In 2017, a hitherto little-known actress named Kelly Marie Tran made history. As the character of maintenance worker Rose Tico in Star Wars: The Last Jedi, the Vietnamese-American actress had become the first ever Asian-American woman to have a major role in a Star Wars film.
But with all the excitement came something much worse: an onslaught of racist and sexist abuse from so-called “fans” of the sci-fi series. And Tran wasn’t the only actor to face it: John Boyega, the Nigerian-British actor who had joined the franchise in 2015, had previously faced death threats and an attempted boycott in response to his casting as ex-stormtrooper Finn.
What could have been behind such a backlash to the new characters? According to a new study, the answer is – well, precisely what you probably thought: sexism and racism.
“The purpose of the […] study was to test the hypothesis that sexist and racist attitudes are associated with Star Wars fans’ preferences for characters, specifically three newer characters from the sequel films that aimed to increase the diversity of characters in the series,” the authors write.
“The results largely supported the hypotheses, as hostile sexism and symbolic racism were both associated with greater dislike of newer characters.”
The researchers recruited self-professed Star Wars fans from various online fan hangouts – subreddits devoted to memes and ships, for example – and sent them questionnaires about their experience within the fandom.
It’s important to note, at this point, that this technique comes with some obvious limitations: of the close to 2,000 study participants, more than two-thirds were male, and about the same proportion were aged 18-30. All respondents spoke English – it was the only language the survey was offered in. In other words: it wasn’t a particularly unbiased sample.
Nevertheless, as part of that survey, participants were asked to report how strongly they agreed with a series of statements designed to reveal their levels of racism and sexism. That prejudice could be benevolent – think, “Women have a superior moral sensibility”, or “Women should be cherished and protected” – or hostile, along the lines of “Women are too easily offended”, or “Racial minorities are responsible for racial tension”.
With that complete, the fans were then asked to rate how much they liked six different Star Wars characters. From the older Star Wars films, there were Luke Skywalker, Leia Organa, and Padme Amidala; from the newer sequels, fans rated Finn, Rose, and Rey.
The results bore out what many commentators had already suggested: “Fans’ degree of racism and sexism was positively associated with greater dislike of newer characters but not older characters,” study author Stephen Reysen, a professor at Texas A&M University-Commerce, told PsyPost.
In other words: the more a study respondent agreed with those sexist or racist statements, the more likely they were to also reject the newer, more diverse casts of the Star Wars sequels.
And even being an elder statesperson of the franchise wasn’t enough to shield characters from those particular fans’ distaste – not if their later iterations fell afoul of more traditional and subservient character roles, that is. “[There] was a smaller, but significant, negative association with a preference for Leia,” Reysen told PsyPost. “This may be explained by the change in Leia’s character in the newer series: from damsel-in-distress to an agentic and powerful general.”
So, is there any good news here, or is Star Wars simply a lost cause? Not necessarily: despite the findings, the study also revealed that the decades-old sci-fi franchise is actually faring quite a bit better in terms of fan prejudice than some other geek and nerd media.
“Star Wars fans were well below the midpoint of the racism and sexism measures,” Reysen pointed out. “The results do not suggest that there is a large portion of the Star Wars fandom endorsing these beliefs. Rather there is simply an association.”
Nevertheless, Reysen added, these findings should not discourage filmmakers from recruiting more diverse casts. “Representation is important in media and has an influence on the audience (reduced prejudice),” he told PsyPost. “However, as studios seek to reboot or continue older series and include greater diversity they may see fan backlash.”
The study is published in the journal Psychology of Popular Media.