Star Wars episode IX is coming.
On Friday, director J.J. Abrams addresses Star Wars Celebration, a fan convention, and is expected to reveal the full title and teaser footage for episode IX. Although no one yet knows what will be in it, we do know that fans and culture commentators will be heatedly — and sometimes abusively — discussing its politics for months.
Since 2017, I’ve repeatedly sampled Star Wars-related Twitter, gathering and analyzing about 250,000 tweets with language classification algorithms. Here’s what the data reveals about who is going to be mad online about episode IX — on the political right and left — and why.
Where are the white men?
In right-wing media, the first questions about the teaser will be about white male and “legacy” characters from the original Star Wars trilogy. The right-wing critique of the newer films is that they are contemptuous of white, male and baby-boomer-era fans — and that Lucasfilm has abbreviated legacy characters’ story lines and overemphasized diverse casting.
As a result, my research finds, younger, female and nonwhite Star Wars characters are discussed in more abusive terms on social media than are older, white and male characters.
Of the Star Wars tweets I’ve collected, a Google algorithm ranks 6.5 percent as “toxic.” The least likely to include abusive language are tweets that do not mention major characters, with only 6 percent reaching “toxic” status.
Tweets about the newer, female and nonwhite protagonists of the sequel trilogy are more likely to reach toxic status. Consider posts mentioning Poe Dameron, played by a Hispanic actor; Finn, a lead character who’s black; Rey, a female lead; and/or Rose Tico, a major supporting character who’s female and Asian. Of those, 13 percent are abusive.
By contrast, tweets mentioning their older, white counterparts — Luke Skywalker, Han Solo and/or Leia Organa (a legacy character, albeit a woman) — use abusive language less, in 8 percent of cases.
Those two categories can overlap: Some tweets mention an older and a younger protagonist. Over 20 percent of posts with that overlap use abusive language. Intergenerational anxiety runs through fights about Star Wars.
If the episode IX teasers indicate legacy characters will have ample screen time, expect satisfaction from right-wing fandom. The right would be gratified if its bête noire — Rose Tico — is not in the footage.
YouTube stress test
YouTube is the main forum for right-wing Star Wars commentary videos. Friday’s teaser will be a stress test for the Google-owned site.
Last month, right-wing Internet activists called for boycotts of “Captain Marvel” because of conspiracy theories about insults to male fans and because a woman played a superhero who had been a man in the comic books.
YouTube made modifications to prevent the boycott calls from spreading. Using tags, YouTube ensured searches for Marvel-related videos pointed to national news outlets’ channels instead of to user-provided content.
If you see the episode IX teaser on YouTube, check what the site is recommending you watch next. If it is not user-generated content, YouTube may be repeating its “Captain Marvel” strategy.
Left-wing fans and the politics of romance
While the right-wing Internet worries about white male representation in Star Wars, hints about romantic relationships are important to many left-wing fans.
In fan culture, “shipping” means predicting or cheering for an amorous relationship (a ship) between two characters. For example, if someone “ships Reylo,” they are interested in a romantic relationship between Rey and Kylo Ren, her main antagonist.
Shippers do not always expect to see their pairings in the source material. But the episode IX footage will be scrutinized for clues about which romances might make it on to the screen.
Shippers are disproportionately women, teenagers and/or LGBTQ. For Star Wars and other franchises, the highest-profile fan communities cater to men. Shipping is usually derided or ignored there.
Shippers’ political discussions lean left. Debates over the merits of specific pairings frequently concern progressive ideals. Ships may be denounced for being heteronormative; fetishizing homosexuality; excluding nonwhite characters; being anti-feminist; romanticizing violence or abuse; or modeling dysfunctional relationships.
On Star Wars shipping Twitter, those conversations can become vicious. Star Wars tweets that mention a romantic ship are twice as likely to be toxic as tweets that don’t — 9 percent vs. 4 percent. Abusive tweets come both from people arguing against and in favor of various pairings. Among the widely discussed pairings, Reylo Twitter sees the highest rate of toxic posts, with a rate of 10 percent.
Shipping Twitter highlights two biases in social media. First, abuse directed toward people of color, women, teenage girls and LGBTQ posters comes from people in those categories as well as from white, heterosexual men. Second, criticisms of shipping reflect an assumption that women and minorities bear primary responsibility for policing political and moral standards in popular culture. All the critiques above could apply to nonromantic parts of the Star Wars movies and fandom: sexism, ignoring people of color, rhapsodizing about villains and so on. But these criticisms are leveled more often and in more abusive terms when fans discuss romantic storylines.
The last Skywalker
The most closely guarded plot point of episode IX is whether Kylo Ren, the last Skywalker and the leader of the evil First Order, will redeem himself.
Kylo’s redemption chafes on all sides of the debate about the place of young, white men in contemporary society. Right and left commentators alike compare Kylo to a millennial living in his parents’ basement. They disagree about what his story implies about gender politics.
To the left, Kylo is an avatar of toxic masculinity. His redemption arc could be interpreted as an apologia for overprivileged men’s anger and an example of the sympathy our culture reserves for white male extremists.
Ironically, in right-leaning discussions, Kylo is considered effeminate: pampered, indecisive, easily defeated. His redemption would be a capitulation to his female rival (Rey) and his mom (Leia). These fans want Kylo defeated by a more heroically masculine character.
The takes awaken
Starting today, and lasting until episode IX premieres in December, we’ll see sometimes belligerent political discussions of Star Wars — its legacy characters, romantic pairings and disappointing adult sons. Here’s the common thread: Anxiety over who has a place in our stories from the galaxy far, far away — and closer to home.
Bethany Lacina (@bethany_lacina) is an associate professor of political science at the University of Rochester.