When I get home from the NWSA conference I will have tons to share. It has been a blast so far!
But for now, I want to make a quick note about something that has been on my mind for the last little while: the #BoycottStarWarsVII faux-campaign that was in the news a few weeks back before it was revealed to be an exercise in trolling birthed by 4chan.
A brief summary: the hashtag claimed to be a reaction by white Star Wars fans who were upset at the “cultural appropriation” that the inclusion of a black main character in the trailers for the forthcoming Episode VII represented… as though geek culture were necessarily white and as though there are no important black characters in the Star Wars universe… I think that Lando Calrissian (which, I am pleased to say, I spelled correctly on the very first try!) and Mace Windu (ditto) would have something to say about that, but I digress.
The backlash against the hashtag was immediate and fierce. For the last year, people have been primed to react to such bullshittery by the regular recurrence of #GamerGate mischief, so it is unsurprising that the hashtag was quickly picked up and circulated as yet another example of the culture wars taking place in nerdland.
And thus, it was with great glee that the folks behind the hashtag revealed their masterful plot: #BoycottStarWarsVII was not a real movement composed of fanboy white supremacists. Rather, it was a troll, a fake movement created to bend “social justice warriors” out of shape and prove them to be gullible and overly-sensitive.
Unfortunately for these not-so-merry pranksters, they seemingly do not understand how trolling works.
Trolling, at its root, is about creating a statement that is too ridiculous to be believed and then convincing unsuspecting victims to believe it,, thereby demonstrating their naiveté and their unsuitability for the broader Internet community in which the trolling took place. For example, in the ancient days (in Internet time) of the Usenet Newsgroup, trolling was a way to distinguish the newbs from the experienced users. Newbs were easily suckered. They don’t know how to distinguish between a real argument and a bit of fun.
But the #BoycottStarWarsVII hashtag is hardly ridiculous or unexpected. Instead it simply recreates a discourse that has been circulating in fandom with disturbing regularity. Think, for example, about the awful reaction that the casting of Amandla Stenberg as Rue and Lenny Kravitz as Cinna in The Hunger Games movie got, this despite the fact that both characters are written in the novels as having dark skin. Think about the pushback that Michael B. Jordan got for playing Johnny Storm in the Fantastic Four reboot or that Donald Glover received for being mentioned in the casting rumors for Spiderman. This “troll” is not a troll in that it does not expose the naiveté of those who fell for it. Rather, one would have to be naïve to assume that geek fandom was incapable of such white supremacist rhetoric, considering recent events.
To take a page from the amazing Jay Smooth, there is no real difference between the “ironic” racism expressed in the hashtag and the real racism that fan of color encounter online all the time. This is because it doesn’t particularly matter whether or not the people who organized the hashtag really “meant it” (although certainly there are many beyond the original 4chan operatives who joined in on the tag and meant it sincerely). The thing that really matters is the effect that the discourse has on people of color in fandom and online in general. It was yet another reminder of the many many ways that they have been excluded because of their race.
Furthermore, if the goal of the troll hashtag is to make it more difficult and socially riskier for people to call out racism online by exposing social justice activists as somehow too fragile or too sensitive (more on this to come in my NWSA wrap-up!), then it is functionally racist. Period. It’s goal is to make it more difficult for people of color to exist online. These folks were not serious about boycotting the Star Wars film. But they were serious about making fandom a less friendly place for people of color.
PS: We need a name for the phenomenon of the troll hashtag. I humbly suggest: Trashtag. Let’s make it happen.