The Star Wars Fandom

star wars fandom/at-at title

Joy, Passion and Frustration in a Galaxy Far, Far Away…

“I thought Star Wars was too wacky for the general public.”

-George Lucas

The 25th of May 1977. In a restaurant on Hollywood Boulevard, a young filmmaker from the rebellious New Hollywood movement enjoys his meal. He is quiet, introverted, maybe a little nerdy with a beard, glasses, and a haircut that sometimes seems to have a life on its own. He hasn’t made many movies yet and has hardly made a dent in the Hollywood establishment. And he is already fed up with the so-called Hollywood elite. He’d rather make artsy, experimental films. He would much rather become a race car driver.

A crowd has gathered outside the Grauman’s Chinese Theatre just across the street. What’s going on? The police are there, having stopped traffic from one direction. An enormous line of people, eight or nine people wide, is snaking its way from the ticket’s booth, out of the cinema down the sidewalk, and around the block. They have gathered to watch the filmmaker’s newest film. And the filmmaker, he can hardly believe it.

A Fandom is Born

“Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

-Yoda (Frank OZ), The Empire Strikes Back

The filmmaker at the restaurant, the 33-year-old George Lucas, could scarcely believe what he was seeing. He never thought his little “space fantasy,” as he called it, would go on to become a world-spanning phenomenon. In fact, he thought he was making an experimental low-budget film inspired by the old “space show” serials he used to watch as a kid. Each Saturday morning, young George would go on adventures with the likes of Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon. And his heroes would follow and inspire him for the rest of his career.  

Lucas was tired and maybe a little fed up. It had been a hard production, where every possible thing seemed to go wrong. He never thought his film, which he had called Star Wars after some pressure from his friends (he actually had a much longer title in mind), would be successful. He was wrong.  

Star Wars‘ success was a case of the right place and the right time. The Vietnam War had ended with thousands of Americans dead on the other side of the world. The Watergate scandal that had happened just a few years prior was still a major talking point in the news and media. Trust in the political establishment was at an all-time low.

Star Wars gave people a much-needed optimistic, positive, and anti-authoritarian adventure. It was the start of a cinematic universe that would come to inspire, engage, bring joy to and often frustrate fans across the world for decades to come.   

A fandom had been born.

What is Fandom?

“You must unlearn what you have learned.”

-Yoda (Frank OZ), The Empire Strikes Back

Ok, so what is fandom anyway? It might not be a word that most of us use daily. I’ll do my best to explain it without diving too deep into the theoretical sides of it.

The short and somewhat theoretical answer is this:  A fandom is a common term to describe the social activities fans of brands with a certain characteristic do together or in relation to each other to reinforce their connection to those brands. Fandom is created when brands or activities with “identity value” helps people shape their sense of their own identities.

So, Star Wars, Harry Potter, Hunger Games, or that sports team you’re supporting can create a fandom. Porsche, Harley Davidson, and Tesla create fandoms. The brand of milk you buy from the shop at the corner store does not create a fandom. Although I’m sure there are people out there who are especially interested in dairy products, have posters of milk cartons on their walls, and so on. No disrespect intended, but that might be something for a very different article.

A Theoretical Perspective

“Time it is for you to look past a pile of old book, hmm?”

-Yoda (Frank Oz), The Last Jedi

Ok, so we’re going to have to dive a little bit deeper. The word “fan” comes from “fanatic,” but how we use it describes an interest and engagement far above average rather than something religious. And although there are indeed some similarities between fandoms and religions, being a part of a fandom is not the same as being religious.

Many fans wish to share their enthusiasm with others. Just visit YouTube or some other social media, and you’ll find fans sharing their thoughts and creations dedicated to their chosen brands or activities. And when enough fans create and share like this, social bonds are formed. A fandom is created.

According to the book Superfandom: How Our Obsessions Are Changing What We Buy and Who We Are (2017), authors Aaron M. Glazer and Zoe Fraade-Blanar describe certain building blocks of fandom. The first of these can be called “fan objects,” being physical objects that in some way represent the fans’ passion for a brand or activity. Examples might include posters, toys, collectibles, clothes, or even people like celebrities. Then there are “fan texts,” which are in many ways similar to fan objects but are non-physical. Examples might include an experience, activity, song, or even an idea. Fans use fan objects and fan text to reinforce their connection to the brand or activity and build social connections in the fandom.

So how is a fandom created? Glazer and Fraade-Blanar described it with this easy formula:

A successful fandom = emotional response + effective communication + critical mass.

In other words, if enough people really like something and can talk about what they like with each other, a fandom is formed.   

The Revenge of the Nerds

“Who’s scruffy looking?”

-Han Solo (Harrison Ford), The Empire Strikes Back

Right, so enough theory!

There was a time when fandom was seen as something nerdy and uncool. It was something that the cool kids in class would never be a part of. But in the last couple of decades or so, and especially with the increase in internet connection speeds that paved the way for social media, the nerd has become cool, and fandom has become mainstream.

We can, of course, discuss how much impact series like The Big Bang Theory and Stranger Things have had on fandom and nerd culture and how much these in any way represent real nerds. But it is hard to deny that these and other series have helped make being part of a fandom something safe and normal in the eyes of outsiders.    

Standing out from the crowd has become acceptable. There are video games in every home. Board games have become mainstream, and we play games like Dungeons & Dragons, often online, with international celebrities like Henry Cavill, Vin Diesel, Jon Favreau, and James Franco.

Positive Fandom

“I have a really good feeling about this.”

-Han Solo (Alden Ehrenreich), Solo: A Star Wars Story

Fandoms, at their best, can provide meaning and a sense of belonging. Fans feel a greater sense of community with people they have something in common and can share their interests. This is also important when a fandom represents marginalized elements of society or untraditional and even controversial tastes. Fans in such fandoms can be themselves without the fear of judgment or criticism from people unable to understand them.

The Internet has provided a great boost for fandoms around the world. Before high-speed internet connections, fans had to meet to share their enthusiasms and interests physically. These days it is possible to get in touch with fans and even entire fan communities with a few clicks. Social media sites like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Discord are full of fan communities sharing their fandoms.

Fan events and conventions are still important parts of fandoms, and the Star Wars fandom is no exception. Star Wars Celebration is normally held annually in the US, providing fans with social activities, fandom events, panels, and the chance to meet cast and crew from the newest releases in the Star Wars franchise.  

Bad Guys Doing Good

“Aren’t you a little short for a stromtrooper?”

-Princess Leia Organa (Carrie Fisher), A New Hope

A great example of positive fandom is the organization called the 501st Legion, which was created by American Star Wars fans Albin Johnson and Tom Crews in 1997. The organization is non-profit and has members all over the world, organized in so-called “garrisons.” With the motto “Bad Guys Doing Good”, the members dress up in self-made costumes, often as the white-armored Imperial Stormtroopers or other bad guys from the Star Wars universe, to work charity or attend Star Wars events. 501st Legion members attend premiers of new Star Wars films, visit children’s hospitals, and attend various events and conventions.

As an appreciation for the 501st Legion’s work, George Lucas, an honorary member, included them in the story of the third prequel Star Wars film, Revenge of the Sith (2005). Here they serve as Anakin Skywalker’s personal regiment as they attack the Jedi Temple towards the film’s end. In addition, members of the organization, in their own armor, joined the Disney+ series The Mandalorian as extras. Who could be better to play Imperial Stormtroopers than the people whose passion it is to act and cosplay as them?

The Darker Side of Fandom

“That’s not how the Force works!”

-Han Solo (Harrison Ford), The Force Awakens

Sadly, not all fans use their passion and engagement for something positive. Fandom has always had its darker sides, and this is especially true with Star Wars.

It is said that nobody hates Star Wars as much as a Star Wars fan. I don’t know who said this first, but I’m sure it was with a certain frustration after having heard the rants and tirades from Star Wars fans saying, or even yelling that this film is terrible, that Han shot first, or that Ewoks are stupid. If you go online, especially after a Star Wars film or series just premiered, it will be easy to get the impression that Star Wars is the worst thing that ever happened to… well, anything.

And it has always been like this, in one form or another, since that day in 1977. Even the film is widely seen as the best in the series; The Empire Strikes Back had its share of angry letters to the newspapers and magazines when it first came out in 1980. I wonder what reactions it would have gotten now in the age of the internet and social media.

Maybe each Star Wars film needs some time to “cool off” to be fully accepted by the fans? Consider the Prequels (1999-2005), which got their fair share of flak when they first came out. But today, opinions have largely changed, and fans look back at the Prequels with a more positive, even nostalgic view. For many fans who have grown up with Star Wars, these films were their first taste of the Star Wars franchise. In addition, the popular animated series, The Clone Wars, helped make the Prequels an accepted part of the Star Wars fandom.    

Strong Reactions

“Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering.”

-Yoda (Frank Oz), The Phantom Menace

As I mentioned, it is not uncommon to see strong negative reactions after a new film or series is released in the Star Wars franchise. These films deliver strong identity myths, resulting in many fans creating their own strong opinions on how Star Wars should and shouldn’t be. And more often than not, the released film or series delivers something different than expected. For many hardcore fans, this can be a strong negative experience. For others, it is felt like an attack on their own identity when the character one identifies with acts in a completely unexpected way. This frustration, combined with the digital bullhorn that is the various social media platforms, the negative results can, in some cases, be extreme.      

The examples of strong negative reactions after a new Star Wars film or series was unable to live up to every expectation are many and tragic. Actor Ahmed Best, who played the innocent and clumsy Jar Jar Binks in The Phantom Menace (1999), was driven to the brink of suicide after years of online bullying and harassment. Jake Loyd, who at the age of 10 played young Anakin Skywalker in the same film, was bullied and harassed out of acting, and to this day, has struggled with a series of psychological problems. And it is believed that one of the main reasons “The Maker” himself, George Lucas, shelved Star Wars for many years after the Prequels and then sold it to Disney was the negative and downright toxic fan reactions to these films inspired in some fans.  

The more recent films have also received backlash and personal attacks against the cast and crew. The Last Jedi (2017) is an interesting case. Despite being well-received by many Star Wars fans and praised by critics (myself included), many fans attacked the films so vehemently that the internet seemed to boil over with hate and bile. Harassment and bullying quickly followed, targeting, among others, actress Marie Tran, who was literally chased off social media by angry fans brandishing sexism and racism.  

Why does this happen? There are many explanations, but one that seems especially current is that social media amplifies negative opinions more than positive ones. It can feel hard to form one’s own opinion when “everyone” seems to have a different one. And in many cases, it is much more comfortable to let others choose for you. A person who can lift his voice above the crown will often be seen as an influencer, so his opinions are the right ones. Right?

Echo chambers, majority illusions, and herd mentality can create a sense of “us vs. them” and “old vs. new.” Conflict and negativity sell, and for a good reason. It is easy to get carried away, be it in comments sections or social media. Maybe we’re so used to get our opinions served to us that we have stopped making our own?

And that influencer with a YouTube channel (Yeah, you know the one.) He knows how negative content creates so many more clicks than positive. And he uses it for all its worth.

A New Hope

“This is the way.”

Din Djarin (Pedro Pascal), The Mandalorian

Like the families that Star Wars tends to revolve around, our fandom can often seem a bit dysfunctional. But there are many bright spots. Fandom, at its best changes, lives and gives meaning in a world that can often feel meaningless. The Star Wars fandom can often be a shining example of this positivity.  

But can a fandom such as this, which often feels so divided, really come together? Is it possible to find common ground? A balance? I believe so. Even if there seems to be an endless stream of negative comments wherever you look about Disney’s and Lucasfilm’s handling of the franchise, has Star Wars never been more popular. And a new generation of Star Wars fans is taking the reins of the franchise. Passionate fans like Dave Filoni, who Lucas mentored, gave us the fantastic animated series Clone Wars and Rebels. Producer and director Jon Favreau, himself a life-long fan of the Star Wars universe, is leading the way with The Mandalorian, The Book of Boba Fett, and other series on Disney+.

And there is more. Next year we will see the return of Obi-Wan Kenobi, of course starring actor Ewan McGregor, who played the Jedi Master in Prequels. And as a life-long fan myself, it was terrific to see a live-action version of fan-favorite Ahsoka Tano in the second season of The Mandalorian (where she is played by Rosario Dawson).

There are plenty of reasons to still love Star Wars. And despite some bumps in the road, the fandom has a bright future. And hadn’t it been for George Lucas’ small “space fantasy,” we would never have seen the galaxy far, far away.

But we did, and for that, I will always be thankful.   

A big thanks to illustrator Andreas Nor for creating the art incredible art for this article. Check out his website here.

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