Earlier this month it was reported the actor Kelly Marie Tran, who plays Rose Tico in Star Wars, deleted her Instagram following months of abuse from racist fans.
A number of outlets alleged Kelly Marie Tran has endured months of abuse from what they called ‘a toxic element within the fandom’ and the abuse centred around her being the first woman of colour to play a lead role in Star Wars.
Following the reports, Star Wars alumni came out in support of Kelly Marie Tran including Rian Johnson, John Boyega and Mark Hamill and to justly condemn these vile people.
On social media a few unhealthy people can cast a big shadow on the wall, but over the past 4 years I’ve met lots of real fellow SW fans. We like & dislike stuff but we do it with humor, love & respect. We’re the VAST majority, we’re having fun & doing just fine. https://t.co/yhcShg5vdJ
— Rian Johnson (@rianjohnson) June 5, 2018
The situation as presented is an undeniably awful one, but it was one that I found incredibly fascinating as a liberal-leaning journalist interested in Star Wars and fandom.
If I’m honest I was desperate to write about it, after all, it almost plays out like Star Wars itself; there are goodies (Kelly Marie Tran and the Star Wars crew) and baddies (The racist fans).
This could be my own little Star Wars story where I’d help the good guys triumph over the forces of evil.
But as I dug into the topic I found the whole thing massively confusing, because like Rogue One taught us, the world isn’t easily packageable into black and white.
It’s a confusing morally grey world and if I’m honest the narrative of toxic fans presented by the mainstream media didn’t always hold up to scrutiny.
Now it’s undeniable that Kelly Marie Tran’s been the victim of abuse online, you only have to search her name on Twitter to see that, and there was the rather infamous occasion that someone altered her Wookipedia page to include some disgusting comments.
However, as Kelly’s deleted her Instagram I couldn’t see what specifically had been said to her on that platform so I took to Twitter in search of someone who might have seen some of the abuse.
Author and freelance writer, Bryan Young, who’s written for StarWars.Com, Syfy, Slashfilm, and others answered my call, detailing that there were indeed some racist comments directed at her.
I saw nasty comments at her. Some of it was racial, some of it was hate directed toward Rose as a character. I don’t have screenshots, I’m sorry.
Yet despite Bryan’s statement, his lack of screenshots perturbed me, because if we’re accusing a fandom of bullying someone off Instagram, I want evidence.
Afterall there’s been no official statement from Kelly or her management that it was racism that forced her off Instagram and no one seemed to have any specific, indisputable evidence.
I’d even seen it reported the initial rumour that she’s deleted her Instagram came from a fan account, not an official source.
Desperate for answers I reached out to Kelly Marie Tran’s agent for some confirmation about the story but as of writing she’s still not gotten back to me.
In search of answers and unwilling to potentially misreport Ms Tran’s story, I turned to the world of academia for help to examine the topic of toxic fandom in a bit of a bigger picture than the Kelly Marie Tran incident.
I contacted Professor Katherine Larsen and Dr William Proctor, two university academics who’ve spent decades studying fandom.
Both agreed that there were toxic elements within all fandoms but with the caveat that there are misogynists, racists and generally bad people in all subcultures, although that didn’t diminish what the cast of Star Wars had been through.
Professor Larsen told UNILAD:
There are racists and misogynists and people who hold views that are now generally agreed are unacceptable in every community. These people are also in fandoms.
She went on to explain that she imagines, but could in no way confirm, that these alleged fans feel threatened in general by ‘women, or minorities, or newbies’ when they try and shake up the status quo.
Doctor Proctor agreed with Professor Larsen’s comments that all communities have ‘toxic members’ adding that the ‘anonymity of the Internet’ exacerbates the situation.
He explained it’s called the ‘the online disinhibition effect’ and leads to people doing things they wouldn’t ordinarily say or do in the face-to-face world.
Doctor Proctor also echoed the sentiment that these alleged fans most likely felt threatened by what they saw as ‘changes’ to the franchise they hold so dearly.
Interestingly, however, both were very clear in their answer to mention these trolls as ‘alleged fans’.
When I spoke to Doctor Proctor about the semantics of it all he explained why they used such careful language. He said the Internet creates another problem, and it’s one that the mainstream media is willfully ignoring.
Doctor Proctor explained:
It becomes difficult for researchers to determine who is speaking and what is their intent. Are these people fans? Or trolls? Of course, the question could equally be—how do we know these people are NOT fans?
It’s a minefield to learn and determine whether toxic fans are indeed fans at all. Often, we simply have no idea.Lucasfilm
So if someone like Doctor Proctor, who’s studied fandom for over a decade can’t say with any certainty that these people are ‘real fans’ or just trolls it makes me wonder how mainstream media can?
Well as someone who works in the media I can think of several reasons why they can.
You see in our fast-paced media heavy world content has to be engaging, and the narrative presented that there is a ‘bad’ section of fandom who are attacking the cast is easily packageable and engaging for audiences.
Unfortunately, as I said earlier, the world isn’t split neatly into good and bad people. Fandoms are no different but that’s not the way the media presents it because that’s an ugly truth and more difficult to package in an engaging way.
Doctor Proctor explained:
The way in which news and entertainment journalists cherry-pick tweets from Twitter, say, is often about framing a narrative in a certain way.
It is all to easy to find racist, sexist, homophobic, trans-phobic comments on social media—and if one delves into what Adrienne Massanari terms the ‘toxic technocultures’ of 4chan, 8chan and Reddit, right-wing, reactionary discourses are ubiquitous.
But more often than not, news and entertainment media certainly misrepresent toxicity by exaggeration and hyperbole. Nuance is entirely missing.
And it’s this nuance that’s key because fandoms are not homogenous entities, they’re fractured with tens if not hundreds of different sub-communities existing within the wider ‘fandom’.
Take Star Wars, for example, there are fans like myself who enjoy the new films, there are fans like Doctor Proctor who told me he didn’t like The Last Jedi and there are fans who stopped watching the moment Disney threw out the expanded universe.
We’re all fans of Star Wars but we all have different opinions on the franchise and the same’s true when it comes to the ‘toxic’ element in the fandom, but the idea that the fandom is overrun with these people is a false narrative.
Doctor Proctor said:
The way that these stories are invariably framed is that toxicity emanates from fan-boys only, and that Star Wars fandom—as well as other fan cultures—is being overtaken and overrun by toxic fans…
…if news journalists were to more fully examine the contents of various hashtags, they would swiftly find that the narrative is so much more complicated.
So why do journalists not do this work? Well because writing for a living is hard in the era of digital media, there’s pressure to be the first, the fastest and the most engaging.
The time pressure to turn around content leaves a lot of journos with very little time to do anything beyond the initial fact-checking and this can lead to sweeping generalisations.
These generalisations lead to outlets reporting reductive versions of the stories and if they start to trend then other outlets pick them up and the ‘myths’ become part of the narrative.
This is further exacerbated by outspoken people with political agendas frequently using ‘trending topics’ like the release of a new Star Wars film as a platform for their own ideas.
After all how better to get your bile to a wider audience than piggybacking on something people are already passionate about like Star Wars.
So where does this leave us and my dream of telling my own Star Wars-esque story?
Well, I’ve learned that there are no clear-cut answers to this story. Of course there are racists in the Star Wars fandom but – and this isn’t an excuse – these people are everywhere and do not represent the majority.
We need to be more discerning when reading the news, there are accurate reports out there but some platforms are happy to generalise for clicks.
Finally, anyone who feels the need to bully, deride or disrespect someone online is a dick regardless of why they did it.
More of a concept than a journalist, Tom Percival was forged in the bowels of Salford University from which he emerged grasping a Masters in journalism.
Since then his rise has been described by himself as ‘meteoric’ rising to the esteemed rank of Social Editor at UNILAD as well as working at the BBC, Manchester Evening News, and ITV.
He credits his success to three core techniques, name repetition, personality mirroring, and never breaking off a handshake.