The Phantom Menace: when fandom got TOXIC

It's been 20 years since the Star Wars prequels and fans are still the same

19th May 2019

This month marks 20 years since Star Wars: Episode I – The Phantom Menace hit our screens, transporting a whole new generation to a galaxy far, far away. Yep, two whole decades.

With the return of beloved worlds and characters who hadn’t been seen since Episode VI – Return of the Jedi, some 16 years before, there was a tremendous weight of hype and expectation around the film. The press coverage surrounding the new movie showcased fans camping outside cinemas for hours, waiting for midnight showings and them coming out again afterwards to gush about what they’d just seen.

Critics were pretty positive about it as well, albeit not to the extent they had been with the original films. The film performed extremely well at the Box Office, making $924m worldwide; the second biggest film ever, at the time, just behind Titanic. It also helped to propel the careers of stars like Natalie Portman, and it set the stage both for the other prequels and the continuation of the franchise as a whole.

However, it’s best remembered since for the major backlash that emerged among Star Wars fans once the media storm settled. The film is notorious for how badly it was received by the fandom; from the memes mocking George Lucas’s use of dialogue, to the endless online rants about how much it ruined the legacy of previous films. Indeed, the rage triggered by The Phantom Menace can be seen as the forerunner to phenomena that’s become increasingly common over recent years.

A wretched hive of scum and villainy…

The term “toxic fandom” has developed over the past couple of years to describe various fan groups becoming increasingly mean spirited and hostile towards those they perceive as damaging whichever property they follow, spewing venom and abuse towards public figures online and across social media. It’s not uncommon for fandoms which have gone “toxic” to become attached to some worryingly reactionary politics or online groups and communities, such as incels (short for involuntary celibates — men angry at women because women won’t date them).

This combination creates breeding grounds for misogynist and racist behaviour among fans, as seen in with the hostility towards the diverse cast of the new Star Trek: Discovery series (despite Star Trek’s long history of championing diversity) or Jodie Whittaker’s casting as the new lead in Doctor Who. Sometimes these are capable of drowning out other more legitimate forms of discussion and debate about these franchises.

These toxic fandoms began to gain much greater coverage by the media after various high profile cases, such as the Szechuan Sauce Stunt. When, in an attempt to cash in on Adult Swim’s Rick and Morty, McDonald’s re-released a discontinued brand of sauce mentioned in an episode, it suddenly found itself having to deal with hundreds of Rick and Morty fans swamping its stores, harassing its workers, and shouting “We want sauce!” over and over.

The particular insanity of this incident caused it to go viral and this, along with the abuse received by female writers on the show, as well as the perception of Rick and Morty fans behaving like edge lord idiots online, gave this fanbase a particularly bad name. However, this kind of toxicity can essentially apply to any kinds of fans of a property who take things a bit far, with fans of K-Pop or Taylor Swift also having been counted among the toxic.

As if a million voices suddenly cried out…

There are certain fan groups who do seem to be attracted to this toxicity more than others and this has included some sections of the Star Wars fanbase. In the wake of the new movies produced under Disney, more attention has been paid to the behaviour exhibited by some of these film’s followers.

An example of which made headlines last year when an edit of Episode VIII – The Last Jedi, was released. The so-called “Chauvinist Cut”, aimed to cut down the importance of female characters in the film and restore the male characters of the film to their traditionally heroic role; a role certain fans and men’s rights activists claimed had been undermined throughout by “Mary Sues”. A phrase once meaning a character who was a thinly veiled substitute for the author and now just seems to mean any powerful woman. Others tried to remake the film entirely. Meanwhile, criticisms of the film became increasingly hyperbolic, with one reviewer describing it as a “complete cinematic failure”.

So far, so laughable. But things became a bit more serious when some of the people involved in the making of The Last Jedi started getting abuse online. Director Rian Johnson received numerous death threats while Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy was called on to be sacked. Meanwhile, Kelly Marie Tran, an American actress of Vietnamese descent, was chased off Instagram after months of being subjected to sexist and racist abuse online. Fellow star Daisy Ridley had also been forced to delete her Instagram for similar reasons, while the actor John Boyega had to deal with huge numbers of morons insisting that although this is a universe with space magic and killer care bears, it’s the idea a black stormtrooper/main character that is unbelievable.

The latest film, Solo: A Star Wars Story, got flack for its decision to include a pansexual Lando Calrissian, leading to accusations of, like The Last Jedi, playing up to the SJW/feminist/LGBT+/(insert liberal cause here) agenda.

In looking at these kinds of reactions to the Disney films, as well as the other toxic fandoms highlighted above, many analysts have focused on the role of the internet and social media in facilitating arguments and allowing for the spread of abuse.

We’ve all heard of the “echo chamber” in which social media feeds and the wider online environment only allows for certain viewpoints to be amplified while opposing facts and arguments can be easily ignored or filtered out.

Many fans didn’t realise the goose-stepping space fascists aren’t the character you are supposed to look up to

While this is usually applied to the world of politics, many have argued it’s just as true of online fan circles. According to Dr Andrea Braithwaite, an expert on gaming culture — itself, fraught with the same issues — from the University of Ontario’s Institute of Technology, the current communications environment is one which fuels anger between different kinds of fans by instilling a sense your own position is under attack and in need of defending.

“Many of our most widely-used social media platforms prioritise quick and short responses,” she tells The Overtake, “which are rarely useful characteristics when trying to understand different perspectives or come to some sort of mutual understanding. We’re also in both a media and political landscape that prioritises conflict, which may make some participants in these communities feel like opposition is the only way to be heard.”

If a disgruntled fan wanted to directly harass somebody they would have to put a fair bit of work in

Between this, and how social media platforms like Instagram have allowed for the abuse Tran and others, it can appear as if toxic fandom is a modern phenomenon, created largely by social media. However, looking back at the reaction to The Phantom Menace, these kinds of tendencies within fan circles are nothing new.

Nathaniel Wayne of YouTube culture criticism channel Council of Geeks also highlighted the change in technology as an amplifier for this type of abuse.

“In times past, if a disgruntled fan wanted to directly harass somebody they would have to put a fair bit of work in; finding an address to send hate mail to, writing it out, and paying to mail it. Now, because basically everybody is on social media, finding creators is far easier which means that people who might not have put in the effort before (but still harbour anger) can vent directly at people with little effort and potential anonymity.”

A presence I haven’t felt since…

There’s a brilliant scene in the Ed Wright sitcom Spaced where Simon Pegg’s character is depicted literally screaming with rage at an eight-year-old customer because they wanted to buy some figures from The Phantom Menace.

“You weren’t there at the beginning,” he rants. “You don’t know how good it was, how important!”

Another scene shows him burning his old Star Wars merchandise on a pyre, Darth Vader style, with tears in his eyes. This is actually a pretty accurate depiction of the sort of way in which many Star Wars fans reacted to The Phantom Menace upon its initial release. The documentary The People vs George Lucas illustrates in great detail the levels of disappointment fans experienced when the new film failed to meet their expectations.

Whereas Lucas saw himself as simply making a kid’s film, the older generation of fans felt as if they, after all their years of love for the original films, had some level of ownership over them. They felt like it should be made for the more sophisticated audience they represented as well as the kind of younger viewers who might find characters like Jar Jar Binks entertaining.

As a result, when films went in a direction fans disagreed with, there was a feeling of having been personally betrayed. While the new films have seen accusations of older characters being tarnished in order to prescribe to some sort of agenda, The Phantom Menace similarly prompted some sections of the fanbase to claim Lucas had “raped” their childhoods. But the reactions to The Phantom Menace and the other prequel films don’t only share the same hyperbolic language as contemporary fan reactions. We can also see the roots of modern toxicity in the way fans lashed out.

Theory: Anakin murdering the younglings is a metaphor for the fans attacking a child actor… don’t @ us 📷 Lucasfilm/Disney Studios

George Lucas has frequently cited the reactions to the prequels to be a key reason he’s been put off further filmmaking, after receiving almost constant criticisms for the films, with very little sign his work was at all appreciated. And while actors like Natalie Portman, Liam Neeson and Samuel L. Jackson have gone on to do incredibly well after their roles in the films (most likely off the backs of their other work as much as anything else), several of the other actors involved have struggled since.

Both Anakin actors, Hayden Christensen and Jake Lloyd, have largely disappeared after what initially seemed like promising starts in Hollywood, with Lloyd having given up acting completely. Lloyd, who was a child at the time, describes school life as having been a living hell and he soon came to hate being filmed. It was in the case of Ahmed Best, who played Jar Jar Binks, we saw just how overboard fan rage could get.

There are probably very few characters in Star Wars who’ve received as much hatred and bile as Jar Jar Binks. With a style of humour really only appealing to small children, and allegations of being a mocking racial caricature, no other character so sums up why many fans don’t take to The Phantom Menace. And yes, the character is annoying, but as Ahmed Best quickly found out in the period after the film, there were a number of fans who couldn’t or didn’t distinguish between the character and the actor.

He received death threats and had numerous fans actually coming up to him and telling him he’d “destroyed” their childhoods. Much of this was, as with more modern toxicity, directly fuelled racially motivated attacks, Best finding himself victim to all sorts of racial abuse and slurs. All this had a massive toll on his mental health and, as he described on Twitter, he eventually became suicidal, coming close to throwing himself off Brooklyn Bridge.

It’s not a story a Jedi would tell you…

Toxic fandoms are not exactly a new phenomenon then. They may well have been exaggerated by modern social media, as well as the current rise of alt-right rhetoric within wider culture, but you only need to look back 20 years to see that this behaviour is nothing new. Indeed, it could be argued that many of the features of toxicity were first seen with The Phantom Menace. But look back even further to the 1890s and the publication of the original Sherlock Holmes stories, and you can already see examples of fans getting unreasonably angry back then.

The Phantom Menace wasn’t even the first time you saw Star Wars fans turning on the franchise. The third film had many throwing a tantrum back in 1983 over the cuddly Ewoks and how clearly they were designed just to sell toys (you know, unlike the rest of the films). However, The Phantom Menace is probably one of the earliest examples of fan rage on this scale, with huge sections of the fanbase regularly going into Tim Beasley fits of vitriol over the film’s very existence.

It was probably always a given, with the weight of expectation around it, that The Phantom Menace was going to disappoint. With 16 years of anticipation, there is probably no film able to match up to the one playing in fans’ minds. But more than this, Braithwaite argues this toxicity is in many ways a natural result of the internal dynamics of fandoms and it’s certainly not solely a result of something as simple as the internet or social media.

State of this. Maybe the crazed, demanding, sci-fi fanatics were right about this twat. 📷 Andres Rueda Lopez

Further, she emphasises how these groups are, at their core, positive communities, based around a shared passion which can often go unfulfilled outside these groups. At their best, fandoms of all kinds are inclusive, energizing experiences for people, but are also often groups based on a supposed distinction between the fans and non-fans. They are groups upon which there is shared importance attached to particular common passions, and to change how any of these things might be seen or remembered is naturally going to cause upset and division. It’s not just the property itself at risk of being altered, but also the very cohesion and continuation of these groups and their values as well.

This is especially true with Star Wars and other sci-fi/fantasy franchises since, as Braithwaite notes, their fans have often been somewhat the underdog, and can feel put upon. These kinds of fandoms have become much more mainstream recently, but before the current popularity of these franchises, it would only be very small numbers of people who were so intimately familiar with and so passionate for these kinds of properties.

Nobody likes a smack in the face, but that smack in the face hurts all the more if it comes from somebody you care about and have supported

Because of this many fans can develop a bit of a persecution complex. This can cause them to close ranks around whatever it is they follow, and to view it as untouchable.

“This underdog or outsider position can really help bring a community together,” Braithwaite says, “so it’s possible that as the popularity of these stories increases some fans might not see it as an opportunity to connect with other like-minded folks but instead as a dilution of something important to them. After all, when an audience gets bigger so too do perspectives about what a story means, especially as stories can be different things to different people.”

These worlds and these characters matter to people. Franchises like Star Wars are movies millions have grown up with. Many cultural theorists have even compared the likes of Star Wars and comic book superheroes to modern day mythologies and folklore. It should be no surprise people develop rigid conceptions around what these properties mean to them, or they get defensive when these conceptions are challenged.

As Wayne points out, “you can’t get angry at something if you’re not invested in it. So it’s actually pretty natural that the dedicated fans are going to get much more worked up because, from their perspective, they have more to “lose” in terms of time, emotional, and financial investments… At its heart, it’s a pretty understandable feeling. Nobody likes a smack in the face, but that smack in the face hurts all the more if it comes from somebody you care about and have supported.”

You’re my only hope…

These toxic dynamics are perhaps not going away any time soon then. They are, in many respects, a natural aspect to communities such as fan groups. With the rise of social media, as well as the normalisation of the alt-right in wider politics, these toxic fandoms might only be set to rise.

But it’s also worth remembering, as Braithwaite and Wayne take pains to point out, these toxic sections of the fanbase are only a tiny minority. Most fans of these properties remain the positive, enthusiastic and diverse communities they’ve always been. Cases like The Last Jedi or the Szechuan Sauce Stunt might grab headlines but, as with anything in the media, they are often not representative of most ordinary fans. “For all the attention and emphasis on toxic dialogues,” Braithwaite adds, “there are countless more fans who don’t start or keep that sort of sentiment moving; they’re just not as catchy of a story.”

Jar Jar: A Star Wars story is what fans need, for better or worse 📷 Lucasfilm/Disney Studio

Throughout these fandoms, there have been voices challenging the more insular, toxic elements. Just last month, at the Star Wars Celebration in Chicago, Kelly Marie Tran received a huge standing ovation from fans who chanted her name and cheered her on in the face of the abuse she’d received. And even with the most hated of films or characters, there can often be change in how they’re perceived, as has been the case with The Phantom Menace.

While it seemed to be universally reviled at first, there’s slowly been a moderation of attitudes, and perhaps a reappraisal of the film’s relative strengths and weaknesses. While many fans of the original films were angered by the prequels, a whole new generation who were raised on the newer films have grown up since then, and with them, these films have attracted a new wave of defendants.

While they still don’t exactly get the same level of respect as the originals, it is more common these days to find positive reactions to these films, with ratings for them going up on sites like Rotten Tomatoes. It seems likely, given time, the feelings on any particular film or topic will inevitably become less heated, and more balanced takes can be possible.

After all, we’ve got the new one coming up to hate on now.

Main image: Istolethetv

19th May 2019