A Mirror to the Fandom: part II

In part I of this set of posts I have made a start with discussing the outcomes and their interpretation of Mark White’s recent survey amongst over 5,100 Star Wars fans. There I focussed on the interpretation of the striking results on how fans feel about the different trilogies. Here we now delve into the matter of social- and political attitudes and film-reception.

Sexism and Political Correctness

Mark White does a proper job of first defining these terms. In the heated debates about these words and about the recent Star Wars films people sometimes tend to forget what they mean. It is useful to follow Mark’s though in differentiating between

  • Hostile sexism: sexist notions of women being inferior to men;
  • Benevolent sexism: sexist notions of women being in need of particular protections or as being particularly “pure” or innocent.

Both forms have in plenty of academic literature been associated with violence against women. So don’t let the word “benevolent” fool you. This is not about holding open a door for someone, a significant amount of the prejudice and thought in “honour killings” originates from the latter form.

For political correctness Mark White uses less of a definition (as there isn’t a really satisfactory one) but uses the fact that opponents of it typically view it as impeding their freedom of speech. You might say this is the ‘anti’-view of PC as a threat.

Fan categories, sexism and anti-PC beliefs

In the three fan categories introduced earlier (see part I), “Prequel sceptics”, “Saga lovers” and “Last Jedi disowners” there are significant differences in their mean scores on the questions relating to sexist statements or anti-PC statements.

“Last Jedi disowners” score about twice as high on hostile sexism as “Prequel sceptics”. “Saga lovers” score slightly higher then “Prequel sceptics” but much lower than “Last Jedi disowners”. Mark White produces fantastic scatter-diagrams that show a few important things: 1) clearly not every person disliking The Last Jedi is a sexist, 2) clearly there are also sexists among the other 2 groups. But it is also clear that where amongst the “Saga lovers” and “Prequel sceptics” the distributions gets denser towards the lower scores (i.e. towards less sexism) the “Last Jedi disowners” are far more evenly spread across the entire bandwidth of possible scores.

On benevolent sexism the three categories of fans score much closer together. The order is pretty much similar to that for hostile sexism but the differences are simply way smaller. In particular the distributions of “Saga lovers” and “Last Jedi disowners” across the range of scores look much more similar although the “Saga lovers” still score slightly lower.

When we come to the “anti”-PC beliefs the “Last Jedi disowners” again come out clearly with the highest mean scores on this. When you look at the distributions you see that they cluster towards higher scores. For the “Prequel sceptics” and the “Saga lovers” not only the means are lower, the distributions also tend to cluster towards the low ends.

What all of this suggests is that hostile sexism did seem to play a role in the way the “Last Jedi disowning” community of fans responded to the film.

Trilogy appreciation and hostile sexism

The study produces a few amazingly interesting graphs on this question but I will pick out only one for this article here. For both the Original Trilogy as well as the Prequel Trilogy the study finds a weak positive correlation between appreciation of the films and a favour for hostile sexism. For the Sequel trilogy this correlation is strongly negative, i.e. higher scores on hostile sexism correlate with lower appreciation of Sequel Trilogy.

If you seek an explanation for this then it is good to keep in mind that “strength of opinion” is somewhat of a personal trait. We will all know a friend who has extremely strong opinions, some of them on subjects he/she knows something about and some on topics they are actually incompetent on. So it is not surprising in itself that there would be a correlation between having a strong opinion on liking a particular set of movie and having a strong views about gender roles. The remarkable thing really is that the precise direction of this correlation reverses between the Original and the Prequels on one side and the Sequels on the other.

The study also compares how these scores correlate with the appreciation of particular characters: Rey, Rose and Holdo. When I again restrict myself to the hostile sexism score, then for all three there is a clear negative correlation between the hostile sexism score and the character appreciation, but in the case of Rose and Holdo the relationship is far more evident also in the overall distributions of opinions across the entire score-ranges.

So what do we learn from this?

The statistics of this large sample of Star Wars fans confirms what was already pretty evident from the anecdotal evidence drawn from tweets and YouTube rants: hostile sexism has played a significant role in the criticism of The Last Jedi. Now as long as this was a matter of tweets and YouTube videos you could uphold the view that the hostile sexism was merely a fashion of click-baiting, although the harassment of actors playing Rose and Rey online should have been a warning signal. But the evidence presented in the survey, analysed with care, leaves little else as an explanation. Hostile sexism simply did play a role in the negative responses to the Last Jedi in particular.

In my previous post I concluded from the age distribution of the “Last Jedi disowners” that part of their disappointment might have been the result of the fact that a significant part of the members of this category are those who grew up with the Expanded Universe which was so unceremoniously ‘abandoned’ by Disney. I think there is actually little reason to believe that somehow this group would be more prone to hostile sexism.

So I am under the impression that although the survey gives us an excellent quantitative insight into some of the crucial aspects of the Last Jedi backlash, there is still part of the story that is missing. As anecdotal evidence all that I can supply is that I have noted that most of the YouTube channels that were putting out hostile sexist critiques of The Last Jedi, and the Sequel Trilogy in general, have gone on to do the same for Captain Marvel and several other more recent non-Star Wars films.

It makes me wonder whether perhaps an underreported aspect of all of this is a deliberate attempt of some to hijack this type of fan-community debates to further a sexist agenda. It could very well be that some of the loudest complainers about how Star Wars has become all “politicised” are exactly the ones doing most of the politicising. It is a well known strategy in propaganda: find a group of people who are disappointed about something and exploit that for your own political agenda by giving them your pet-enemy as the one person or thing to blame. We can see such ‘radicalisation techniques’ at work from IS all the way to the far-right.

If that hypothesis were correct, then the result of the survey would not necessarily present the degree to which sexism drove the Last Jedi backlash. Instead it would be the opposite: it presents the degree of success with which the fan-community debate has been successfully exploited and hijacked by those agitating for a more sexist worldview to spread their message.

Conclusion

Whichever explanation it is, and there will probably be more possible explanations, one thing stands out. Sexism should have no place within our fan-community. It is a task for each one of us to push back. It is totally okay not to like The Last Jedi. It is perfectly fine to dislike Holdo or to struggle to connect to Rose Tico. But female characters, arcs and actors should not be held to different standards than male characters, arcs and actors. If that requires people to think again before they blurt out an opinion on YouTube or Twitter then this is not impeding on your freedom of speech but merely asking you to think. After all, Qui Gon already said: the ability to speak doesn’t make one intelligent.

The Star Wars fan survey contains much more than I could cover in these two posts. I have left out two entire section on fan nostalgia and the role of movie-characteristics. They too are great to read. Perhaps you want to read them and present us your thoughts as a guest post?

I think the creator of this survey deserves a lot of praise. The kind of quantitative data and serious analysis that he has applied does throw an interesting and clarifying light on what has been a rather confusing time for Star Wars fans. We might not enjoy some of the things such light brings to the surface. But knowing about it we can only become a better fan community. A fan community that can then perhaps also guard itself better against totally legitimate fan-debate being hijacked and exploited by people with ulterior motives.

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