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The latest Star Wars film satisfies the right wing. Will the left start trolling?

Don’t expect a new ‘Fandom Menace’ to emerge this time around

- January 18, 2020

“Star Wars Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker” (TROS) leaves theaters soon. Critical reception was middling. Box office receipts collapsed, ending below those of “The Last Jedi” (TLJ, episode 8, released in 2017) and “Rogue One” (a 2016 stand-alone Star Wars film).

But right-wing trolling of the film was mild compared to the backlash against TLJ. This latest movie avoided that ire by moving Star Wars politically right.

So has Lucasfilm replaced its right-wing troll problem with a left-wing one? Probably not. Compared to the previous film, TROS slighted fans with less visibility in fandom media and fewer ways to monetize their criticisms.

Right-wing anger

After TLJ, an online campaign took issue with the film’s feminism, leftism, and diverse casting. This right-wing critique was so durable that it has a nickname, “The Fandom Menace,” which even Lucasfilm uses.

Anger at TLJ became a business. Popular anti-TLJ videos on YouTube have millions of hits, translating to tens of thousands of dollars for their creators. Right-wing personalities sell Fandom Menace apparel. Entrepreneurs raised $50,000 in seed money for an anti-TLJ comic book and almost $10,000 for a multivolume history of The Fandom Menace.

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Who is this film for?

Many observers see TROS as an apology to TLJ haters. Of the 53 TROS reviews by “top critics” archived on Rotten Tomatoes as of Jan. 15, 44 describe the movie as a reversal intended to win over the fans that disliked TLJ.

TROS invites the perception that it is made with conservative, white and male audiences in mind. After suggesting that there would be a same-sex relationship in TROS, filmmakers included two women kissing in the background of a scene — a moment easily censored for overseas markets. TROS nearly eliminates the character Rose Tico, played by Asian American actress Kelly Marie Tran, who was the focal point for right-wing hate after her large role in TLJ.

One critic illustrated all this with a list of TROS moments that undermine TLJ’s commitment to diversity. For example, TROS “explains” that certain feats by women in TLJ were only possible because of help from men or sheer luck.

Despite all of this, a left-wing trolling campaign against TROS is unlikely. Fandom politics and the nature of Internet media will probably curb the anti-TROS backlash.

A smaller fandom platform

The most visible Star Wars fan media is made by white men. For example, until 2018, the Star Wars website included links to fan podcasts, which I collected for past research. Thirty-eight of the 56 shows had male hosts. Only one had a person of color as a host.

Some of these fan media outlets supported the TLJ backlash. For example, Rebel Force Radio, one of the oldest outlets, pivoted to cater to a right-wing audience.

Fans who feel slighted by TROS’s politics will not have a comparable platform. Female, nonwhite and LGBTQ fans control fewer fan outlets. They also experience more online harassment, discouraging them from engaging with the larger fandom.

Less powerful groups of fans are also especially likely to practice “transformative fandom,” creating new things rather than trying to control the direction of official Star Wars media. For example, fans disappointed with TROS have already created “fix-it” art, charity fundraisers and memes celebrating TLJ and favorite characters.

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TLJ and the right-wing media

Right-wing anti-TLJ content was helped along by non-Star Wars media, as well. Dismay with TLJ was part of coverage of right-wing cultural grievances in outlets such as the Federalist and National Review and by alt-right influencers, including Ben Shapiro and Jack Posobeic. Websites specializing in right-wing popular culture expanded their Star Wars coverage to capture anti-TLJ audiences. These platforms also helped right-wing Star Wars outlets grow a new audience.

There is no comparable left-wing media ecosystem where anti-TROS feeling can thrive and be monetized to the same extent.

Bullying the detractors

“Last Jedi” backlash included extensive online trolling of TLJ’s defenders. By contrast, since TROS, the major trolling incidents have targeted fans who were disappointed by the film.

A Fandom Menace account manufactured a hoax claiming “Reylos” were sending death threats to the TROS director. (A Reylo is a fan of the controversial romance between TROS protagonists Rey and Ben Solo/Kylo Ren). BuzzFeed credulously reported the claim.

Another troll used a temporary account (a “sock puppet”) to provoke one of TROS’s stars, John Boyega, into a social media confrontation. Boyega made a series of attention-grabbing posts: a sexually explicit joke, TROS spoilers, a swipe at Reylo and a video of himself fighting Internet detractors.

The troll succeeded in creating negative coverage of people disappointed with TROS. I found 31 headlines on Google News about Boyega’s fight with fans, 15 of them congratulating him for taking on the film’s critics.

The incident also provoked a wave of retaliation. A study of almost 50,000 tweets related to this social media fight uncovered tens of thousands of threatening and abusive messages directed at Boyega’s critics, especially Reylos. That matters to the future of Star Wars even though neither Boyega nor Reylo is likely to be in future films.

When I reviewed the tweets from that study, I observed that the word “Reylo” has a de facto secondary usage as a derogatory label for a female fan. Tweeters mocked women who questioned Boyega’s other remarks by calling them Reylos. The Fandom Menace already uses Reylo as a generic epitaph. Even people in the Lucasfilm orbit slip into complaining about Reylos to dismiss women’s criticisms. Dislike for Reylo has become an all-purpose argument against women’s participation in fandom.

This kind of trolling is not motivated by affection for TROS. However, it will probably quiet many critics of the film.

The backlash ends

Outrage against the latest Star Wars has not matched the campaign against TLJ. Given the middling success of TROS, it is possible that most viewers preferred TLJ. However, TROS is perceived as a film that slighted less powerful fans in an effort to please conservative fans. That may be enough to hold backlash in check.

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Bethany Lacina (@bethany_lacina) is an associate professor of political science at the University of Rochester.

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