Why there's still hope for the Star Wars fandom yet
If we’re to believe that the Star Wars fandom is at war with itself, then this year’s Start Wars Celebration marked a battle won. Kelly Marie Tran, who had faced months of racist and sexist abuse online following her role as Rose Tico in 2017’s The Last Jedi, was given a rapturous reception on taking the stage at Chicago’s Wintrust Arena. At the world’s biggest Star Wars convention, attended only by the most dedicated of fans, she was embraced with an open and loving heart. “Kelly! Kelly! Kelly!” they chanted, rising to a standing ovation. She cried. I cried. It seemed like most of the auditorium cried.
It was the unexpected highlight of the panel for The Rise of Skywalker, which says a lot considering it coincided with the surprise return of a certain Sith Lord. But Tran’s reception was not only heartening, it was a moment of pure relief for so many fans of the franchise, worried that the well had finally been poisoned beyond relief. Tran is far from the first cast member to receive abuse. Daisy Ridley, who plays Rey, deleted her Instagram account in 2016, while the cast of the prequel trilogy have shared their own distressing experiences. Jake Lloyd was bullied for his role as a young Anakin Skywalker in The Phantom Menace, which in turn dissuaded him from pursuing an acting career, while Ahmed Best has spoken of the hostility meted out to his character Jar Jar Binks and how it reached a point where the actor considered suicide.
Yet, when Tran was cast as the first leading woman of colour in the film series, a dam somewhere burst. The internet had not only allowed the ugliest bigotry to fester, but it encouraged it to mobilise like a military unit. Tan quit social media, returning to the public eye several months later with a moving opinion piece about her struggles. “I want to live in a world where people of all races, religions, socioeconomic classes, sexual orientations, gender identities and abilities are seen as what they have always been: human beings,” she wrote in The New York Times. It was a pain shared by so many Star Wars fans, who felt like the thing they loved most in the world had become a weapon of destruction. Maybe it was time to abandon ship.
As I touched down in Chicago for this year’s celebration, I admit that I was hesitant. There was a real fear that what I had seen online would now be something I had to confront in person. After all, I’d been angrily told by many a faceless Twitter account, that Disney’s “leftist agenda” had killed Star Wars in cold blood and left its body to be picked clean by vultures. Well, if that section of the supposed fandom did turn up, they managed to keep awfully quiet. All I saw was the standing ovation for Tran, as director JJ Abrams told the crowd: “I was grateful to Rian Johnson for so many things he did in Episode VIII [The Last Jedi]. And the greatest for me was casting Kelly Marie.” I saw Best, too, receive the same enthusiastic reception during a panel celebrating the 20th anniversary of The Phantom Menace.
Whatever small pockets of ugliness may have made their presence, all I experienced over the course of the four-day convention was joy, love, and genuine inclusivity. Ridley giggled as the whole audience sang “Happy Birthday” to her. Oscar Isaac and John Boyega playfully teased a romance between Poe Dameron and Finn, in full knowledge of how desperately fans have wanted to see the two together since their debut in The Force Awakens. Lucasfilm’s real test, of course, is whether they actually follow through with introducing that much-needed LGBT+ representation in the Star Wars universe. Meanwhile, Pedro Pascal, who fronts the first live-action Star Wars TV series, The Mandalorian, soaked up the atmosphere with the wide-eyed wonder of a child at Christmas.
Ashley Eckstein, who voices Ahsoka Tano on the animated shows The Clone Wars and Rebels, burst into tears when recounting the story of a young fan diagnosed with cancer. She hosted a panel on the Saturday named Sisters of the Force, which celebrated the franchise’s female characters and their inspiring effect on fans of all ages, regardless of gender. Before the panel kicked off, however, every attendee in the 6,000-seat arena who was dressed as a female Star Wars character was invited to the stage for a group picture. They could barely fit everyone on stage. Almost every Star Wars character under the sun was represented, and I spent a lot of time in awe at how perfect all those who’d turned up as Enfys Nest (the pirate leader from Solo) looked. How they walked around in that fur and giant helmet all day, I’ll never know.
What struck me most about this year’s celebration, in light of all that the fandom has been through, is how people found their own kinds of joy at this convention. The best moments were sometimes the smallest ones: two children dressed as Kylo Ren and a Praetorian Guard giddily reenacting the Throne Room scene from The Last Jedi; passing a beaming elderly woman taking pictures of her husband dressed in Jedi robes. I’ve read about at least two engagements having taken place.
The convention’s official store released a commemorative T-shirt for the event emblazoned with the words: “Star Wars is for everyone.” The sentiment doesn’t always ring true, but if there’s one thing I took away from this sprawling gathering of fans, arriving from all corners of the globe, it’s that there’s still hope for this fandom. Funnily enough, I came away from the weekend reminded of a line uttered by Rose Tico herself: “That’s how we’re gonna win. Not fighting what we hate, saving what we love.”
Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is released in UK cinemas on 19 December