Abusive messages toward stars show dark side of Star Wars fandom

The dark side of Star Wars fandom recently reared its head when Kelly Marie Tran, the actress who plays Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, was run off Instagram by misogynistic and racist messages from fans who didn't like her character in the movie.

Actress Kelly Marie Tran left social media after receiving discriminatory messages online

Kelly Marie Tran, the actress who played Rose in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, was run off Instagram by misogynistic and racist messages. (Jordan Strauss/Invision/The Associated Press)

The dark side of Star Wars fandom recently reared its head when Kelly Marie Tran, the actress who plays Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, was run off Instagram by misogynistic and racist messages from fans who didn't like her character in the movie.

The episode was not an uncommon one. Daisy Ridley, who stars as the heroine Rey, quit social media last year for similar reasons. They are far from the first women to be hounded by bitter, mostly male fans who didn't approve of their entry into a fictional pop-culture world that some fans feel a misguided sense of ownership of.

Such toxic abuse has long been a staple of darker social-media realms, fan-group message boards and internet comments pages. Obsession — loving or poisonous — has helped fuel the most dedicated fan bases, whose fervour is craved and cultivated by billion-dollar brands. But the scorn heaped on Tran — a 29-year-old newcomer who has been overjoyed at her induction into Star Wars — sparked a backlash of its own.

Coming to Tran's defence

"What's not to love?" asked Mark Hamill, aka Luke Skywalker, with a photo of himself and Tran and the hashtag "GetALifeNerds."

Affectionate fan art of Tran's character began circling widely on Twitter. The Last Jedi writer-director Rian Johnson forcefully came to his actress' defence.

"On social media a few unhealthy people can cast a big shadow on the wall, but over the past four years I've met lots of real fellow SW fans," said Johnson. "We like & dislike stuff but we do it with humour, love & respect. We're the vast majority, we're having fun & doing just fine."

Today's Star Wars fan

Who exactly is today's Star Wars fan? Those who stood in line for A New Hope in 1977 would likely be in their 50s, at least, by now. George Lucas' 1999-2005 prequels, despite their flaws, helped introduce a new generation to the movies, as have the rebooted instalments of recent years, following Disney's purchase of Lucasfilm. And those films have made a sincere effort to expand the universe of Star Wars with a more diverse array of characters.

The character of Rose, a maintenance worker, joins forces with Finn (John Boyega) in the movie. Tran is the first Asian-American lead in a Star Wars film. (Walt Disney Studios)

The Last Jedi, which dared to break some of the Star Wars norms, proved especially divisive among some aficionados. Other efforts to boost multiculturalism and gender equality in Hollywood blockbusters have also provoked politically tinged responses. Before he was president, Donald Trump was among those to criticize the female-led Ghostbusters, which became a lightning rod in 2016.

At the premiere Wednesday of Ocean's 8, also a franchise remade with actresses in the leads, Sandra Bullock was still aghast about backlash to Ghostbusters.

'A firing squad'

"That was unfair on a level that I can't even not be mad about talking about," Bullock told Variety. "(The cast) literally walked into a firing squad. You had five of the most gifted comedian actresses on the planet — I'm just gonna leave it at that."

Ocean's 8 is another reboot of a franchise, like Ghostbusters, re-made with women as leads. (Warner Bros.)

The vitriol of the over-indulged fan has long been an unfortunately common component of blockbuster entertainment, from Marvel movies to Game of Thrones. But just as other long-ingrained practices of a historically male-dominated movie industry are being reshaped, the sway of the sexist superfan may be waning.

More than the low grosses of Solo, the treatment of Tran poses a potentially damaging challenge to the franchise: If these are Star Wars fans, who wants to be a Star Wars fan?

Ironically, it was Tran's rousing moment in The Last Jedi that supplied the best answer.

"This is how we win," says Rose. "Not fighting what we hate. Saving what we love."