If you follow me on Twitter, you may have noticed that I went on a little moan about fan culture this week. The thread can be viewed in its full, erm, magnificence here, but if you fancy a sneak peek, here’s the first one.
A good, solid set-up, I’m sure you’ll agree.
The way fans treat each other has long been a bugbear of mine, but it’s got much much worse in recent years. The influx of new fans – younger fans, people of colour, even (oh God!) the wimmins – has set the alarm bells ringing among some (not all, it must be noted) older fans, who seem to view them as a threat to their particular property. Star Trek fans got in on the action this week by moaning about ‘Discovery’ foregrounding two women of colour, while women-only showings of Wonder Woman at the Alamo Drafthouse in the States riled the cinema’s male patrons.
Before attacking this attitude I’m first going to try to understand it, because there is some part of me that can stand back, scientifically judge it, and try to work out objectively where it comes from. As far as I can tell, it’s the erosion of the element of fantasy that people look for in things like Star Trek and Star Wars. If people watch a film set in a galaxy far, far away, they want to be transported there and the greater push for diversity and inclusion draws them out of it. Suddenly, they’re watching a film that reminds them of the world they live in rather than helping them escape it.
As I say, I get that, but, well, y’know what…
When I was a kid, I loved Spider-Man. He was shy like me, a wallflower who couldn’t articulate himself and didn’t have the confidence to make friends. I needed Spider-Man because I saw myself in him. As I’ve grown up, I’ve seen myself in many more characters. Some of them – like me – are white and male and straight, others are not. I loved Sophie in Spielberg’s The BFG for her determination. I loved Finn in The Force Awakens for his redemptive goodness. I loved Willow from Buffy for her smarts and power. These are great characters and I often think ‘what would they do’ in my every day life because I relate to them so strongly.
The argument so often goes that good stories don’t depend on the race, gender or sexuality of a character, just the story that’s being told, but this is often put over by straight, white, male fans and it’s missing the point. I find it easier to relate to people who aren’t like me because there are so many characters who are like me. I’ve had my fill. If you’re gay, where’s your shining hero? If you’re black or Hispanic or Asian, where are the characters you can look up to and aspire to be. They’re there, for sure, but they’re hard to find and they really shouldn’t be; they should only be the flick of a remote control button away.
Slowly but surely, we’re getting there, but sadly that slowness is far too slow and it’s because of fans, which is something I simply can’t comprehend. It’s completely against what I think is common decency and – more to the point – against what so many of our heroes stand for: the goodness, humanity, and empathy we claim to love about them. There are kids out there of all creeds and colours, sexualities and genders who are desperately in need of the same hero I found in Spider-Man, or Indiana Jones, or Luke Skywalker when I was a kid. They need them and they deserve them. They’ll not only entertain those kids, but help them in times of despair, giving them the strength to say ‘what would they do’ when they’re being bullied, or coming out, or being told that they’re not good enough because they ‘throw like a girl’.
Why on earth would you want to take away the strength you found in your heroes yesterday from those who need them today? That’s not what Spider-Man would do? That’s some straight up Green Goblin shit.
Even if you ignore that, even if you throw your hands up and dismiss that as ‘social justice warrior crap’, fine, but you’re killing the thing you love. Nothing lasts forever. People get old, they stop having disposable incomes and so the money they plough into their favourite things, the money that allows those favourite things to stay alive, diminishes. It happened with Star Wars in the late 80s and early 90s, when the franchise’s core base had grown into teenagers and moved on from such childish things as lightsabers and The Force. It needed the release of the Special Editions to bring people back into the fold and show new audiences what that glorious galaxy far far away is all about.
It could have happened again after the release of Revenge of the Sith. The films were done, the story of the Skywalkers over. The poor critical reception of those movies had tarnished the series as a whole and there really was the threat – as hard as it is to believe now – that it could all fade away. Then, along came ‘The Clone Wars’ with a new hero, a female hero. Ahsoka Tano was roundly criticised when she first hit the screen, but now she’s gone on to become a lynchpin of the saga, appearing in ‘Star Wars Rebels’ and a wide range of ancillary media. Why? Simple: new, and often female, fans. Young girls could relate to Ahsoka and – thanks to Ashley Eckstein, who voices her – felt welcomed into the community. Female fans have always been there, of course, but there were more now and they all felt empowered because they were represented.
I’m not suggesting Star Wars would have died without Ahsoka and ‘The Clone Wars’, but history could have played out very differently. Without those female fans, without that new audience, would Star Wars and Lucasfilm have been as enticing a proposition to Disney as it was? Would George Lucas have sold to someone else? Would that company have been as careful with the property as Disney has been? Impossible to say, but I doubt we’d be in this spot: witnessing an increasing, and increasingly diverse, following that’s demanding – and often getting – brilliant films, TV series, books and comics from a company that knows it can’t deliver anything but the best.
From a personal point of view, I look to the diversity and size of the Star Wars franchise with envy. As anyone who reads this blog knows, I’m a big Steven Spielberg fan, and wish there was a thriving community for his films. Sure you get fan followings for Jurassic Park, Jaws and Indiana Jones, but there are few people who love Bridge of Spies, The Terminal and Empire of the Sun as much as they love that aforementioned trio. Nothing wrong with that, of course, but it makes me wistful. I wish there was a community who I could engage with, who would love to discuss why Catch Me If You Can is a semi-sequel to E.T. as much as they love discussing Short Round’s back story, but there isn’t and that kinda sucks. Other fans should be grateful that they’re not ploughing their furrow on their own.
It’s not always easy seeing other people enjoying ‘your thing’. They come in and they shake it up, offering new and sometimes critical opinions that you’d prefer not to hear. It’s important to hear them though, not just from a social and political view, but also a creative one (I’m the least stylish person on the planet but love the interest in fashion that female fans have brought to Star Wars). Doing so won’t nudge anyone out of the way or shift the focus onto something else; quite the opposite, it’ll only make the community and therefore the property richer and stronger. Isn’t that, y’know, a good thing?
So please, older fans, stop. Stop getting angry, stop reacting to new and diverse fans like they’re thieves stealing your favourite things, and please, please, please stop being dicks. Just stop. Star Wars is great, Star Trek is great, Wonder Woman is great, Spider-Man is great. These things we love are fucking great, and it’s why we love them. So let people love them. As many people, and as many different people, as you possibly can. Because they need them. Because it’s what your heroes would do. And if that doesn’t persuade you, because there’s nothing worse than debating why Empire of the Sun is Steven Spielberg’s best film with yourself.
Trust me on that one. I know.