Star Wars: The Fandom Awakens

I didn’t expect to rediscover my love of Star Wars. It had been so long that I’d forgotten how much I once enjoyed endlessly quoting “I’ve got a bad feeling about this” and making that cornball Han Solo shrug face. Star Wars held such little interest that by the time I went to a showing of The Force Awakens I’d seen a grand total of one trailer and was only half paying attention to it when it autoplayed on YouTube. When the end credits rolled I was trembling with excitement. By the time I got to my car I already had Tumblr and AO3 pulled up on my phone. I stayed up most of the night consuming every thinkpiece, review, and speculative discussion I could find. The Star Wars fandom had roused from its slumber and was now infused by prodigal geeks like me and a host of squealing, passionate newcomers. And oh, what a magnificent fandom it has become.

2015 was a rubicon for me in terms of what I was and was not willing to tolerate in my movies. I’d already started diversifying out books, comics, music, and TV, but still put up with a lot of crap in movies. It was easy to make excuses—that TV was a more flexible and creative medium than expensive blockbusters, that books could go where film couldn’t, and to hell with it I’ll just go reread Ms. Marvel—but they didn’t change the fact that most movies were still about straight white people and their upper middle class problems.

Then came Mad Max: Fury Road and I was done. I decided if entertainment refuses to include people like me then I refuse to waste my money on it. Why slog through dudebros in Antman when I could watch Black nerds in Dope? A movie has to do more than dabble or pander in feminism and diversity if it wants my butt in a theatre seat, and even then I go in prepared to be let down (*side eyes Jurassic World*).

When I sat down to Star Wars: The Force Awakens, I arrived with my disappointment all ready to go. J. J. Abrams doesn’t have a good track record for diversifying old science fiction properties—dude turned Uhura into a nagging girlfriend and shunted Sulu into the background—so the more the ads hyped “the Black stormtrooper” the more I girded myself for the film’s sudden but inevitable betrayal.

Beyond that, the original trilogy had long since lost its luster for me. I grew up watching VHS tapes of the original trilogy, but the older I got the less appeal they held. As much fun as A New Hope is, it’s depressingly homogenous even for the 1970s. Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi feel like a direct response to Samuel R. Delany’s criticisms about the lack of diversity in Episode IV, and even then we went from no PoC to one while Leia goes from BAMF rebel spy to moony-eyed slave girl. I finally gave up on Star Wars in high school, replacing Leia with Xena and Buffy and Zoë Washburne, and the trilogy slipped out of my life. The prequels didn’t help matters; if anything they made me retroactively dislike the first three just for their mutual association. So with all that floating around in my head, imagine my utter shock and amazement when I found TFA completely engrossing.

Don’t misunderstand me. TFA is a wildly imperfect piece of entertainment. The glaring plotholes and copy-pasted story arc from A New Hope hurt the overall story. The dialogue is aces over the first six entries, but given George Lucas’ notoriously wooden writing that’s an awfully low bar to step over. Diversity achievements were unlocked but only in the least controversial means possible. Out of dozens of men there are only five women who get anything substantial to do and only one of those is not white (and no, Lupita Nyong’o’s Maz doesn’t count as Black anymore than Gamora does in Guardians of the Galaxy).

Although there are multiple Asian actors (nearly all male), barring one quick line about Han Solo between two Kanjiklub dudes, none of them talk to each other. Moreover, the prequels actually best TFA in Indigenous diversity—as far as I can tell there are no Indigenous actors in TFA while in the prequels the clones and Jango Fett were played by a man of Maori ancestry. Regardless of fannish whims and our latest internet boyfriend Oscar Isaac’s intentions, I’d bet good money the only canon queer characters we’ll get in the new series will come from Chuck Wendig. Don’t even get me started on the lack of diverse body types and disabilities. In other words, it’s the quintessential “your fave is problematic.” Thing is, I don’t really care. Or more accurately, the pros of the movie itself far outweigh the cons of social context.

Where TFA planted the love, what made it grow and blossom was the fandom. Sure, after the first go-round I was already at love at first sight for Rey, Finn, and Poe, but it the movie as a whole didn’t click. I, like many early reviewers, got lost in the weeds of all those aforementioned obstacles. The sheer number of cons would for any other movie make them major problems, but the longer I spent getting to know this new expanded universe the more those flashing red lights became negligible nitpicks.

It wasn’t nostalgia, awesome action sequences, being a sucker for genre-bending SFF, or Poe’s luscious curls that compelled me to see TFA again. No, I went back solely because of the burgeoning fandom for Finn, Poe, Rey, General Leia, Phasma, Hux, and Kylo Ren. I’ve now read every StormPilot and BlueRey fic on AO3 at least four times. My Tumblr feed is 90% TFA fanart and Oscar Isaac gifs. Ex Machina, Inside Llewyn Davis, and Attack the Block moved to the top of my Netflix queue. Give me all the Space Mom and Hot Topic jokes about Kylo Ren you have. I even marathoned the first six movies just so I’d be caught up for the second screening.

SWTFA_FinnRey

Being a fan in the 21st century is pretty kriffing awesome. It’s also an odd, slightly disjointed experience. It’s like doing a paint-by-numbers and an outside-the-box coloring free-for-all at the same time. I’m ancient enough to remember the original trilogy before Lucas mucked it up with unnecessary CGI, and those recollections now share the same mental shelf space as fanart of Finn/Poe/Rey cuddle piles. In a way, being a fan of TFA is participating in two different yet parallel fandoms. As Star Wars fans we indulge in Expanded Universe lore (even if it it’s no longer canon), argue unsubstantiated theories with vigorous intensity, devour merchandise like a famine is coming, and teach the newbies all about the joys of Wedge Antilles, Biggs Darklighter, and Willrow Hood. And as fans of the characters in TFA we revel in the glory of unbridled imagination.

Instead of having to settle with whatever nonsense Lucas decrees, we take his inspiration and run with it. It was thrilling watching the TFA fandom emerge as fic writers coalesced around collectively created fanon character studies hinted at in the film but left unexplored—Poe being a player who values consent and respect, Finn as a dorky probable virgin desperate not to make a mistake, Rey being blunt and lacking in social cues but yearning for affection and friendship, Hux with a Starkiller-sized bout of emotional constipation, Kylo and his groan-inducing temper tantrums and deadly daddy issues.

Where media lets fans down with half-hearted attempts at easy diversity and unsatisfying plot resolutions we establish fix-its and gender/racebends and slash pairings. These don’t ruin the original property (frankly, quite often they actually improve it). Rather, fandom exists to enhance the experience. It’s a community of people who are ass over teakettle for something and just want to sit you down and babble for hours about it. TFA reminded me of my forgotten love of Star Wars, and fandom turned it into a full-fledged addiction.

The characters make or break a movie or TV show for me, and the newbies are hands down the best thing to come out of TFA. I adore Finn, Poe, and Rey almost more than Leia and Han (always thought Luke was way too boring). I could care less what movie they’re in as long as I get to spend time with them. Rey slips easily into the role of the über-talented hero, bringing a fierce, fiery determination Luke never had. Finn’s earnestness overrides his selfish survival instincts, making him an adorable delight rather than a roguish cad like Han. Swoon-worthy Poe shares the dedicated drive, carefree humor, and fabulous hair of Leia but without being forced into a gold bikini. Episode VIII could literally be three hours of Poe repairing his X-wing as Finn hands him the wrong tools and Rey points out all his mistakes while Leia rolls her eyes and I’d still see it opening day. And that’s all thanks to fandom.

SWTFA_BB8Rey

Those whinging about Rey discovering her abilities too easily are both totally misremembering Luke’s arc and willfully engaging in reductive and insulting gender stereotypes. If Luke can do it without complaints from the peanut gallery then so can Rey. More importantly, as much as I needed to see Rey, Finn, Poe, et. al on screen, I can’t tell you how happy it makes me that kids are seeing them. There is now a whole generation of young people who are growing up in a world where Captain America and Spider-Man are Black, Ms. Marvel is a Pakistani teenage girl, and Captain Marvel a woman. Hamilton puts women and PoC back into history. YA haven The CW imbues all of its media with diversity and feminism. Now one of the biggest cultural touchstones in American entertainment finally puts us minorities at the forefront. All those diversity issues I mentioned earlier? They pale in comparison to the fact that the three main protagonists are a woman and two men of color and that the script is marvellously feminist in subtle yet powerful ways, all while being one of the biggest moneymakers in cinematic history. That means something, especially to those of us not male or white. It won’t stop Hollywood from continuing to be heavy on the testosterone, het, and whiteness, but I simply cannot wait to see what incredible things this generation will produce if TFA is their base inspiration point.

I’m kinda discouraged that we have to wait until 2017 to see Finn, Poe, and Rey again. Whoever decided to make the next movie about stealing the Deathstar plans instead of more Finn/Poe/Rey time should sit in the corner and think about what they’ve done. (*grumbles about why Rogue One has apparently only cast one woman*) And then we have to wait a whole other year for Episode IX while they drag out a young Han Solo movie. Yes, it’s cool to keep playing in the old-school nostalgia Star Wars sandbox, but we’ve had plenty of past playtime. Let’s see what we can do with the boundless future. *sigh*

Anyway, look The Force Awakens is great yo. You know it. I know it. We all know it. I mean, it’s not the best thing ever but it’s so totally THE. BEST. THING. EVER. Force-almighty it is just a blast. By the grace of Obi-Wan’s six robes, I might have to see it a third time.

Alex Brown is an archivist, research librarian, writer, geeknerdloserweirdo, and all-around pop culture obsessive who watches entirely too much TV. Keep up with her every move on Twitter and Instagram, or get lost in the rabbit warren of ships and fandoms on her Tumblr.

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