Disney has a major problem on its hands. In 2012, Disney bought the lucrative “Star Wars” franchise and all the wealth that comes with it. The rights to make and sell toys based on the movies alone have made “Star Wars” one of the most profitable properties to own in the world, but with all that wealth comes something more sinister: the fanbase.
There’s a reason why “Star Wars” is so popular, after all; its fans are often fanatical. “Star Wars” fans have formed pseudo-religions based on the movies, they’ve created short films to celebrate the franchise and have often named their kids after the characters.
They will fight tooth and nail against anybody who disparages the films and defends them as if they were their own children. This type of devotion is where the problem lies. “Star Wars” fans have a knack for attacking the people involved with the movies they love, and this problem began long before Disney bought the franchise.
In 1999, “Episode One: The Phantom Menace” came out. It was a highly anticipated film, continuing the “Star Wars” series that had been dormant for a long time. Many fans of the original trilogy felt that “The Phantom Menace” did not live up to expectations.
“The Phantom Menace” suffered from many problems tied to computer graphics, the script and its director, which its actors and fans were quick to point out. Chief among them was the portrayal of the character Anakin Skywalker, played by Jake Lloyd. Only 10 when the movie came out, Lloyd was wholly unprepared for the type of hate he’d face due to his portrayal of the character.
Magazines such as Newsweek ran scathing reviews of his role. Fans wrote angry letters and ranted about his abilities. Most child actors struggle to portray believable, complex characters and to expect more from Lloyd was probably unreasonable. Whipped into a frenzy, “Star Wars” fans simply wouldn’t let it go. Lloyd would face bullying for the rest of his childhood and eventually quit acting entirely over the situation.
“[“Star Wars”] has been a part of my life for 10 years,” Lloyd said in 2009. “High school, they wouldn’t let it go. You know how they can be in high school… College has been similar.”
The last time people saw Lloyd in the news centered around his arrest following a high-speed car chase, and his subsequent transfer from jail to a mental hospital after he was diagnosed with schizophrenia. While it may be unfair to pin his mental illness on the fans, it’s not a stretch to say that rabid “Star Wars” fans were at least partially responsible.
Ahmed Best, who played Jar Jar Binks, suffered a similar fate. Going into the making of the films, it was clear to everyone involved that Binks was a character aimed at children. He walked funny, talked in a goofy accent and was the slapstick comedian added in to connect to a new generation. What wasn’t clear to everyone involved was how much adults would hate this new character.
“I had death threats through the internet,” Best said in an interview with Wired Magazine. “I had people come to me and say, ‘You destroyed my childhood.’ That’s difficult for a 25-year-old to hear.”
Websites dedicated to calling for the characters death were erected. Best and his character were accused of pushing racist stereotypes and, like Lloyd before him, felt his career ending before his eyes. Though he was able to finally push back and make a career for himself in films afterward, the effort took years and Best still hasn’t entirely made up for lost ground.
“Star Wars” fans managed to take another young actor and harass him into oblivion, but by 1999 this was old news. George Lucas had been facing much of the same anger and hate for years.
“When we did the very first ‘Star Wars,’ C-3PO was in the same position (as Binks) and was hated by some of the fans,” Lucas told Entertainment Weekly. “Then when we did ‘Return of the Jedi,’ everybody was completely disgusted with the Ewoks.”
Along with the anger over his characters, Lucas also faced backlash when he began to alter his films with re-releases and remasters. Scenes were changed, colors were corrected, and CG was added to his older films to make his vision of them complete. Through these efforts a deep divide between who the films belonged to formed.
Fans were outraged at the changes made to movies they had internalized as “theirs” and Lucas was obstinate that the films were his to change how he wanted. He went from being the man that gave “Star Wars” fans their childhood, to the one who singlehandedly destroyed it. For Lucas, these criticisms cut him to the core.
“Why would I make any more (‘Star Wars’ films),” Lucas said to The New York Times in a 2012 interview, “when everybody yells at you all the time and says what a terrible person you are?” Like many of his actors before him, Lucas had been worn down and would sell the franchise away that same year.
Remember Hayden Christensen? He was once viewed as a quickly rising star in Hollywood before he played Anakin Skywalker in “Episode 2” and “Episode 3.” The effects of those movies on his reputation have followed him ever since, and he pulled away from the movie business soon after.
Even the newer films have not been spared the treatment. Star actor Daisy Ridley, playing the lead role in the two newest films, “The Force Awakens” and “The Last Jedi,” was harassed off social media late last year and vows never to return. “I don’t do social anymore,” Ridley explained to Radio Times. “I came off it last September and I will never get back on.”
John Boyega, playing the stormtrooper Finn, faced racist remarks and harassment on Twitter for being an African American. Kathy Kennedy, the woman who took over the reins from Lucas after the franchise was bought, has been accused of pushing feminist agendas in the films by featuring more minorities and women in important roles.
To combat this, fans angry at her released a 46-minute “de-feminized” cut of “The Last Jedi” that removed large parts of the film that centered around female characters and reduced what was left over as much as possible. Early in June 2018, another actor was run off social media.
Kelly Marie Tran, playing the role of Rose in “The Last Jedi,” had been facing harassment for months due to her gender and ethnicity. In 2017 her characters page on “Wookieepedia” was altered by racist fans. Her name was changed to “Ching Chong Wing Tong” and her homeworld changed to “Ching Chong China.” On June 5, Tran, like Ridley before her, gave up and deleted every post on her Instagram page to escape.
For years now, that has been the recommended strategy for dealing the “Star Wars” fans harassment: to simply run away. Avoid it as much as possible. Lucas did it, his actors did it and now Disney and their actors are doing it as well.
The difference is that George Lucas and his actors never had to deal with social media. Ridley, Boyega and Tran are closer than ever to their fans, and that proximity only makes them even larger targets. It’s time to change the strategy.
You can’t really blame Lucas for wanting to run away. When most of the world seems to be against you, it must be difficult to stand up and fight no matter how rich and powerful you are. When your employees are attacked and harassed though, it’s your job as an employer to defend them. To give them a safe space to operate and promote their wellbeing.
By sitting back and doing nothing, Lucas and his company sent a signal to “Star Wars” fans that this behavior was tolerated, that there were no consequences for their actions. The worst that could happen was that Lucas would stop making the films, but near the end that was what they had wanted anyway, and fans knew that a series as profitable as “Star Wars” was sure to be picked up by somebody else.
Now that somebody else has picked up where Lucas left off, it’s time for them to do what he was unable to. Stand up to their fans. Defend their actors, and take a harsh, unified stand against this type of behavior with all the money and power they have behind them.
Unlike Lucas, Disney isn’t a single man trying to make a difference. They’re a hugely powerful company with money and influence to throw at this problem. It’s time to use that money and influence for something other than just profit.