There has been a no small number of words bandied about the internet over the last couple of weeks about the brokenness (or not) of geek fandom. It mostly started with Devin Faraci announcing “Fandom is broken” in his editorial, which itself was a reflection about this post from the A.V. Club. This set off a powder keg of shares, tweets, and reaction posts from both creators and fans. If you want to follow what has been an interesting discussion, try these posts: an article mostly concurring with Faraci from Movie Pilot, this measured rebuttal from blastr, a strong reaction that gives voice to concerns of minority fans from Fusion, and a passionate look at Faraci’s past and current views on fandom from tumblr.
I’m opening with this bevy of links for two reasons:
A) I think this is an important topic. In the digital age, the line between fans and creators is becoming electron thin. Fans and creators have more access to one another than at any time in history, and those interactions are going to shape the stories of the future.
B) I’m not going to spend a lot of time addressing the issue here. I don’t have to. The Star Wars community is one among many where I’ve seen ample evidence of a fandom which is vibrantly alive.
For me, there’s three indicators for a fully functioning fandom: participation, passion, and people. These three things are interwoven in a variety of ways to make up the fabric of any particular fandom that you see and experience. For the sake of discussion, we’ll try to disentangle each individually and briefly look at them here.
Participation at its most basic is showing up to the party. This is when fans have been there, done that, and have the t-shirt. It means buying tickets to movies, tuning into the show, and proudly displaying your geek swag.
In 2012, Disney bet $4 Billion that they could find fans to participate in a 35 year old property. I believe wisely so. After all this time, Star Wars is still a pop culture juggernaut that people are happy to take part in. Even with relatively cool reviews to the new canon, the tie-in novel Aftermath was a New York Times Bestseller. Star Wars: Battlefront was among the top 5 bestselling games of 2015. And let’s not forget, The Force Awakens had a record breaking theatrical run, earning the biggest worldwide opening weekend and managing to be the fastest film ever to earn $1 Billion in just 12 days. None of this mentions the massive marketing push that Disney has running in conjunction with their media releases. Raise your hand if would love to have an adorable remote control BB-8 of your very own.
Of course, ticket sales and toys aren’t the only way to participate in a fandom, and that’s where passion comes in.
Passionate fans engage their fandom on a deeper level. Clearly, Star Wars resonates with people. The Saga has been with us now for almost 40 years. It is a cultural touchstone. Fans with a passion for these stories and characters are expressing themselves in hundreds of fascinating ways. These are the fans that have filled Deviantart, tumblr, and other corners of the internet with outstanding artwork. It takes passion to design and build your own costume, then endure the inevitable discomfort of wearing Disney Mandalorian armor in July. Fans of Star Wars who are creating art, making costumes, writing fanfic, or blogging are taking time out of their day to share a piece of Star Wars with the world. It goes beyond just love of that Galaxy far, far away. It’s a place that matters to them on a personal level.
However, if you’re familiar with the Sith Code, you know that passion can lead down a dark path… To quote Obi-wan regarding strong feelings, “They do you credit, but they could be made to serve the Emperor.” Like many other fandoms in the world, Star Wars fans can fall to the dark side.
The people aspect of a fandom can be the trickiest part to get right. It involves the fans themselves, the community they build together, and their acceptance of new people to their ranks. I have heard firsthand accounts of people experiencing criticism from Star Wars fans that they are not “doing it right.” This is geek gatekeeping, and it has no place among Star Wars fans.
Gatekeeping is an elitist attitude towards your fandom. It reinforces the idea that there is a certain way to be a “true fan” of a genre or property. Gatekeeping occurs when passion for a fandom mixes with a jealous ownership of it. It can show up in all sorts of ways. Gatekeepers might insist that you are not a “true fan” unless you’re familiar with the Expanded Universe. They may say that no “true fan” would accept the video games as canon. I have even spoken with fans that hold the audacious belief that no “true fan” of the Saga can enjoy the Prequels.
To clear things up, I have created a sure fire questionnaire that determines the worthiness of any Star Wars fan:
Question 1) Do you love Star Wars? Yes.
Okay. We’re done here. Welcome to the fandom. It’s that simple.
Just like the Force with its Dark Side and Light Side, fandoms have another path they can follow. One in line with the peace, openness, and community building you would expect among the best Jedi. The path of Ambassadorship. Star Wars is perfectly situated in this moment in time to be a fandom of ambassadors, not only into the love of Star Wars specifically, but even as a gateway into geek culture and SFF fandom at large.
We have already touched on the fact that Star Wars is a cultural icon. It is a big, geeky, space adventure that is light on science elements, full of fun, and even throws in tropes from the fantasy genre. People looking to jump into genre fiction can find a lot to love among Star Wars’ quirky characters and rich settings. Add to this mix the fact that one of the biggest media marketing companies on the planet are now at the reins of the franchise, and you have a perfect storm for welcoming a new generation of fans.
And this is where I say something controversial. Something I had not realized myself until recently. Disney gave us as an incredible gift as we strive to be geek ambassadors to the droves of new fans the new movies will generate. This gift was turning the Expanded Universe into Legends.
Hear me out long time Star Wars fan. I love the Expanded Universe (EU) as much as anyone. The ongoing adventures of Luke and the gang, and later of Wedge’s ragtag Rogues, helped me through the awkwardness of high school. Just a couple weeks ago I wrote here on this blog about parts of the EU that I love and still hope to see continued, but the truth about the wonderful tapestry of decades of novels, comic books, video games, and the Star Wars Holiday Special is this: They are completely inconsequential.
That is a different thing than saying “they don’t matter.” They matter. Those works are a part of fan experiences, but what Disney has accomplished by making them Legends is giving us a rich history to invite people towards without the idea that a “true fan” must be familiar with it. Any gatekeeper who would hold up knowledge of the EU as a benchmark no longer has an argument. The novels and other materials are now esentially high production fanfics. Their effect on the Star Wars Universe is roughly equivalent to that of a really great #Stormpilot short story on tumblr.
All of these are enjoyable supplemental materials. A way for us to revisit the Galaxy between canon releases of movies and books. The incredible media of the EU, as well as the vast collection of fan driven art and stories online, create spaces where we can invite people deeper into the Star Wars fandom. These are ways that people can participate in something we all love, and hopefully find their own niche to be passionate about.
I love Star Wars. I love Star Wars fans. The Force Awakens with all its nostalgia, great characters, and dazzling action was a blast to watch, and I have enjoyed the opportunity to continue geeking out online as I peruse the art and fiction produced by fans. This has been in some ways an even greater experience. We are not being satisfied by the official line from Disney and its partners. We are forging our own routes through the Galaxy far, far away, and we are doing it together. So, keep it up Star Wars fans. Keep inviting new people to experience this great thing we love. Keep creating amazing art and stories to further engage our growing community. Keep being awesome and while you’re doing that, I’ll be over here trying to rework the lyrics of Bonnie Tyler’s “I Need a Hero” into a parody song celebrating my Stormpilot OTP. “I need a pilot…”