This week brought plenty of excitement for Star Wars fans as the first teaser trailer for Rogue One: A Star Wars Story landed, bringing with it the first look at protagonist Jyn Erso (Felicity Jones) and her comrades in action. Directed by Gareth Edwards (Godzilla), Rogue One is a prequel to A New Hope that follows a group of Rebels as they go on a mission to steal the plans for the original Death Star. Inevitably, there were a handful of overly sensitive individuals on the Internet who were offended by the fact that Rogue One has a female lead, and it was perhaps with equal inevitability that the views of this handful of individuals have already been turned into headline news by several outlets.
The backlash against Jyn Erso has thus far taken mainly two forms. The first – found mainly in YouTube comments, on random Twitter accounts, and scattered among comments sections – is that having two Star Wars movies in a row with female protagonists is taking things too far, and is a clear sign of political correctness taking over Hollywood. Given that Star Wars movies with male protagonists still outnumber those with female protagonists three-to-one, this argument is obviously silly and not really worth engaging with. The other criticism, which seems to stem primarily from a single blog post, is that Jyn Erso is a “Mary Sue” – a fan fiction term for a self-insert character who is perfect in every way and loved by everyone – which is a frankly amazing deduction considering that we’ve so far heard Jyn speak only a dozen words within a 90-second teaser, and two of those words were her own name.
One of the absolute truisms of the Internet is that you do not need to look very hard to find stupid comments. Anyone with an Internet connection has the ability to share their opinion with the entire world, and with a little search engine savvy it’s possible to find people who are outraged about everything from their name being spelled incorrectly on a Starbucks cup to the skin color of a fictional character who lives in a different galaxy and is friends with a giant hairy alien who communicates using a series of wailing roars. Scratch the surface of the Internet just a little and you can find a whole world of silliness, but very little of it is worth paying attention to.
That the backlash has been so asinine is no doubt one of the reasons that it’s already been largely dwarfed by the backlash against the backlash. And while the temptation to turn random online comments into news headlines is understandable – whether as a way of taking a stand against sexism or simply as a cynical way of capitalizing on counter-outrage clicks – there also needs to be a level of self-control and responsibility on behalf of the news media and blogosphere with regards to which reactions we choose to highlight.
All too often, these reported “outrages” tend to be blown up by the media into something far more substantial than they actually are. Last year writer Parker Molloy penned an article about her own experience as the source of such an outrage, when she posted a casual tweet mocking a weird name for a lipstick color. This tweet then became the subject of a rash of articles breathlessly exclaiming that people were “outraged” and “disgusted” by the lipstick color – despite the fact that Molloy herself didn’t really care much at all.
These whipped-up outrages can do a lot more than simply waste everyone’s time, however; they also distract from far more interesting conversations that could be taking place, and ultimately hurt the discussion surrounding a film that a lot of people are excited for. In the case of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, John Boyega was repeatedly asked to address the “Black Stormtrooper” non-issue in interviews, by well-meaning journalists who were nonetheless indirectly demanding that he justify his presence in the movie. Effectively, they were giving a megaphone to the very people they were supposedly condemning – offering them rent-free space in the conversation.
The fundamental thing to understand about people who tweet or comment outrageous things from anonymous online handles, is that they really do not matter in the grand scheme of things. The Force Awakens was the subject of “outrage” from small handfuls of mostly anonymous people angered by the gender or race of its leads – and some of those people even went so far as to proclaim a “boycott” of the movie (though, due to said anonymity, they were under no pressure to commit to the boycott). Despite the massive amounts of discussion and articles that this backlash generated online, however, The Force Awakens ended up breezing happily past it all on its way to a $2 billion box office gross and plenty of positive reviews from fans and critics alike.
Based on the success of Disney’s renewed Star Wars franchise so far, we are looking at the release of at least one Star Wars movie every year for the foreseeable future. And given the fact that Lucasfilm seems to be making active efforts to diversify its casting, this probably won’t be the last time that a Star Wars movie has a protagonist who is non-white or non-male, and it won’t be the last time that there are offensive comments on the Internet about such casting. We cannot keep having “Outrage!” and “Backlash!” headlines every time one of these movies is released. We cannot keep asking actors, “How do you feel about the people calling you [insert slur here] and saying you shouldn’t be in this movie?” We cannot keep giving air time to every anonymous hit-and-run commenter who is offended by the existence of a female character. Sexist Internet comments are the lowest of the low-hanging fruit, and they are not newsworthy.
Besides which, this is Star Wars. It’s the biggest sci-fi movie franchise in the history of cinema. Its stories have connected with millions of people all over the world. It’s an entire galaxy full of aliens and Jedi and bounty hunters and robots and heroes and villains and scoundrels. Is there really nothing more interesting to say about it other than “A few people on the Internet don’t like Jyn because she’s a woman”?
Rogue One: A Star Wars Story opens in theaters on December 16, 2016, followed by Star Wars: Episode VIII on December 15, 2017, the Han Solo Star Wars Anthology film on May 25, 2018, Star Wars: Episode IX in 2019, followed by the third Star Wars Anthology film in 2020.