. Take this recent thread from Logan director James Mangold, who thinks that toxic fandom will have a chilling effect on creativity.

This inevitably attracted the usual cadre of Star Wars purists accusing Johnson of ruining the franchise, leading to a long string of responses like this:

While The Last Jedi controversy exacerbated an ugly conflict in Star Wars fandom, vulnerable fans and creators aren’t being left to fend for themselves. For a near-identical comparison in the games industry, just look at what happened at the MMORPG Guild Wars 2 last week. After complaining about mansplaining and fan entitlement on Twitter, two of the game’s writers were fired. Their employer, ArenaNet, prioritized angry fans over the people who created their product.

It’s a similar scenario to Gutierrez posting a photo of the “Fanboy Tears” mug. Both would seem like a total non-issue to outsiders, but they inspire vindictive rage among a core group of disgruntled fans. Except while ArenaNet immediately fired two writers to appease the mob, there’s no sign that Star Wars employees would face the same repercussions. For instance, Lucasfilm insider Pablo Hidalgo cheerfully makes fun of Last Jedi haters on a regular basis, and prominent Star Wars creators rallied behind Gutierrez as soon as they heard what happened on Monday.

This boils down to a difference in attitude and, unfortunately, a difference in the demographic makeup of the targets. While women and people of color generally bear the brunt of harassment (ie, Kelly Marie Tran having to leave social media), the Star Wars community is full of straight, white men who are now facing a similar experience. Johnson and Chuck Wendig are heavily involved in this culture war, along with other Lucasfilm creatives with large follower counts. There’s a greater sense of solidarity than in the comics community, where powerful white men make vague statements against harassment, but fail to take meaningful action.

People like Johnson don’t have the luxury of ignoring the problem here, because they’re right in the middle of it. And while this is probably a cynical view, it may ultimately be how Star Wars defeats its toxic fandom from within. Instead of trying to take a neutral stance and treat StarWarsGate as a valid concept, Star Wars insiders are rejecting it out of hand.

Update 7:02am CT, July 11: As of July 11, StarWars.com has removed Rebel Force Radio from its list of approved podcasts, and Rebel Force Radio has deactivated its Twitter account, which previously had over 20,000 followers. Co-host Jason Swank explained the decision in a statement to Comicsgate’s Ethan Van Sciver on YouTube, saying, “Twitter has become a war zone, where tolerance and opposing viewpoints is nonexistant.” The podcast itself will continue.

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw

Gavia Baker-Whitelaw is a staff writer at the Daily Dot, covering geek culture and fandom. Specializing in sci-fi movies and superheroes, she also appears as a film and TV critic on BBC radio. Elsewhere, she co-hosts the pop culture podcast Overinvested.