The Star Wars Celebration bills itself as "Lucasfilm's love letter to fans." Credit: Andrea Thompson

Last month’s 2019 Star Wars Celebration at McCormick Place was an interesting introduction to major nerd conventions. I’d gone to small comics events here and there, but despite my status as a lifelong nerd and Star Wars fan, I’d repeatedly missed out on major events, even the ones close to home such as C2E2 and Wizard World. And while all such gatherings live or die by fan devotion, the Star Wars event was, in the words of its website, “Lucasfilm’s love letter to fans.”

Herein lies the unique strength—and possibly the very real weakness—of SWC. It’s supposedly all for the fans, but those fans have been getting a well-earned bad rap lately. It’s especially telling that Google search auto-completed “toxic star wars fans.” Not Star Trek. Not fandom in general. Star Wars fans. There has long been a vocal online contingent of fans who have made it their mission to punish anyone they saw as unworthy. Jake Lloyd, who was ten years old when he played Anakin Skywalker in the poorly received Phantom Menace in 1999, has described how his life was made a living hell by the bullying he endured. His co-star Ahmed Best, who played the much-maligned Jar Jar Binks, has said he was nearly driven to suicide.

The new trilogy stoked some fans’ ire from the beginning. The alt-right community came out in droves, accusing the franchise of pushing a political agenda for daring to feature a woman and a Black man as the main leads. Daisy Ridley and Kelly Marie Tran, who played Rey and Rose Tico, respectively, were driven off social media. The backlash The Last Jedi provoked could fill a whole article by itself. One wonders just what movies these guys were watching, which made a point to depict Leia as a competent leader and depicted the Empire as a fascist organization.

So how does a convention devoted to this fan base play out? Like most things, it’s far more complex in person. There was a consistently warm, welcoming vibe among the attendees, for one. Disney is also consistently committing to more diverse characters, so there are Black people, not just a Black person, in Episode IX. But there’s still a long way to go, and the SWC’s attendees still skewed heavily white.

The celebration included panel discussions with the franchise's casts and crews.
The celebration included panel discussions with the franchise’s casts and crews.Credit: Andrea Thompson

This got especially awkward during a lunch break when I encountered two white men who casually mentioned that people had harassed them when they wore their MAGA hats. I incredulously asked if they were Trump supporters, and they replied that they voted for him due to Hillary’s e-mails but didn’t support his current actions, which they never could’ve predicted. I pointed out there were plenty of signs to indicate just what kind of leader he’d be, and they responded that they hadn’t meant to get political and left soon after.

It also didn’t help that the attempts to address the lack of diversity could get downright cringeworthy. The most egregious example was at the Wintrust Arena for “Sisters of the Force: A Celebration of Women and Star Wars,” which started off fun but eventually devolved. There was certainly a variety of panelists, led by moderator Ashley Eckstein, who voices the fan favorite Ahsoka Tano on Star Wars: The Clone Wars, and voice actors Vanessa Marshall, Suzie McGrath, Catherine Taber, author Amy Ratcliffe, and producer Athena Portillo. Before the panel, female cosplayers were invited onstage to show off their costumes, and audience members were invited up to lip sync to or sing “Let It Go,” “I Will Survive,” and the Annie song “Tomorrow.” Then the panel began, and the women onstage seemed like they’d rather give us treacly inspirational moments than speak of their own experiences.

On the upside, on the publishing and diversity panels, which took place in rooms rather than arenas, authors got personal in describing projects that were focused primarily—or solely—on characters who weren’t white and male. (And if an author happened to forget what time her signing was, a member of the audience would helpfully shout it out.) The diversity panel discussed just how far Star Wars has to go in ensuring diversity behind the camera to avoid blind spots, including the franchise’s history of borrowing symbols and imagery from cultures without representing the people behind them.

This was when I realized what was missing from the Star Wars Celebration, even as it remained an enjoyably warm experience: a diversity of voices across the spectrum of filmmaking and fandom. Star Wars may have a history of casting unknown actors, but not of hiring new creatives. And the biggest names in fandom and criticism who tend to get the most attention and clicks, and thus shape the narrative, are also mostly white and male. In spite of the greater range of characters and perspectives the movies are bringing to the screen, the franchise is still in a period of transition.

What may change all that is The Mandalorian, which will be the first series on Disney+, the upcoming streaming service. For perhaps the first time in a major Star Wars story, there will be a diverse group of people behind the scenes as well as in front. It also gave the Celebration another advantage. Other conventions could be accused of getting away from the movies, series, or comics that inspired them, but at the Celebration, I imagine the upcoming series and the conclusion to the new trilogy were on everybody’s mind. As Stephen Colbert put it at the Episode IX panel when he reflected on watching Luke Skywalker’s journey from farm boy to Jedi, “Forty years later, we can all imagine being that kid.” Or perhaps more accurately, decades later we’re still trying to prove his story is for everyone.  v