Talking Fandom: The Women of Star Wars and Toxic Masculinity

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The Star Wars franchise has been under a bit of attack in the past month. Some are claiming that Solo proves that people are tired of the Star Wars films and that this is a backlash in response to the SJW-approach that the franchise has taken, despite the fact that Star Wars has always been a story about rebels fighting the status quo. In the midst of all this, the women of Star Wars have been attacked both on and off-screen with actors like Kelly Marie Tran being run off of Instagram. Since I’m a filthy casual when it comes to the Star Wars universe, I decided to pull together my #ThirstOrder co-hosts to talk about the women of the Star Wars franchise and how fandom has both erased and maligned the contributions of these characters and actresses.

  • Ok, first up, tell me about your relationship with the female characters of Star Wars? What has been your impression of how women have been treated in the franchise and in fandom?

The Doctor: My relationship...hmm.  I’ve watched every Star Wars film in the theater. Even though they hypersexualized Leia in the original trilogy, she always came off as the most competent and fearless of the bunch, all while being basically sidelined to highlight the men in the series.  I’ve struggled with Padme since the prequels. Her portrayal in the Clone Wars series also did not help with that in part because she was a pedophile in the prequels and so focused on that problematic relationship that it interfered with her ability to carry out her duties in the cartoon series.  All told, the women of Star Wars up until the most recent series have been a problem. I have appreciated Rey’s story and how it is unfolding. The journey of a young woman abandoned as a child and who grew up to be self-sufficient while discovering what it means to be who she is. Leia is still portrayed as the heart and center of the world, and in a better way. Her appearance in the Rebels cartoons solidifies the fact that from a young age Leia’s moral compass has been properly rooted and aimed. Clone Wars gave us the wonder that is Ahsoka, who is an amazing Jedi knight who discovers early on what Luke tells us in The Last Jedi-the Jedi are a problem that needs to end.  Other amazing female characters were also introduced in Clone Wars-Barris Offee, Luminara Unduli, Steela Gerrera, Asajj Ventress, and the Nightsisters. The Nightsisters were amazing; an entire planet, matriarchal, force sensitive, and in control. The women in the Clone Wars (not Padme)  were knowledgeable, fierce, competent, and wise.  Star Wars: Rebels gave us Hera Syndulla, the captain and the heart of a small band of rebels, and Sabine Wren, a Mandalorian who comes to wield a Black Saber and is also instrumental in the team’s success. Rose and Maz Kanata, along with Vice Admiral Holdo, continues the tradition that I personally feel was created by the cartoon series of giving us amazing and competent women.

Moji (Tv Movie Mistress):  Coming in with the original movies, Padme came off as a weak character within her own story, but only in comparison to the fact that the majority of the characters are going about wielding light saber’s trying to destroy the Sith as opposed to using words and diplomacy.  I do agree with The Doctor that her inappropriate relationship with Anakin really didn’t portray her as a person capable of making sound long-term decisions. While with Leia in the original movies though quite capable she did not have enough of a personality outside of the men.

Over the years the extended universe with The Clone Wars series, subsequent movies, and the comic books have allowed me to gain a more full-bodied view of the women of Star Wars outside of Padme and Leia.

Star Wars has moved to bring to the forefront more stories from its women.  Now while the movies have caught up a bit to the ideals it purports to tell in story form, the fandom has not. Is it necessary that white men who have been so centered in the movies be placated? Not necessarily. As we’ve seen, Solo is the epitome of the type of movie they claim to want but has also taken in the least in terms of the box office. But the remainder of the fandom is welcoming and able to have discussions for days on the impacts of this movie and that’s what I want to see more of out there.

Maythinee Washington: I’ll answer the second question first. I’m not in the fandom, if we’re using the term “fandom” to mean the larger body of online fans. For all of the things I’m a fan of, I’ve not really participated in online forums and conversations, etc. Within my own social media circles, sure-- with people I already know and would speak with face to face about geeky things is where I would talk about Star Wars. Part of that is just acknowledging my energy is finite, part of that is that the people who I know who are fans of the things I’m a fan of are pretty smart-- they keep me well-fed, even if I disagree with them (sometimes, especially if there is disagreement), and a part of that is outright fear. Even though what has happened with Kelly Marie Tran is the incident at present, Gamergate wasn’t long ago. And even that wasn’t the first. No matter what the fandom is, no matter where it is you congregate as a geeky femme, it can be emotionally or sometimes physically taxing, if not outright dangerous. Even deciding to contribute to this article, I was somewhat afraid of what attention it might attract. But, like Kelly, I’m afraid and doing it anyway.

Something I also want to say about “the fandom” is that most fans are not assholes. MOST are not. Yet, splintered factions who are hateful are very powerful. And they are seemingly inexhaustible. It’s like they feed their hatred to keep on hating.

Now, back to your first Q … The original trilogy, for me, is the gold standard. That’s why I want to focus on Marcia Lucas. You don’t have Star Wars as we know it without this woman. That’s why the hate driven towards the actors at the intersection of gender and/or race in these new films is especially gross to me. It is, as you said, Shanna, films about rebels fighting the power -- as Lucas himself has even said, coming out of an era of the Vietnam War. That fact coupled with the erasure of the contributions of women to the actual story development of these films is what makes the hate gross. Marcia Lucas, George Lucas’ first wife was a key player in Episodes IV, V, and VI. She won an Oscar for editing Star Wars. Marcia’s absence is blatant when we get to the prequels. George Lucas is a man with big ideas that needed reining in and something (or someone) to work against. Boundaries are necessary for artists. Boundaries are gifts. He needed to be told no. You watch the Red Letter Media take down of those prequels, you’ll see how no one is reining him in, no one is telling him no. It’s right there: RLM uses behind the scenes footage. George is basically the Emperor in his New Clothes: he’s naked and no one is telling him the truth because they’re either too afraid, or too desperate to stay in proximity to the Emperor (there’s some pun to be made about the fable I’m borrowing from and Star Wars and The Emperor, and Lucas becoming the antagonist of his own work, but I’m not quippy enough at the moment). Those videos by RLM, by the way, make up one of the most brilliant connect-the-dots breakdowns on how storytelling works, period. The evidence is right there: there’s no Marcia-- there’s not even Lawrence Kasdan-- and we got poorly developed prequels as a result.

You never saw me because I never mattered to you.

There’s also something that I’ve done some cursory (not-yet public/on social media) writing about in terms of brokenheartedness. When we have a good story, we’re sucked in. We get to be the heroes. We get to try them all on. That’s why, growing up, and watching these films, I wasn’t just Carrie Fisher’s brilliant Leia Organa. I was also Han. I was also Luke. Sometimes, I was the droids. The best times, I was Vader. And why I specifically shout out Marcia Lucas is because it is often the unseen contributions of women that allow us to celebrate men, whether in real life, like George Lucas himself who has the legacy of being this great creator, or in fiction with the heroic men of Star Wars. This is true for any endeavor whether it be in film or literature or civil rights: there are often some unseen, unnoted, marginalized people making major contributions that result in someone else’s genius. We wouldn’t have related to any of these characters if they were poorly wrought. I relate to them all because of these performances, the story, and how the story was edited. How it unfolded. Marcia helped make each character beat specific enough to be universal. And I could connect to that.

And this is where the brokenheartedness comes in when it comes to the vitriolic members of the fandom: I was raised on the same diet of films that you were. I clocked the same hours of repeated viewing; of interweaving my life with the film’s lore. I was able to take the imaginative leap to relate to these characters even though they don’t look like me or are not the same gender as I am. And you have no interest in taking even a moment to relate to a character that looks more like me than she looks like you. When you see me revel in characters I can finally relate to more directly, you make it about your loss of childhood. I had the same childhood connections that you did, but they don’t matter to you because you never saw me. You never saw me because I never mattered to you.

Shanna: I’m probably the latest to the Star Wars fandom. I saw the original trilogy right before the prequels came out. I liked the originals but I haven’t gone back to rewatch them and most of what I know is because of pop culture and because I use Wikipedia to fill in gaps. I love Leia, I loved Padme but for me the new trilogy is where I’ve felt truly connected to the characters. Rey and Finn and Poe drew me in and bringing back the original actors, resonated because I know the importance of that legacy. I don’t watch Rebels but I love Ahsoka because of her character design and in my mind she’s Black (don’t @ me). All in all though, SW has always felt like a franchise where in order for a woman to be prominent, she has to be “one of the guys”. It could be my ignorance of the larger universe but I would love to see a female character in Star Wars that is very feminine or sexy and still very integral and capable. I think Q’ira in Solo was probably the closest to that. And Doctor Aphra in the comics although she, too, is morally grey. I think it’s telling that usually for women to be well-rounded characters they have to ride a line of morality.

In terms of fandom, my connection to it has only been with since The Force Awakens dropped. I wasn’t deep into it during the prequels and the original trilogy was before my time so what I’ve seen has been largely angry fanboys. First about Finn being a major part of the story, then about Rey being the hero, and the introduction of Rose. It’s been really nasty to witness. My biggest complaint in regards to the women of Star Wars (that I know from the films) would be that the leads are just white brunettes which also doesn’t help with all the crazy fanboy theorizing that everyone must be related.

 

  • A lot of the response to Solo is said to be an indication of how people felt about The Last Jedi. What did you think of TLJ and how did that influence your viewing of Solo?

 

The Doctor: I really enjoyed The Last Jedi.  I had theories-we all develop them when we love something and are anticipating the next chapter. All my theories were wrong but what they gave me was even better.  I will not lie, I was originally excited about the Solo trailer, but the more it played the less impressed I was with the lead.  However, after seeing Solo, I realize the trailers coupled with the lack of promotion did it a disservice.  Solo is a fun movie, Alden Ehenreich did a phenomenal job, and the movie kept me on the edge of my seat

Wakandan Sith Witch: I loved TLJ. 100%. Let me be clear: I LOVED TLJ! TLJ had no bearing on me wanting to see Solo however. At first, I did not want this movie. I didn’t find it necessary to have Han’s origin played out on screen. I thought that what we knew of him before the movie was enough. I wanted stories with new characters, new planets, new conflicts, etc.  At the time, I thought a Lando movie would have had a greater impact. Months passed and with the release of trailers and photos of the characters, I started to come around. I was on board fully when I learned Thandie Newton had a role. A black actress with a speaking part that is more than 5 words in a Star Wars film? Hell yes, take my money. I had no idea how let down and hurt I would be. I’m still rather salty and get shouty about it on the twitters. Tracking back to TLJ in relation to Solo, I think there can be a link between having TLJ just six months prior to Solo’s release contributed to Star Wars fatigue. I can’t say that this can be blamed fully on the issues behind the scenes that the production faced, however, putting this movie in May seems to have been a bad move. Plus, it felt as if they were afraid to market this movie after the director scandal. In the end I recognized Solo for what it was, a one-off set apart from the Original/Sequel Triologies. It’s a fun, ‘historical’ side adventure. Except for the fridging…that was not fun at all

Shanna: A quick aside on the fridging … we had two major films come out this May that “fridged” female characters. While I was shocked by Thandie’s quick absence from Solo, I understood the larger arc the story was trying to tell about losing partners and the effect it has on people. That being said, I think the story has the same emotional arc if we lose Woody Harrelson and have Val take on Becker’s role. And Thandie would have knocked that shit out of the park. Is everyone watching Westworld?

M.W. Short answer is that, like WSW, my viewing of TLJ did not directly influence my watching Solo. I echo her too in that I didn’t really want or feel a need for a stand-alone Han Solo origin story. I think prequels are challenging to do, no matter what the mythos is, and sometimes companies or creators overplay their hand and stretch the material beyond what it can hold (*cough* the three Hobbit movies *cough* -- Prometheus and Covenant *cough, cough*).

Harrison Ford is the highest grossing actor in U.S. box office history. Is it even possible to replace, replicate, or even imitate the charisma that put him there? I wasn’t bigly mad that the film was being made, but I felt no incentive to see it. Part of Han’s mystique for me was not being certain about his history. And his big growth arc as a character is in the original trilogy. So, from a storytelling standpoint, it’s like, how do you create an arc for a character that ends with that same character in a place needing to be resolved by another arc? In spite of all of that, Solo is entertaining. Considering all the rumors and doom and gloom, and in spite of all of the pressure on its cast and creative, it was fun. The idea of two more films in this vein, however, brings to mind of what doesn’t work with X-Men: Apocalypse-- i.e. the collision of the plausibility of what we’ve known about a character played by a beloved actor and any kind of stretched out attempt at integrity of story shoehorned into a prequel.


For me, The Last Jedi was phenomenal.  It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had at the cinema. That’s not hyperbole. I was in AWE watching that film. Awe--pure awe--is rare. It’s rare in life, let alone the movies. I loved everything about this film, from Rian Johnson killing all the sacred cows to Yoda once again being a Muppet. I loved FINALLY seeing Leia use the Force-- and in grand fashion, in a never-before-seen way. I was a mess because of how beautiful it was, and because CARRIE FISHER. There is also the whole dynamic between Rey and Luke that I loved. Arthur Chu said everything that needed to be said on that, and it’s collected here in this Twitter Moment I made: 

Arthur Chu on age and Luke in The Last Jedi

Chu says "Luke's arc is what he didn't know he needed to hear," and his articulation of it encapsulated something I couldn't quite articulate about a way this film matters. (Bonus: two tweets from Scott Mendelson)

And, of course, I loved Rose Tico and her sister. More on that in the next section.

Unlike The Doctor, I am staunchly against theorizing. I also have a rather broad definition of spoilers. A spoiler is knowing anything. So my spoiler aversion is a game of active avoidance. I delete all the social media apps from my phone leading up to a film’s release. I get that’s extreme but you hear lots of times, “it didn’t live up to the hype.” What’s the hype? It’s collections of opinions that weigh on you, forming a spectre that looms during your experience. We like to think that everything that we think and all we choose to do is autonomous, that we are 100% control and only affected by things we decide are going to affect us. I know I don’t always succeed in keeping it all out and sometimes the impact is not what I anticipate-- for example, some of the troubled Solo rumors were so pervasive, there was no avoiding them. But in the main, I know I’m susceptible to outside influence when it comes to forming my own opinion, so I act accordingly. I’m chasing surprise. I’m after awe. I want the novelty to really be novel.

I think that the cottage industries formed around geekdom and nerdom AND our penchant through social media to try to know everything or to use what we find out as leverage to gain clicks, views, and likes affects the moviegoing experience in ways that I’ve not seen many people talk about. Opinions do affect us. Especially from peers, whether they are peers from real life or online. And I think that the trolls of TLJ knew that enough to leverage their hateful opinions strategically. They were overly concerned with their preconceived notions and opinions about what should happen, and when those did not play out they got Big Mad and wielded their hateful opinions in the most destructive ways they could.

Shanna: Luckily, when Solo dropped, I was traveling and I was in New Orleans so if it wasn’t a cocktail, a live band or a delicious meal, I wasn’t checking for it. But I knew the rumors about Alden’s performance so I lowered my expectations. I never expect the Star Wars Story movies to be the epics of the trilogies so I was going to enjoy myself. I was similarly awed by TLJ like Maythinee so I wasn’t looking for that either. What I loved about Solo was that all those things you love about Han (the sweetness he tries to hide, the honor) are laid bare. He’s always been the good guy, the smuggler is just another persona he wears. Also, Lando … nuff said.

 

 

  • Months after TLJ, Kelly Marie Tran continues to receive the bulk of SW fans’ hate about the film and even Daisy Ridley has had to pull back from social media. How do you think race and gender plays into the fandom’s treatment of these actors?

 

[It] makes me wonder if they believe the Sith are the good guys.

The Doctor: The original Star Wars centered White men.  The current Star Wars does not. People in power have always railed when they feel like what is entitled to them is being stripped away.  My inclusion does not means your exclusion but only those who are sick enough to want to horde everything for themselves and let others go without would believe that it does. Women being visible will always threaten fanboys who ride or die or only want to see themselves as the hero.  It’s the reason Mass Effect Andromeda got so much shit and was tabled.  Add race, and you have the perfect storm of toxicity and hate.  I was furious to see how Kelly Marie Tran has been treated since this whole thing started.  It’s almost as if these rabid fans fail to grasp the concept of higher order thinking. The Force Awakens was the conclusion of Han Solo’s story.  The Last Jedi was the conclusion of Luke Skywalker’s story.  Had she lived, and based on what was shared when Carrie Fisher passed away, Episode 9 would have served as the conclusion to Leia Organa’s story. The sad part is you have episode 7-9 serving as the stories for these original characters while passing the baton to the new generation (cause let’s be clear, all three of them are long in the tooth and probably don’t want to do this forever) but toxic fans are too short-sighted to see that.

TMM: The majority of the actors being harassed are women and people of color from the films, and those doing the harassing are white men. Simply because of a choice made to expand the world and bring in more fans and revenue. Which is such a weird thing to be mad at. It's like someone inviting more people to a party for a good time but you have that one friend who is firmly no new friends but is also not bringing anything extra to the table. It was a shame to see Kelly Marie Tran have to deal with so much hate disguised as dialogue and it underlies bigger socio-political issues in society, which is basically what Star War is all about. So the cognitive dissonance from Star Wars fans and their lack of understanding of the material they are supposedly defending makes me wonder if they believe the Sith are the good guys.

M.W.: I love Kelly Marie Tran’s Rose Tico. I was astounded by Rian Johnson’s use of silence/no dialogue throughout the film, and was particularly spellbound by the scene of Paige Tico’s sacrifice that had a payoff when we first meet Rose. Both of these sisters were the first time I saw women of Asian descent truly centered in a property that I cared about so much. There’s a long way to go there. No prominent Asians in the MCU or the Arrowverse, and Tran is the first in Star Wars. Someone like George Takei should have been a blueprint for this genre, and it’s been 50 years and not much shifting, except in the Fast and the Furious franchise or if you count The Matrix Trilogy.  

I’m Black and Asian, and I feel that over the last decade, we’ve seen an increase in black representation in films, in part because descendants of the African diaspora-- though not a monolith-- have been more vocal and unified as one body on important agendas. There isn’t this level of affinity within Asian/Asian descendant groups.

In another forum, Shanna, you spoke about the limp and backhanded “support” of Tran that really is just another opportunity to tear her down: the stuff that’s like, “we all can agree that Rose sucks, but, the racist harassment is annoying.” I saw one such comment that dismissed Tran’s casting as just “pandering to the Chinese” That was just racist on its face: it assumed that Asians see each other and members of the diaspora the same as he did, as homogenous and interchangeable. Tran is Vietnamese-American, not a Chinese national, or of Chinese descent. All three of those identities are different and have histories amongst one another as groups. We need representation on multiple fronts in these blockbusters. We’re here. We’ve been here. We’re diverse, we have a lot to offer.

Why has Tran been the focus of the hate? The same reason Leslie Jones was for Ghostbusters. Women and people of color are easier targets because of institutionalized racism and sexism and the cultural habits that reflect and reinforce those sociohistorical patterns. That’s why Daisy Ridley has understandably withdrawn now, and why John Boyega was an early lightning rod when his face first showed up in The Force Awakens trailers-- trolls targeted them as scapegoats. Black men and white women, while marginalized, are more present in genre material. Women of color, however, are the more marginalized, and more absent, and so when they are present, they are the most visible.

Shanna: I agree about the women, and Kelly Marie Tran as a woman of color, being specifically targeted. We see it with Kathleen Kennedy as well with her role as the Feige of the Star Wars universe. This is a woman who is at the top of her craft and people (read: butthurt fanboys) are calling for her resignation for earning this franchise billions.

M.W.: Let me go back to my earlier point about brokenheartedness. These hateful cishet white male nerds saw nerdom and geekdom as theirs. Exclusively. They never saw anyone from any other permutation of identity than their own alongside them, enjoying the same things they did. They never bothered to look, it didn’t occur to them to look. And they could see an imaginary version of themselves as leads in these stories-- straight white dude story arcs are the backbone of Western stories, period. If you were queer/black/brown/female/femme/disabled, etc, you were invisible to this cohort of white dude nerds when they retreated into genre material. This is why their excuse-refrain is “you’re ruining my childhood,” or some nonsense about “social justice warrior” agendas.

It doesn’t matter what the rationale is because what this cohort cares about is creating a story where they are still the heroes, this time in a race to the bottom to be the most victimized. In their minds, their outsiderness over being a nerd growing up is the origin point of their hero’s journey. So, it must be protected from all costs. And if they’re the heroes in the scenario, the rest of us and people who are cast in films of their beloved intellectual properties must be the villains.

  • Finally, we gotta talk Enfys Nest (played by the amazing Erin Kellyman). How badass was that reveal and walking away from Solo what kinds of stories are you hoping to see from the franchise in the future?

The Doctor: That reveal was unexpected and amazing!  The fact that not only was she a woman, but a young woman taking up her mother’s mantle and helping with the Rebellion was so enjoyable.  I feel like folks forget that Han was a smuggler-which means he was probably playing both sides (working for good and bad). The reveal of who by extension he was actually working for was amazing.  I like the idea of the standalone movies filling in the gaps that the original series failed to do, and that can’t always be neatly addressed by the cartoon properties. It also allows the main series not to be bogged down with extra unnecessary material that creates a bloated film.

Shanna: I legit gasped in the theater. Afterwards, I thought, now they’re just trolling because she’s Black and a redhead. Whenever a character is racebent, the whites always complain about them making redheads Black (see: Mary Jane Watson, Jimmy Olsen) as if Black redheads don’t exist. So it was the double whammy of her being a Black woman leading this rebel army after picking up the mantle from her mother. I wanted to give everyone a high five. I’d love to see Enfys Nest get her own film and/or storyline in the cartoons. And Kellyman is currently starring in BBC’s Les Miserables as Eponine so I want all the opportunities for this young actress.

TMM: Such a badass reveal! It definitely made me excited for what’s to come.  I can’t imagine the younger audience of women who saw Enfys reveal herself most likely assuming the character was a man. That reveal gave me life!

I do hope in the future we see more characters that are unknown to the mainstream and exist outside of the movies introduced. I’m always here for a plotline serves to highlight the effects of the war on those not close to power, and definitely a bit more mysticism à la The Nightsisters.

M.W.: I don’t like to speculate. 🙂

Thank you to everyone who contributed to this discussion. 

 

The Doctor is an O.G. Star Wars Fan and regular contributor to The MTR Network. From every movie, to every cartoon property, to the original extended universe material, she has 40 years in the Star Wars game.  She appreciates the world that Lucas gave us, and loves the world Kennedy is continuing to build and expand on for us. Unlike some, she can enjoy the old and the new without being angry about either. Twitter: @TheDrIsIn2015

Wakandan Sith Witch is just a southern fried nerd girl with Sith tendencies. Cohost of The Unmasked Podcast. OG #swrepmatters representative  Twitter: @southerncynic

Moji is an avid reader of fantasy. She hosts an entertainment podcast, TV Movie Mistress, and I am always on the hunt for a new world to get lost in. Twitter: @Bookdreamer01

Maythinee Washington is an actor and writer based in Atlanta. Twitter: @Maythinee

Shanna is a writer/contributor to The MTR Network and hosts Super Tuesday recaps as well as covering conventions and bullying whoever is local to hang out with her. You can find her on Twitter @shittybonmots but be warned, the block is strong with this one.

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    pat 24 June, 2018 at 19:59 Reply

    Kind of taken aback by the heavy criticism of Leia. Yes, she was sexualized in the opening sequence of Return of the Jedi and that is problematic.

    But some of the other criticisms are unfounded. She was a sideline character so the men could take center stage? Not so. She is one of the three main characters in each movie. She is the driving force of the first, and she recieves just as much screen time, if not more so, as Han Solo in Episodes V and VI.

    Also, it was stated that she has little personality? Wow. She is such a badass in episode IV with such a larger than life personality. “I recognized your foul stench when I was brought on board.” “Into the garbage chute, flyboy.” “Aren’t you a little short for a stormtrooper?” “From now on, you’ll do as I say.” Brave, defiant, take charge, quick witted… you are not giving Princess Leia her due.

    • Charles (Kriss)
      Kriss 30 June, 2018 at 07:09 Reply

      You didn’t read or comprehend if you read that as “heavy criticism of Leia”. They’re saying they wanted more. Leia is basically the most bad ass character in the original star wars and did deserve more arc. Especially if you read the comics and watch how she’s used outside of the original trilogy

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