Star Wars: The Force Awakens and “True Fan” Culture
True Fan Syndrome, or “gatekeeping,” has become an increasing problem in fandoms all over, and Star Wars is no exception. While fan gatekeeping presents itself as a protection for a beloved property, it actually winds up harming it, since its end goal is to drive fans away—new fans, in particular. Some think their beloved source text should remain exclusive just for fans like them (not those other fans, who let those people in!).
Yet those who create our entertainment don’t want fans to chase enthusiastic fans away; it’s not in their best interest. Fans become involved with source texts for many reasons—if an audience for something cares about one aspect only, or approaches it one way only, that’s ultimately going to hurt a property. Particularly in a competitive entertainment landscape where there are more and more ways fans can get their entertainment, and ever-widening options in the topics and stories creators can deliver.
It also causes unnecessary conflicts within a fandom and creates a chilling effect where some fans don’t feel as comfortable expressing their various reasons for love. The long-anticipated arrival of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, which has now exceeded James Cameron’s Avatar as the top-grossing film of all time in the US, has brought a lot of excitement, a different look at beloved older characters, and brand new ones to love. There is a disturbance in the fandom force as new fans arrive and fans new and old squee, discuss, and speculate in large numbers. Self-identified “True Fans” dislike these shenanigans.
A long time ago…okay, let me start here with a story. Somewhere in the deep recesses of my memory, technically I do remember a time before Star Wars. It’s hazy, though. It seems like this world and its characters have been there. I’m old enough to have seen Star Wars: A New Hope in theaters when I was small. I grew up with these characters, with the action figures as standard props in my childhood, or playing Star Wars with the other kids in the neighborhood, making up adventures as we took on the roles of the characters. I saw Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back in the theater, too, and it had a big impact on me. It took me a while to see Star Wars: Return of the Jedi, but I caught it on cable years later and it intensely reawakened my initial obsession. I got the original trilogy on VHS and watched them over and over. I’ve listened to the John Williams scores over and over as well—even have the score for The Empire Strikes Back on an old vinyl record, complete with movie booklet.
The original films were released briefly into theaters in my area, as a revival, and I went to see those and it was wondrous returning to them on the big screen, to have the chance to revisit that, and witness small children in the audience become completely awestruck. One little kid watched the entire movie with his mouth hanging open, saucer-eyed. Then the Special Editions came out, and despite the alterations I didn’t agree with (Han shot first! I will fight you!), it was still an experience getting to see those in theaters too.
I also fell in love with the Timothy Zahn book trilogy, and read a lot of the Expanded Universe, and kept wishing for movies that would take place after Return of the Jedi, to get to see Han and Leia and Luke as a little older, to continue their story. Instead we got a prequel trilogy—which was exciting at the time because, hey, it was new Star Wars, and Anakin’s story, and younger Yoda, and young Obi Wan. Even though the prequels were ultimately disappointing to me, I went to see them all in the theater.
Over the decades these movies and characters have meant so much to me, and been a big part of my life. Sometimes it ebbs, but it always comes back. Star Wars: The Force Awakens has, well, re-awakened my obsession and why I fell in love with this world.
So in more than one way, Star Wars: The Force Awakens is the movie I’d been waiting for. What happened after the happily ever after, as well as having the story continue with amazing new characters. I also appreciate how the movie returned to the dusty look of the original trilogy, along with a gritty post-war feel, with those derelicts that littered Jakku. The iconic characters I grew up with are legends themselves now within the story, though still grounded, relatable, and continuing to fight on to keep the galaxy free of tyranny.
I fell hard for the new lead characters, Finn, Rey, and Poe. The Force Awakens leans heavily on nostalgia, but it’s not nostalgia just to be nostalgic; it uses it effectively as a groundwork for the future. It revisits and it builds. It has plot holes, sure, but my feeling is that the characters and strength of the story overcome that.
According to the True Fans, you can’t call yourself a Star Wars fan and like Star Wars: The Force Awakens. True Fans are also mourning the fact that their special thing is now too popular—their special thing which already was among the top-grossing films of all time and has been a global phenomenon, widely beloved, celebrated, recognized, quoted, parodied, and referenced for decades—you know, that obscure little movie franchise no one ever heard of until just now.
True Fans often resent the very popularity of the thing they love, because anyone not themselves, anyone not sharing their specific viewpoint on the beloved object, is regarded as an unwelcome invader.
Others dismiss The Force Awakens as “just for kids”—claiming that no “real fan” or adult could possibly enjoy it. Never mind we were children once too, seeing A New Hope for the first time and having our tiny little minds blown.
They also appear to be mourning the fact that this fresh crop of fans will never understand their experience growing up with Star Wars—meanwhile, an entirely new generation is about to experience growing up on Star Wars. Huh, funny how that works.
Some gatekeepers think that if you’re a “real” fan, you have to have seen The Force Awakens opening weekend and if you delay for any reason, you’re not a True Fan. Never mind fans where the Star Wars universe means the world to them, but they can’t get to a theater yet due to circumstances, or those waiting to see it with a particular person—a family member, or child, or significant other, or a friend, because it’s just that personally important.
Some True Fans set arbitrary measurements of True Fan-hood where they’d probably even flunk themselves. If you didn’t eat, sleep, drink, and breathe Star Wars and nothing but Star Wars, constantly, for decades without straying from the sacred path, you have failed your True Fan masters.
True Fans are also objecting to fans shipping a “slash” pairing involving Finn and Poe. This ship is getting an astonishing amount of media attention. Slash—in which fans see a romantic aspect between characters who are the same gender, but the pairing isn’t necessarily canon (at least not yet)—has been rising in visibility and mainstream acceptance. There has been some increase in LGBT+ characters and romances in the media, but it’s still woefully small. True Fans think you can’t ship Finn/Poe and still be a Real Fan of Star Wars.
A common characteristic of the True Fan that I’ve noticed fandom to fandom is to believe no one could possibly ship anything and still appreciate the plot, characters, symbolism or world details. Oops, sorry, I was too busy geeking out over the Millennium Falcon, the droids, the visuals, the spaceships, the characters, and the story to realize I, a Finn/Poe shipper, wasn’t supposed to care about those things.
Perhaps the most insidious aspect of the True Fanning involves put-downs of the casting because John Boyega, who plays Finn, happens to be black, while Daisy Ridley’s Rey gives us a strong central female hero—THE hero of the movie. The True Fans claim this make The Force Awakens worthless, that no one will want to see it because it’s diverse. (Okay, True Fans. Sure).
Speaking as an “old school” fan myself, here is what I see: a new generation of children growing up enchanted by Star Wars, by this Star Wars, at a time when our media landscape is still far too limited in its diversity, having a Finn and a Rey to look up to. Also Oscar Isaac, who plays resistance fighter pilot Poe Dameron, is Latino.
If being delighted by a great story with diverse casting means not being a “real” fan then I don’t ever need to be one.
Stories are a reflection, mirror, and comment on our world; they make us think about how we face obstacles, how we triumph, how we love, how we survive and find hope. The world of Star Wars is deeply embedded in our modern culture and meaningful to people all over, of all ages and walks of life and creed, color, or sexual orientation. It inspires fans, it surrounds us and binds us…where was I? Oh yes, stories. There are people who live in the world, and our stories should be inclusive of that world, not shut out already under-represented groups.
It doesn’t matter when you found Star Wars, whether it was last week or last year or decades ago. It doesn’t matter if this is the first Star Wars movie you see, or the seventh, or anything in between. You can love the prequel trilogy or dislike it, you can embrace The Force Awakens or find it a disappointment. You can have different favorite characters, different ships, and express your love of Star Wars in infinite ways, whether it’s cosplay at a con, writing fanfiction, drawing fanart, writing long-winded essays, making a cake shaped like Chewbacca, or recreating the Millennium Falcon out of gumdrops. If you love the characters and the world and you care, I don’t know how to tell you this, you’d better sit down: you’re a real Star Wars fan.
Luminous beings are we, not this crude gatekeeping.
May the force be with you.
Have a favorite way you express your love of the Star Wars universe? Have further thoughts on True Fan Syndrome? Let us know in the comments.
Author: Dot R
Dot has been bouncing around various fandoms for many years now writing essays, episode reviews, commentary, and reporting news and conducting interviews, among other things. Along with being a DC, Star Wars, and Supernatural fangirl, Marvel has become one of her main obsessions, along with the Marvel and DC television universes and the MCU. She’s also a fan of science fiction television shows, everything from Farscape to Killjoys to 12 Monkeys. Currently Fangirl at Large covering numerous geek culture related topics, convention news, casting spoilers, show news, and interviews.