Saving what we love: Thoughts about Star Wars fandom in a post-Episode IX world

I love Star Wars. I love the movies, the TV shows, the books, and the comics. I love the characters, I love the John Williams scores, and I love making my own cosplays.

But sometimes, I don’t love being a part of the Star Wars fandom.

If you Google “why is the Star Wars fandom so toxic” you’ll find numerous think pieces on the Star Wars fandom and why it’s not always a healthy place. Though it may only be a small group behaving badly, Star Wars fans have a reputation for harassing writers, directors, actors, creators, and even other fans. If you took a peek at social media in the months after “The Last Jedi” premiered, you know what I mean.

I’ve been pondering the nature of Star Wars fandom — and fandom in general — over the past week since “The Rise of Skywalker” was released. After sailing through choppy waters after TLJ (which is my favorite Star Wars film), I had hoped things might quiet down. Yet TROS is proving to be equally controversial, though for different reasons.

Sadly, I’m seeing toxic behavior bubbling up again, and I don’t want that to be the legacy of the Star Wars fandom. So, how do we address some of this behavior in a healthy manner, both in the Star Wars fandom and in online fan culture as a whole?

Before we dive in, I think it’s important to note that this post is NOT criticizing people who didn’t like TLJ and/or TROS, which seem to be the two pieces of media generating the most controversy within the Star Wars fandom currently. If you disliked either of these movies and felt sad or disappointed after watching them, that’s totally valid. I do not want to shut down alternate opinions, and it is 100% possible to share a negative opinion in a constructive way.

But fan behavior can, at times, cross a line, and I believe it’s crucial to talk about that.

Where does toxic fan behavior come from?

The weird thing about toxic fan behavior is that it doesn’t necessarily start from a negative place. At some point, anyone who is passionate about Star Wars fell in love with a certain galaxy long ago and far, far away because it brought them joy.

Still, it’s highly unlikely that any fan will love absolutely everything in one fictional universe, and when that happens, most fans are able to offer polite and honest criticism, engage in a civil debate, and then move forward.

“Fan” only becomes a toxic label when the person takes their frustration or disappointment about a piece of media and then lashes out at others or demeans other fans.

Stories are powerful — that’s why humans love them so much. I got teary-eyed during several parts of TROS due to scenes with certain characters. These characters may not be real, but stories still matter.

Fictional narratives allow us to process our feelings and hopes about the world, and work through issues that are present in our society. Humans care about stories because we are empathetic. If a long-running story ends in a way we don’t like, it’s natural to feel sad.

However, it’s important to keep in mind that others may not have the same reaction as you. A story you hated may be someone else’s favorite. Neither opinion is right or wrong, and both sides deserve the space to respectfully express their thoughts.

What is toxic behavior?

“The Last Jedi” inspired a lot of discussions within the Star Wars community; some of them were beneficial, some were not. The polarization within the fandom — and truly disheartening displays of racism and sexism — made it challenging for good people who simply didn’t like the film to share their opinions.

I saw all kinds of toxic behavior in the days after “The Last Jedi” was released. People harassed director Rian Johnson and some of the performers, like Kelly Marie Tran, who played Rose. People attacked fans who did enjoy the movie. There were demands that “The Last Jedi” be remade. Instead of constructive criticism and nuanced discussion, attacks and accusations dominated the conversation surrounding this film.

That is why is broke my heart to see some of this same cruelty surface after “The Rise of Skywalker” — except this time, some of the toxic behavior was coming from people who had defended “The Last Jedi.”

I’ve seen awful things posted about J.J. Abrams. People who loved “The Last Jedi” have belittled fans who liked TROS. I have seen demands that “The Rise of Skywalker” be remade.

Over the past week, I saw a tweet that said anyone who was defending TROS should go to jail and didn’t understand Star Wars. I later saw a separate tweet that said J.J. Abrams should go to jail. These tweets actually made me chuckle sadly, because I guess that means both J.J. and I deserve to be jailed, him for making a movie and me for liking it?

Sometimes I’m tempted just to run away to Ahch-To like Luke did and hang out with some Porgs instead!

How do we stop the toxicity?

I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the dark side of fandom, and how we fix some of these fractures. I know there are things that I personally could do better, and I’ve made plenty of mistakes.

I realize now that after “The Last Jedi” came out, I built a sort of echo chamber on social media filled with people who loved the movie as much as I did. It’s not bad to celebrate a movie, but I didn’t do enough to reach out to people who respectfully disliked TLJ. For that I’m sorry, and I’m trying to do better about accepting a wide variety of viewpoints within the community.

It’s not healthy to only “hang out” with people online (or in person!) who think exactly the same way you do. Criticism should never cross the line into cruelty. Neither Rian Johnson nor J.J. Abrams deserve to “go to jail” for telling a story; it’s OK to dislike the story they told, but they’re not necessarily wrong for telling it that way. Art is subjective.

Remember that even though you can’t see the other people online who are reading your comments, they are real people, with real feelings. Being kind is more important than making a point. Also, it’s okay to politely step away from a discussion that is getting too heated. By nature, social media doesn’t always allow for nuance, and feelings can be hurt much more easily.

In the end, one person can’t change online culture. But we have to start somewhere, and I’m going to do everything I can to encourage empathy and open, honest discussion. That’s why I stay in the Star Wars fandom even though this place gets really crazy sometimes.

I want to discuss with people who think differently than me. I want to be challenged and inspired. The fandoms we love can still bring us together, even when we disagree.

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The Story Geeks blogger Ashley Pauls responds with an additional perspective to the Story Geeks Star Wars podcast series. [Listen Here: AppleStitcherPodbean]