Nia D. is the streamer behind StarWarsTheory, a channel dedicated to the George Lucas science fiction universe, with over 3.3 million subscribers on YouTube alone. Most of his content revolves around dissecting Star Wars internet theories, debating casting choices, and discussing new announcements and releases. But it also draws viewers by courting controversy. During a January episode on Theory Talks, his channel focused on critical theory, he hosted psychologist Sadia Khan, who derided Hollywood directors for centering female stories within male-dominated fandoms. “Do we need more women in Star Wars? No, we don’t,” Khan said. “And women don’t even watch Star Wars. They don’t even care about it. It’s a man’s little thing, let them have it.”
This isn’t the first time the Star Wars fandom has dealt with disagreements surrounding racism and sexism within their own ranks. Following the premiere of the most recent Star Wars films, helmed by actress Daisy Ridley, thousands of fans accused Disney of “going woke,” by having a female lead. In 2017, Kelly Marie Tran became the first woman of color to have a leading role in a Star Wars film; in a 2018 NYT op-ed, she wrote that she received sexist and racist harassment from fans. “Their words seemed to confirm what growing up as a woman and a person of color already taught me: that I belonged in margins and spaces, valid only as a minor character in their lives and stories,” she said. In 2020, British actor John Boyega, who played Finn, a Black stormtrooper in The Force Awakens, told GQ that after he was cast, he was targeted and harassed by fans. And in 2022, when Black actress Moses Ingram was cast in the Obi-Wan television series, she was so inundated with derogatory DMs that both her fellow castmates and Disney made statements condemning the fan response. In fact, each new Star Wars offering, whether a series, a new film, or even a comic book, is often met with staunch criticisms from specific die-hard fans accusing the franchise of bending to social justice warrior or feminist desires — something Nia himself has echoed.
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While Nia didn’t acknowledge the statement during his conversation with Khan, much of the online criticism has centered around his strong and sometimes negative opinions surrounding women characters in the science fiction series and fan spaces — mostly his accusations that Disney executives have been creating and centering female characters as part of an agenda. Following Nia’s episode with Khan, thousands of fans spoke out against the streamer, accusing him of promoting and platforming sexist and misogynistic views. On TikTok, women began posting clips of themselves enjoying or participating in Star Wars culture with #womeninstarwars, pushing back against Khan’s claims. Videos using the hashtag have over 4.1 million views. After watching StarWarsTheory’s video, Olivia, a 16-year-old from New York, used audio of the interview to make a TikTok edit showing all the women both in Star Wars and who have enjoyed the series. The video has 2.8 million views, and a thousand additional videos from other TikTok creators using the audio to push back against Khan’s claims. Olivia tells Rolling Stone she created the now popular clip to remind people “how important women are to the Star Wars fandom.”
“I was surprised at the huge response and how so many people, including female and male Star Wars fans came together by making their own videos using my sound,” she adds. “Star Wars was created for everyone.”
Star Wars Theory pushing the narrative that women aren't fans of Star Wars on his platform by having a psychologist on there saying it's for boys? Wow so shocked, who knew he was a piece of shit? Oh me, I did and most every other sane fan of Star Wars that I know
— Rachel Leishman (@RachelLeishman) January 12, 2024
Women have always loved Star Wars, and women have always been a part of Star Wars. You know that, I know that, and those who seek to make a quick buck off of shaming us for being a part of the fandom know that too. They WANT us to be angry. They're bullies. And we know better.
— 𝙎𝙖𝙬𝙮𝙚𝙧, Elzar Mann Stan (@sawyeurism) January 10, 2024
The more you try to push the false narrative that women are nothing more than “opportunists”, the more they will absolutely dunk on you and continue to show everyone how much of a clown you are. 🤡 pic.twitter.com/loTYnaDTR0
— Ben Hart The Star Wars Guy 💫 (@BenHartWithNoE) January 14, 2024
When reached for comment by Rolling Stone, Khan said, “Some people are looking for an excuse to be offended because then they can feel like a victim and feeling like a victim gives them some purpose and meaning in life. When you zoom out of your own entitled lens you will see that not everything needs to be representative in order to be enjoyable.”
Nia did not respond to Rolling Stone’s requests for comments. But in a follow-up video acknowledging the backlash, Nia denied that he was a misogynist and instead said he was simply protective of his favorite series. “It has nothing to do with being a misogynist, or saying women can’t enjoy Star Wars,” he said in a response video. “Leave it to the extreme left to always take something that is so plainly put and explain so easily, and twist it and contort it into their own agenda and narrative.”
Paul Booth, a professor of Media and Popular Culture at DePaul University, has researched fandoms for over 20 years and tells Rolling Stone that strong feelings about fandom can often turn into policing behavior.
“Often misogyny and racism emerge in fan communities because white male fans (or fans who think of themselves as part of the dominant cultures) want to police the boundaries of what they think are “acceptable” fandom behaviors and interests,” Booth says. “By belittling and denigrating non-male and non-white fans, these “boundary-policing” fans seem to say ‘this is what the fandom should be.’”
It’d be easy to assume there’s something specific to the Star Wars story that engenders such passionate and vitriolic responses from longtime fans. But because pop culture at its core mirrors conversations occurring in culture real-time, Booth say this isn’t the first time there’s been fighting inside the Star Wars fandom — and it certainly won’t be last.
“These debates play out in public spaces like social media which means there’s a lot more attention paid to them. Twenty-five years ago…that argument would probably have been at a convention or in a specialty magazine,” he says. “Today, it’s public, which means we can all read it and benefit from seeing which people are stuck in some imagined past, and which people are more inclusive.”
And while loud detractors can produce strong feelings in fans who disagree, professor Kate Eichhorn from the New School tells Rolling Stone that debates like these might indicate even popular franchises are beginning to become more diverse.
“The cultural impact of fandoms since the 1980s has been largely driven by the interventions of queer and BIPOC writers and illustrators, many of whom identify as women. So, it is important to recognize that there is nothing new about fandoms,” Eichhorn says. “ If male-dominated fandoms are on the rise because a small percentage of straight white male viewers no longer feel adequately represented by the franchises they grew up watching, maybe that’s not a bad thing since one can look at the rise of these fandoms as evidence of how much has changed in the television and film industries in recent decades.”
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