The online harassment of actress Kelly Marie Tran (who portrays the character Rose Tyco in The Last Jedi) has been perhaps the most unfortunate symptom so far of the mass backlash over The Last Jedi.
It has been an ugly, perhaps indicative, chapter in the backlash saga. And it is very sad, of course.
But there are a number of reasons we could look at for why it happened – or for why people feel weirdly entitled to launch into online harassment of individuals on account of their displeasure with a movie.
What definitely isn’t the issue is ‘Russian Trolls’ – which is what we’re now being told is to blame for The Last Jedi backlash. That’s bullshit, of course – as if crying ‘Russian Trolls’ is somehow meant to cover up the fact that a lot of Star Wars fans were unimpressed with The Last Jedi.
Worse, crying ‘Russian Trolls’ like a broken record actually attempts to cover up the actual societal or cultural causes of the unpleasant behaviour and is the equivalent of trying to sweep the dirt under the rug.
I mean, really? Were ‘Russian Trolls’ also responsible for the backlash against the prequel movies?
The toxification of the Star Wars community stems from the extreme polarisation of the Star Wars community: and all of it is also a symptom of a broader toxification and polarisation in society that has occurred in the last several years, with the Internet being the primary driver.
What’s going on in Star Wars fandom is simply part of what’s going on across society, in which extreme social, cultural and political polarization has accelerated in recent years, and in which various ideologies – liberalism, feminism, misogyny, sexism, racism, conservatism, progressivism, etc – are clashing more and more viciously, with online platforms giving masses of ordinary people (as well as more cynical propagandists trying to manipulate people) both the voice and the perceived battlefield.
Star Wars – being the biggest, most passionate fandom out there – has inevitably been dragged into this.
Some of this is the fault of some sections of fans, some of it the fault of bandwagon-riders who aren’t really Star Wars fans but who want to be involved in all the mud-slinging, and some of it is the fault of the current Star Wars creators too.
None of that excuses the online treatment of Kelly Marie Tran – who has simply been caught up in the crossfire and picked out as a target.
I wasn’t particularly a fan of the Rose Tyco character either when The Last Jedi came out. But most of the problem was with how she was written and not with how the actress portrayed the role. In fact, I think Kelly Marie Tran’s performance is actually pretty good. And, even if it had been a problem with the actress’s portrayal, it was never a justification anyway for overly personal bullying.
On repeated viewings, I’ve actually come to appreciate the Rose character more and to enjoy Tran’s performance (even if I still don’t love the side-story she was involved in).
In truth, Kelly Marie Tran isn’t the first Star Wars player to be singled out for online ridicule or harassment. Hayden Christensen, who portrayed Anakin Skywalker in the prequel trilogy, came in for his share of vitriol for many years. In fact, Jake Lloyd, who played the child version of Anakin, also took pretty bad abuse. Indeed, the Great Maker, George Lucas himself, was the subject of vicious and cruel mockery for years too.
Arguably then, the case of Kelly Marie Tran or the current polarisation over the Star Wars sequel trilogy isn’t where Star Wars went toxic – it happened much earlier, during the prequel era.
And it happened simply with the explosion of social media, YouTube and mass, viral opinion-sharing and opinion influencing.
Once it became both trendy and profitable to put up YouTube videos tearing apart the prequels and attacking George Lucas on a personal level, the floodgate was open for the Star Wars Hate community to flourish.
Eventually you ended up with scores of people who actively wanted each new Star Wars film to ‘fail’ and to be divisive, so that they could continue putting up content centered on tearing these films down. Hence, The Force Awakens wasn’t even in the cinema yet when the first items appeared complaining about Rey being a probable ‘Mary Sue’.
What has made things worse is, as I said, the fact that these films are now being put out during the ‘culture wars’ that are being played out across the Internet and particularly social-media – which exacerbates everything.
Unfortunately, a lot of people naturally go beyond mere criticism of filmmaking choices or writing and instead branch out into personal attacks on individuals – whether that’s Kelly Marie Tran, Rian Johnson, Hayden Christensen or George Lucas.
The Star Wars community has gotten unpleasant. But, as said earlier, a lot of it is a problem not specific to Star Wars, but better viewed as part of a larger ‘culture war’ going on in society and particularly the Internet: Lucasfilm’s big mistake, via Kathleen Kennedy, has been to deliberately draw Star Wars into that ‘culture war’ (for better or worse) with some of its storytelling choices, almost actively trying to provoke a reaction from some sections of the Internet.
I actually have come to terms a lot more with The Last Jedi over the several months since its release. My original reaction was always mixed, containing some positive and some negative – that remains my view of the film: but I’ve come to understand and accept it a lot more and have more respect for it after multiple viewings than I had back in December.
And this is speaking as someone who specifically didn’t want any more Star Wars films in the first place, but thought that Return of the Jedi and Revenge of the Sith should’ve remained the end-point of the saga.
I still think Rose Tyco isn’t the best of Star Wars characters – but I’ve never felt Kelly Marie Tran was the issue, only the writing of the character in some scenes (in other scenes, she’s actually pretty well written). And again, even if the actress was the issue, it is never an excuse for personal harassment or bullying.
For the record, I also think both Rian Johnson and Kathleen Kennedy have come in for a lot of very personal, even disgusting, abuse.
In regard to Johnson, I have criticisms of some of his writing – but I also have a lot of praise for a lot of what he did with The Last Jedi. To me, it’s always been a mixed bag. And I’ve never had any harsh feeling towards Johnson as a person or as a filmmaker – that was clear, I think, in my review of The Last Jedi.
With Kathleen Kennedy, the line is admittedly more blurry – only because she has been open about deliberately inserting contemporary social-messaging into Star Wars, which is something I felt undermined the storytelling in The Last Jedi.
It certainly never occurred to me – and never would – to troll anybody or to start abusing people on social media.
I’m glad George Lucas doesn’t use the Internet and that he’s never looked at social media. I also understand entirely why Lucas sold Lucasfilm and got the fuck out. At his age, who needs to stick around for all that nonsense from the public?
Without doubt, a sizeable portion of the online ‘community’ has lost its way.
But if you look back at some of the types of abuse that were being directed at George Lucas or Hayden Christensen for years, you will note that these portions of the fan community had lost their way a long time ago – it isn’t really about Kelly Marie Tran.
But it’s sad that someone who was so excited and happy about getting to be in a Star Wars movie has ended up having such a bad, toxic experience as a result of it.