Mother Aniseya, a powerful witch with a yin/yang mark on her forehead, smiling mysteriously.

“This fandom is rancid:” an open letter to the Star Wars community

Something wholly unexpected, strange, and touching happened to me in the midst of this whole Acolyte fracas: I reconnected to my love of Star Wars. I’m wandering around in a “wow, isn’t all this amazing” haze these days, which is a fine thing for a summer’s day.

Part of that is due to my lifelong weakness for underdogs; after months of attacks on The Acolyte from alt-right feeder accounts, my particular patch of the nerdosphere feels embattled. To this, some might justifiably respond, “hey, Matt, a Disney brand cannot possibly be an underdog.” Perhaps not, but even now, Star Wars is more than just a Disney money-printing machine. It’s also a community of multiple generations of people, a loud group of whom are quite awful, but most of whom are not.

Regardless of which corporation holds the keys to the kingdom, the same types of marginalized peoples can (and will) be attacked within our fan community, in much the same way they’re being attacked everywhere else. The only exception is that here, with Star Wars, people outside the fray might take it less seriously, by dint of the organizing object. I, of course, do not.

The Crawl

A recent episode of the A More Civilized Age podcast called The Last Jedi the “Titanic hits the iceberg moment” for Star Wars. Effectively: it was the point of damage, after which the sinking of the ship effectively became inevitable, even if it might have seemed (at that moment) like little more than a series of minor, over-reported bumps along the hull. (I believe Rob, on the podcast, then argued that it was actually The Rise of Skywalker‘s subsequent attempt to appease the toxic Last Jedi haters that should be considered the more precise point of impact, but the effect is the same.)

Ten years out from Gamergate, it all now happens with plodding predictability: diversification of any kind hits a brand that was previously (explicitly or implicitly) all-male, all-white, all-straight; and a brigade of deranged lunatics descend on stars’ social media accounts, web sites’ comment threads, review aggregators’ audience scores, and wherever else they can gain a toehold. They make out like the thing being offered is of some “objectively” poor quality, in lieu of saying outright* that they hate any inclusion of non-male, non-white, and non-straight points of view. It is an exhausting, and wholly unimaginative, conceptual shell game.

*which doesn’t preclude thinly-veiled dog whistling, of course. “Wokelyte,” as a premise — along with any and all complaints about “woke culture” — makes the noxious opinions of the speaker very clear.

This month, the target is The Acolyte, a Star Wars television series created by a queer woman and starring a queer woman of colour. Egged on by certain YouTube accounts — ones which were already deeply problematic, and which have done their usual job of crafting a false narrative around the series’ “woke agenda” storytelling in order to drive views and therefore their own revenue streams — the predictable group of rabid shmucks have once again arrived, to make their predictable feelings known.

On a parallel, unrelated track, Hasbro is crowd-funding the Mos Eisley Cantina Playset this month. For the uninitiated, it’s a dollhouse for Star Wars action figures, one based on the very first Star Wars movie (the one called, believe it or not, Star Wars).

Star Wars action figures, unless I’m misunderstanding the trends in the industry, are now bought primarily by white men between the ages of 30 and 60. Many of them, too, have thoughts and feelings on Disney and its “woke” storytelling.

You’ll note I have not discussed whether or not I think The Acolyte is good or bad. That is because it no longer matters. This, too, became clear during The Last Jedi campaign: once these CHUDs have risen to street level and begun attacking people along racial, gender, or sexual identity lines, the need for random white men (and lordy, it’s always random white men) to proclaim our likes and dislikes about the franchise becomes irrelevant, because it only bolsters the false impression that all such groups are arguing in good faith. One group, demonstrably, is not, and in so doing, has destabilized the entire discussion. The discussion cannot continue in a premise of good faith, in the presence of bad faith.

Queer women creators, along with creators of all identities and backgrounds, should be free to work within this space in good faith, and fans of all identities and backgrounds should be free to enjoy (or not!) their work in equally good faith. The unremitting voice of the toxic trolls has fully stripped the good faith from the argument. Whether the Star Wars shows and movies they are making are good or not is now, determinedly, Lucasfilm’s second-biggest problem.

“Non-binary feminist who hates white people”

Reading the comments (I know; I know) under Acolyte star Amandla Stenberg’s recent diss track, in which she addressed parts of the false narrative pushed by the alt-right YouTube channels mentioned above, was heartbreaking. At least, it would have been heartbreaking to anyone who isn’t an abhorrent psychopath. Aside from members of the celebrity community wishing her well, comments on the video largely fell into three observable categories:

  1. “You are incredibly wealthy, so shut the fuck up,” or
  2. “You aren’t even Black, so shut the fuck up,” or
  3. “No one is actually even harassing you in the first place, so shut the fuck up.”

One would think that every single person who posted under the umbrella of #3, at least, would look around before or after having done so and would have seen the dimension of their own lie. Unfortunately, shamelessness, a fatal lack of self-awareness, and a certain (shall we say) allergy to facts seem fairly commonplace among this general cohort of online accounts.

I won’t speak to #2, because the fault is self-evident; as for #1, I’ll only remark once again that America’s behavioural dissonance between the coveting of massive wealth and the absolute loathing of the (presumptively) wealthy remains a real nexus of concern. Instead, it’s the thesis of all three reaction types that I’ll underline for emphasis: that for [reason], Amandla Stenberg is not within her rights to push back against months of persistent, multimedia abuse, much of which has been racialized, misogynist, queerphobic, or all three.

Not “subjectively” so, either; visibly, demonstrably, provably so. (Again: that allergy to facts.) While there is certainly something to be said about punching up vs. punching down with respect to platform size and reach, I’ll say that one Black queer woman celebrity posting a video of her own making to her large follower list without naming, doxing, or otherwise calling out any specific person about a demonstrably real bombardment of abuse that she has received, feels perfectly fair to me.

Meanwhile, I received first my queerphobic attack! It was very mild! I was in a discussion forum regarding the Mos Eisley Cantina playset that I mentioned above, and when a commenter called Amandla Stenberg a “non-binary feminist who hates white people,” I replied that I was also a non-binary feminist (but resisted adding any comments about my feelings about white people) and that I was, generally, happy with The Acolyte, happy with Star Wars, and happy to be here.

He replied by misgendering me, telling me my gender identity was something I’d made up, and that I was a shill for Disney… the usual alt-right pipeline stuff fed by various Fandom Menace / Star Wars Theory devotees. Like I said: not too bad! Random normal behaviour on Al Gore’s internet!

But it was also a “lights-on” moment for me in some small way, the closing of a loop that started five or six years ago when I started really asking myself why the persistent right-wing attacks on queer, trans, and gender-diverse communities made me profoundly, viscerally miserable.

I wish I could say the answer to that question was: because I’m just a really good person with loads of built-up empathy for people of all flavours and types. But the truth was, I was preemptively defending the walls of a community under persistent attack, one that I’ve been a part of all my life, without actually naming it or telling any of them who I actually was.

Well, now I’d done it: I was outing myself in a space that had always considered me “safe,” i.e., just like them. My privilege may let me look like just another straight white cis dude in his near-50s buying dolls and watching Star Wars shows… but I ain’t that. And there are vocal members of that community who, not knowing I’m standing in their midst, make it pretty clear to anyone who will listen that they sure don’t want me there.

“Down Our Throats”

My brother had a startlingly optimistic take on Lucasfilm’s relationship to the alt-right community when we were talking about The Acolyte a few weeks ago: he hopes that this show, and shows like it, mean that the company has accepted that they cannot (and do not want to) appease the Star Wars Theory / Fandom Menace goon squad, and so they are just leaning in, daring those men to make good on their decade-old threat to be “done with Star Wars.”

The hypocrisy of the threat has, of course, been noted in the backlash against The Acolyte. They’re still here. They claim to want nothing to do with any of this but cannot resist commenting on it. For some — the aforementioned YouTube accounts — it’s their revenue stream, so they certainly aren’t going to stop. For others, they must be hoping — with reason! — that if they complain long enough and loudly, they can change the strategic direction of a movie studio.

I hope my brother is right.

I wanted to address one piece of commentary that frequently comes from accounts that are stating their opposition to the “woke agenda” of any modern storytelling: the premise that the material is being forced “down their throats.” Not to re-litigate the hypocrisy above, but: it’s hard to have something forced down your anything, if you just stop engaging with it.

But there is truth in the phraseology anyway, even if (as usual) it illumintes more about the speaker than the spoken. There is an agenda that is being forced — no pun intended! — upon people, and it is the premise that there is reason on both sides, and that the review-bombing of The Acolyte on Rotten Tomatoes means that the series is “controversial.” We have seen this false narrative, too, again and again since Gamergate, the reporting around a culture war narrativizing it as an equal-opportunity difference of opinion, rather than — per the above — the fundamental destabilization of the field of opinion by bad-faith actors.

I dunno what to tell you, friends. The media, the stories we tell around these stories, has to get better at this. The use of false dichotomies now extends into the reporting of the highest crises in the world. Against that scale, what happens in the Star Wars community genuinely isn’t as important. But I am a life-long believer in pop culture as a series canaries in societal coal mines, and I’m here to tell you: we have a big, big problem that is not fixing itself.

Who We Need

Not to pull a gatekeep card — because entry into Star Wars can happen at any time, at any age, by any person of any gender, background, or belief system — but at this point, I want to mention that I have been here since the beginning.

I saw Star Wars in theatres, before there was an Empire Strikes Back. I lived through the Dark Times, and a decade of people saying Return of the Jedi was a massive letdown. (It’s my favourite movie.) I lived through the backlash against the prequels, which was — at the time — as clear and conscious a warning sign about the state of this fandom as one could have asked for. (Seriously: as a known Star Wars fan, I could not go to a party for six years without someone needing to have an argument with me, with or without my consent. That isn’t a made-up number: that is a documented statistic, from an era when I went to a lot more parties than I go to now.)

I nearly jumped out after the Disney purchase, not because I thought Disney was bad, but because I thought my Star Wars was behind me. (I was wrong.) I lived through the sequels and the advent of the Disney+ series. I’m still here. I’ve been here the whole time. I remember every era of Star Wars, and how fans at the time felt about them. I’m aware of common threads that tie all these eras together, and one of them is that people who love this story can be (charitably) really, really hard on it, or (uncharitably) absolute assholes about it — particularly to other fans.

So finally, for the record, as a person who’s been here since the literal beginning and can therefore speak for a generation who has not been, let’s say, the most welcoming portion of this fan base: non-white, non-male, non-50-year-old, non-straight fans… you aren’t just welcome here, you are vital here. You are what this story is, and always has been, for. And I love what you’re doing with it.

Meanwhile: Star Wars Theory, the Fandom Menace, and all of your acolytes? You need to fuck off into the sun.