“What do you think of the new Star Wars show?” he asked.
“I haven’t seen it yet,” she replied.
“I don’t like how they picked that girl,” he interjected abruptly. “She’s not right for the role. They should have picked a boy.”
“… How is she not right?” she asked.
“They picked her for diversity,” he said. “Hollywood’s got its liberal agenda. I wish they’d just stick to making shows good with no politics. That’s all that matters.”
Despite all of Star Wars taking place in a universe embroiled in political subterfuge and perpetual warfare (with a space religion steeped through it all), this is conversation a friend of mine had about the Obi-Wan Kenobi series and the character Reva. She’s the “Third Sister” of the Jedi-hunting group called the Inquisitorious. Others have said she’s whiny, annoying, cringy, out of place, and forced. A cursory look over Reddit reveals a torrent of forums echoing the same sentiments. A large consensus claims she has been written, directed, and acted terribly, sometimes with explicitly discriminatory and vitriolic language.
Reva is played by Emmy-nominated actress Moses Ingram—a new addition to the Star Wars family, but a sizeable chunk of the world’s (arguably) largest fandom has been surprisingly and vaguely critical over her performance. The situation recalls John Boyega’s statement about Disney not preparing or publicly defending minority actors who undergo harassment. “I’m the only cast member who had their own unique experience of that franchise based on their race,” he told GQ. “Nobody else in the cast had people saying they were going to boycott the movie because [they were in it]. Nobody else had the uproar and death threats sent to their Instagram DMs and social media, saying, ‘Black this and black that and you shouldn’t be a Stormtrooper.’ Nobody else had that experience.”
To Disney’s credit, it has heeded his advice for the first time in a more direct, timely way through official social media. Even Ewan McGregor has chastised anyone who attacks her. Critics have pointed out Disney’s hypocrisy in the past, and others say all actors deal with insults, so what’s the big deal? Are there that many people harassing her, let alone for her race or gender? Firstly, just because a person or entity is guilty of one thing doesn’t mean we can’t be glad they’re doing the right thing now, however slow or inconsistent change here and in other areas may be. Secondly, Ingram herself said there are hundreds of messages to sift through on her Instagram account. This number is relatively small within the scope of the fandom; however, YouTube videos, forums, social media, memes—these exist in the thousands. Whether racism and sexism is overt, insinuated, or absent, so much of the criticism is characterized by hurtful words many would not dare say to Ingram’s face, even when people distinguish their criticism for the character. The discussion around Reva may not be directed to Ingram, but it is about her. She was warned by Lucasfilm this would likely happen.Is it any wonder that [George Lucas] selling the franchise to Disney was partially influenced by the hate of so many fans, now ironically wishing [he] would come back and “save” Star Wars?
Tragically, she and Boyega are not the first to endure this treatment. The Force Awakens came out seven years ago, but this only represents a third of the time that this destructive behavior has been around since The Phantom Menace’s 1999 debut. No fandom is immune to its toxic corners, but this one has a rot so old, potent, and vile that it spreads across to millions in lesser yet concerning degrees, most evident in the volatile discourse surrounding The Last Jedi upon its release and five years onward, arguably as heated online as the tribalistic discourse of US politics.
The loosely defined subset of the “Fandom Menace,” while a minority, symbolizes and propagates harmful behavior with a history of having real consequences on real people. However, there is a path forward. We can not only minimize hatred and harassment, but also voice criticism and passion constructively and lovingly.
The Tragedy in our Star Wars
She’s annoying, bratty, and outspoken. She saves men from certain doom and takes charge with her smarts and cunning. She’s forced into the show as a “Mary Sue” by feminists who want women to seem flawless, endlessly gifted, and all powerful. But I’m not talking about Reva—or even Rey. These critiques were commonly levied at Ahsoka Tano: the beloved (former) Jedi who has starred in The Clone Wars, Rebels, and The Mandalorian. She will have her own live-action show in 2023 as well, but before the fame, she was a controversial figure as Anakin Skywalker’s surprise Padawan. “I definitely had to deal with my fair share of hate and negative comments and definitely cyberbullying when Ahsoka first came out,” voice actor Ashley Eckstein told TV Guide. Despite knowing where Ahsoka would be headed in the future, it wasn’t until several years later that fans came around with their overall tone toward the character.
Before Eckstein, Ahmed Best and Jake Lloyd were treated poorly because of their parts in The Phantom Menace as Jar Jar Binks and a young Anakin Skywalker. While some reports of Lloyd’s experience are disputed, he did quit acting two years after the film’s release with constant pressure and bullying from schoolmates, of which he seems to insinuate elsewhere alongside affirmations of positive experiences with the fandom. Best celebrates the positives of the fandom, too, but he was overwhelmed by the initial backlash. “There was so much hate and venom and anger directed at me,” he said in a moving interview, disclosing how the experience brought him to the brink of suicide. “I was called every racial stereotype you can imagine.”
Hayden Christenson left acting a few years after the final prequel film as an older Anakin. while he doesn’t profess to have done so because of harassment, he has acknowledged with McGregor a shared disappointment to their films’ original reception. Christensen’s acting was lambasted for two decades by many older fans, and only in recent years has the majority been kinder; many kids who grew up with his films celebrate his wooden, flat delivery as iconic, even intentional, because of George Lucas’s direction, who himself has been accused of doing worse than ruining childhoods. “Why would I make any more [movies] when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?” he told The New York Times. Is it any wonder that his selling the franchise to Disney was partially influenced by the hate of so many fans, now ironically wishing Lucas would come back and “save” Star Wars?
The harassment arising from The Last Jedi represents the worst of the fandom. Rian Johnson has been crucified for destroying Star Wars, enduring the same criticism as Lucas as hating and not understanding Star Wars. “I knew intellectually what I was letting myself in for, but then when it happens you’re like, ‘Oh my God, this is intense!’” he told The Standard. “It’s about knowing you’re not going to please everyone. But then you still read someone saying they wish you were dead and it’s going to ruin your day.” While Daisy Ridley and Laurna Dern have largely ignored the visceral anger toward their characters, Kellie Marie Tran left Instagram after being bombarded by harassment before and after The Last Jedi‘s release.
Tran wrote for The New York Times that many people’s “words seemed to confirm what growing up as a woman and a person of color already taught me: that I belonged in margins and spaces, valid only as a minor character in their lives and stories.” Despite appeals to production issues, this is exactly what happened in The Rise of Skywalker. Her experience also motivated actress Naomi Ackie, herself a black woman, to seek out advice on how to deal with harassment if it came for her next.
Moses Ingram is the latest in a long line of fire, representing a generational cycle of gross negativity that cools over several years within this fandom, only to be renewed with new targets and repackaged ire. This criticism, as implied by this history, often comes from white men who inconsistently hold minority and/or female characters to higher standards than their (white) male counterparts, such as Rey being said to exhibit all the traits of a Mary Sue while being just as applicable to Luke (or young Anakin) as a “Gary Stu.” Reva as an outspoken, independent woman can be attributed to each era of Star Wars with leading ladies like Leia, Padmé, and Ahsoka; however, the recycled accusations come and go, vapid and intransient. One must ask: If the criticism is not explicitly discriminatory, might there be a form of it at play that speaks for a disguised or unaware bias? As the conversation in the introduction suggests, why is the mere presence of women and minorities so quickly labeled as “political” in a negative sense by some people, even when race and gender are not topics addressed in dialogue or with themes?
The Hope in our Star Wars
What are fans to to do about genuine criticism with storytelling and characterization? How can they rebel against the negativity within and without their fandom? I have suggestions guided by the wisdom of Star Wars heroes.
“I cannot allow my feelings to cloud my judgment.” – Obi-Wan Kenobi
Fans are passionate about Star Wars for good reasons. It is the myth and fairy tale of our age that brings together young and old—a multi-generational celebration embedded deep in our respective cultures, depicting an epic battle between good and evil spanning the ages with a spirit of whimsy, wonder, and wackiness. Star Wars is a pseudo-religion for most nerds, stoking imaginations and hearts from childhood with icons of legend. However, with great attachment comes great emotion—“The fear of loss is a path to the Dark side. […] Attachment leads to jealousy; the shadow of greed, that is,” Yoda says.Criticism is valid in itself, but it takes a completely different form and tone when we reframe our perspectives to recognize the love, beauty, and courage of people sharing their creativity with the world. That in itself is a gift, even when something is flawed or not to our liking.
It’s natural to feel anger on behalf of something you believe has been mishandled and misunderstood, but Lucas has said that Star Wars consists of stories first and foremost made for children. That doesn’t render Star Wars immune to critique, but you shouldn’t let your passion consume you with a response disproportionate to the object of your veneration. The Jedi and Sith both know the potential power and purpose of feelings, but the Jedi are wrong in that there’s no emotion, and the Sith are wrong in that passion must be unleashed and unhindered. When criticism is involved, emotion must be embraced yet tempered before we let it shape anything we say or do.
“For knowledge and defense, never for attack.” – Yoda
Criticism is valid in itself, but it takes a completely different form and tone when we reframe our perspectives to recognize the love, beauty, and courage of people sharing their creativity with the world. That in itself is a gift, even when something is flawed or not to our liking. We must recognize our capacity for saying hurtful things about art even when we don’t mean to. In other words, we cannot let the who in what we criticize be forgotten, lest we beat down each other needlessly. Ahmed Best said, “I hear people say, ‘We’re not talking about you, we’re talking about Jar Jar.’ You’re talking about me. I put a lot of me into that work, and if you talk to any artist who really cares about their work, you’re talking about them.”
Actors like Mark Hamill have said it wasn’t the criticism that was the problem, but the severity and delivery of it. If you’re heavily invested in something, kneejerk reactions come with the territory, but these can not only be devastating to the people involved in your unchecked criticism, but also your friends and communities who don’t feel the same way. We must process our reactions through gracious conversation and deep empathy, as LTN writer Brittany Lofland so beautifully writes. We need to sincerely listen to differing opinions with an intentional humility and self-awareness, watching out for hasty slips in our words and expressions that don’t just inadvertently (or directly) judge someone’s intellect and taste, but also their personhood and “eligibility” for a fandom.
No matter how strongly you feel about the quality of a work, it should never devolve into cruelty toward the creation or the creator. This may seem like a tall order when it’s hard to find the good in some pieces of media. Indeed, media that has harmful messages, or is created with malicious intent, should be strongly called out on those grounds. But this is rarely the case, and that reality has forced me to reconsider the terminology and tone in my criticism, too. Our tongues are unruly beasts (James 3:5-12) that must be characterized by uplifting speech (Eph. 4:29). Star Wars is not an excuse for leaving this standard with our words by the wayside.
“Keep your concentration here and now where it belongs.” – Qui-Gon Jinn
They say that time heals all wounds, but time also grants clarity. If the repeated history of Star Wars opinions teaches us anything, it’s that a lot of people grow up to like (or at least tolerate) Yoda and the Ewoks, Jar Jar and Anakin, and Ahsoka and Rey. Where we are in life—who we are in one season—influences our interests. That’s not to say then that our criticism shouldn’t be voiced once we’ve modestly reflected. But greater nuance and perspective always come later on, so we must consider our shortsightedness and forgetfulness with scenes, dialogue, and themes in film. We need to revisit and rewatch some media to not only remember those things, but also catch what we didn’t notice before—with greater or less appreciation.The internet creates an environment so expansive and diverse that we often mistake it for being an accurate microcosm of society. […] Negative voices are greatly amplified by and spread with anonymity, and that comes with our propensity to consume and engage in negativity bias.
Premature bias can color our opinions. We must not only be aware of this possibility, but also how often stories are in progress. Just as with feelings, we can’t let our anticipation or anxieties cloud our judgment with preconceptions that influence what we expect and want. I remember before The Rise of Skywalker came out, my friends and I said it would influence how we thought of the prior two films. It did, which makes sense given how Lucas considered his six films as one story. Viewers should approach the Obi-Wan Kenobi show the same way. We have yet to see Reva’s complete story. With context, many fans may be singing a different tune by the finale. Christensen sums up why patience is important: “It’s like those [prequel] films had a gestation period, where they needed a little time to ferment in the public psyche,” he tells StarWars.com. “The reception that the films have now, it’s very heartwarming.”
“There are more of us.” – Lando Calrissian
Anakin’s mom told him that “the biggest problem in the universe is no one helps each other.” At the end of The Rise of Skywalker, all seems lost with the overwhelming presence of the Sith Eternal. Unlike The Last Jedi, where the galaxy lacked hope to answer the Resistance’s call, civilians showed up this time to end the long shadow of evil that threatened to swallow the universe whole, filling the dark skies of the planet Exegol with the hope of thousands of ships.
The internet creates an environment so expansive and diverse that we often mistake it for being an accurate microcosm of society. When fandoms manifest in different spaces, both in reality (conventions) and online (particular social media platforms), you get wildly differing impressions of the fandom’s makeup. Negative voices are greatly amplified by and spread with anonymity, and that comes with our propensity to consume and engage in negativity bias, so it’s unsurprising that negativity for Star Wars was practically unheard in the fandom with the original trilogy. We have to remember that while racism and sexism is a problem that must be actively fought against, it represents a sensationalized minority that can influence parts of the majority.
For those who despair at a lack of inclusive and kind fans, take heart that the reality is brighter than you think. Look for and be the good in all spaces. We each can represent a spark of resistance that sets the fandom aflame with love, upstanding character, and inclusivity that welcomes everyone. Because the Force belongs to us all.