On Star Wars fandom, feminism, diversity and anger

I never, ever, ever wanted to be a social justice blogger. I still don’t. But apparently it’s happened, so let’s talk a bit about Star Wars, diversity and feminism, shall we?

Attack Pattern Clinique: When a hostile male enters the chat room and makes himself known as such, frantic chatter re: Clinique Bonus Time ensues. The hostile is ignored, drowned out and generally retreats in defeat.
Attack Pattern Clinique: When a hostile party, generally male, enters the chat room and makes himself known as such, frantic chatter regarding Clinique Bonus Time ensues. The hostile is ignored, drowned out and generally retreats in defeat.
I have been very lucky in that I did most of my fandom growing up in spaces that were heavily female, from the early ship-war days to Club Jade to the fanfic community. That’s not to say jerks don’t happen in such spaces – the Star Ladies invented Attack Pattern Clinique back in the days of AOL chat rooms for a reason – but for the most part I ‘grew up’ in fandom areas where women and their contributions were unquestioned, where the idea that Star Wars needs more women was simply a given.

When I came back into general fandom via the StarWars.com forums, it was from a position of authority. Not big authority – moderator of a message board – but there was still a certain amount of respect expected and received. I’m sure having nicknames that tend to read masculine doesn’t hurt, either.

Still, in general fandom I have, for the most part, had a good experience in dealing with male fans. It wasn’t perfect, but I didn’t see a lot of random outright hostility due to my gender, either. Until I, oddly enough, started writing more extensively about feminist concepts. Curious, no? (Not at all, actually.) But I personally haven’t received any rape threats for criticizing Star Wars, as recently happened in comic fandom, so we have that going for us, I guess.

I have very little patience for explaining basic concepts of feminism to anyone, which is a large part of the reason I’ve avoided the topic in the past. I can’t even claim to an expert myself, just a bit more versed in it than some – but if you’re actually interested in learning, we have Google. Here are several resources I found on the very first page of a search for ‘Feminism 101:’

Finally, A Feminism 101 Blog

→ The Geek Feminism wiki is not exactly introductory, but has a nice rundown of concepts and they link to a good primer on privilege.

→ Wikipedia has a Feminism entry, because of course it does.

→ Shakesville’s directory of Feminism 101 posts: Most relevant to the past week are On Anger and “Feminists Look for Stuff to Get Mad About.” Shakesville is a bit more deep in all this than I am- certainly more than this fandom itself is, generally, but it gives you a good general idea. (I’m not mad if you’re not angry at the same things, for instance, because I realize that not everyone is going to be aware of these things. I just wish people would understand that anger is often perfectly valid.)

→ For guys, the ever-reliable John Scalzi and Helpful Hints for Dudes.

A good article on white male privilege.

That said, something a lot of guys in fandom could bear to learn when it comes to feminist and diversity issues? That sometimes it’s best to just listen to those of us who are less privileged. Look: As a white woman, I am in no place to tell anyone less privileged than I am how to feel about their own experiences, in fandom or otherwise. I can speak as a woman and a feminist, but I can’t speak for all women, or even all feminists, and that’s not what I’m trying to do here. I have a fair amount of privilege myself, so what I can do is listen when they talk about these things, and not tell them they’re being irrational, because I don’t know. That is the consideration I’m asking from men who insist on saying that one or two (granted, white) women is more than enough.

Now, I am not saying “sit down and shut up” – I am saying that it is not about you, specifically. It’s usually not personal. Of course feminists know that “not all men” are like that. What the anger is about, is a system that is set up and built to benefit white males. That’s the culture, and when it benefits you, you may not notice the disparity. What else gets me angry? The fact that no matter how many times we talk about these things, no matter how we do it, women get written off as being ‘scary’ and told to ‘calm down.’

(Has telling an angry person to ‘just calm down,’ ever actually worked, I wonder? It certainly didn’t last week, though I was actually surprised to read my original column with a bit of distance and see it was a hell of a lot calmer than I remember being when writing it.)

It’s hard to miss that Star Wars is a male-dominated fandom, and very few of us came into this thinking otherwise. I don’t think anyone is expecting change to happen overnight, but that’s the thing – change has been happening. In just the last few years, we see Her Universe. We see creepers being thrown out of conventions and harassment policies being drawn up. We see The Hunger Games and Frozen making money hand over fist. We see Rebels, with two female hero characters out of five. Sure, we wonder why Marvel hasn’t made a Black Widow solo film, but we also see a Captain America movie where Captain America’s primary allies are three women and two black men. Progress. Slow, but progress.

And, yes, we see people speaking up when Episode VII only has two women and two minorities on its cast list. This was, again, not an isolated incident. It wasn’t just me and Tricia and the folks at Tosche Station. The objections came from all over geekdom, and the mainstream noticed.

I regret that it was lost in the outrage that there’s a very real possibility we’re going to see a new trio that consists of a black man, a white woman, and a Hispanic man. But the fact is, we don’t know yet which of these new actors will be playing the Luke Skywalkers and the Obi-Wan Kenobis, and which will be the Boss Nasses and the Crix Madines. All we see is the total group, and the disparity stands out. That they’re going to add at least one more woman, and perhaps a black or biracial one, is very good. It will help, particularly if the role is or becomes a major one over the trilogy. But we’re still looking at a lopsided cast. And why can’t minor roles be women? Would making Crix Madine, Boss Nass, Grand Moff Tarkin or Wedge Antilles female change their roles in the films? Did Mon Mothma and Padme’s handmaidens suspend anyone’s sense of disbelief?

Here’s what I’ve seen in fandom over the past week: Women seeing this as another in a long line of recent disappointments. The Rebels character launch that introduced every single male hero before Hera and Sabine. The lack of t-shirts for women and girls in the new Disney Store displays. The decanonfication of the Expanded Universe, and all the women in it* we’ve grown to love over the years, and a line-up of new books all written by and (mostly) starring men. And that’s just the official stuff from this year.

* Granted, not as many prominent women as we may have liked, and with a definite diversity problem, but still more than we see in the movies themselves.

I’ve seen people worried that this all means Disney or Lucasfilm are trying to exclude women from Star Wars. Now, I don’t think it’s deliberate, but it’s getting to the point where ‘business as usual’ and ‘same-old same-old’ simply aren’t good enough anymore. That’s why the blowback to the Episode VII cast has been so strong. What was revolutionary in 1977 and pretty good in 1999 isn’t going to cut it in 2015. Why are we mad? Because we’ve become more aware of these things, more outspoken, and we expect better. This is the original mega-franchise, a movie most of the first world is going to see no matter what. Star Wars has broken barriers in the past – can you really blame us for expecting it to keep doing that now?

I hope we see a diverse new trio in Episode VII. I hope we’re getting the J.J. Abrams who made Felicity and Alias and not the one who OK’d the Carol Marcus underwear scene in Star Trek Into Darkness. I didn’t want to be angry about the casting, I didn’t want to harsh anyone’s squee, but the fact is: It matters. Star Wars and fandom matters to us; We are just as much a part of it and we have just as much right to speak up, angry or otherwise, as anyone else. This is our fandom too, and our anger is not about destroying it; It’s about wanting it to be better. For everyone.

I’m sorry that’s so scary.

26 Replies to “On Star Wars fandom, feminism, diversity and anger”

  1. Excellent post, Dunc. In sports, fans can be totally invested and love their team, but angered by decisions made by the team management. Imagine if no one cared enough to get upset? Star Wars is a consumer product just like sports teams; it’s not a religion where we have to buy it wholesale.

    Wanted to add a point that I made today on diversity in my Star Wars storytelling post.

    “But when you look at the Episode VII production team, which has only one woman, as well as the Star Wars Rebels executive production team and the recent slate of authors for the kids and adult novels – essentially the people making the most important storytelling decisions – the casting ratio for women in Episode VII looks good by comparison.”

  2. Excellent job, Dunc. I am just not sure that I can reasonably conclude anything but that this is deliberate. (And there’s also that the new books are all male authors about male characters). It’s not as if Disney doesn’t know how to appeal to the female demographic. Disney has the princess line for girls so maybe they bought Star Wars so it would fill the same marketing niche beyond Buzz and Woody for boys. It seems to be all about boys because it is intended to be all about boys. Never mind, as io9 put it so perfectly, that Star Wars is a modern myth of enormous cultural significance that should be shared by everyone.

    1. I strongly believe they bought the property as a boys property and they intend to market it to boys because market research tells them that is where the money is going to be made with the least risk. I suspect that it’s purely business and they have no interest in driving culture in any direction but are merely concerned with the bottom line for their investors. That said, they will do what they can to avoid negative press, so openly expressing concerns is likely to help albeit slowly. It also doesn’t help that Star Wars is based on white and Japanese male literary/film traditions of fantasy and violent hero mythology. Now that I’ve sort of mentioned the Samurai connection, how about some Asians in these movies already? With the popularity of Star Wars in Asia and the ever growing market for films in China I am very surprised that we don’t have any Asian actors in the cast. I thought they would do that even just for the business reasons.

    2. Two years ago at ALA Midwinter in Seattle I attended a Star Wars Reads talk and was basically patted on the head when I pointed out that them constantly referring to ‘boys’ excluded the fact that women and girls might be interested in attending Star Wars Reads events too. They more or less straight out said ‘it’ll be mostly Dads and sons that are interested’. It was infuriating and I’m not very good at speaking up in public, but I did it anyway because I wanted the other librarians in the room at least, if not the authors up front, to recognise that they should market to an entire family and that women liked Star Wars too. This shouldn’t be rocket science, but it apparently is.

      1. Really? They didn’t just talk about “kids”? I mean, we do have a term in English readily available for a gaggle of young people.

  3. I’ve got just a few thoughts on this… I’m just tired of anger. I rarely, rarely ever see anger being constructive. I don’t trust it. And a lot of this is because I grew up in a conservative household, and while I still trend conservative on a great many things personally… the angry conservative talking head just got really old. I got really tired of the angry guy shouting vitriol… and normally without all the information first.

    And I hate to say it… but I’ve gotten the same vibe from a lot of the responses to casting. I can understand the hopes, the things wanted… but the instantaneous and quick anger… so much of the larger picture can be pushed aside. Think about the point that the new “big three” might not have a white male in it — if there was someone I’d be expecting to jump the gun and complain about the casting, it would be some right winger on Fox lamenting political correctness (maybe something about how white men only are allowed to be villains…).

    Again, we don’t know… we need to give things a bit more time, see how they play out. Otherwise things are premature.

    1. I definitely sympathize with you on this, but it’s important to distinguish vitriolic reactionism from a resolute desire to create change for the better.
      Disney is a big company, and their priority is to minimize risk and capitalize on audience enthusiasm. If they don’t have the wisdom to take a lesson from the devoted followings gained by the increasingly diverse and inclusive EU and Marvel Universes, then the only way we can influence them to avoid the same mistakes in the future is by voicing our displeasure.
      As with any issue that people are passionate about, some of us have fallen into the wrong kind of anger from time to time, but the vast majority of opinions I’ve seen have been clear, respectful and constructive in tone. I see the best side of fandom speaking out here, and I hope it gets heard.

      1. Not to get overly philosophic – but that’s the exact same line of argumentation any tyrant can use. You can find even the worst acts being spun as “just trying to change things for the better.” That just doesn’t convince me.

        And reading your response got me thinking – why should we as fans think that we should be the ones doing the influencing? Seriously – we are dealing with movies and stories created by artists working in collaboration – why would we as fans (or I as an individual) take ownership or responsibility for what is produced. We are free to like or free to not like what is produced… but that just seems… egotistical to me. We get to watch and enjoy events in other peoples’ creation… it’s not our own, we aren’t supposed to be in charge of it.

        Call me old fashioned… fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. Anger, fear, aggression… the dark side are they. Better to be calm, at peace… enjoy fandom for some knowledge, not for the attack =o)

        1. Eric – the thing is, you are *able* to be calm and at peace about issues like this, because you’re a man, and thus you’re approaching this from a perspective of male privilege. (I’m assuming, given that you’re posting with a male name.) Everything is already aimed at you and catered directly to you as a man, so you have no reason to be upset. But why should I, as a woman, just passively sit back and accept entertainment that deliberately excludes me, and makes me feel dismissed and unworthy of notice? When you, speaking from a position of privilege, tell the less-privileged that they should just calmly and happily accept content that excludes them, it comes off as pretty patronizing.

          I’m all for artistic vision and creators being free to tell the stories they want to tell, but when time after time after time, those stories all seem to be produced solely by white men for white men, it starts to get pretty old.

        2. Requests for representation stem from the desire to feel accepted and valued, and to know that our opinions and contributions matter. This is a basic human need that’s common to pretty much everyone (speaking in general terms). It’s not “egotistical” or tyrannical, and it’s kind of insulting that you would even make that implication.

        3. Yeah, “respect their artistic freedom! We don’t have the right to complain because we’re merely the consumers!” is a bad argument because it makes the opposite point: WE ARE THE CONSUMERS. Our opinion matters quite a bit. This isn’t some indie film being made on the director’s mom’s credit card. This is a multimillion-dollar commercial venture being financed by a multibillion-dollar multinational corporation that is publicly traded. Yes, the filmmakers have a bit of artistic freedom, but let’s not pretend that’s the driving consideration here. It’s not. WE ARE. We are the customers. We are the market. And if they don’t care what we think, that’s going to show up in the bottom line sooner or later, and that’s something they certainly do care about (see above re: publicly traded company). Yes, a commercial blockbuster can be great entertainment and even a work of art, but it all comes down to money. If we make our voices heard, the DIsney marketing department will pay attention, I assure you, even if George doesn’t.

        4. Alexandra, I’m sorry that my comments displeased you, but I would like to respond. I don’t find your comments to be consistent. I’m sitting here watching Doc McStuffins with my 2 year old son. Yet, the claim is that I’m able to be calm because I’m a man and everything is aimed at me…

          First off, not everything is aimed at me (even if there is *more* that is aimed at me – that’s a different and valid issue). Second, isn’t part of old fashioned sexism the implication that men can be calm and rational while women can’t? If someone suggested that to my mom, she would have decked them!

          You do ask a good question – “But why should I, as a woman, just passively sit back and accept entertainment that deliberately excludes me, and makes me feel dismissed and unworthy of notice?” There are two things – the passive aspect and the acceptance aspect. Let’s look at acceptance first, but flip it around. As noted, the big three might not include a “white-male”… is that a dismissal of me? (But I shouldn’t care because other things cater to me!) Ought I not enjoy the film because the only white guys in it will be old and crusty or covered in CGI? Is Star Wars disenfranchising me? I wouldn’t think so… if it’s something I love, I love. And I love characters that aren’t mirrors or projections of me. When I was little, Princess Leia was my favorite character, because she was cool. Ditto Mara Jade in the EU… and I didn’t feel less connected because they weren’t male.

          As for the passive (and this also responds to Elizabeth) – I grew up around a bunch of conservatives in the 80s who loved boycotts and the like… and you know what it accomplished? Most of the time… not much other than to have people (as my mom would put it) cut off their nose to spite their face. If, in fact, Disney is already marketing Star Wars as a “boy focused” property, a boycott or demonstration of outrage from women… isn’t going to have much effect. And all it will do is bring more bitterness, more feelings of rejection… and even what is there will start to feel like a sop, a placation. It’s the path of bitterness — you know all those bitter, angry conservatives who are in their 40s and 50s… that’s how they got there.

          + + + + + + + +

          I write this because I’ve been reading club jade for over a decade. I love the observations, the discussions that go on here… but… once you start down the bitter and angry path, forever will it dominate the way you view things.

          I mean, that’s one of the major themes of Star Wars. When does anger accomplish good? When does indignation? Rather, acting out of peace – learning to act with peace even when to all expectations you ought to be angry.

        5. As an additional note: The place that fans can impact is fan culture. Go, teach and instruct there – don’t let folks be dismissed on the basis of gender (all genders… dismissing someone because he’s a he or intimating that he couldn’t understand something is lousy too). Fans can impact and teach and shape fans much moreso than they can mess with the franchise.

          1. Well, here’s the thing: We have to explain these basic concepts every time the subject comes up. Every time, guys act like this is brand new information to them. And yes, often it’s the same exact guys. Can you see how frustrating that is?

            I don’t have the time/energy for lengthy replies this week, but I will get back to this at some point. Hopefully. But let me just say: This post was NOT the one I wanted to have to write last weekend. The first reaction post to the casting was NOT the one I wanted to write hours after the announcement. I’m not doing any of this because I want the trouble; I’m doing it because it needs to be said, because we feel like we are constantly not being heard. And I’m sick and tired of “If you don’t like, leave,” being the default reaction to any criticism, no matter how mild. (And this was mild, believe me.) I’m not boycotting anything, because I know it’s pointless in this case. But I’m sick and tired of any kind of feminist dustup in fandom ending up like Groundhog Day.

      2. Not really. You could make a point by not going to see the film and not buying merchandising. In fact, you could make even a stronger point if as mother, decide it’s not good for your boys to see a world where only boys and men get to do things while women and girls are secondary (at best). And since it’s not good, not take your child to see it, neither buy them merchandising of that film. Yes, it’s a really tough decision and means giving up things. But if many people do that, it would make then rethink their “marketing wisdom”.

        It would work the same way than age rating, which always struck me as weird, banning sex but not violence. If that pressure can make producers autocensor, then I’m sure that this would make then change a little. Not that much, since numbers show they are willing to take loses just to defend the status quo (lack of Gamora or Maleficent merchandising show this). In fact makes me wonder about some CEO’s skills. Sure, they get good income, but less than they’ll do by having some marketing… Anyway, I’ll wait to see some reviews to decide if they are worth my money.

  4. shitowski – brilliant, Dunc. I’m a geezer and have lived through the b.s., – watch Mad Men for just a hint (I was pre-schooler in the 50’s but even then, I knew) – and had assumed by now we would have no glass ceiling, and equal pay which are foundations of feminism = and even humanism. So easily understood, these two goals. Not as easily achieved. We encounter new prejudice in geekdom that has to be eradicated. That’s why we want to be a kick-ass cosplay….who takes no prisoners. It didn’t have to come to this.

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