The Last Fanboy? The Authors of “Toxic Geek Masculinity in Media” on Star Wars
by Anastasia Salter and Bridget Blodgett
When we closed the proofs on Toxic Geek Masculinity in Media, it was difficult to call the work over. The mainstreaming of geek media has continued at an impressive rate, as fans await the opening of immersive theme park lands based on top franchises and new installments of geek favorites release seemingly every weekend. As we wrapped up the manuscript, many of these events were still waiting on the horizon. Star Wars: The Last Jedi was still a trailer, not yet a much-disputed film so contentious that fanboys would call for its removal from canon. Black Panther was still an optimistic note on the horizon, with white male leads still the norm for superhero films. No one had started complaining that Wasp was featured too prominently on the Ant-Man and the Wasp poster. And of course, Solo hadn’t “failed” yet at the box office in a moment that would spark ongoing debate over what exactly went wrong: a toxic fandom? Star Wars saturation? Or too much meddling by “social justice warriors”?
Among these moments, none has been more telling than the fate of The Last Jedi: a film that by its very character arcs seemed to undo some of the classic white male hero arcs of previous films, and through that undoing seemed set to unravel and fracture the fandom. The film is the most important Star Wars installment to date: featuring a woman, a black man, a Latinx man, and a woman of color in major roles, alongside several older women as mentor figures. Time and time again, the film takes steps to upset and overturn the existing expectations of both the Star Wars franchise and epic movies narratives in general on their head. From one of the older women making a heroic, and viscerally memorable, self-sacrifice in a moment usually reserved for Jedi to the upending of a tradition of patriarchal lineage establishing a character’s significance in the universe, The Last Jedi seeks to complicate and problematize a pattern that was so instilled within the original stories that Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces uses it as a core illustrative example.
The reaction to Star Wars: The Last Jedi was as dramatic as these reversals demanded: a campaign was launched to remove The Last Jedi from canon. A fundraiser to “remake” the film offered the promise of avoiding the “blasphemy” of the existing film. On the website’s launch, the founders explained their logic as a need to restore heroism: “The hero archetype's [sic] of the original films is what made these so great, it made characters that everyone could relate to regardless of their background and beliefs. No longer having this core element along with poor storytelling, has made the franchise divisive and in disarray.” As of our last visit, these campaigners claim to have raised over sixteen million in funds for the cause on a site that ends with the tagline “Welcome To The Rebellion”—a reminder that in the battle for Star Wars fandom, these fans still see themselves as the plucky alliance struggling against a dark, feminist empire.
The archetypes of heroism these campaigners refer to are the same we sought to illuminate within our work: the models of white male heroes who rise from misunderstood outcasts and victims to born leaders, rewarded with romance and power, are well-established across the media we looked at—from Han Solo himself to, yes, the men of The Big Bang Theory. We set out years ago to better understand the role geek media representations and franchises play in fueling the well-documented culture of misogyny and racism that continues to gain traction and visibility on and off-line. While these representations are progressing, as success stories from Black Panther to the upcoming Captain Marvel demonstrate, the reactionary forces within geek fandom spaces still dominate a lot of the discourse. The path forward requires producers, writers, and stars to navigate hostile territory when producing controversial work, as the recent departure of Kelly Marie Tran from Instagram attests. Ultimately, it will take more than a few great films—or any single hero—to reverse the course, requiring significant and ongoing effort on the behalf of many to overcome.
Anastasia Salter is Associate Professor of Games and Interactive Media at the University of Central Florida, USA. She is author of Jane Jensen: Gabriel Knight, Adventure Games, Hidden Objects and What is Your Quest?: From Adventure Games to Interactive Books, and co-author of Flash: Building the Interactive Web.
Bridget Blodgett is Associate Professor of Information Arts and Technologies at the University of Baltimore, USA. Her research involves the use of technology within Internet culture and virtual worlds and the social impacts of virtual and internet culture on offline life.