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How to fix the toxic Star Wars fandom that bullied Kelly Marie Tran off the internet

Why do so-called fans of a franchise like Star Wars go as far as targeted social media attacks on a lead actor? And what does it have to do with identity politics and the rise of Donald Trump and the alt-right?

How the rise of the alt-right has fuelled a new breed of overzealous fans

Star Wars actor Kelly Marie Tran, seen here at the London premiere of The Last Jedi, recently quit social media after a campaign of online harassment from franchise fans who disapproved of her role in the most recent film. (Joel C Ryan/Invision/Associated Press)

For one Vancouver Star Wars fan, it's sad news that The Last Jedi star Kelly Marie Tran has quit social media due to harassment from so-called fans. But it's not exactly surprising.

"Women and people of colour, I've found, get weird reactions from people who consider themselves part of fandom," says Fairlith Harvey, artistic director of Geekenders, a theatre company whose recent productions include burlesque shows entitled The Lust Jedi and  A Nude Hope.

Harvey said she's also noticed than many Star Wars fans define their identities through "disliking things." But why do so-called fans of a franchise like Star Wars go so far as to bully a lead actor off the internet?

Would it have anything to do with identity politics and the rise of Donald Trump and the alt-right?

On the Coast producer Matthew Lazin-Ryder spoke to Benjamin Woo, an assistant professor of communication and media studies at Carleton University in Ottawa, to find out.

Kelly Marie Tran plays Rose Kito, a maintenance worker who joins forces with Finn (John Boyega). This makes Tran the first Asian-American lead in a Star Wars film. (Walt Disney Studios)

Why were Star Wars fans so polarized by the most recent main series entry, The Last Jedi?

Many people viewed it as straying away from what they believed the essence of the Star Wars franchise was supposed to be about. [Some of it] is about the amount that The Last Jedi, as well as [the previous film] The Force Awakens, foregrounded new characters who were women or people of colour.

Ever since The Force Awakens came out [in 2015], there's been this backlash against Lucasfilm, at the particular writers and directors, as well as actors like Kelly Marie Tran.

Benjamin Woo says it's important to make a distinction between casual fans and "fandom" — a community that, in some ways, draws its identity from a particular cultural product or icon. (Chiang Ying-ying/The Associated Press)

Why are supposed fans of the franchise lashing out in this way?

What we are seeing here is a set of fan communities within that larger Star Wars fandom have developed ... an identity that is locked on to Star Wars and this particular sense of what Star Wars meant to them and means to them, and they're responding in a really quite negative way to anyone who has a different conception of what Star Wars is about and what it should be doing.

When we throw into the mix this broader kind of context that we're in right now — the rise of a kind of resurgent far-right identity politics on the part of especially white men, at the same time as a number of major [media] corporations have crossed this tipping point into thinking that caring about diversity and representation is good business for them — and so those two tendencies have been kind of a collision course for a long time now.

Wait, what does this have to do with the rise of the populist far-right?

Isn't that a fandom, though?

I think if you look particularly at the ways that [U.S. president] Donald Trump's fans amongst the digitally mediated "alt-right" subculture were engaging with his candidacy, I think you could make a pretty solid argument that that was a case of a kind of fan interaction.

You know, they're not just reading news about Trump and discussing his policy pronouncements in this kind of objective way — they're bonding with one another around their support for what they believe Trump means to them.

So what do identity politics have to do with casting choices in The Last Jedi?

You can think about it in terms of affirmative action debates in workplaces and universities, you can think about it in terms of the protests at the NFL — this idea that politics, or identity politics specifically, is invading spaces that didn't used to be political.

That's the narrative that we're hearing.

What can we do to address this problem of toxic fandom?

We spend a lot of time telling ourselves just to ignore these bad actors — leave them alone and they'll go away. And clearly that's not been the case.

So it's not just that I want to see more Asian people or more queer people or more women in these franchises, but: let me explain to you why that's important and why I think there's a case to be made that that is an expression of the values that are important to me and to us as a community.

With files from Matthew Lazin-Ryder and CBC Radio One's On the Coast.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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