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June 10, 2018

Movies Don’t Have to Define You

It’s okay to let go.

When I was in middle school, I went through a phase where I pretended I didn’t like Star Wars. I was above it, I thought, moving on to more mature things, things that didn’t come pre-packaged with a horde of cruel twelve-year-olds calling me a nerd for liking one of the most popular movies in history. It was a phase driven mostly by fear, fear of rejection and cynicism and the crushing, overwhelming sensation of pre-pubescent unpopularity.

I also think, in a strange sort of way, it was healthy. At the end of the day, there’s no hiding who you really are; by the time high school rolled around, I was ready to wear ill-fitting X-Wing t-shirts again, ready to embrace the parts of myself that didn’t fit in and understand that those parts didn’t have to be expunged. In my middle school years, liking Star Wars wasn’t liking a multi-billion dollar Disney franchise; it was sitting in an in-between period, reading a lot of nerdy books and watching a Cartoon Network kids show. It was, strangely, a little lonely, and I think that’s what made it special.

I’m not bringing up my nerd credentials to lord over people who have a shorter history with the franchise. I’m bringing them up to emphasize the massive change in scale that occurred in 2012 when Disney bought the franchise and kickstarted it. Suddenly, people cared about Star Wars again. It was culturally significant in a way that it hadn’t been in almost my entire time loving these movies. Star Wars wasn’t just for people desperately absorbing every scrap of Expanded Universe content. It was for everyone again. Loving Star Wars would never be lonely again.

In 2015, when The Force Awakens was finally released, the fan community expanded even more. It’s not that Star Wars didn’t appeal to multiple genders and cultures before the Disney deal, but in the new Lucasfilm era, people who had never seen themselves in a Star Wars movie started to be seen. And for a lot of people, that was frightening.

That brings me to the news of this week, the news that inspired this column and, if I’m being honest, broke my heart a little. On Wednesday Kelly Marie Tran, star of The Last Jedi, wiped her Instagram clean in the wake of months upon months of cruel “fan” harassment. I put “fan” in quotations because the people who spent months of their lives sending Kelly Marie Tran death threats and sexist, racist taunts are not Star Wars fans. They’re barely even people. They are cruel, broken souls, trapped in the in-between period I went through in middle school, a period where they are so ashamed of their interests that they overcorrect, papering over childish fantasies with a ten-year-old’s incomplete notions of adulthood.

This is the lesson I learned at the end of my middle school Star Wars heretic phase, and it’s the lesson that modern fans need to accept: Movies are not everything. That may seem strange coming from a culture website, one devoted to blow-by-blow coverage of every major blockbuster on the horizon, but it’s true, it’s important, and it cannot be overstated. Your identity need not be defined by the films you watch or the fictional universes you care about. When a movie lets you down, it’s all right, even healthy, to move on. Not everything is about you, your reaction, or your happiness.

But all too many self-proclaimed fans are consumed by this kind of selfish, stubborn attitude. There have been plenty of pieces written about the decay of modern fan pathology, how it breeds abuse and harassment. On the Star Wars side of things, that pathology is defined by a negative outlook on the franchise, an outlook that pushes a loud minority to review-bomb Rotten Tomatoes scores and boycott new entries in the series. On another side, fans of the budding DC franchise are completely incapable of accepting negative opinions of the films they love. It’s all the same under the surface, a deep and uncontrollable insecurity that comes from one place: A burning desire to have the things you love never disappoint you.

I’m not the person to speak to the disappointment many fans felt in the aftermath of The Last Jedi. I love the film with all of my heart. It made me happy and content in a way no new Star Wars film has in my lifetime. But I can understand that completist urge towards blind adoration, the inability to accept that one portion of the thing you love has let you down. When I saw Solo this month, I wasn’t happy with it; I found it cloying, toxic, and borderline incestuous in the way it shrank the Star Wars universe down to its barest minimums. That feeling isn’t fun, and I understand it. But it also isn’t a feeling that should pervade your entire being. At the end of the day, as important as these films are–and trust me, they are important; the Yoda scene in The Last Jedi alone is affirming and powerful and oh-so-stunning in its quiet wisdom–they shouldn’t define you. They shouldn’t drive you to do things that are, frankly, inhuman. That’s not what Star Wars is about, and it’s not what art is about. Art isn’t about lording your superior knowledge over others and deciding what makes a person a “true fan.” It isn’t about furiously demanding that an artist apologizes for creating a work that you judged to be inadequate. And it certainly isn’t about driving someone off of social media entirely simply because you were unhappy with their performance in a movie.

I don’t look back on being ashamed of liking Star Wars in middle school with pride. I wish I had the self-esteem to stand up for my interests and defy the people who made me feel less than them. But I like to think that my fear of being bullied for loving something stopped me from becoming one of the people who became a bully out of their own fear, fear of not loving something enough.

To those people, I want to be clear: It’s okay to hate The Last Jedi. It’s also okay to let Star Wars go. Maybe it isn’t for you anymore, and maybe that’s raw and upsetting. But love isn’t holding onto things so tightly that you strangle them and force them to conform to your rigid standards. Love is letting things go. Love is passing your battered action figures on to the next generation, and smiling at the future instead of crying for the past.

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