The Church of Star Wars: Exploring the Light & Dark Sides of Fandom

As the Star Wars fandom becomes divided over The Last Jedi, we explore the power of pop culture as religion - the light side and the dark.

Illustration by Emily Gloria Miller.

A Church Divided

Strip away what Star Wars did for science fiction, blockbuster cinema, and special effects, and what’s left is the franchise’s most important legacy: its community of fans.

The secret to why so many people from different walks of life connect with Star Wars is simple. Its very foundation is built on archetypes that go back thousands of years. The story of A New Hope is about David beating Goliath. We all want to see David in ourselves—the little guy who defeats the giant and becomes a hero. But that doesn’t mean we all rally around the same things.

Since the resurgence of Star Wars-mania in the years after Disney purchased the franchise, there has been a tug of war on almost every major change, from the role of women in the saga to whether a black actor should get a starring role in a film. Even the inclusion of LGBTQ characters in the latest books has come as a shock to some. The fandom has become a bit like the saga it worships: two opposing forces with their own visions of what the galaxy far, far away should look like.

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While real-life politics, race relations, and the fight for gender equality intensify, Star Wars remains a progressive beacon of hope in its storytelling and representation of its vastly diverse church of fans. The religion is welcoming, accepting, helpful to those who need it, but as with all faiths, there are the extremists with the misguided notion that they own Star Wars, or that their interpretation of the story is the sole correct one. It’s a church divided.

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The Light Side

Within the halls of Celebration Orlando, the biggest gathering of Star Wars fans in the galaxy, you wouldn’t know there’s a division. Fans are in Orlando simply because they love Star Wars, whatever it may mean to them. Like Sunday mass, the crowd gathers in the lobby of the convention center as they wait for the church doors to open. Spending time with these fans makes you feel like there’s nothing wrong with the fandom at all. In fact, things might be better than they ever were.

To the attendees, Star Wars is a lifelong passion, not a fleeting one. Forget the millions of children who fall in love with the saga every time Disney releases a new movie. It’s really the adults who have kept this franchise going for four decades and provide the most insight into this enormous fandom—perhaps the biggest in the galaxy, rivaled only by Trekkers and the would-be wizards dreaming of Hogwarts.

The main doors of the convention center open up to somewhere far away. It’s like walking through the crowded streets of Mos Eisley for the first time: men dressed in big, furry Wookie suits; others scowling as the Sith; and, in several cases, men in gender role-subverting Slave Leia metal bikinis. Women are dressed as powerful Jedi Masters, many as Rey or Leia, but even more clad in Rebel pilot uniforms. Several people take advantage of the laissez faire dress code to dress up as sexy Ewoks: a lot of skin, a little fur, and a sharp spear.

And all of these people party hard. If they’re not sitting in a tent outside of the convention center waiting for the doors to open for The Last Jedi panel in two days’ time, they’re almost certainly taking part in cosplay gatherings, podcast hangouts, or going to one of the many shindigs and galas throughout the weekend. The 501st Legion, one of the biggest cosplay groups in the world, is going to throw a big party at the Hyatt Regency on Saturday night that costs $100 a head to attend and will feature a performance by “honorary member” Weird Al Yankovic. According to the invite, no food will be served, but it’s the place to be if “you’re on a liquid diet.”

At a hotel bar a few blocks away from the convention center, they play the Star Wars films on loop and serve specialty drinks based on the movies, including a blue milk-inspired rum drink that’s probably not what Aunt Beru had in mind. Some attendees prefer something stronger though, like the Hennessy being consumed by Hip Hop Trooper’s entourage. Yes, even Star Wars social media personalities have a crew willing to follow them around for the weekend.

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Hip Hop Trooper, whose real name is Eugene Brown, walks into a bar the night before Celebration’s opening ceremony with a squad of men and women wearing t-shirts that say “Run SWC” in homage to both this awe-inspiring gathering of fans and Brown’s favorite hip hop group, Run DMC.

While Brown is not wearing his signature red Adidas-branded Stormtrooper armor or carrying his matching red boombox that first night, he’s still easily recognizable among the crowd at the bar. The Star Wars fan community has an ecosystem within itself, its own stars outside of the world-famous actors they worship. Brown, for example, has his own action figure that people flip for profit on eBay. That’s the kind of fame that’s apparently afforded to folks with over 90,000 followers on Instagram.

“Because my figures are on eBay, people buy them at retail and then sell them for five times as much. It’s unbelievable,” Brown says. “I look up the Vader from the day I was born and I’m worth more than him!”

But despite superstardom within the community—and people really turn out for this guy’s dance routine—Brown doesn’t make a living off of being Hip Hop Trooper (although Adidas does send him the occasional swag bag). There’s something much more personal that makes him don the red armor: a tale of overcoming bullying in his native England one Star Wars action figure at a time. When he was a child, Star Wars really was a new hope.

“I’ll tell you a story I’ve never told anyone,” Brown says. He remembers traveling a lot as a kid and being bullied. There were days when Brown didn’t want to go to school at all. To cheer him up, his father would hide Star Wars figures in his son’s shoes. “I’d wake up in the morning and I’d put my shoe on, not wanting to go to school, and I’d feel—Oh! What’s this? And it would just bring me up.”

Brown’s favorite figure was Boba Fett, the masked bounty hunter who is barely in the Original Trilogy at all but carries a mystique unmatched by any other character in the saga. Perhaps it was Fett’s implied man-with-no-name toughness that helped Brown cope with bullying.

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“The day I created Hip Hop Trooper, it was so easy because that was my life,” Brown says. “I had the hip hop culture and the hope of Star Wars.”

The Dark Side

There are plenty of other stories like Brown’s—tales of people finding hope in bad situations, connecting, and expressing themselves through the galaxy far, far away. There’s an ownership that fans feel for this saga, especially now that the franchise has switched hands from a sole creator to a new group of storytellers. When George Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney, big-name fans like J.J. Abrams, Gareth Edwards, Rian Johnson, and Dave Filoni took on the responsibility of expanding the universe and moving it forward.

While this ownership often translates into beauty—whether it’s a billion-dollar blockbuster premiere at Mann’s Chinese Theater or something on a smaller, more intimate scale, like the people getting Star Wars tattoos in a buzzing corner of a convention center—there’s also a dark side to feeling like something belongs solely to a specific group of people. A sort of exclusivity is born in the most hardcore echelons of fandom.

In one such instance, a group of angry fans declared “spoiler jihad” on The Force Awakens after Disney erased much of the franchise’s old continuity, doing away with elements of beloved Star Wars books and comics from the 1990s and 2000s to accommodate the new movie. Their objective? To ruin the movie for as many people as possible.

Angie Lewis, one of the fans getting fresh ink at Celebration Orlando’s Tattoo Pavilion (a little BB-8 on her shoulder), recognizes the issues with certain subsections of the community.

“There are people who come around and they’ll be like, ‘Oh, you’re not a real fan.’ Not specifically to me, but I don’t like it when people say that at all. Because if you like it, you’re a real fan, right?”

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That rationale should make perfect sense, and while Lewis has ultimately found the community to be welcoming (many others share this sentiment), it’s no secret that it’s sometimes difficult to be a certain kind of Star Wars fan, whether it’s because of who you are or what you think.

The last few years have seen widespread backlash against the push for more diversity in fantasy and science fiction. Disney-era Star Wars has received its fair share of criticism for casting women as the protagonists of both The Force Awakens and Rogue One. In fact, The Last Jedi will be the third female-led Star Wars film in three years. Some fans have even willfully interpreted this as a plot to make Star Wars “anti-male.” These are the same people who feel that their childhoods have been stolen from them, replaced by a “social justice warrior agenda.”

The idea that Star Wars is primarily a boys’ club is usually planted at a young age, such as in the case of Katie Goldman, a little girl who was bullied at school for liking something that’s “only for boys.” Her story went viral after her mother Carrie blogged about how Katie no longer wanted to like Star Wars because of the bullying.

There have been several documented cases like Katie’s, where girls are mocked solely on the basis that Star Wars “isn’t for them.” Many of these stories have heartwarming endings with the community rushing to their aid, reassuring them that the things they love are for them and anyone else who wants in. The 501st Legion even gifted Katie and two other girls in similar situations with custom-made stormtrooper costumes and, in one case, a meeting with Weird Al, who somehow keeps popping up.

The side in favor of diversity has its clear champions. Lucasfilm president Kathleen Kennedy, for one, hopes more women will be involved in the actual making of the films.

“Fifty percent of our executive team are women. Six out of eight of the people in my Story Group are women. I think it’s making a huge difference in the kind of stories we’re trying to tell,” Kennedy told Fortune back in 2015. “I’m confident we will eventually hire a woman who directs a Star Wars movie.” As of right now, all of the directors hired for the new movies have been white men.

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Of course, for every Kennedy, there is someone lying in wait in internet comment sections, making ridiculous statements about how “women can’t survive in space,” referring to Rey, the protagonist of The Force Awakens. And then there are the accusations that Rey is a “Mary Sue,” an overpowered character who is too perfect, too capable.

It’s disheartening when you consider that these fans worship the same franchise that gave birth to Princess Leia, a character who was revolutionary at a time when many of her sci-fi contemporaries were still oversexualized damsels. Of course the late, great Carrie Fisher faced her own challenges from these fans, the same ones who perhaps also took part in body shaming the older General Leia in The Force Awakens. “Please stop debating about whether or not I aged well,” was her perfect retort on Twitter. “Unfortunately, it hurts all three of my feelings. My body hasn’t aged as well as I have. Blow us.”

Fisher’s advice to Daisy Ridley upon being cast as Rey in The Force Awakens echoed the older actresses’ attitude toward Princess Leia’s status as a sex symbol:

“You should fight for your outfit,” she told Ridley during a Q&A for Interview magazine, specifically referencing her Slave Leia costume from Return of the Jedi. “Don’t be a slave like I was.”

Fisher never saw that infamous metal bikini as something to be sexualized. To Fisher that costume and the scenes it pertains to symbolize both a literal and metaphorical breaking of the chains of misogyny. She was practical about those who criticized the costume as a bad influence on little girls. When confronted by the disapproval of parents, Fisher told The Wall Street Journal, “Tell them that a giant slug captured me and forced me to wear that stupid outfit, and then I killed him because I didn’t like it. And then I took it off. Backstage.”

In the last three years, Star Wars films have certainly become more inclusive of women. The Last Jedi, for example, boasts at least five female characters: Rey, Leia, Captain Phasma, Rose (played by Kelly Marie Tran), and Vice Admiral Amilyn Holdo, a high-ranking Resistance officer portrayed by Academy Award-winning actress Laura Dern. Better yet, a woman now pilots the Millennium Falcon, arguably the most well-known spaceship in all of science fiction.

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It’s comforting to know that the films are starting to live up to the promise of its more diverse Expanded Universe of TV series, books, comics, and video games. For years, the EU has featured great female characters, such as Mara Jade, Jaina Solo, Asajj Ventress, and Ahsoka Tano, and in recent years has pushed for the inclusion of more LGBTQ characters as well.

Of course, the introduction of LGBTQ characters has also been met with criticism from the more conservative corners of the fandom. When Star Wars: Aftermath author Chuck Wendig introduced a former Imperial Officer (and therefore a white man) named Sinjir Rath Velus in Star Wars: Aftermath, it struck a particular nerve. While Sinjir isn’t the first gay character in Star Wars canon—that honor goes to Imperial officer Moff Delian Mors, a lesbian, who first appeared in the novel Lords of the Sith by Paul S. Kemp—he is currently the franchise’s most prominent.

Wendig came to the defense of Sinjir and LGBTQ fans in an uncharacteristically direct and confrontational manner with a blog post after the release of Aftermath in 2015.

“And if you’re upset because I put gay characters and a gay protagonist in the book, I got nothing for you,” Wendig wrote. “You’re not the Rebel Alliance. You’re not the good guys. You’re the fucking Empire, man. You’re the shitty, oppressive, totalitarian Empire. If you can imagine a world where Luke Skywalker would be irritated that there were gay people around him, you completely missed the point of Star Wars.”

The outrage surrounding Aftermath was nothing compared to what followed a year later, only days before the release of Rogue One: A Star Wars Story. A group of fans rushed to Twitter, determined to boycott the new movie. #DumpStarWars was born in response to a pair of tweets posted by screenwriters Chris Weitz and Gary Whitta in which they asserted that the films were anti-white supremacist.

“Please note that the Empire is a white supremacist (human) organization,” wrote Weitz. Gary Whitta’s reply: “Opposed by a multi-cultural group led by brave women.”

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Many took this to mean that the film was anti-Donald Trump. While Star Wars’ anti-fascist, anti-xenophobic message has always been clear to some—including Lucas, who used Nazi imagery and language to inform the Empire’s units—there’s a group of people that gleaned a completely different message from Star Wars.

#DumpStarWars wasn’t even the first time a group of fans have threatened to #BoycottStarWars. In 2015, Twitter trolls urged people to boycott The Force Awakens because of a black actor’s prominence in the film. According to The Guardian, one troll even claimed that actor John Boyega’s casting in the film was promoting “white genocide.” At one point, even the Chinese promotional poster for The Force Awakens came under scrutiny after it allegedly minimized Boyega’s role to appeal to the country’s audience.

“I’m in the movie, what are you going to do about it?” Boyega told V magazine in response to the blatantly racist remarks. “You either enjoy it or you don’t. I’m not saying get used to the future… [it] is already happening. People of color and women are increasingly being shown onscreen. For things to be whitewashed just doesn’t make sense.”

As you meet members of the fan community, you’ll find the majority are glad that the franchise represents more than one group of people. There’s a solidarity in the crowd at Celebration Orlando. These fans are just happy to be with other people who love what they love. Star Wars is no longer “The Great White Void,” as actor Raymond St. Jacques put it in a letter to the LA Times in July 1977.

For those who have missed the entire point of Star Wars, there must be a growing fear that time has passed them by, that their complaints will someday be completely forgotten. No opening crawl will tell their story.

The Unifying Force

Despite the obvious fracture in the fandom, Celebration Orlando’s confrontations are all for show. A group of more than 50 Rebel pilots reenact the huddle before the Battle of Hoth, while the 501st Legion’s stormtroopers and Imperial officers block the corridors outside the expo floor like true oppressors. Soldiers salute each other in the hallways, an Imperial smiles while referring to another group of cosplayers as “Rebel scum.” Jedi and Sith are tempted to break into an epic duel of the fates, but they know they’ll probably get escorted out by security.

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Everyone at Celebration Orlando is perfectly happy, sharing the love of the timeless story that brings them all together.

Yet there’s something somber hanging over everyone’s head, especially on Thursday and Friday. It’s the first Celebration without our princess. During a beautiful tribute to Fisher at the “40 Years of Star Wars” panel, many sob quietly. In that moment, Leia isn’t just a woman or a senator, a soldier or a leader. Maybe not even a character. She’s a symbol of hope. Everyone feels it in the room as John Williams conducts the Orlando Philharmonic Orchestra in a rendition of “Princess Leia’s Theme.” Leia will always represent the spirit to be better, to fight for your beliefs, and to persist in the face of adversity.

As voice actress Vanessa Marshall put it during the Rebels news conference later that weekend, “We have hope. There’s something about that that I think we all need right now.”

It’s at this same conference that many of the faithful gather to listen to Dave Filoni, arguably the most brilliant mind working on Star Wars since Lucas essentially left the keys to him and Kathleen Kennedy. Now with three seasons of Rebels under his belt, Filoni is his own kind of celebrity. At one point, Filoni is surrounded by ravenous fans in the lobby of the convention center. They don’t let him get through to the escalators. They want to shake his hand, take pictures, touch his hat, touch him. He greets as many people as he can before security finally splits the crowd right through the middle. From the top floor looking down, people call eagerly for their loved ones to come look, see the man who inherited Star Wars, before he’s gone.

Just prior to this, Filoni, archbishop of Star Wars, shares what he’s learned about these stories, what he understands them to be about. A group of reporters at the Rebels news conference listen to the showrunner evangelize about the ultimate truth of the Force:

“Belief in the Force itself is part of what drives it,” says Filoni. “Not everybody in the Star Wars universe believes in it, which is interesting because its actions and abilities are on display quite often. So why doesn’t everybody believe in it? Because it takes discipline and training and practice, and commitment and faith to believe in this thing that gives you power that flows through you. It’s in all of you. And that’s great and it’s also dangerous.”

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It feels like he’s no longer talking about Star Wars but of our current times, of the choices for which we will be remembered. Will future generations, 50 years from now, a hundred, look back on us, on our world, and conclude that we got it all wrong? Will they be better?

Filoni is trying to save all of us now, while we can still course correct. As Anakin proved in Return of the Jedi, it’s never too late for that. It’s goodness the long way around.

“It’s the ultimate choice: do you follow wickedness or do you, in the face of fear, turn to good? Fear is the root of all evil. Fear destroys everything,” he says. “And if you take nothing else from Star Wars, it’s that you should make no decision out of fear.”

Filoni is almost whispering now. He’s thought about every single word of this gospel. His message is one of love, a reminder that when “the Emperor stands before you” and you feel “powerless,” you have to remember to “throw your weapon away.” The gathered are in a trance.

“I love the person next to me. I love my father, I love my mother, and nothing you do can destroy that. Nothing. And you stand on your commitment. And then that inspires the hope, that inspires the love, which is something evil doesn’t understand. That’s the core of Star Wars.”

There’s an overwhelming silence. A room full of quiet consideration. Maybe for a fraction of a second, the power of the Force. And then all of his followers break into enthusiastic applause.

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John Saavedra is an associate editor at Den of Geek. Find more of his work on his website. Or just follow him on Twitter.