Imagine that you and a friend are walking out after a screening of Star Wars: The Last Jedi, disagreeing about what you saw.
You liked it, your friend disliked it. No biggie. It makes for an interesting argument afterwards.
But if your friend started using phrases like “Asian sidekick”, the “chubby chick” and “feminazis”, I think you’d probably head quickly for home and resolve to get some new friends.
I’ve spent some time today examining some of the negative reactions to The Last Jedi at IMDB.com and on Twitter. It’s not a pleasant task.
I was researching this blog post in a coffee shop and I felt grubby just sitting in a public place copying some of the phrases I came across: the sneering complaints about “ethnic diversity”, “social justice warriors” and the film’s “Chinese girl”.
Let me say here and now that I don’t have a problem with people disliking The Last Jedi. I had some reservations about it myself, despite generally enjoying it a great deal (and more than I did The Force Awakens).
If you objected to it because of the flaws in its plot, its too earthly humour, or its high-handed disposal of the mysteries that were set up in the previous film, I understand.
But this movie seems to be not only Star Wars Episode VIII but also Culture Wars Episode God-Knows-What.
It’s somehow divided fandom in the same ghastly way that whole nations are being divided by seismic political events like Trump or Brexit.
Scroll down the user reviews on IMDB, if you want to have a demoralising look at the way some people have reacted to the movie. Some reviews are just overwrought (“I’ll never pay to see another Star Wars film” and “RIP Star Wars” are common refrains). But others are rabidly reactionary.
“What do whiny SJW politics and animal rights have to do with Star Wars?”, one is titled. The reviewer adds: “It is so sad to see that in order for people to enjoy and accept a movie these days they NEED to see characters who share their views regarding what is politically correct, skin colour, sexual preferences, gender sensitivities, eating habits etc etc etc.”
Another says that “of course the SJW crowd had to have their say making all heroes, general, admirals whatever women and male hero black. And then throw in an Asian sidekick, they mustn’t be forgotten, that would be racist”. (I’ve helped the author out there by adding some punctuation and capitals, and correcting their spelling of ‘racist’, but otherwise I’m quoting accurately.)
“Making a film to please modern feminists, leftists and SJWs has taken priority over making a good Star Wars film,” says another review.
“They even had the presence of mind to put a chubby chick as one of the main characters. The body positivity movement at its finest I guess.”
A number of the reviews refer to the character Rey as a “Mary Sue” – that particularly snide term used to put down any capable female protagonist.
So, how far does The Last Jedi doff its cap to identity politics? How big a deal does it make of its diversity?
If you haven’t seen it, you might be surprised to know that it doesn’t make a great play of these things at all.
It brings back the black British actor John Boyega as the ex-stormtrooper Finn. It has Kelly Marie Tran, an American actress with Vietnamese parents, giving a nice performance as a new character, Rose Tico. And there are more women in senior ranks among the Resistance (aka Rebel) forces this time, including Laura Dern as Vice Admiral Holdo.
But the film doesn’t demand that we admire it for being progressive. These aspects are just there; a fact of life in the Star Wars universe. In a movie that, perhaps unwisely, makes a few attempts at self-referential humour, there aren’t even any jokes that draw attention to its diversity.
In a lot of the hostility to the film, we see the same ultra-conservative tropes that are familiar in today’s political discourse. It’s there in the lazy use of terms like “social justice warriors”, “snowflakes” and “virtue signalling”.
And then there’s the paranoia: The reason mainstream critics generally liked the film must, of course, be that they were paid by Disney. Perhaps inevitably, the term “fake reviews” crops up.
It’s depressing to see the Star Wars franchise under this kind of attack, especially since it seems to be the mere presence of black and Asian faces that has some people riled.
I’d always thought of Star Wars being on the side of the progressives. We’ve read about George Lucas’s objections to Nixon, and later to George W. Bush. The original Star Wars trilogy was about plucky freedom fighters overturning a fascistic regime.
And although there are plenty of conservatives and hard-line libertarians among science fiction followers, I had long thought that SF fandom generally embraced difference and liberality. The reaction to The Last Jedi isn’t the only controversy in recent years that has made me wonder whether I was being naive.
Star Wars, of course, has reached more people than any other science fiction franchise, so maybe it’s only natural there will be a fruitcake element among its fans, ready to spot the evil forces of ‘political correctness’. But it seems some people have been rooting for the Rebels all these years while harbouring attitudes that would be much more at home in the Empire.