Franchises, Fandom and Protecting The Brand Message
One criticism that Star Wars has had to face recently was the lack of women in there. You had some great female roles in The Clone Wars and there are already two lined up here; is that something you’re trying to combat?
I can tell you that here at Lucasfilm it’s always something that is on our mind. Whether they be boys or girls or men or women, we want the characters we create to be strong, inspirational characters – even as villains. We did a great job on Ventress from Clone Wars and what she represented too for a generation of Star Wars fans. I think it must be an exciting time to be a Star Wars fan because it feels like, more than ever, everybody is represented in our stories, so we can look at the galaxy and say, ‘I am a part of it’, which is definitely something I’m interested in as a person that gets to create in this galaxy.
~ Dave Filoni to Empire Online
In the two weeks since the Episode VII cast reveal, the topic of women in Star Wars hasn’t gone away. Helen O’Hara brought up the criticism in her Empire Online Interview with Dave Filoni, and Entertainment Weekly’s feature in the latest issue made the point of reminding readers that another major role for a female character has yet to be announced. In her piece for the AV Club, Caroline Siede voices the issue that concerns many fans:
That the celebrated works of art in our culture are so often about male-dominated worlds with one or two notable women (see also: Star Wars, Harry Potter, The Avengers, Inception, The Matrix, Star Trek) is still a problem, even if those women kick ass and keep pace with men.
In the meantime, Lionsgate continues to announce more female roles for Mockingjay Part 2 and Insurgent. Mockingjay’s cast photos reveal a striking difference in the diversity of a world imagined compared to the far away galaxy imagined so far in Episode VII. Sadly it’s not just a cast photo that has raised eyebrows about diversity and the Star Wars franchise. From the New York Toy Fair Star Wars Rebels roll out to the initial announcements for its Episode VII production staff, Celebration Anaheim and Star Wars Reads Day, and Star Wars books from children’s to adult fiction, the franchise has presented a very male face forward.
In the immediate Star Wars fandom, the micro and macro-aggressions aimed at individuals raising questions about diversity escalated to a level where long time Star Wars blogger Dunc at Club Jade felt she had to tackle the topic.
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?
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.
Fandom, whether it is sports or entertainment, revolves on the same premise: franchises are vying for disposable income with the consumer purchasing some enjoyment with the exchange of money. Fans of the L.A. Clippers, and fans of NBA entertainment as a whole, have loudly voiced their outrage in the Donald Sterling controversy; their anger doesn’t change the fact that they are fans. As the NFL’s St. Louis Rams drafted the league’s first openly gay player in Michael Sam, Miami Dolphins player Don Jones tweeted his reaction, and was subsequently fined and ordered to complete sensitivity training. Individuals are allowed to believe whatever they like. At the same time, companies are becoming increasingly aware that the behavior of individuals associated with a brand can and does affect how fans perceive the franchise itself. Failure to act could have had serious economic repercussions for the NBA or NFL, and the swift reactions were no surprise.
Both the macro-level aggression of Sterling toward black players and fans, and the micro-level aggression of Jones toward a gay peer, mirror the large and small ways female Star Wars fans have been treated over the years – by fellow fans and even by VIPs. Star Wars fandom, as a whole, has experienced disdain from some of its brightest stars, from George Lucas to Harrison Ford. Just recently, Ford’s reputation has been receiving a makeover of sorts. Interviews and appearances by Dave Filoni and Vanessa Marshall, and excited Tweets from Episode VII stars, create positive messages about the future for female characters and their fans.
Fans want to believe Filoni when he says the folks at Lucasfilm are always thinking about the lack of women. But in a cultural environment where women already feel uncomfortable, when we observe a member of the Lucasfilm storytelling team hijack an important women’s issue to talk about men, the broader message suggesting change becomes suspect.
On April 15, over two hundred girls were kidnapped and enslaved in Nigeria for getting an education. From the New York Times:
The high school girls, asleep in their dormitory, awoke to gunfire. The attackers stormed the school, set it on fire, and, residents said, then herded several hundred terrified girls into the vehicles — and drove off and vanished.
That was April 15 in northern Nigeria. The girls were kidnapped by an extremist Muslim group called Boko Haram, whose name in the Hausa language means “Western education is a sin.”
These girls, ages 15 to 18 and Christians and Muslims alike, knew the risks of seeking an education, and schools in the area had closed in March for fear of terror attacks. But this school had reopened so that the girls — the stars of their families and villages — could take their final exams. They were expected to move on to become teachers, doctors, lawyers.
Instead, they reportedly are being auctioned off for $12 each to become “wives” of militants. About 50 girls escaped, but the police say that 276 are still missing — and the Nigerian government has done next to nothing to recover the girls.
On May 7, First Lady Michelle Obama took to Twitter to take a stand: #BringBackOurGirls.
On May 8, Star Wars author Paul Kemp used the pretext of “the terrible news out of Nigeria today” to pontificate about men and male traits. Female fans often raise the problem of male fans who continuously marginalize their concerns or derail them; Kemp’s post is a classic example of this behavior, just on a global level. It’s not only that he hijacks a crisis of women’s rights for his own “hyper-masculine” agenda, but also that he does so with comments turned off. He has no intention of having a dialogue; Kemp isn’t open to discussion. He holds a position of authorial authority, a position of privilege within the science fiction and fantasy community, and therefore apparently believes that the internet must simply behold his words but not deign to challenge them. Again, this is classic behavior exhibited over the past decade or more on message boards and other fandom venues, where men wanted to be heard but not disputed and women who spoke up were silenced.
Kemp has justified his closed comments previously by declaring that people who disagree with him fail in reading comprehension, belong to a hive mind, or are merely unthinking participants in internet outrage culture. Interestingly, this same unsympathetic mindset has been used against female fans who spoke out against the post-New Jedi Order novels, who were dismissed as enraged ‘shippers or Mara-fans-with-a-grudge. Anger or disagreement doesn’t render opinions invalid. It’s also worth noting that the two most close-minded Star Wars authors, Karen Traviss and Troy Denning, ended up doing more harm than good to the franchise and the perception of Expanded Universe novels in the long term.
The question industry professionals need to ask themselves is: “How can I use my position to help create a literary world that is diverse, equitable, and doesn’t just represent the same segment of society it always has since its inception?
~ Daniel Jose Older in “Diversity is Not Enough” at Buzzfeed
Citing no authority in support of his views except a seventeenth-century political philosophy tract by a privileged white male Englishman who advocated in favor of rule by an absolute monarchical sovereign and against democracy and the separation of powers, Kemp declares that “the world will always need other men willing to put their aggression and willingness/capability to do violence in service to noble causes, whether that’s in service to country, family, or protecting the less strong.” Previously he has set forth his views on writing masculine stories, with the comments closed in that thread, as well. Some of the brightest stars in the science fiction and fantasy community rebuked his opinion. Unfortunately, centuries of chivalry and men of noble virtue haven’t changed the fact that women can be threatened with rape for criticizing a comic cover or that a girl can be shot in the head or enslaved for going to school. The mindset that male aggression is a “biological reality” also perpetuates rape culture around the world, by diminishing men’s responsibility for their behavior.
Compared to even three decades ago, the situation for many women around the world is improved – but that is because women have become empowered to fight back against oppression and violence with words and deeds. Without a doubt, Princess Leia inspired many women to be their own heroines, as did Padmé Amidala and Ahsoka Tano. As Dunc reminds us:
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?
~ Dunc at Club Jade
Today there are still young women with dreams of being doctors and lawyers who are terrorized for educating themselves. Yet Kemp uses the plight of the women in Nigeria to speak about the virtue of aggression in men and behaves passive-aggressively towards women, even subtweeting (February 9th at 11:56 a.m., 11:57 a.m., 11:59 a.m., 12:02 p.m., and 12:02 p.m. PST) the views of the female fiction editor at Lucasfilm within minutes after she had tweeted reactions to marketing jargon used to represent female characters. (February 9th at 11:23 a.m., 11:31 a.m. and retweeting a reply, 11:33 a.m., 11:36 a.m., and 11:45 a.m. PST, as well as 12:57 p.m. and 2:53 p.m.). Fans are not blind to “his constant passive microaggressions on the topic of diversity” and multiple major fansites no longer follow him on Twitter. Fans draw conclusions and decide how that affects their choices as consumers. Just as with Donald Sterling or Orson Scott Card, the fans get to decide who we consider a bigot – and how the public response, or lack thereof, reflects on the franchise.
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5 thoughts on “Franchises, Fandom and Protecting The Brand Message”
Lucasfilm/Disney should be ashamed of employing this guy. I don’t care how good his books supposedly are. I will never buy them and I will probably avoid Star Wars books as long as he is clearly working for them.
I’m outrage culture? I’m decrying it!
Tyler, my link is meant to point others to your wonderful commentary on diversity. Love your positive message. Keep up the good work on behalf of fandom.
This is a pretty incredible post. I think what I like most about it is that you put our discussions about women and Star Wars in context with other issues and questions of diversity that are floating in the “real world”. Thanks for another great essay Tricia.
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